One Wide Sky Love

Here is my child, the smallest (so far) of five, a babe who was well-nourished and nurtured, but who failed to thrive in the way her bigger siblings did -- her bigger siblings being FREEDOM SUMMER; LOVE, RUBY LAVENDER; EACH LITTLE BIRD THAT SINGS; and THE AURORA COUNTY ALL-STARS -- showboats, all.

ONE WIDE SKY is shy. She is quiet, and languid, and ever-so-gentle... she doesn't presume, and she takes longer to ease into a conversation, so sometimes she feels less loved... and as her mother, sometimes I feel she is overlooked.

Not this weekend. In all the lovely hoopla that was the Decatur Book Festival this weekend, one moment shines as "what it's all about," for me, why I do what I do, and why I try to allow each book-child to become whomever she needs to be without too much interference. I am fond of saying, "When a book leaves my hands, it no longer belongs to me, it belongs to the reader." And I mean that. But sometimes, particularly with ONE WIDE SKY, I wonder... who is that reader? And where is the love?

On Sunday, after I presented on the children's stage, after I signed copies of all the other books, here came a wee family to the signing tent: A mother, a father, a toddler girl. And in the little girl's hands was a well-worn copy of ONE WIDE SKY... the book of mine that was not even on the book table, not even for sale.

The toddler, safe in her mother's arms and none-too-sure of me, was named Josie. Her mother, Jan, said, "I almost cried when I saw you were going to be here. ONE WIDE SKY is Josie's favorite book. I read it to her multiple times every night before bed, and when we get to "three kisses, soft and sweet," Josie kisses me three times...."

WELL. There went my heart. Josie of the cherubic face and bouncing curls, I am your biggest fan. Thank you for loving my quiet little book-child, the one who doesn't jump up and down for attention, but who waits for you to find her. You found her, and I am so glad.

It's a good book, isn't it? 88 words in rhymed couplets, a hymn to the natural world and family, dedicated to my children, and all the days we spent outside, under one wide sky. When I finished the book, I envisioned perhaps a peace anthem, with "one wide sky" over, say, the U.S., and "two clouds glide by" over, say, Ethiopia. "Three songbirds sail the air" in Afghanistan, maybe, and "four fir trees over there" in... where? China?

But what I communicated to my editor at Harcourt, Liz Van Doren, was how I wrote the book while sitting outside for many days, all day long, in my backyard in Frederick, Maryland, where I lived for 25 years, raising a family and putting up a tent every summer, all summer, in which we would sleep sometimes, backyard camping.

Then the art arrived on my desk in the fall of 2002 -- beautiful artwork by Tim Bowers, but not at all the vision I had for ONE WIDE SKY. I had written a lullaby, and Tim Bowers had turned my words into a frenetic day for a family of squirrels, squirrels I do not even mention in the text. There is a story in the art that doesn't exist in the text, and when I first pulled Tim's art out of the large FedEx envelope it arrived in, I burst into tears of dismay. "You're going to love it," Liz had assured me. I called her. "Help me learn to love it like you do," I said. We compromised by putting "A Bedtime Lullaby" under the title, but I was not happy.

Here was my book-child, turning out not-at-all the way I had envisioned her. She had a slow-to-warm first year, and an almost invisible second year. She failed to earn back her advance, year after year, and I ached for her. At some point, I found copies of the book at Book Depot for $2.43 each -- I bought all one hundred of them. I wanted them to have a home, and I gave almost all of them away, mostly to friends and to school libraries, where they would be -- I hoped -- read and loved. But I was not sure.

I wrote ONE WIDE SKY -- the only book of mine that is not inspired by my own childhood -- because I wanted to distill, somehow, the magical quality that surrounded the days when my children were growing up, particularly when I had one child in high school, one in middle school, one in elementary school, and one in diapers. They were 15, 13, 5, and 1. For about two years, I called these "the glory days," and I wanted always to remember them... so I took out my notebook and began to chronicle those backyard summers, summers when we had a garden, a sandbox, a treehouse, a tent, a fire, hot dogs and marshmallows on sticks, overnights under the stars, bumblebees all day long, and a steady stream of dogs and cats to play with and miss when they were gone.

I had read Molly Bang's TEN NINE EIGHT and had been so impressed with it, that I had typed the words into my computer, and had sat for days with the printed version, tearing it apart with a pencil and scissors, to see "how did she do that?"

ONE WIDE SKY was the result of that study. This is the short version of how the book came to be... when I speak in schools, I use SKY to teach story structure: beginning-middle-end, 1 to 10 and back again, morning-noon-night. Word choice: "Nine shadows butter the yard." I worked hard for that verb, I tell my students; that word is a reward of revision.

Today, countless kindergarteners have danced with me to ONE WIDE SKY, courtesy of the music written and recorded by Jim Pearce, who read the book in galleys and said, "Those words suggest music." Now I take that music with me to schools, and I tell students that story is danced, and sung, and painted, and told, and written -- story is everything, I say, do you see? And we have the best time.

I have learned to love this book-child with a passion that borders on rabid... I have learned to love her looks, too. As the years have crept by, ONE WIDE SKY has found its niche. Parents and grandparents buy it for baby gifts. How many times have I inscribed the book "welcome to the world!"

And, I have discovered that kindergarteners adore SKY -- they love the art! They love those squirrels. They do. They laugh and laugh at their antics. Maybe Liz knew something that I didn't. Those kindergarteners never get tired of dancing to the music, singing the words... They adore the whole shebang. I have learned that kindergarteners adore... everything.

I wish I had had my camera on Sunday, to take a photo of Josie and her family. As I opened Josie's copy of ONE WIDE SKY, I felt the backing give -- the book had been read so many times the spine was breaking. That's big love. That's the kind of love I have for ONE WIDE SKY, my quiet child. I inscribed the book, "For Josephine.... count!" and I closed it gently, handed it back, looked at Josie's mother:

"I have music for ONE WIDE SKY. Would you like it?"

It's already on its way. Who says my smallest child isn't growing up? She's just taking her time, finding her audience, one meaningful reader (dancer, singer, painter) after another. I'll continue to be her champion. Who knows whose heart she's touching right this moment. I can live with that. That's exactly what I DO live for, with my books: Readers... someone with whom to share the story.


  1. Did you know that ONE WIDE SKY is Aunt Beth's favorite book of yours? I've also given it as baby gifts as I think it's marvelous! xoxo

  2. Oh, thank you for this! I didn't know. Hug that Auntie for me, then hug yourself.

  3. I love this book! I teach school and left the classroom one year to be literacy coach. I shared it with all of the kindergarten classes. They loved it too!!!


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