Amy MacDonald (1951-) Biography
Personal, Career, Member, Honors Awards, Writings, Sidelights
Born 1951, in Beverly, Massachusetts; Education: Pingree School, 1965-69; University of Pennsylvania, B.A., 1973; Centre de Formation des Journalistes, 1982-83, fellow. Politics: Democrat. Religion: Unitarian.
Proposition Theatre, Cambridge, MA, publicity directory, 1975-76; Harvard Post, Harvard, MA, editor, 1976-82; Highwire magazine, Lowell, MA, senior editor, 1983-84; Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, England, copy editor, 1984-88; full-time freelance journalist, editor, and children's book author, 1988—. Harvard University, summer writing instructor, 1988; Stonecoast Writers' Conference, instructor, 1991-93; University of Maine, Farmington, ME, adjunct professor, 1995; John F. Kennedy Center for Performing Arts, Washington, DC, teaching artist, 2003—. Coproducer (and contributor of story idea) of "On This Island" (documentary film), Public Broadcasting Service, 2002.
Society of Children's Book Writers and Illustrators, Maine Writers and Publishers Alliance (board member, 1993—; president 1995-98, 2004), numerous environmental groups.
Columnist of the Year Award, New England Women's Press Association, 1980; Silver Stylus Award for best children's book, Collectieve Propaganda van her Nederlandse Boek (Dutch Book Association), 1990, for Little Beaver and the Echo; Little Beaver and the Echo was named one of the ten children's books of the year by the New York Times and Parents Magazine, and was shortlisted for the Kate Greenaway Award and Children's Book Award, England; Horn Book Fanfare Selection citation for Rachel Fister's Blister; Oppenheim Toy Portfolio Platinum Award for Please, Malese!; Parent's Choice Silver Honor Award for No More Nice; No More Nasty was shortlisted for Children's Choice Awards in eleven states.
(Compiler) The Whale Show (play), first produced at Proposition Theatre, Cambridge, MA, 1975, produced in New York, NY, 1977.
(Under pseudonym Del Tremens) A Very Young Housewife (parody of children's books), Harvard Common Press (Boston, MA), 1979.
Little Beaver and the Echo, illustrated by Sarah Fox-Davies, Putnam (New York, NY), 1990.
Rachel Fister's Blister, illustrated by Marjorie Priceman, Houghton (Boston, MA), 1990.
Let's Do It (part of "Let's Explore" series), illustrated by Maureen Roffey, Candlewick Press (Cambridge, MA), 1992.
Let's Make a Noise (part of "Let's Explore" series), illustrated by Maureen Roffey, Candlewick Press (Cambridge, MA), 1992.
Let's Play (part of "Let's Explore" series), illustrated by Maureen Roffey, Candlewick Press (Cambridge, MA), 1992.
Let's Try (part of "Let's Explore" series), illustrated by Maureen Roffey, Candlewick Press (Cambridge, MA), 1992.
Let's Pretend (part of "Let's Explore" series), illustrated by Maureen Roffey, Candlewick Press (Cambridge, MA), 1993.
Let's Go (part of "Let's Explore" series), illustrated by Maureen Roffey, Candlewick Press (Cambridge, MA), 1993.
Stop That Noise! (children's musical), music by Katharine Ohno, Shawnee Press, 1995.
The Spider Who Created the World, illustrated by G. Brian Karas, Orchard Books (New York, NY), 1996.
Cousin Ruth's Tooth, illustrated by Marjorie Priceman, Houghton (Boston, MA), 1996.
No More Nice, illustrated by Cat Bowman Smith, Orchard Books (New York, NY), 1996, published as No More Nice/No More Nasty, illustrated by Cat Bowman Smith, Farrar, Straus & Giroux (New York, NY), 2005.
No More Nasty, illustrated by Cat Bowman Smith, Farrar, Straus & Giroux (New York, NY), 2001, published as No More Nice/No More Nasty, illustrated by Cat Bowman Smith, Farrar, Straus & Giroux (New York, NY), 2005.
Please, Malese!: A Trickster Tale from Haiti, illustrated by Emily Lisker, Farrar, Straus & Giroux (New York, NY), 2002.
Quentin Fenton Herter III, illustrated by Giselle Potter, Farrar, Straus & Giroux (New York, NY), 2002.
Contributor to anthologies by Walker Books Ltd., including Bedtime: First Words, Rhymes and Action and Stories and Fun for the Very Young. Contributor to national and international magazines, including Child, Parents, Parenting, Guardian, Times, and New Yorker. Little Beaver and the Echo has been published in twenty-five languages.
Amy MacDonald's first picture book, Little Beaver and the Echo, tells the story of a lonely beaver who calls out his need for a friend and hears the exact same plea echoing from across the pond. He goes in search of this voice to befriend it and comes across a duck, an otter, and a turtle, also in need of friends. When the group reaches the other side of the pond, the mystery of the echo is explained by a wise old beaver. At the book's end, the pond echoes with the gleeful noises made by the four new friends. While one reviewer found the story somewhat predictable, many considered it a gentle and satisfying parable for young children. Carolyn Phelan, writing in Booklist, described Little Beaver and the Echo as "a simple, satisfying picture book.… There's a bit of Little Beaver in every kid."
MacDonald once related to SATA the genesis of Little Beaver and the Echo: "I have always loved children's books, but I never intended to write one. [Little Beaver and the Echo] came about entirely by accident. I was staying at a beautiful lake and playing with the echo there when my one-year-old son asked me what an echo was. Instead of answering, I wrote a story. The setting, of course, was the lake where I had spent so many happy summers as a child. And the main character was a beaver—like the ones who lived on the lake. The resulting book combines my love of a simple story with my love of the outdoors."
After completing her first book, MacDonald decided to continue to write for children. Rachel Fister's Blister is the humorous, rhyming story of Rachel, who has a blister on her toe, and all the people in her town, from the fireman to the priest and rabbi, who offer silly solutions to her problem. A reviewer for Publishers Weekly commented, "MacDonald's sparkling tale has the exceptional virtue of making her verse seem effortless," while Kathy Piehl remarked in School Library Journal: "This book's infectious rhythm and rhyme demand that it be read aloud."
The antics of the Fister clan make another appearance in Cousin Ruth's Tooth, "a great read-aloud story," according to School Library Journal writer Anne Parker, that "will also be enjoyed by beginning readers." After the youngster tells her aunt that she has lost her first tooth, Mrs. Fister sends the whole house into an uproar trying to locate it. Instead of treating this event as a normal part of growing up, the Fisters scramble about their home, searching for Ruth's missing tooth. As Cousin Keith suggests buying a new one at the department store, Uncle Drew insists that gluing in a new tooth would fix the problem. Chaos ensues as the family members struggle to find the missing part and eventually decide to ask the Queen for help in deciding what to do. As the Fisters anxiously await the Queen's solution, little Ruth makes a surprise announcement. A replacement tooth is growing where the old one was, a fact she knew about the whole time, but kept to herself, enjoying the panic she created. Reviewers praised MacDonald's text. A Kirkus Reviews contributor wrote that "a sophisticated vocabulary and carefully composed cadence make it a perfect piece to read aloud or perform." "It's a perfect romp," remarked a Publishers Weekly critic, "and readers can only hope for more collaborations between" MacDonald and illustrator Marjorie Priceman.
