Wednesday, March 24, 2010

Coming Home to Children's Books

In 1980, when I moved to New York, I enrolled at Fashion Institute of Technology to become a fashion designer. My new artist’s portfolio bulged with shiny pinking shears, pins, and colored chalk. But the work was grueling and the stiff mannequins draped in muslin had little connection to the dazzling creations floating in my head. Late one night, after a long day at work, my German draping teacher eyed the mannequin I was draping for the fourth time.

“Zat pin has no meaning!” she cried, pointing accusingly to a pin I had just stuck in the mannequin.

I took that as a deeply existential statement about my future as a fashion designer, and quit. Now what was I going to do?

During my lunch hours at the law firm I worked at, I browsed through Scribner’s Bookstore on Fifth Avenue, climbing the winding stairway to the second floor to read in the comfortable armchairs. I found myself drawn to the children’s section and the books I’d grown up with –– the OZ books, the magic books by Edward Eager, the 
Betsy-Tacy stories. Finding them was like rediscovering old friends. I remembered the first time I opened a Betsy-Tacy book, I was nine going on ten). 
“Going on ten seemed to be exactly the right age for having fun,” I read. Those were the most exciting, the truest words I ever read. And they were in a book!

For some reason I had never read the Betsy-Tacy high school stories. But now, twenty-four years later, I submerged myself in Betsy's high school world, the one I wish had been mine. Family, friends, heartaches and crushes – it was all so innocent and fun, the perfect escape from the loneliness of New York. But I couldn't locate the last book in the series, 
Betsy's Wedding. Betsy’s life, so vividly evoked, was incomplete and unfinished without the last book. I had to have it. The bookstore said the book was out of stock. The publisher said it was out of print.

 Finally I found it in the Staten Island branch New York Public Library. I immediately called and reserved it. But I couldn't bear to wait for the machinery of the New York Public Library system to grind into motion. I would take the ferry to Staten Island and get the book myself.

On a gray, misty Saturday in early March, I made the trip, watching impatiently as the ferry plowed through the cold, choppy waters. Couldn't the engines go any faster? What if someone else took out my Betsy book first? What if the Staten Island branch burned down before I got there? When we finally docked, I ran all the way to the library. I didn't open the book until I was on the ferry again, headed back across the bay. Even then I hesitated, holding the book tightly in my lap. 
Betsy's Wedding was the last in the series. When I finished it, there would be no more new Betsy-Tacy adventures to discover. But at last, sitting on the hard ferry bench, my face wet with foam, I began reading.

“Almost choked with excitement and joy, Betsy Ray leaned against the railing as the S.S. Richmond sailed serenely into New York City's inner harbor,” I read. “The morning was misty, and since they had passed through the Narrows, she had seen only sky and water—and a gull, now and then…”



I looked up at a gull swooping over the gray water. New York of 1980 had vanished. It was 1919, and I was a young woman returning from a long voyage, and anxious for her first glimpse of New York. I smiled to myself and went on reading.

“My heart is turning home again, and there I long to be…”

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