We all have them, and we don’t stop and reflect on them nearly enough: those moments in life when you realize, “Whoa! I just received a treasure of an experience . . . I was just granted the gift of taking part in something wonderful.”
This past Wednesday I had the privilege of making an author visit to the Fox Chapel Country Day School. What made this an unforgettable joy for me was that the 24 fourth- and fifth-graders already knew The Star Shard and were highly enthusiastic about it! Their library media specialist is reading the book aloud to them. They’re currently about halfway through it.
Before my visit, the children had drawn their own renditions of the Thunder Rake on posters, often in full color, and these were displayed all around the library when I arrived! Can you imagine how much that meant to me? Here is a story that first came into the world through my mind and fingers. And here were a group of young readers who’d never met me, yet who were immersed in that story, eagerly following Cymbril on her adventures, and clearly fascinated by the Rake. I couldn’t get enough of studying the details they’d put into the drawings: the structures, the layout, the various characters in different parts of the wagon-city. Many showed the Urrmsh rowing in the Pushpull Chamber. Most depicted Loric on his perch, guiding the craft. Most included Cymbril prowling somewhere with the cats, exploring the halls and levels. There were crank baskets, Bale, Rombol’s mansions, countless shops, and often the fat frog, who in some cases looked very big indeed . . . One picture showed Cymbril screaming in the dark corridor (“AAAAAHHHHH!”), giving a terrible fright to Hysthia Giltfeather — and simultaneously causing the Curdlebree sisters to get scalded and dyed (“AAAAHHHH!”).
Here in Pennsylvania, Giant Eagle is a prominent supermarket chain, and at least two of the Thunder Rakes included a Giant Eagle store among the shops. (Every town needs one, right?) One Rake also had a Target.
These readers had never seen the story in Cricket, so their visions of how people, things, and places looked had not been influenced by Emily’s wonderful artwork. It was fascinating to see their different concepts of the Rake. Some imagined it as a gigantic house of many rooms. Some conceived it as a jumble of buildings stacked upon buildings. Some took the “moving town” idea literally and drew it as an outdoor landscape, a sprawling plot of green fields, hills, ponds, roads, and buildings here and there, all set upon tremendous wheels! That’s the terrific thing about written stories as opposed to other media: they allow for these variations. Every reader makes the setting his/her own.
I took along my large set of Emily Fiegenschuh’s illustrations (being careful, of course, not to take any for parts of the story the children hadn’t read yet), and I’ve never seen an audience more interested in anything! The students were as eager to examine them as I was to pore over their Thunder Rake drawings. They loved Emily’s versions of Cymbril, the cats, and the Armfolk, and they nodded in intrigued approval at her Rake. “It’s like an ocean liner,” someone said.
They had a slew of great questions for me. Would the Rake be able to travel in water, like a ship? How did I get the idea for the story, and for a Star Shard? How easy was it to get the book published? Did Emily ever draw the Curdlebree sisters? Did I get to have any input into how characters looked when Emily was drawing them? Would I like to see The Star Shard become a movie? What was the first part of the story that I thought of? How many books have I written? How does it feel to have your book published?
How does it feel? It feels indescribably good, of course. But it feels even better to have a roomful of readers excited about your book and drawing pictures of things from your book. A book’s being published is a grand affirmation, to be sure. But it’s still a kind of solitary experience, still a little abstract. It’s readers who make it real.
We went on to talk about the names of characters — what they mean, what they sound like, and how I came up with them. I read a page or so aloud, so that they could hear how I read the story. We talked about how to pronounce “Urrmsh” and “Urrt,” and they had fun trying it! (And they sounded pretty good!)
We went over some principles of good writing, studied an example of how to improve a story, discussed other ways (they had excellent ideas!), and then the students got to try it with a story-beginning that really needed improvement. I was deeply impressed with their creativity, their interest in the subject, their maturity level, and the skills they already had. I could tell they’ve had top-notch instruction. I did my best to encourage them to keep reading and writing, because Story is the most exciting thing in the world. When you write, you spin something out of nothing, and a new tale exists where one didn’t before. You’ve made the world different and better. Your words can reach people in other places and other times, traveling on and on.
Thank you, Fox Chapel Country Day School! Thank you, administration, students, and the kind and amazing librarian who put the event together!
Three days later, I’m still wondering at the memory of it. I was there! With my own eyes, I saw those pictures of the Rake that those children drew! I heard their questions, signed their books, saw their good writing. Life fuzzles by, and we spend our days with our noses in our cares and duties . . . but now and then we can’t help but sit back and take notice of what’s just happened. Miracles tap us on the shoulder. Like daffodils among the mud and bricks, shining moments come.