In her next work, the author turned to an original creation story, The Spider Who Created the World. Explaining the development of the Earth, MacDonald devised a tale about a young spider called Nobb who is looking for a home to lay her first egg. Suffering rejections from Sun, Moon, and Cloud, Nobb decides to create a place of her own, stealing pieces from the three rude elements. Mixing these parts together, the spider designs a home of her own, the Earth. Here she lays her egg, and when it hatches all of the creatures of the world are released to inhabit the new world. Booklist's Hazel Rochman observed that The Spider Who Created the World "has an easy rhythm for reading aloud, with satisfying reversals in the echoing text," while a Publishers Weekly critic claimed that "MacDonald finds poetry in concise, repetitive language, and explores a metaphor that young naturalists will easily grasp." Speaking of the difficulty in creating original pourquoi tales, Bulletin of the Center for Children's Books reviewer Deborah Stevenson found the work "an elegant and well-structured one that spins its story thread with a gentle formality, careful progression, and pleasing rhythm."
Eleven-year-old Simon and his eccentric Aunt Mattie and Uncle Philbert are featured in No More Nice, a book about the young boy on a week-long stay with the pair. Imagining that the two will be old, feeble, and impatient with young children, Simon dreads the trip. To his surprise, however, the two are exactly the opposite of what he expected, with his aunt telling him he needs to ask more questions and his uncle explaining to him the art of cussing creatively. Unlike his neat and orderly home life, Simon's aunt and uncle's house is in disarray and he has to sleep with their ornery cat. But Simon slowly begins to appreciate Mattie and Philbert's non-conformity, and by the end of the week, he heads off for home with his newfound knowledge and a greater appreciation for the role of manners in civilized society. According to Booklist critic Susan DeRonne, "This book … tells a humorous story with a warm message."
Simon's zany relatives return in No More Nasty. After his fifth-grade teacher leaves the school in mid-year, Simon learns that his Aunt Mattie has been hired to fill in for the absent teacher. Loving his aunt's unusual ways but at the same time embarrassed by her crazy antics, Simon keeps his relationship with the new teacher a secret from the other kids in the class. While initially dismissive of Aunt Mattie, who seems unfazed at all of the pranks the children attempt, the students eventually begin to enjoy her unorthodox teaching methods and become the highest-achieving class in the school. "The delightful black-and-white illustrations highlight moments of the humorous plot, which readers will enjoy as a read-aloud or read-alone," remarked School Library Journal critic Betsy Fraser, and Martha V. Parravano of Horn Book said "MacDonald keeps the pace lively and her prose crisp."
In the picture book Please, Malese!: A Trickster Tale from Haiti, MacDonald adapts a legend of a lazy, sneaky man who hoodwinks several friends into providing him with free shoes, rum, and donkey rides. When his companions finally become wise to his conniving ways, they stick him in jail. But he continues to pester them until they agree to set him free, whereby he wastes no time in convincing them to fix his house while he lounges in a hammock. MacDonald got the idea for the story from the 1929 book The Magic Island by W. B. Seabrook, which described the manipulative ways of a supposedly real-life Haitian peasant, Theot Brun. The picture book features "spiky and fresh" language, according to a Nell D. Beram of Horn Book, who called it "a trickster tale of the highest order." A reviewer for Publishers Weekly likened Malese to Tom Sawyer and said that MacDonald "spins a narrative with authenticity and verve."
MacDonald has also written the text for several board books in the "Let's Explore" series from Candlewick Press. The books combine simple ideas and bright, colorful drawings that together introduce the youngest children to activities and objects around them. Phelan remarked of the series in Booklist, "Simple, bright, and appealing, this set of board books offers a pleasant introduction to the world of reading."
Biographical and Critical Sources
Booklist, January 1, 1991, Carolyn Phelan, review of Little Beaver and the Echo, p. 938; March 15, 1992, Carolyn Phelan, review of Let's Do It and Let's Make a Noise, p. 1385; April 1, 1996, Carolyn Phelan, review of Cousin Ruth's Tooth, p. 1372; April 15, 1996, Hazel Rochman, review of The Spider Who Created the World, p. 1446; September 1, 1996, Susan DeRonne, review of No More Nice, p. 130; September 1, 2001, Chris Sherman, review of No More Nasty, p. 106; May 15, 2002, Michael Cart, review of Quentin Fenton Herter III, p. 1602; August, 2002, Linda Perkins, review of Please Malese!: A Trickster Tale from Haiti, p. 1968.
Bulletin of the Center for Children's Books, May, 1996, Deborah Stevenson, review of The Spider Who Created the World, p. 307.
Horn Book, November-December, 1990, Ellen Fader, review of Rachel Fister's Blister, p. 731; July-August, 1992, p. 457; September-October, 1996, Ellen Fader, review of The Spider Who Created the World, p. 582; November-December, 2001, Martha V. Parravano, review of No More Nasty, p. 754; May-June, 2002, Susan P. Bloom, review of Quentin Fenton Herter III, p.318; September-October, 2002, Nell D. Beram, review of Please, Malese!: A Trickster Tale from Haiti, p. 590.
Kirkus Reviews, February 1, 1996, review of Cousin Ruth's Tooth, p. 230; October 1, 1996, review of No More Nice, p. 1471; March 15, 2002, review of Quentin Fenton Herter III,. 418; August 1, 2002, review of Please Malese!: A Trickster Tale from Haiti, p. 1136.
Publishers Weekly, June 29, 1990, review of Little Beaver and the Echo, p. 100; August 31, 1990, review of Rachel Fister's Blister, p. 63; February 12, 1996, review of The Spider Who Created the World, p. 76; February 19, 1996, review of Cousin Ruth's Tooth, p.215; August 27, 2001, review of No More Nasty, p. 86; January 14, 2002, review of Quentin Fenton Herter III, p. 58; May 27, 2002, review of Please, Malese!: A Trickster Tale from Haiti, p. 59.
School Library Journal, November, 1990, Kathy Piehl, review of Rachel Fister's Blister, p. 96; March, 1991, Margaret Bush, review of Little Beaver and the Echo, p. 175; June, 1992, Steven Engelfried, review of Let's Do It and Let's Try, p. 99; August, 1992, Gale W. Sherman, review of Let's Make a Noise and Let's Play, p. 143; May, 1994, Linda Wicher, review of Let's Go, p. 100; March, 1996, Patricia (Dooley) Lothrop Green, review of The Spider Who Created the World, p. 178; May, 1996, Anne Parker, review of Cousin Ruth's Tooth, p. 94; September, 1996, John Sigwald, review of No More Nice, p. 204; September, 2001, Betsy Fraser, review of No More Nasty, p. 230.
Amy MacDonald Web site, http://www.amymacdonald.com/ (January 28, 2005).
Amy MacDonald contributed the following autobiographical essay to SATA:
MY LIFE SO FAR
When I look back at my school years I have only one regret: that I wasn't naughty enough. In fact, I think I only did one naughty thing in my entire life at school. And I can't even remember what that was.
All I know is, I got kicked out of kindergarten. It was a nice little kindergarten run by our nice little church, and for some reason they decided to give me the old heave-ho. But it's so long ago, and I was so little at the time, that I've forgotten what I did to make them kick me out.
This is where fiction comes in. With fiction you can make it all up. Who cares what really happened? In my mind, I got kicked out because I put a frog in the coffee of the lady who ran the kindergarten, the minister's wife. Or I asked her to explain, if God made everything, then who made God, huh? Something funny or rude like that.
Because the rest of my school career I was one big goody goody. Teacher's pet. That was me. The Student Council leader. The kid who always had her hand up. Who always knew the answer and never got in trouble. Whose report cards were as regular as clockwork: "Keep up the good work" was all the teachers could think of to say about me.
