On the wide windowsill beside my writing desk sits a stack of novels. When I finish one, I move it to a bookshelf in another room, but I have the problem of acquiring novels faster than I can read them. So I recently split the stack in half, making two stacks, giving me a clear view out my window again. At exactly 7:21 a.m. the school bus stops at the end of the driveway next door and picks up Clare, the first-grader. If I’m having a good writing day, I’m still at my desk when, at exactly 2:42 p.m., I watch the bus return.
First I hear its engine grinding through the neighborhood. Then, if I lean slightly to my right, I can see Clare jump from the too-high step onto the asphalt. I lean back and watch her walk up the driveway with her grandmother and their golden-doodle puppy—that adorable new breed that doesn’t shed all over the house.
I like to think that Clare might someday read one of my books. Then I tell myself I should carve out reading time the way I carve out writing time; I need to tackle this stack of novels before I pick up any more. But later in the day, I happen to walk past a library display that includes Eleanor & Park, a book I’ve heard something about. I skim the first page. Another page.
Back at my desk with Eleanor & Park in my hands, I don’t notice the school bus coming or going. For the next couple of days, where I am doesn’t matter because wherever it is, the space is only physical. Emotionally, I’ve disappeared inside Eleanor and Park’s world.
In chapter one, they’re on a school bus. I can smell it. Taste it. Hear it. Feel it. I’ve been on that bus before. It’s not a safe place. It’s not a good place, but on the page, I’m willing to go there again.
The new girl took a deep breath and stepped farther down the aisle. Nobody would look at her. Park tried not to, but it was kind of a train wreck/eclipse situation… She reminded Park of a scarecrow or one of the trouble dolls his mom kept on her dresser. Like something that wouldn’t survive in the wild.
I think about Clare next door, and about how she’ll learn to survive in the wild. I cringe remembering how hard it was sometimes. I cringe thinking about the weight of the responsibility that we authors bear when we write for young readers. I smile thinking about Eleanor and Park falling in love, about their relationship helping them survive, and about author Rainbow Rowell bringing them to life on the page.
I stare at my work-in-progress and my heart hurts over the ways my new characters are negotiating their relationships. They’re not on a bus—it’s summer music camp—but still, even the most loving parents can’t shield them from having to grow up. Sometimes the best we offer one another is a hand to hold. If we’re lucky, we might have a golden-doodle puppy. Or a grandmother. Or a stack of novels.
I look at the stack on my windowsill, knowing that for particular readers at particular times, novels serve as survival manuals. I can’t imagine any calling more worthy and more rewarding than writing for young readers.
Thank you for inviting me to guest-blog here! I met Sarah Johnson and almost all of the Tollbooth regulars at Vermont College, so while writing this post I’ve been thinking about campus friendships. I’ve followed this blog since its inception, and it’s great to be able to contribute some musings about writing for young readers.
A.B. Westrick is the author of Brotherhood, released last month from Viking (Penguin Young Readers). She holds an MFA from Vermont College of Fine Arts. You can visit with her at abwestrick.com.