Embarrassing truth: I wasn't a big reader as a child. Probably because I grew up in a family that seemed so different from everybody else's-a household where books were the religion, and writing the sport-I asserted my independence by becoming a television watcher. My favorite programs were those that depicted what I thought of at the time as normal all-American life: the comforting family situation comedies of the sixties where the biggest problem Beaver Cleaver faced was keeping his cowlick flat, and nobody's father got drunk in their attic the way mine did. More than anything, what I longed for growing up was to experience life in a safe, cozy family. I found those mostly on television.
Still, there were some books I truly loved, and when I latched onto one of those I didn't just read it one time, I practically memorized it. The Little House series appealed to me, and Beverly Cleary's funny, warm stories about the adventures of Henry Huggins and Beezus and Ramona on the magically named Klickitat Street. But it was another writer I loved best, who created for me, between the covers of a book, a world I wished I inhabited, on Hill Street in the perfect little town of Deep Valley, Minnesota.
The joke in our family of super-serious intellectuals (my older sister included) was that my idea of a great book was Betsy and Tacy Go Downtown, by Maud Hart Lovelace. Many decades later, I still love the story of those two little girls growing up, best friends, in their side-by-side houses-and the simple, wonderful adventures they had there. They set up a stand on their street to earn a little spending money, selling sand. They pretend to be beggars. They put on plays. They befriend unusual characters. They have trouble with their older sisters (so did I) with whom they quarrel sometimes. But never with each other.
One other element of the Betsy-Tacy story I loved had to do with Betsy's aspiration to be a writer. She carried a little notebook around with her, and wrote stories all the time, which she read out loud to Tacy and their other friend, Tib. Back in those days, children in children's books usually did things like play baseball or ride horses. I loved it that finally I had found a character who did something I did. (I, a girl whose present, for her seventh birthday, was a mimeograph machine, to make it easier for me to distribute the newspaper I'd started writing and publishing and selling door-to-door up and down our street.)
I loved Betsy. I wished a girl like that lived on our street. Or that Tacy-her most loyal reader-did.
All my life I have loved telling and writing stories as Betsy continued to do all through the many volumes of the Betsy-Tacy series. And though I write mostly for adults these days, I find myself returning again and again to the point of view of a young person, someone at that uncomfortable place between childhood and adult life: Age thirteen.
My new novel, Labor Day --like my novels The Usual Rules and The Cloud Chamber before it-is told through the eyes of a thirteen-year-old boy named Henry, though (unlike the adventures Betsy recounts in her notebooks) the story he tells in this one concerns a passionate love affair between a mysterious stranger who comes to town and Henry's long-single mother. When I picture where my novel takes place, I see the kind of quiet street Betsy and Tacy and I grew up on-though behind the closed door of Henry's house where-as with my own-secrets are hidden.
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