You'd think most parents would be happy to have a child like me. And I'm sure they were very proud of all those straight-A report cards. But one day when I was grown up my mother confessed to me that she had always wanted to write a story about a child who was so good that he bored his parents to tears. My mother had always wanted to be a writer, so then and there we created a story together about a boy who was "too good-for-his-own-good." It started:
Quentin Fenton Carter Third
Was seldom seen and never heard.
He always did what he should ought,
And never did what he should not.
Many years later—after my mother had died—I found those words written down in a sort of diary. It wasn't until then that I realized I had used them, with only a slight change, as the beginning of a children's picture book called Quentin Fenton Herter III. It's the story of a little boy who is completely perfect in every way. Sooo good. But he has a shadow who is just the opposite of him—sort of his "evil twin":
Quentin Fenton had a Shadow:
Never good and always bad! Oh—
He was bad as bad can be,
Was Quentin Fenton Herter Three.
This was the way I wanted to be: naughty. I just never dared to.
Except at home. At home, I was a little hellion. I think sometimes my mother wondered whose report cards I was bringing home, because it certainly couldn't have been the child she knew. As a little girl I had a fierce temper and was in the habit of beating up my older brother—at least until he got bigger than me. One day when my mother had sent me to my room for some offense, I emptied the entire contents of my room out the second floor window onto her head while she was gardening beneath me. I was also fiercely independent. One of my earliest memories is telling my parents that I would hold my own hand while crossing the street, thank you very much. Although I probably didn't say, Thank you very much.
I had three siblings—a brother and two sisters. I was number two—my brother came first—and the four of us fought lustily for most of our childhood. My brother and I were particularly competitive. I remember the day I decided I should stop beating him up. I was much too old for that nonsense, I told myself. I think it was the day he beaned me with a metal wastebasket and I learned what the word "goose egg" meant. Or maybe it was the day he threw a pencil at me, leaving a permanent, lead-colored scar just below my left eye.
We lived in a big old rambly house with about eighteen rooms, right on the ocean in Beverly, Massachusetts. My parents bought it when it was a ruin. My mother, who was pregnant with me, worked so hard fixing it up that she went into labor and I was born several weeks too soon. That event—my birth—is the only time in my entire life I have ever been early for anything. Most often, I'm late—especially when writing something on a deadline. (Just ask my editors.)
This was a magical house to grow up in. It was one hundred years old, with high ceilings and sunny windows that looked out to sea. The toilets had wooden seats with overhead tanks and pull chains for flushing. A primitive telephone system connected the upper floors to the kitchen, so you could order the servants to bring you tea or whatever. The only problem: we didn't have servants.
But our house did have a "servants' wing." In the old days (when people did have servants) these servants lived in a closed-off section of the house that was dark and mysterious. It even had a third floor with lots of cramped little attic rooms. The door that separated our half of the house from the empty servants' wing was like the door in The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe that opens to Narnia. When my sisters and I passed through that door, we felt free to create our own fantasy land in what seemed to us the world's biggest playhouse.
The house had its sinister side: an unlit, dirt-floored cellar, where I never dared venture alone, even as a teenager. My parents' bedroom, with a saggy ceiling that rose and fell like an ocean swell. (I was sure it would cave in on them one night, leaving four orphans who would have to go live in a Lemony Snicket book.) Windows so old the glass in them had melted, making everything outdoors look wavy. (Glass does melt, you know—but very very very very very slowly.) Lying on my right side in bed I could look out these windows to the wavy ocean. (I couldn't lie on my left side, because then I could see into the mirror on the opposite wall, and after reading The Haunted Looking Glass there was no way I would ever fall asleep looking into a mirror.)
But I loved my windows. I insisted on sleeping with them open, even in the winter, and especially when it rained. There is no sound in the world I love better than rain beating on a roof. Open windows used to drive my father crazy. He couldn't stand the thought of wasting anything—especially heat. He'd come in after he thought I was asleep and close the windows. As soon as he left I'd get up and open them again. The heat would go out and the rain would get in and ruin the wallpaper. And that's how I liked it.
(All my life I have needed to have the sound of rain around me. I still sleep with the window open—and in Maine it gets below zero in the winter. When I went off to college in a big city and lived in a skyscraper-sized dorm, I missed the sounds of nature so much that I stuck a plank of wood out my window in order to hear the rain when it fell. This irritated all my roommates.)
My bedroom at home was right above the kitchen. A heating grate in the floor led by some sort of duct to the furnace in the sinister cellar. The kitchen below me shared the same duct. This meant I could lie on my floor with my ear to the grate and hear every word that was said in the kitchen. It was a good way, as a writer, to gather material. I gathered a lot of material, because I got sent to my room every time I was naughty. And I was naughty a lot.
Being so naughty might also be the reason I became such a good reader. All that boring time spent in my room passed much more quickly with a book. I can't remember when I first learned to read. It seems I was always able to. I read when I ate. I read when I brushed my teeth. I read and read and read. I think I read every single book for children before I was ten. I even read when I was in math class. My fifth-grade yearbook notes that, "During the year Amy read the entire [school] library by the simple method of keeping the books on her lap through all her classes."
What did I read? The Landmark history books about Paul Revere and John Paul Jones. All the Beverly Cleary books. Mysteries like the Hardy Boys. Animal tales: the Lassie and Black Stallion books, the Ring of Bright Water otter books, Black Beauty. Adventure stories like The Swallows and Amazons. Most of all I loved books with magic: the Wizard of Oz and Doctor Dolittle books, all of E. Nesbit (The Five Children and It), and Mrs. Piggle Wiggle's Magic. I devoured entire series.
I also loved any book with a feisty tomboy heroine. Scout in To Kill a Mockingbird. Nancy Drew and her "chums." Pippi Longstocking. I hated prissy girls and never forgave Louisa May Alcott for naming the prissy girl in Little Women Amy. All the Laura Ingalls Wilder "Little House on the Prairie" books I read lying on the floor of my room, including On the Shores of Silver Lake, which I finished the same day my mother bought it. It was supposed to be a present for my best friend Sally's tenth birthday, which was that afternoon. I read the whole book that morning, trying hard not to open it too far and crack the spine, so it wouldn't look like I was giving her a used book.
The floor, by the way, is still my favorite place to read.
My mother also read to us. I'm sure she did it to keep peace at the dinner table. She read us the classics: The Wheel on the School, Hurry Home Candy, The Peterkin Papers.
It was my mother who got me into reading the newspapers, a lifelong addiction that started one day when I was ten. "You should read about this," said my usually cheerful mother one morning, putting the Boston Herald down on the breakfast table. "This is about as close as we might ever come to nuclear war." It was the week of the Cuban Missile Crisis, a time when the United States and the Soviet Union came within a whisker of launching their nuclear missiles at each other. That's when we—and many families—began building "bomb shelters" in the basement. It's also when I began reading the newspaper cover to cover each day.
Why did I love reading so much? There was always a sense in our house of a connection to writing and books, especially through my mother's family in St. Paul, Minnesota. One of the most famous writers in America, F. Scott Fitzgerald, played in my grandparents' backyard as a boy and wrote about them in his stories. The Peterkin Papers was written by an old friend of my grandparents. The introduction to it says that the wise "Lady from Philadelphia," who solves all the Peterkin family's silly problems, is based on a "Mrs. Susan Lesley," who turns out to be my great-great-grandmother. (I am sure, by the way, that the "Lady from Philadelphia" was the inspiration for the Queen in Rachel Fister's Blister and Cousin Ruth's Tooth—a similarity that I didn't notice until my son Jeremy pointed it out as I was reading The Peterkin Papers to him.)
