Words Have Wings

One of the most exciting parts about being an author is that your life is full of surprises. Your words have wings. You never really know where your books are going, who is reading them, and whose lives they are changing.

In 1978 I published a picture book with Pantheon called Why Worry? It was a delicate little story about two friends, a cricket and a grasshopper, who go off on an adventure in a balloon. The cricket always worries; the grasshopper never does. The point of the story is that we can’t really change the events of our lives, but we can control how we react to them. You have a choice. Life can be dark and threatening or a glorious adventure.

(If you see it as dark and threatening, you should probably write YA. Those of us who write for younger children tend to be more optimistic because our readers are more optimistic.)

The book came and went. I think it was out-of-print within a couple of years. I moved on. Good job. I did my best. On to the next.

Twenty-five years later I received a letter from a children’s hospital in New Jersey. The hospital treats  children with chronic diseases. Most of the children who enter the hospital won’t leave it. This is real sorrow and fear for them and their families. It’s altogether different from the imaginary terrors of storybooks.

The nurse wrote to ask if I had another copy of Why Worry? It had been on the shelf in the hospital library all these years. It was one of the most popular and important books they had. So many children found hope and inspiration from it when they needed courage most. They had no trouble understanding the message. What you’re going through is real. It isn’t going to go away. What you can decide is how you will react to it. So many children chose to be grasshoppers. When one of their friends felt depressed, they would say, “Don’t be a Cricket!” They pulled each other through, the way Grasshopper helped Cricket.

Then one day, the nurse told me, the book disappeared. They weren’t able to find another one anywhere.

I wanted to help, but I only had two copies of the book myself. I suggested she go online or write to Powell’s bookstore in Portland. I signed a number of copies when the book came out. One might have ended up in Powell’s.

The nurse thanked me for my help. I don’t know if she found another copy. I hope she did. In any case, that book taught me a lesson. I thought it was a failure and wrote it off. Yet here it was, quietly doing its work for decades with the children who needed it most. I’d say that a book that could accomplish that was a good bit of writing. Success doesn’t always come with a gold seal to put on the cover.

The reason I’m writing about this incident is because something similar happened yesterday. I received an email from Harry Harrison, a teacher in Australia, writing to thank me for writing the text for The McElderry Book of Greek Myths. My approach to those classic tales was just what he needed for his primary school class.

You can read Harry’s email. He gave me permission to post it on my blog:

Comments: Hi Eric,

I am a Prep-Grade 2 teacher at Spensley Street Primary School in Melbourne,
Australia.

I’m writing to praise and thank you for your work on the McElderry Book of
Greek Myths.  I used it as a ‘core text’ during last term’s work on ancient
Greece.  For my children’s age group, I thought your retellings were spot
on.  I liked the retell of Pandora, for example, with the misogyny
forgotten.  And I liked the retelling of Persephone and Hades so much that
we used a nearby public ampitheatre and staged the story – your version – as
a 4 act greek play complete with masks and musical chorus!

You can imagine it was a great activity for the kids!

I have contacted Pep Monserrat already to thank him as the ‘production
design’ was based on his excellent illustrations.  I’ve a couple of extra
shots of the actors and their masks to send you should you be interested but
can’t attach them here.  Just reply if you’d like a little extra evidence of
how your storytelling has travelled the world inspiring people like me and
the 50-odd kids in our classes (and hopefully it’ll be something they
remember for  a long long time).  As I wrote to Pep, the ideas are seeds
scattered to the wind.  It’s amazing to consider where they eventually take
root.

Cheers

Harry Harrison.

Harry must be a fine writer himself. I love this sentence: “Ideas are seeds, scattered to the wind. It’s amazing to consider where they eventually take root.”

Sometimes as far away as Australia.

Harry sent me two photographs of the children in the amphitheater, ready to perform Persephone and Hades. Could anything be more wonderful than this?

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