In 1998 my second son was born. He was a lazy nurser and didn't gain weight as fast as doctors would have liked. I settled on a plan to nurse that boy for as long as I could, feeding after feeding. Eventually he thrived, but the long hours, day and night while still raising a toddler made me loopy. I stumbled into the Bloomfield, NY public library and saw a shiny new children's book on display: The Iron Ring by Lloyd Alexander. Somehow I'd made it through my childhood never hearing of him. The cover intrigued me so I checked out the book, and started reading it during that night's wee-hour feedings. It was the first children's book I'd read in probably six or eight years.
It so completely enthralled and enchanted me that when I finished I looked up Lloyd Alexander's home address in Drexel Hill, Pennsylvania, and wrote him a gushing letter, telling him how his book had reminded me of my childhood dream of writing children's books someday. He very kindly wrote back and encouraged me. I began devouring all the other Lloyd Alexander titles I could find, and wrote to him again. Again, he responded with friendly warmth. I won't ever forget that thrill I felt. Most readers get this phase out of their systems at age 11, but I had never written a letter to an author before.
I just finished reading The Iron Ring again tonight. I am a children's author now. Perhaps I wanted to revisit that place where the dream first reawakened. I wish I still had a little baby to hold. Instead, I was up till midnight with a fifth grader finishing a project that was assigned a month ago, and is due tomorrow. Motherhood still demands its late nights. And I can't read the novel like I did the first time. I've read enough Lloyd Alexander to recognize his trademark formula: the hapless youth with grand dreams sets out on a wild adventure with a wise, clever, beautiful (but lower-rank) female, and acquires a motley crew of wise-cracking eccentrics, talking creatures, with maybe a mystic and a heavy thrown in. Hapless youth loses all, learns humility, defeats bad guy w/o bloodying his hands, gets girl. An appealing formula, to be sure, and yet in this second reading of the novel, I find myself flinching a bit at how readily the characters (based on Indian folklore) chuck their caste system by the end. And I've received enough criticism for love-at-first-sight in my own first novel not to cringe at it now.
But for all that, I still enjoyed the book this time around, even if not in the same wide-eyed, rapturous way. I am older. I read differently. I never wanted that to happen. But if I gush less, it doesn't mean I feel less. I can feel Alexander's commitment to compassion, even if he may not see all the risks inherent in appropriating another culture's folklore. I remember the compassion with which he wrote back promptly twice to a desperate house-bound young twenty-something lactating looney and said, "I'm sure you can be a writer someday!" And I remember that bringing books into the world is a generous act on behalf of the hungry readers who'll devour them. This is the part I sometimes forget, now that I'm more in the kitchen and less in the dining room. Dreams may lose sparkle over time, but they don't have to lose their meaning.