Three of my all-time favorite books have been written by one author: Susan Hill Long. I first met Sue through her historical novel, Whistle in the Dark, which I devoured on a train trip home from Portland, Oregon and which I thought was nearly brilliant. Then I read her Magic Mirror which was brilliant. We are now dear friends and sometimes writing retreat partners so I had the opportunity to see Josie Bloom and The Emergency of Life (Simon and Schuster/Paula Wiseman Books) in a slightly earlier form and, from the first page, I knew the kidlit world was going to be in for quite a treat. That’s why it gives me such joy to host Sue today in celebration of her newest novel, which is beyond brilliant. That’s my Valentine to all of you!
It’s our special day! A day when we celebrate love, and red things and pink things, and limericks about violets and whatnot. A day of sentiment in many flavors, sweet and tart.
When I was a little girl twenty-five years ago (HAHAHA), all the kids were supposed to bring to school a decorated shoebox to set on our desks, and at the end of the day we’d all go up and down the rows and slip valentines (mostly the flimsy drugstore variety, others home-made with construction paper and doilies) into the boxes. Oh and by the way, this was the lawless, wild west of Valentine’s Days. There was no rule about giving a valentine to every student in the class. That’s right—we rotten kids dropped valentines into some of the boxes and steered clear of others. And then, we counted how many valentines we got! In front of everybody!
Or… am I making this up? This is absolutely the way I remember Valentine’s Day going down when I was in the fourth grade, fifth grade, and especially sixth. It’s possible I remember it all wrong. Wouldn’t it be sad if, all these twenty (HAHAHA) years, I believed I didn’t get valentines when in fact I did? Maybe Mrs. Gagne did make every kid stuff a card in every shoebox. Maybe we didn’t count them as the school bell tolled. Maybe we counted and I had the most cards in the whole entire class.
Well? What about it? Does it matter whether or not my recollection is real? I’m going to say… nope. The feelings I took away from childhood Valentine’s Days are real, that is, as real as feelings ever are and measured by how or how long or which ones we hold on to. I think the fuzziness of memory gives me the freedom, when I write middle-grade novels, to have in mind the kid with the nearly empty shoebox. She’s that girl who had lice one time and nobody ever lets her forget it. She’s the one who, blushing, got lots of valentines – and candy!—but reckons there must be some mistake. She’s that boy whose brother burned down the covered bridge and he had nothing to do with it but still—he’s bad, like his brother, and he knows it. She’s the farm-kid who boards the school bus to shouts of Hey, Cowflap! You stink! And she’s one of the kids who’s shouting. Were those kids scared to go to school on Valentine’s Day? I don’t really know, but I imagine.
I’m all for love. Yay, Love! Taking the wide view, I think I know what sentiment would make the best Valentine. Here you go: E. B. White wrote, one time that probably wasn’t Valentine’s Day but some other day as full of love (and heartache and hope and fear and fault, etc.) as any other, “All that I hope to say in books, all that I ever hope to say, is that I love the world.” Now—for “in books” substitute “in what I do,” or “in how I live” and it’s enough to blow the lid off the shoebox of any person, young or old, who is doing the work of living.
Takes the sting out of this weird holiday about love. Makes it less personal and more particular. On Valentine’s Day? Just love the world. I like that. Actually, I love it, with all my heart.
Susan Hill Long‘s new Middle-Grade novel is JOSIE BLOOM AND THE EMERGENCY OF LIFE (Simon & Schuster/Paula Wiseman Books). She’s also the author of WHISTLE IN THE DARK, a Publishers Weekly Best Book and winner of the Eloise Jarvis McGraw Award for Children’s Literature (Oregon Book Awards), and THE MAGIC MIRROR: Concerning a Lonely Princess, a Foundling Girl, a Scheming King, and a Pickpocket Squirrel. She lives in the Pacific Northwest with her husband and two daughters. Learn more at susanhilllong.com!