I read as a way of escaping the world around me. Open the page and I was gone from my boring old room in Beverly. Gone from dull Cove School. Gone from painful middle school. With one breath I was getting my wish granted to have wings and learning to fly high over an English cathedral. Or I was sailing in the Lake District of England. I was battling flying monkeys in the Wizard of Oz. I was training and befriending a wild horse on a desert island.
For a while my mother would bring me back stacks of books each week from the Beverly Public Library. Then I began going there myself, on foot. I did the journey so often that I took to counting how long it took to walk back and forth. I can tell you this confidently: between my house and the Beverly Library, there are exactly 2,856 steps.
I still carry my Beverly Public Library card in my wallet, along with all my other public library cards from everywhere I've ever lived. I loved the old-fashioned cards, the kind that had a silver metal slug with numbers stamped into it. I loved the way that funny machine went "ka-chug" when they stuck the card in to date stamp the lined paper that went into the pocket in the back of the book. I loved looking at that piece of paper with all its date stamps and thinking about the other people who had held the book in their hands like me, voyaging to the same spot in their imaginary world during those two weeks they had had it out. I loved that you could walk into any library anywhere, get out a card, and keep it forever in your purse to use whenever you wanted. I loved those 2,856 steps home, with the weight of all my new books in my book bag, waiting for the moment I could open and devour them.
The other journey I knew by heart was the walk to Cove Elementary School. We all set off each morning, the three girls forced to walk a few steps behind our brother. We'd pass the swamp where, if only I hadn't been wearing a dress, I'd much rather have gone to hunt for tadpoles. One of my favorite games was to balance a long piece of grass on my finger or my nose for as long as I could. Then we'd cross the road with the fifth-grade school crossing guard in his natty orange vest, and there we were: at school.
At Cove School, I put behind me my disgrace in kindergarten and began my illustrious career as the perfect student. In the four years I was there I got in trouble only once. That was for falling in a mud puddle on the way to school (while balancing something on my nose no doubt) and arriving with a dirty dress. My first-grade teacher, Mrs. Ward, sent me to the principal's office, for the first and last time in my life. My mother had to come and get me. Oh the shame of it all.
The one thing I was really bad at was … writing. Which, in first grade, meant "penmanship." Mrs. Ward tried her hardest to get me to grip my pencil the right way—the end of the pencil pointing at my shoulder, those fat letters sitting neatly on the widely spaced lines, with their graceful swoops above and below the dotted line. But no matter how hard I tried, my letters fell off the rails. They weren't nice and plump but squashed and crooked. In fifth grade, my handwriting was pronounced to be so bad I got yanked out of class and sent to a special "remedial handwriting" teacher. It didn't work. Finally everyone gave up on me. When people commented on my horrid scrawl, I began to tell them I had inherited it from my father. He is a doctor and it is well known that all doctors have Egyptian hieroglyphs for handwriting.
(By the way, you might think that now that I have a computer, I wouldn't bother with handwriting anymore. Not true. Today I still write most of my first drafts by hand. Then I put them on a computer to edit and revise.)
The great sadness of my early years was that I left Cove School before fifth grade. So I never got to be a crossing guard.
You see what I mean by dull.
But outside school was lots of excitement. On both sides of our house was water: the ocean on one side, a small swamp on the other. In the swamp I spent hours and hours with my friend, Carl from next door, collecting tadpoles and frogs and looking for birds' nests. Once—or maybe I dreamed this—we even found a snake's nest. In winter we skated on the swampy pond. In spring when the ice melted we made rafts of the ice floes and poled around on them.
I spent every summer day with my siblings on the beach, swimming, climbing around the rocks, making sand castles, catching crabs, creating little dams in the streams that flowed into the sea. A favorite game was for each of us to find a periwinkle—a kind of tiny black snail that lives on rocks—and "race" them against each other to see which was fastest. We searched for sand dollars at low tide. We made what we called "pizza boards"—round boards cut from plywood—which we skimmed along the shallow water of low tide, and then ran and jumped onto, skittering for yards on top of them like little surf boards.
But as nice as it was to play in the sun, perhaps my favorite time to go to the beach was during a storm. Any kind of storm: blizzards were spectacular, with grey waves full of snow and wind blasting the tops off them. Best of all were the hurricanes. My father describes finding me sitting at the edge of the lawn, as a little girl, at the height of Hurricane Carol, watching the waves crash over the top of the sea wall and the wind whip the spray inland. The third important place in my life also involved water. When I was about five my parents bought a piece of land on a pond at the end of a long dirt road. They built a single-room house with one bedroom. There were no neighbors. There was no running water—just a hand pump and a well. There was no electricity. There was no telephone. There was no heat but the fireplace.
What were we to do for entertainment? We had a canoe, a Sailfish, a leaky rowboat, and four homemade, mini one-man boats we could paddle. We spent every minute in or on Bear Camp Pond.
And then there was the wildlife. There were chickadees and chipmunks that we trained to eat from our hands—and even our lips. There were turtles we could catch in homemade turtle traps. We fished for sunfish and perch and scary hornpout and fierce-toothed pickerel. We canoed to the end of the pond to watch osprey and great blue herons fishing, and (at dusk) beavers building dams. We watched deer and moose swim across the pond and even managed to spot a few bears in the woods.
Where were we—my brothers and sisters and I—to sleep? Simple. My parents built a wooden platform and erected a big canvas tent on it. It was an Army surplus tent from my father's days in the Navy during WWII. We had crude bunk beds, where we would lie watching daddy longlegs walk along the top of the tent and listening to the sound of dozens of mosquitoes buzzing in our ears (they always got in, no matter what we did). I remember the rain dripping through the places in the canvas that were worn or where the seams met. If you touched your finger to the roof, you could get the rain to come through where you had touched it. I remember the smell of the worn WWII sleeping bags, with the lumpy stuffing that barely kept out the chill of a summer night.
I especially remember lying there one night and listening to a faint cheeping sound that seemed to be coming from somewhere very close by.
"Can you hear that?" I asked my siblings.
"Go to sleep!" my brother growled at me.
"You're imagining things," hissed my sisters.
Suddenly something ran across my sleeping bag. Something small, but determined. I gave a little scream and pulled the bag over my head.
"I'm not imagining things!" I yelled. "There's something in here."
But no one would believe me. I went inside the main house and woke my parents.
"You're just having a dream," they insisted sleepily. I found a flashlight and went back to the tent. There, at the bottom of my sleeping bag, was a little nest made out of the stuffing of the bag. In it were three very pink baby mice, squeaking faintly for their mother. She, alas, was nowhere to be found. Perhaps she found it just too alarming that the comfy mountain where she had chosen to make her nest suddenly came alive and started shrieking and shaking.
I insisted on being allowed to raise the baby mice. We found an eye-dropper and warmed some milk. For the next few days I fed those mice regularly, trying hard to save them. I failed. Babies, I learned the hard way, need their mother.
This was not to be the last time I tried to rescue an animal. My second attempt was more successful. My mother heard a noise in the driveway one morning and came out to find me shouting at a garter snake that was trying to eat a frog it had caught. The frog looked very unhappy, with its hind legs already halfway down the snake's throat. The snake looked mad at having its meal interrupted, but it was too weighed down by the frog to make a getaway.
It was a plain old garter snake, but it had got its mouth open so wide it was actually swallowing the young frog whole. The snake ignored my shouts, and my mother clearly had no intention of getting involved. So I grabbed the snake with one hand and the frog with the other. I pulled. The frog popped free, then hopped off happily. The snake slithered away in disgust. I like to think that frog lived to tell its grandchildren about the beautiful princess who saved it from the evil snake.
