Wednesday, November 25, 2015

That's the way, Jose

In the early nineties, I had the wonderful opportunity to attend a children's literature institute at the University of Toledo where a host of authors shared their work.  When Dr. Herb Sandberg introduced Jose Aruego, the entire auditorium lit up, for Mr. Aruego's laughter and enthusiasm were infectious.  He brightly talked about his early life in the Philippians, then went on to describe in captivating detail his journey into writing books for kids of all ages.  Although I had amassed a huge collection of children's literature, I had never heard of him. So during the break, I purchased a few of his books to share in my first grade classroom, hoping they would entice my little ones to read.   
Noticing a brand new hard-cover near the cash register, I picked up a copy of Alligator Arrived with Apples, a potluck alphabet book.  Thanksgiving is my favorite holiday of the year, and not because of the food.  I've been a vegetarian since my late twenties and a vegan for nearly four years now, so the traditional fare doesn't really do it for me -- unless it's a tasty version of cranberry sauce.  So when I found a book about a host of animals gathering for a feast, each one bringing an unusual dish to share, I was overjoyed.  Waiting in line to pay for the books, I flipped through the hard-cover, discovering a balloon-lofted Goose who gave gravy, grapes, and gingerbread, one of my favorite treats this time of year.  Then there was a Koala who kicked in kale, kohlrabi, and kasha.   I was years away from tasting any of those foods, but can now say I grow my own kale and enjoy it almost daily.  But my favorite was Turkey who turned up, not to be eaten himself, but with tomatoes, trifle, and turnips!
During the second half of the seminar, Jose described how he loved to visit children in their classrooms and show them how to draw.  "Everyone can draw an alligator," he beamed.  "Even the kids who don't think they're artistically inclined."  He went on to describe the challenges of writing and illustrating books, reminding aspiring writers in the audience that every setback brought necessary lessons.  At the time I was sending out a manuscript of a book I had written for young adults, and received nothing but rejections.  It was heartening to listen to such an incredible artist reveal that he, too, had experienced much of the same early in his career.
At the end of the session, the enormous crowd lined up to have our books signed and the queue snaked all the way up the center aisle and into the hallway.  Hundreds of teachers eagerly awaited the joy of having Jose add a personal inscription, even though we knew we might have to wait well over an hour.  It hardly mattered to me.  I couldn't wait to shake his hand and thank him for his incredible inspiration.
After half an hour, Jose picked up the microphone and said cheerfully, "Thank you all for purchasing so many of my books.  I don't want to make  you wait in line for too long, so why don't you write on a slip of paper what you'd like me to inscribe in your book and I'll be happy to take them back to my hotel tonight and sign them."  Nodding toward Dr. Sandberg, he smiled.  "I'm sure Herb will return them you tomorrow morning."
Sure enough, when we arrived for the second day of the institute, all of the students were amazed when we were handed our brilliantly inscribed books.  My copy of Alligator Arrived with Apples was dedicated in exquisite calligraphy "To Miss Ingersoll's First Grade Class", and I was overjoyed to see a grinning reptile with Jose's signature beneath it.  From 1991 until 2013, I read the book to every group of children I had the pleasure of teaching.  They always marveled that I had met the author years before they were born and were even more excited to share what their families ate for the holiday celebration, some concoctions vastly more intriguing than a zebra who arrived with a zucchini!
It's been a Thanksgiving tradition I've treasured...and not only because of the whimsical illustrations, for Jose Areugo is a touchstone and a reminder of the benevolent writer I strive to become. 

Like any artist, writing is an ongoing, evolving, never-ending process.  Sometimes I'm overflowing with ideas.  Sometimes I have to wait days, or weeks, or even months before clear inspiration will arrive.  These days I need to carry a pad and pen with me everywhere as lines of dialogue are effortlessly spilling through the filters of my mind.  After a few months of little time to write, it's a joy to know that as winter arrives, so too do long nights of darkness which translate into endless hours in my office creating something new. 
More than two decades ago, Jose Aruego showed me what it meant to be a gifted writer and speaker.  Yet more than that, he revealed his love for children and an endless desire to create books that would charm and encourage them to see the world in a variety of ways.  All these years later, I continue to follow in his incomparable footprints.   Like Jose, I write to give voice to the stories that rise up from my consciousness, not necessarily to please the public.  But I know that without those of you who read and share my work, I wouldn't be who or where I am today...at least not literarily.  It's an honor to read your emails and listen to your stories of how one of my blogs or books has stirred your emotions, touched your life, or awakened something just below the surface.  For a reader to be inspired to share their own life experience in tangent to something I've written, well, that's about as good as it gets...and it's getting better all of the time.

This year there's so much to be thankful for, and not all of it is tangible.    In fact, while I was running the other day while listening to music, Alanis Morrisette's song, "Thank U" revealed a lot of what's been happening in my life since last November.  She open-heartedly thanks terror and disillusionment and frailty as well as Providence and clarity and consequence.  Yet perhaps the most important word is repeated often...and ends the song with "thank you, thank you silence".  I crave silence because it lends me to the creativity I treasure...and to reflect on the people who have nurtured me and my work during the past three years.  Much of what I've revealed has been terrifying and opened me up to places that are incredibly vulnerable.  There has been much disillusionment in the publishing world, yet still I persevere because I know my destiny is right around the corner, and I'm just beginning to gain a clearer picture of what that means.
Through it all, my friends have provided a host of kindness, a feast of encouragement, and enormous generosity -- no matter what I bring to the table.  And for that...I am most grateful.