A Speech Given at Wellesley, MA and at the Mazza Collection
Notes from a Child of Earth
He was a child of faerie folk,
A child of sky and air,
And she was a child of humankind,
Of field and plow and care.
They met in the dusk of Hallow’s Eve,
When widows grieve
In widow’s weave,
They met in the dusk of Hallow’s Eve,
She had daisies in her hair.
That was how I began the poem that would eventually grow into the book CHILD OF FAERIE. I simply fell into that opening verse. It leaked onto the keyboard from my fingertips. And some dozen revisions later, that opening verse would remain essentially the same, with the exception of two small changes: "Of field and plow and care" would become "Of earth and toil and care" and the daisies–not right for an autumn book–became simply "flowers."
But I need to step back a minute to explain how a writer falls into a book. Because–at least for me–that tumble down the rabbit hole of verse or story is a necessary part of writing.
I have often told anyone who would listen to me that the Japanese have a word for it: saku-taku-no-ki.
Saku–the special sound a mother hen makes tapping on an egg with her beak.
Taku–the sound a chick makes tapping from within.
No-ki–the moment the tappings come together.
Saku-taku-no-ki–the instant a chick pecking on the inside and the mother pecking on the outside reach the same spot. The egg cracks open. New life emerges.
In just that way a story begins, with a physical tapping on the outside: a line of a song that won’t leave your head, an article in the newspaper that strikes a chord, a fragment of conversation that loops endlessly, a photograph or painting that touches you deeply, a repeating dream. And then the answering emotion that taps within, sometimes days, weeks, years later. The moment they come together, the story starts.
So what was it that pecked inside and outside that caused me to write a children’s story in verse about the friendship between a boy from fairyland and a human girl from a farm. This was not to be a love affair, but a true
friendship which they seal with gifts that are both magical and real. Neither of them is willing to give up the world they know for the other; the fairy Hall is fine for the fairy boy but not for the human girl, just as her farm
is not satisfactory for him. But they end up visiting back and forth for the rest of their lives.
I think that among the outside influences on me were all those fairy stories I had read as a child and as an adult. Also a friend had written a novel called CHILD OF FAERIE and the title had stayed with me. I had recently finished writing a silly/elegant book for Scholastic called THE FAIRY HOLIDAY BOOK (not yet illustrated, not yet out–which tells you more about the vagaries of publishing than you may want to know!) in which I invented strange holidays for the little people, like "Worm Pull Day." So I was still in a faerie mode.
Inside, though, was something else entirely. In a couple of years my husband David was coming up to a big birthday. He was going to be 60 and we were going to celebrate our 35th wedding anniversary, no mean feat these days. If there was ever a child of faerie/child of earth couple, we are it. He is a West Virginia mountain boy, a Catholic who grew up hunting and fishing. After getting a BS in Physics and a Masters in Math, he moved to New York for the first time. In fact he moved out of West Virginia for the first time to work at IBM! And in New York he met me, a nice Jewish girl from the city and Westport, Ct., with a degree from Smith College in English, a poet and journalist. Three children, three grandchildren, and several degrees for each of us later we look quite a bit like the couple at the end of the book:
And though the years went quickly past,
They were friends fast,
From first to last,
Which left all skeptics flabbergast. . .
And another thing–we had recently bought a house in Scotland–land of faerie indeed–where we planned to spend as much of the summer as possible.
So the book began. So the poem began. Leaking onto the page, a combination of inside and outside influences.
The rhyme scheme was my own invention. It was also almost my own undoing.
I have always loved those intricate internally rhymed late 19th and early 20th century poems. In fact, I am a great fan of rhyme and hate to see it all but disappear into greeting card verse and bad song lyrics. Except for Anthony Hecht and one or two others, there are no really good rhyming poets left today.
Unless you look at children’s poetry. And there you will find David McCord and Norma Farber and Nancy Willard and MaryAnne Hoberman and Lilian Moore and lots of others.
I think that is why I began CHILD OF FAERIE in rhyme.
Now it is one thing to write a single verse that rhymes abcb dddd b.Or even two.
It is something else to write 15 verses that way.
It was madness. Utter madness.
Actually the first draft had only 11 verses. My editor, Maria Modugno, wanted me to drop a couple and write several new ones.
It was hard enough the first time around. But–as I wrote to Maria–"Wow! This was a tough one to go back in and re-capture the same rhyme scheme and bouncy joy of the original."
In fact I had some major problems. Here’s an example. Maria felt things happened too quickly and that I should slow the plot down and let each child look around and consciously make a decision about whether to stay in the other’s domain.
In one of the new verses I began with the fairy child.
He looked around the human world
Of green and brown and gold
Well, I could rhyme gold with cold/bold/scold/mold/mould/fold/hold/old/sold/told. But none of those gave me a feeling of this child of sky and air of his actually seeing the earth anew. So I tried again.
He looked about the human world
Beneath the bowl of sky.
Better. I liked the bowl of sky image. But the emphasis had suddenly shifted from earth to sky, which was not what I wanted. He needed to look at the earth and what made it so special, not the sky. So I did what poets have done from time immemorium–I went back to the first try and gave it a push. I turned the line around. No more looking at the world "of green and brown and gold" but rather:
He looked around the human world,
A world of gold and brown.
And suddenly the rest came out properly:
A world where farmyard turns to village,
village into town.
Because that is a description of where I live in Western, Mass, a place where the world seems quilted by little farmsteads that grow up and become villages and villages that lately have overflowed their boundaries and become towns.
But then I went and spoiled it, writing this next part of the verse:
He shook his head and heaved a sigh,
"Nowhere can I
Be kept herebye."
A diamond tear dropped from his eye,
He turned and started down.
If there is not one of you in the audience who is not already reaching for a blue pencil at this very moment to edit those lines out, I may have to think the less of you. This is romantic, bosom-heaving, awful.
So next I tried:
A world of work, a world of sleep
Both dark and deep
Where shadows creep
And where, I might add, the poet was slowly despairing. Because that wasn’t it at all. What I wanted to say was that the earthly world, was full of sunshine and a kind of openness as opposed to the fairy world of shadows and shades.
And then I came up with this and it worked:
A world of colors pure and bright,
Of open sight,
Of warm sunlight,
Unlike the shadowed world of night
Of moon and thistledown.
Sometimes a rhyme will seduce the rhymer. An easy rhyme that isn’t saying what you mean, but as we use to say in hippie circles "Close enough for folk music." Or as my son the rock-and-roll star says as a joke "Pitch is for wimps."
Not so. Not anywhere near so.
Though I am always reminded of something John Ciardi use to say about poetry: that a poem is never finished, it’s abandoned.
When I finally abandoned CHILD OF FAERIE to the editor, it was as close to what I wanted to get as was humanly–this human anyway–possible. And then Jane Dyer took my words and made them magic with her paintings.
That’s what I love the most about children’s books, I think: letting someone else in on the dreaming of my vision. Which then becomes our vision.
And afterwards, it goes out and becomes the reader’s vision as well. As the fairy child says, as he gives the human child a feather he has magically extracted from the egg she has gifted him with:
"I give you this that comes from that,"
The fairy child replied,
"That egg and feather both shall serve
As token and as guide,
That we may both go arm in arm
And fear no harm
Nor take alarm
When visiting in hall or farm
(Or other lands beside.)"
This book is both my token and my guide to all of you, to bring you to and safely back from the fairy lands of literature and poetry and art. Let us go together–and leave the critics–as well as the skeptics–flabberghast at how we do so well.