And there were others: baby rabbits, baby birds, even spiders that had fallen into bathtubs. I don't know why I did it. Maybe I had just read too many tales of lions who rescued mice and then were saved by the mice. Maybe I thought one day a frog would save my life. Or maybe I knew that one day one of the spiders I rescued would help me write a book. Who knows—maybe it was the spirit of one of those spiders who helped me write The Spider Who Created the World!
Certainly the spirit of other animals at our camp helped me with all my writing—both as a child and as a grown-up. I remember four stories—homework assignments—that were written in the car on the way home from our camp. All were clearly inspired by animals—in some pretty odd ways. The first, which I wrote in fifth grade, is called "What the Black Powder Did." My mother, who was convinced that I was going to be a Famous Writer someday, despite having very little evidence to go by (if you judge by the quality of these compositions) saved everything I ever wrote, including the Black Powder story.
It starts off: "Once there was a boy and a girl. Their father had died of hay fever." The children find a magic powder that allows them to become any animal they want. They wish to be ducks but then discover that two evil men had tricked them so that they were stuck being ducks for the rest of their life. They outwit the men, and then (this is my second-favorite part, after the fatal hay fever) once they get turned back into children they "told the King and he hung one man and turned the other into an owl and put him in a cage in the park." So there!
The school magazine for some reason reprinted this story a year after I left middle school, and added this note at the bottom of the story: "Editor's note: Amy MacDonald won the English prize after graduating from eighth grade last year. Courage, all you fifth graders!" It seems to me that this is something of an insult to my fifth-grade writing ability!
Another fifth-grade epic—this one inspired by my battle with the garter snake—was called "Adventures in the Woods," and it featured a boy who went into the woods as part of a science project and got bitten by a poisonous snake.
The next year, also on the way home from Bear Camp, I wrote a story called "The Chicken Who Saved the Day." It too is inspired by an animal—a dead chicken. It tells the true tale of how our house at Bear Camp nearly caught on fire one day when we were out skiing. If my mother hadn't been hurrying us home to get a chicken in the oven, we might have arrived back to find our camp a smoking ruin. As it was, we arrived back just in time to find it smoldering. A close call.
The last composition that my mother saved I wrote in seventh grade. It is clearly influenced by two things: The Yearling, a novel by Marjorie Rawlings that I had just read, about a boy who raises a wild fawn as a pet; and the fact that it was hunting season in New England, which meant that when we were at Bear Camp, we all had to wear red to keep the hunters from mistaking us for deer. The story was about a girl—a tomboy named Georgiana who answers only to the name of George. She and her twin brother find an orphaned fawn and raise it as a pet. When it is full grown, they have to let it go back to the wild, but they are worried sick that it will be killed by hunters. Their solution? Tie a red scarf around its antlers during hunting season. When the poor hunter who almost shoots it realizes he's been tricked, he "didn't know whether to laugh or cry."
I never actually learned to write in any real sense, at least not at school. I never had to brainstorm or do a story map or a second draft of anything I wrote. I was given a writing topic—or, worse, just told to write "something"—every weekend and had to produce it Monday morning. Most of the time I wrote it in the car coming home from Bear Camp.
I was not one of those kids who wrote and wrote from the time they could hold a pen. The only time I wrote for my own pleasure, as a child, was lying in bed at night. I would lull myself to sleep each night by "writing" (in my head) a scene to add to a favorite book. Or I would create a new episode of a favorite TV show. After reading Gone with the Wind, for example, I felt so angry at the author for making it end badly that I simply refused to accept her ending and made up my own, much more satisfying one.
All this might seem like copying, but it's the way I learned to write. I got a huge amount of pleasure out of mimicking my favorite authors. In high school, my best friend and I wrote a spoof of Nancy Drew books. We noticed, for example, that Nancy and her "chums" spent a great deal of time eating during her "sleuthing" adventures. So we had our heroine stop every few pages to eat a meal that always featured frozen peas. I was also a big fan of the James Bond spy books when I was in high school. So I wrote a spoof of those, with a female spy called Jane Bomb. In eighth grade, after going to see West Side Story, a movie about street gangs in New York City, I went home and wrote a story about boys and girls in a gang. In college I wrote a parody of a story by Edgar Allan Poe (the author of horror stories like "The Telltale Heart").
My fifth-grade teacher, whom I had again in seventh grade, was wonderful. His name was Mr. Wise (really!). He encouraged me to write, wrote interesting comments on all my papers, and made me believe I actually was good at this thing called writing.
He also edited the school's literary magazine. I remember something I wrote for him—the best thing I wrote in middle school—which he advised me not to publish in the magazine. It was a very short piece—one paragraph—called "The Third Paper Cup." As you might guess from the title, it didn't have a lot of drama in it. But unlike the West Side Story imitation, I was finally writing about something I knew about: misery. A girl—an awkward, shy, wallflower of a girl—feels miserable at her first girl/boy party. She watches the pretty, Popular Girl flirting with boys and dancing gaily. As she sits alone in a corner, staring into the fireplace, someone tosses some cups into the fire. One lands right in the flames and burns up instantly, making a brilliant flame. A second cup lands near the flames, finally catches fire, and then burns slowly but steadily. Long after the first cup has burned to ash, the second one is still glowing away. The girl is comparing herself to that second paper cup—and the Popular Girl to the first paper cup—when she notices a third cup. It has landed in a corner of the fireplace, away from the flames. It never catches fire, and clearly never will. The last line: "She got up and joined the party."
Mr. Wise had the sense to realize I was writing about myself and might not want to publish this little personal insight. It had never occurred to me that anyone reading it might guess it was about me. But it was. That was me in middle school: shy, awkward, wallflower. I had friends, and was even popular enough to be on the student council. I just wasn't popular enough to have a boyfriend. I was usually too tonguetied to say anything to anyone in a group, like the classroom, or the party I described in that story. But I discovered one day that I could still make an impression without opening my mouth: I could write it instead of speak it. The teacher read aloud a story I had written, and it made the class laugh. This was a very powerful moment: hey, I made them do that! Then I got bold enough to make a joke that made the Popular Boy (whom I had a huge crush on) laugh. (I still remember the joke: I had written something on my hand in ink. He asked me what it was. I said, "Hand writing." Get it? Hand writing! Very witty! Okay, well he liked it.) I definitely enjoyed the feeling of power that came with being able to get a group of people to respond to something I created. I think that year, fifth grade, was when I decided I wanted to be a writer when I grew up.
Although I'll always be grateful to Mr. Wise for starting me on this course, not all teachers were as talented or as kind as he was. In sixth grade and again in eighth grade I had the bad luck to have the kind of teachers who seem to enjoy humiliating kids. Usually it wasn't me, because I was so well behaved. But I'll never forget watching those two teachers reading one story I had written. It was the story inspired by the street gang movie. I'm the first to admit that story would have struck any grown-up as comical, coming from a girl who had only lived in the nice comfy suburbs. But what I remember is the sixth-grade teacher saying, with a sneer, that it "reminded him of a cross between A Tale of Two Cities and West Side Story." The eighth-grade teacher snickered. I had no idea what they meant by this, but their jeering tone was unmistakable. In my mind, they had singled me out for humiliation, cackling hideously over my pathetic writing. In reality, they probably had just made some wry comment with a little smile. The important thing is—I wanted to die. Thirteen-year-olds are very sensitive to any kind of ridicule.
