Maybe it’s owning a bookstore for all those years, maybe it’s remembering all the fun we had with authors at Oz Books in Southwest Harbor, maybe it’s the impact that author friends and books have had on me my whole life. I’m so excited about the Tucson Festival of Books, and proud to be part of it this weekend!
Takes me back to Maine summers, a chilly breeze coming in off the harbor. Barbara Cooney introduced “Miss Rumphius,” my all-time favorite picture book, in 1982 as part of the first OZ Guest Author Series at the Southwest Harbor Library. She had a great sense of humor; she was always gracious in public but could be a little sarcastic. A baby kept crying during her presentation at the library. When the mother got up to go, Barbara said, “Don’t worry, the crying doesn’t bother me. It’s not my baby.”
A few years later, she returned to sign books at the bigger, expanded Oz Bookstore. Adoring customers were lined up outside the door. One woman asked Barbara to write something like “To the most beloved grandson, may you enjoy this book forever. Love, Barbara Cooney.”
“That’s not my message,” Barbara said. She asked me to get her a drink — a stiff whiskey — after signing what must have been hundreds of books. We sat around talking into the night, she with her unbraided long white hair and gleaming blue eyes, me knowing she would be always be one of my role models. She was irreverent. She was always nice to small children. She chuckled a lot. She used the most exquisite blues in her illustrations. (I still think of Barbara when there’s a perfect, cloudless sky, and say it’s an “Island Boy” blue day, after her picture book.)
“To be at all creative I need to spend time away from lots of people, alone in my garden tending flowers,” she told me. I listened.
Robert McCloskey was another icon of Maine children’s books. When we visited his beloved Scotch Island he picked us up in his little lobster boat, just like in “One Morning in Maine.”
He would visit me at OZ, quietly striding into my office to sign books generically and sip a cup of tea. Customers generally left him alone, allowing him his privacy. He must have been in his late 70s, a few years after he was widowed, when his “girlfriend” moved from her apartment in their retirement complex to his.
“Everybody in the whole town knows who I’m shacking up with,” he told me. I almost fell off my chair, but managed to not burst out laughing.
There are lines from Brook and Ethan’s favorite children’s books I’ll never forget: “Happy Winter rise and shine, I love the early morning time” or “Born at sea in the teeth of a gale, the sailor was a dog. Scuppers was his name.” Or little Alice sitting on her grandfather’s knee, listening to him tell her, “Go see the world. Come home to live in your house by the sea. Do something to make the world more beautiful,” in “Miss Rumphius.”
See you at the Tucson Festival of Books! I always stroll around the children’s section. Maybe you’ll be there too.