Many years later, by the way, I got my revenge, as many writers do. Writing my chapter books, No More Nice and No More Nasty, I needed to make a teacher be the bad guy. I took those two teachers from my childhood who had made my classmates so miserable and used them as models for "Mrs. Biggs"—the "nasty" teacher in the two books. Anyone who had been their student many years ago would recognize them. I didn't do it for revenge, just for realism. But I can't deny there was a certain satisfaction in it.
However, there was even more satisfaction in getting to return to my old school recently as a guest, invited to address the whole school about being a writer. This was my chance to thank Mr. Wise publicly for being so supportive of me in those days, and I did it with great pleasure. To my even greater pleasure, when he heard I was coming to the school, though he was ill and had a very hard time getting around, he came to hear me and had lunch with me afterwards in the old cafeteria. It was lovely.
My greatest literary feat in high school was a movie I made at the end of senior year. There was a wildly popular TV show called "Rowan and Martin's Laugh-In" which was pretty much just a series of people telling bad jokes and puns, and doing sight gags. I decided, along with my best friend, Kathy Bell (the one who wrote Nancy Drew parodies with me) that for our "senior class present" to the school, the seniors should make our own version of this show. My friend Sally rented a movie camera (it was a silent camera; we had to tape the sound separately). Kathy and I wrote all the jokes and called it the "Bell and Howl Laugh-In." (Bell and Howell is a company that made movie cameras.) This pathetic pun on our names gives you an idea of the level of humor in the movie. Example:
Amy (interviewing our Japanese exchange student): Tell me, Chie, how did you find America?
Chie: I turned left at Hawaii.
We also somehow managed to convince the usually straight-laced school administrators to participate in this project:
Assistant Headmaster (running into the Headmaster's office in panic): Sir! Sir! The students are revolting!
Headmaster: You said it. They sure are.
(Admittedly that joke would be funnier if you knew that this was made in 1969, a time when students actually were revolting and taking over college campuses all over the country.)
When I tell you that the most hilarious moment in the film was when we convinced the Assistant Headmaster to ride a tricycle into a tree and fall over … well, you can tell what a "howl" our "Bell and Howl Laugh-In" was.
(On second thought, the funniest moment was when, after days of filming this epic, the "camera man" [Sally] came to Kathy and me and admitted that she had filmed the whole movie without taking the lens cap off the movie camera … That was really a howl! We had to do it all over again. We laughed until we cried.)
These days it is not unusual for a high school to make a "video" yearbook. But back then, in the days before camcorders, nobody else had done it and it felt pretty special.
Was I destined for a career writing for TV or for stand-up comics? I had no idea as I set off for college in the Big City. At the University of Pennsylvania I felt I had left behind everything that I cared about, from frogs and snakes to my idyllic childhood and the sound of rain on the roof. Everything, that is, except for books and reading. I decided if I became an English major, that meant I got to read lots of books and write about them. So that's what I did.
I also discovered a way to keep alive my love of all my favorite childhood books. The 1960s were heady days on college campuses: any student could teach a course in something called the "Free University." So as a freshman I put together a course on … children's literature. Basically I just got a group of people together and we discussed our favorite children's books. I gave everyone A's.
I took some creative writing courses in college, and I recently pulled those stories out and looked at them. With a few exceptions (like the Edgar Allen Poe parody) they were all so bad I decided it would be embarrassing if they fell into the hands of my enemies. I burned everything. It's a shame I didn't write anything worth saving, since I had some terrific, and very well known, teachers. And I really wanted to be a writer. I wanted it so badly that I even sneaked into a class with one of the most famous authors in America, Philip Roth. (You were supposed to get advance permission to take his class, but I had missed the semester of school when you needed to turn in that permission slip. Undaunted, I—who never did anything naughty—forged my permission slip. One day Mr. Roth looked at me and said, "Who are you? How'd you get in here?" I just shrugged and smiled and he let me stay. It was worth it. He was a fascinating teacher.)
The trouble with my writing was I had nothing interesting to say, because nothing interesting had ever happened to me. It was like me trying to write that story in eighth grade about gang wars, when all I had ever known was sunny rooms and happy families. Writers have to write about what they know, or they risk sounding very silly. I figured I didn't know enough about anything to be a writer. Yet.
I decided that while I waited for something interesting to happen to me, I would become a journalist. I had done a little writing for the college newspaper, I loved newspapers, and journalists get to see some interesting stuff.
I was never a big believer in learning to write by taking courses in it. Like Mark Twain, I believed your schooling should not interfere with your education. So instead of more "schooling"—that is, graduate school—I decided that after college I would learn journalism by simply doing it.
I got a job working as an "intern" for a local newspaper. Intern is basically a fancy word for unpaid slave labor. It means you work for free and in exchange they train you to do something. My boss, Mr. Wasserman, took me on because he was a friend of my mother's. Mr. Wasserman scared me. He had a wooden leg and a biting wit. He owned a chain of newspapers north of Boston, and he put me straight to work writing the kind of story nobody else on the newspaper wanted to write. I had to interview the little businesses who advertised in the papers and find something interesting to say about them. This was done simply to keep the advertisers happy and the money rolling in to the newspaper—not because the people or businesses had anything interesting to say. Quite the opposite. Imagine having to write a story about "Joe's Function Room" or "Suzi's Gifte Shoppe." What exactly can you say about a "function room"—except why on earth is it called a "function" room? And I challenge anybody to write something fascinating about a shop that sells glass trinkets to tourists. Somehow I managed to. I think it was good training as a writer: You learn that, underneath, everyone has a story to tell, no matter how dull they might seem on the surface. And you learn to dig for those interesting bits. Having learned how to make something interesting out of something so ordinary, it was a snap, later on, when I got to write about truly fascinating things.
After a while, however, I had learned about as much as I could. I quit my intern job on the day that Mr. Wasserman decided I should write about the disgusting state of the bathrooms on the state highway rest stops. This would have involved my investigating every rest stop bathroom north of Boston and looking into the toilets. Even interns have their limits.
Besides, I had a much more fascinating job possibility—a job that would actually pay money. While at Penn I had worked in the college's theater, which I loved. A friend who worked there with me called one day to tell me he was leaving his job as the publicity director at a small theater company near Boston. So I applied for his job. I figured writing publicity was similar to writing newspaper stories. It combined journalism with my love of the theater. Why not give it a try?
It was a fateful day when I went to that interview. I had just bought myself my first car—a very old and very used Volkswagen Beetle. The car cost me all of $250. It was a perfect little Bug with only one small problem: the previous owner had removed a wheel, probably to change a tire, and had screwed the wheel back on wrong. As I drove down the three-lane highway into Boston for my job interview (late as always, and so speeding along in the passing lane), I felt a sudden jolt. Looking in my rear view mirror, I saw a wheel (the entire wheel, not just the tire!) rolling down the highway behind me. Hmmm, I said to myself, this is not right. I was able to stop on the median strip and check: sure enough, my little car was missing a back wheel. I hunted and hunted but never did find that wheel.
I had to call the theater company boss and tell him I would be … a little late. I was more than a little late. But I got that job and two years later I married my boss. I always tell him that he knew from Day One that being on time was not something I was going to be good at.
His name was Thomas. He was British. And he had a cute six-year-old daughter named Emily. The three of us bought a house in a small town in rural Massachusetts, and we all moved into it the day after the wedding.
The problem with marrying your boss is that you can't go on working for him. One day I saw an ad in the local newspaper, the Harvard Post, for an investigative reporter to write for the paper. I sent them a letter saying I was interested in the job—as long as they didn't want me to investigate rest rooms. The editors, a husband-and-wife team named Ed Miller and Kathleen Cushman, thought my letter was funny and came over to interview me at my house. They arrived in a Volkswagen Bug, with their own cute six-year-old daughter Montana in the back seat. The two girls took one look at each other and became instant best friends. The editors looked at my rusty VW bug in the driveway … and decided to hire me on the spot.
Why? Because the main requirement for the job was to own a car that could make it up the long, steep, dirt driveway that led to the newspaper office, a road too twisty to plow in the winter. In their experience, the only car that could handle that road was a VW. So they basically hired me because of a funny letter, a six-year-old daughter, and a nine-year-old VW.
That's how I really learned to be a journalist. And boy did I learn. The Harvard Post was a weekly newspaper that was read by every single citizen of the small town of Harvard. Ed and Kathleen had created it from scratch, working from an office in the basement of their house. My first job was as a "cub reporter," which meant I covered the town meetings: the Planning Board, the School Committee, the Annual Town Meeting. This was pretty dull, but, hey, I could do dull.
As I got better, I was allowed to write feature stories, which meant interviewing all the interesting people in town. For a teeny, tiny town, Harvard had quite a few. Like a man named Gary Wolfe who was writing a book called Who Framed Roger Rabbit? I remember thinking at the time, What a silly idea. (Five years later it was made into a hit movie.) I also interviewed the woman who twenty years later would write a wacky, funny novel called The Divine Secrets of the Ya Ya Sisterhood (also made into a hit movie). I can't claim that I recognized her future talent, either.
Soon I got promoted to Associate Editor. This meant a pay raise ($75 a month!). Now every Wednesday Emily and I would drive up that Xtreme driveway to the newspaper office where she played with Montana while I helped "put the newspaper to bed." That's a newspaper term that, loosely translated, meant that we didn't go to bed but instead stayed up all night creating the newspaper. It was enormous fun.
In those days before everything was done with computers, we took the long strips of typeset copy that Ed produced at the typesetting machine and cut them into short strips, laid them out in stories, and pasted them onto the thirty-two blank newspaper pages. These strips contained everything that goes into a newspaper from the front-page news to the classified ads. Lastly we proofread each page carefully. Then, at around four in the morning, I stumbled home to sleep all the next day while Ed drove the finished pages to the printer. The printer made the pages into the newspaper that arrived twenty-four hours later in everyone's mailbox in the little town of Harvard.
Ed and Kathleen between them did all the jobs of newspaper editors and publishers: Kathleen sold ads, edited stories and press releases, assigned reporters and photographers. She was a fantastic editor and a wonderful writer herself, and she taught me everything I needed to know about writing—far more than I ever learned in college.
Ed wrote a funny weekly column and set the type for the paper each week at a typesetting machine that he nicknamed "Typo," right there in his living room. "Typo" looked like a little upright piano but was really a kind of giant word processor. Ed never finished these two jobs until two or three in the morning the next day. Often, to amuse himself and us late at night, he would insert slyly funny made-up classified ads or other invented news items into the copy he was typing. Usually we caught these jokes and deleted them. But sometimes they slipped past all the editors and got into the paper. Many years later Ed told me that the ad I had answered for an "investigative reporter" had been one of these, inserted by him into the paper for fun. He'd heard a rumor that a world-famous investigative reporter was spending the summer in Harvard, so he put the ad in as a joke. Nothing worth investigating ever happened in the sleepy little apple-farming town of Harvard. But I didn't know that.
By the end of five years, I had learned just about everything there was to know about writing for and publishing a small town newspaper. About this time I saw an ad for a journalism program based in Paris, France, that offered young journalists from all over the world a chance to learn about Europe. Even better, they paid all your expenses for a whole year while you got to live in Paris. I had always dreamed of going to Paris, so I applied. But they could only pick one or two people from the whole United States, and I never believed that such a grand sounding program would want me—an editor of a mom-and-pop newspaper, with no journalism degree, whose experience had been limited pretty much to writing about a small town in the middle of nowhere. I was competing against staff writers for the New York Times and the Boston Globe. What chance did a nobody like me have?
To this day I don't know why they picked me—but they did. I was ecstatic. Thomas agreed to take a year off from his job. Emily sobbed her eyes out at having to leave her middle school friends to go to some loathsome country she knew she'd hate. But one day in August we all packed our belongings into a few suitcases and flew to Paris to start this huge adventure.
I turned out to be the only one of the twenty-nine journalists who arrived in Paris with not only a husband but a child as well. As we went around the room and introduced ourselves that first day I realized that everyone else was a hot-shot journalist for one of the major papers or TV networks in the world: there was Wen from the Peoples Daily in Beijing, China. Lucio from Il Mondo in Rome, Italy. Roma of the London Times in England. Louise from CBS TV in Paris. Joy from News-day in New York … and then there was me, Amy from the Harvard Post, Harvard, Massachussets. Everyone else had been writing stories about national elections. I had been writing about school board elections. They'd written about big scandals. I'd written about big apple crops. They'd interviewed presidents and queens. I'd interviewed Flower Club presidents and homecoming queens. I didn't even know how to use the machines in the room where we were supposed to "file" our stories. I was terrified they would find out I was a complete fraud.
It was Emily who saved the day for me. The first week of the program we all went on a field trip into the French countryside to learn something about making wine in France. Emily was allowed to come along. A fetching, bespectacled twelve-year-old in waist-long braids, she charmed the entire group by passing the long bus ride teaching them all American camp songs. I will never forget the sight of Emily leading those hardened international journalists in singing "The Other Day I Saw a Bear." Somehow they all seemed less terrifying after that.
As for me, I discovered something about myself that year. I might have been a fake. I might not have known a single thing about "real" journalism at the start of that year. But I learned. It was like being thrown into a deep pond. You sink. Or you swim. I never admitted I couldn't swim. But I watched the others. I followed my instincts. I made friends and asked careful questions. And you know what? I did pretty darn well. I figured out how to use the machines. I wrote stories about national elections and wars and presidents. No one ever guessed I couldn't swim.
At the end of the year we went back to Harvard for a few months, but suddenly my husband was offered a job in England. Being English, he longed to go back to his country for a few years. I had grown up reading children's books about England. I was dying to see the land of Swallows and Amazons, of The Five Children and It, of Winnie the Pooh, of Harry Potter. Oops—except that Harry Potter hadn't been born yet. It was 1984.
The first thing was to find a place to live. We hunted and hunted and couldn't find anything we liked. We were about to buy a cottage—just to have somewhere to live—when someone told us about a house that was for rent. I went to look at it.
I didn't even have to go inside to know that this was the house for us. I called my husband at work. "You won't believe this house," I said, unable to hide my excitement. "It's Tom's Midnight Garden!"
My husband knew exactly what I meant. Tom's Midnight Garden had been, without question, my favorite book as a child. Written by Phillipa Pearce, it was about a large old house by a river in England. Visiting there one summer, Tom awakes at night to hear the grandfather clock striking thirteen. He gets up to investigate and finds the house is transformed. Instead of being divided up into many modern, cramped apartments, it is now one big old house. He opens the back door, which leads to an alley, and finds it also transformed, into a sunny garden with high walls around it and a river flowing beyond it. A young girl in old-fashioned clothes is playing there. Tom befriends the girl, and each night at thirteen o'clock they have wonderful adventures.
For me, this had been the most magical of all the magic books I read, perhaps because it reminded me of my childhood home in Beverly. Standing in the garden of the house in Great Shelford, England, on that day in 1984, I felt I had been transported into Tom's Midnight Garden. Of course we rented it. It was such an old house it was hard for me—an American—to understand how old it was. To an American, "old" usually means 100, or maybe 200, years old. This house was 600 years old. When it was built, America hadn't even been discovered by Columbus yet.
It was called the Rectory Farmhouse and belonged to Farmer Funston, who lived next door. It had a big circular driveway in front, and a large, perfectly trimmed green lawn (which the British call a "garden") that surrounded it. On two sides, the "garden" was hemmed in by a twelve-foot-tall wall, exactly like the wall I had imagined in Tom's garden. Behind the house the "garden" ended in a stream—the Cam River, which wound through cow pastures all the way from Great Shelford to Cambridge, and from Cambridge on to Ely. If you went the other way on the stream, you quickly came to a mill house with a great mill wheel and a mill pond.
One day, after we had lived there several months, I mentioned to someone in the village that I had fallen in love with the Rectory Farmhouse because it reminded me so strongly of Tom's Midnight Garden. The person looked at me with a funny expression. "Do you know," he asked me, "that the author of that book lives almost next door to you?"
You could have knocked me down with a feather. First of all, I had no idea where Tom's Midnight Garden was really set. I just knew it was on some river in England. I really couldn't believe that such an enormous coincidence could have brought my husband and me across the Atlantic Ocean to the exact, tiny village in all of England where Phillipa Pearce lived. To, in fact, the same street where she lived. Almost to the same house. And that a book I had read twenty-five years ago had made such a huge impression on me that I actually recognized the village and stream it was written about. I began to feel like I was in a magic book of my own. I had to meet Ms. Pearce. But how? More magic. By another coincidence, when a friend of my husband's heard this story, she announced that her mother was Philippa Pearce's editor. She could get us an introduction!
And so it came to pass that I actually walked down the street one day, to the house next to the mill where Philippa Pearce now lived. I knocked on the door and was shown inside. I had tea with her and a chance to tell the wonderful author of that book how much this little American girl had loved her story, written so long ago. She was gracious and kind to me and gave me a copy of Tom's Midnight Garden that she autographed for me. Then she told me that the setting had actually been, not my house, but the great mill house opposite her, where she (and her father, the miller) both grew up. It was heaven. It was magic.
So now when people ask me how I came to write books for children, I think back to that meeting. I know in some strange way I was just always meant to write children's books.
Living in England renewed my passion for children's books—after all, the best of them are English. But oddly enough, it was coming to America that inspired my first children's book. Or maybe it was just my old friend—being close to water—that did the trick.
And I needed to have small children as well. There is something about being around babies that encourages people to write stories for them. By now Emily was fourteen, and she had been bugging me for years to give her a brother or a sister. So I did. Alex was born about a year after we moved to England.
Ever since my year in Paris, I had been working as a freelance writer. That meant, when I had an idea for an interesting story, I would ask a magazine or newspaper if they would like me to write the story for them. This allowed me to work from home, which is important when you have kids. It also often gave me a great way to get back to America to visit my family and friends.
One day, when Alex was about eighteen months old, I asked a British newspaper if they would like me to write an article for them about a famous hiking trail in America near my parents' house. They agreed, and this assignment allowed me, and Alex, to come back to my parents' house for a short visit. While we were home, I decided to take Alex to Bear Camp, which my family still owned. My friend Kathleen, the editor of the Harvard Post, would meet me there, with her children.
The first thing Kathleen and I did at Bear Camp, of course, was to take our children down to the water's edge. I suddenly remembered one of the secrets about Bear Camp Pond.
"Listen to this, Alex," I said. "There's an echo on this pond." Then I cupped my hands and yelled, "Hello!" Faintly, on the other side of the pond, you could hear the echo say, "Hello!" I did it a few times. Then Alex took a turn doing it. I was feeling proud that I had taught him all about echoes. But just as we got back to the cabin, I could see he was feeling confused.
"Mama," he said, shaking his head, "what's an echo?"
Kathleen and I looked at each other and laughed. Alex was way too young to understand the idea of an echo being your own voice bouncing back at you. He was just one-and-a-half.
"Listen," I said. "Why don't I write you a story that helps explain what an echo is?" He nodded. I looked at Kathleen. "Why don't we each write a story about an echo?" It was just the kind of challenge Kathleen loved. I hunted around and found a few scraps of paper. (By now Bear Camp had electricity and plumbing, but not much else!) Then we sat down and started writing.
Why did I make the main character a beaver? I've often wondered this. Kathleen, working on her own story, made her main character a boy. But I've always loved baby animals. So which animal? It would have made sense to use a bear—for Bear Camp Pond. Lots of children's books have bears for characters. But I knew that the animal most likely to live on the edge of a pond—where you can hear the echo—was a beaver. The other characters I chose also were ones I had seen on the pond: a duck, a turtle, and an otter. Forty-five minutes later, I had written the story of Little Beaver and the Echo. It was an unusual experience for me. I had often tried to write fiction for adults. But when I did, I never finished the story. Usually I struggle to write and do so very slowly. This time it was completely different. I felt as if the story already existed out there and that I was simply writing it down, pulling it out of the air. It came into my head almost fully written. This feeling of just "taking dictation" is one many writers have described. For me, the feeling was so strong, I wondered if the story I was writing was one I'd somehow heard before. I was also sure that Kathleen was writing the exact same story because it seemed to me that in the whole world there was only this one possible story about an echo.
After I got back to England, I decided I liked the story enough to make it into a little book for Alex. Since I can't draw at all, I asked an artist friend to do some illustrations. I took the story to a typesetter (I didn't own a word processor in those days) and paid to have it turned into type. Then I put the story and pictures together into a little book and gave it to Alex for Christmas.
One day the friend whose mother had been Philippa Pearce's editor was visiting me. She saw the book sitting on my table and said the story was excellent and I should try to publish it. I began to wonder if it was publishable. A few weeks later, another friend of mine mentioned that she was having dinner that night with a man named Sebastian Walker. Mr. Walker had recently started his own children's publishing company. I saw my chance. Rashly I thrust my book into my friend's hands. "Would you do me a little favor and give this to him?" I asked. She agreed to do it.
As soon as she left I realized how rude and pushy this was—and that I was actually asking my friend to do a huge favor. You don't just give a publisher a manuscript to read over dinner at a fancy restaurant! And my friend admitted later that she really hadn't wanted to do it—until she read the story. But she liked it so much that she kept her word and passed it on to Mr. Walker that evening.
Two weeks later the phone rang. It was Mr. Walker himself. "I've just read your story," he said. "I think it's the best children's story I've ever read. I want to publish it."
Well, as they say, the rest is history. Little Beaver and the Echo went on to become an international best seller, thanks in large part to the extraordinarily beautiful illustrations by Sarah Fox-Davies. (It was her first picture book, too!) It has now been published in more than twenty-five languages all over the world. And though I've gone on to publish more children's books, I will always remember the moment that Mr. Walker called to tell me that I was going to be a real author—that I had finally achieved my childhood dream.
Just before the book came out, our family (which now included a new baby boy, Jeremy), moved to Maine. I had loved England, but I was happy to be back by the ocean again—where I could watch the waves and listen to the foghorn, and sit as I am while I write these words, watching a fantastic blizzard swirl outside my window. It may not be the land of Harry Potter, but it is for sure the land of Little Beaver.
- Margaret Read MacDonald (1940-) Biography - Personal, Career, Member, Honors Awards, Writings, Adaptations, Sidelights
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