As Good as It Gets

The price of one of my young adult novels, throw in a few bucks for tax, is about what you’d pay for a bottle of wine to take to your host for dinner. People used to stop by the autographing party at the local museum’s bookshop to purchase Katherine Kirkpatrick’s latest young adult historical tearjerker, and then continue up the road a half mile, past the duck pond, through lush woods, to Audrey and Dale Kirkpatrick’s home and a gourmet meal. Anyone from the Three Villages (Stony Brook, Setauket, Old Field) of Long Island, New York, might be there: the tennis players, the bridge players, the bank teller, my mother’s hairdresser, the neighbors, some of the teachers my siblings and I had had at school, and people my parents knew through the Presbyterian church, puppetry, charities, real estate, Dad’s travel agency, or his heart surgeries.

Whether anyone read my books or not didn’t matter, not really, because I had the great satisfaction of selling a hundred hardcovers in an hour. Even better, the sense of celebration that filled the air was as palpable as the aroma of sautéed onions and mushrooms. The Kirkpatricks knew how to throw a party. Chicken cacciatore, anyone? Genoese seafood risotto? Champagne cocktail? In the octagonal living room decorated with carved screens from India, in pivoting chairs with colorful satin pillows, around a central coffee table and low-hanging lamp, the drinks and the conversations flowed.

Audrey and Dale Kirkpatrick.

Audrey and Dale Kirkpatrick.

Autographing copies of my first novel, Keeping the Good Light.

Signing copies of my first novel, Keeping the Good Light.

This was how my parents celebrated the publication of my first three books in the mid-to-late 1990s, when I was in my early and mid thirties, before I married, moved coasts, and gave birth to twins. Four other books for older children and young adults, both fiction and nonfiction, followed. But three thousand miles away from family, friends, and my New York writers community, I found it difficult to attract more than a handful of people to my book events. For a while I stopped doing signings altogether. I stopped celebrating. It was as if my last two titles dropped into holes the minute they were published.

There is nothing more depressing for an author than to sit at a table with a forced smile in front of a pyramid of books, facing a room full of vacant chairs. The feelings of loneliness and isolation of such situations can be intense.

I’m happy to say I’ve found a middle path, a joyous way of celebrating new books that comes in second to my mother’s former parties. Our Western Washington chapter of the Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators (SCBWI) hosts a fabulous twice-yearly event called “The Inside Story.” In this event, fifteen or so local book creators share “the story behind the story” in short presentations of their new and upcoming books to independent booksellers, fellow authors and illustrators, and their families. Many school and public librarians also attend.

Our November 3, 2013, The Inside Story at Seattle’s Mockingbird Books drew several hundred people. In her introduction, Laura McGee Kvasnosky spoke of how The Inside Story has greatly expanded in scope and in popularity since she and fellow children’s book creator George Shannon launched the program on October 4, 1998. “I feel like the proud mother and George the proud father,” she said, “and I’ve enjoyed watching the event grow up.” I happened to be sitting near Laura in the crowd and, indeed, like a proud mother, she was smiling and smiling during the trivia prize awards and presentations.

The Inside Story #31 at Mockingbird Books.

The Inside Story #31 at Mockingbird Books.

I am so grateful to Laura and George for creating this wonderful community forum where we can give ourselves a boost. Book releases can be as stressful as they can be joyful, because of the expectations we set for ourselves and our publishing companies have for us. Knowing that I can bring my new young adult novel to the Inside Story when it comes out this spring transforms a responsibility into an honor, a burden into a celebration, a dread into a feeling of optimism.

Also, by the way, there are small mountains of fruits and cookies served at our Inside Story events. Next time, at Mockingbird Books on May 6, I’ll also contribute goodies home-cooked according to recipes left to me by my greatest literary supporter of all time, Audrey Kirkpatrick. She who cut sun-dried tomatoes into strips for me, who shredded prosciutto and grated Parmesan cheese for me, who invited everyone she knew to her home for me, would have enjoyed our Inside Story festivities and approved.

Audrey Kirkpatrick celebrates.

Audrey Kirkpatrick celebrates.

The Commander and I

Commander Edward P. Stafford, USN (Ret), July 16, 1918 – Sept. 24, 2013, was the grandson of polar explorer Robert E. Peary and son of Marie Peary, called by the newspapers “the snow baby.”

The Snow Baby published by Holiday House, 2007, was a James Madison Award Honor Book and a Booklist Top Ten Biography for Youth.

A photo of a spunky four-year-old Marie Peary, posed near a gigantic meteorite on a ship, inspired me to write a book called The Snow Baby. A photo biography, it tells of Marie’s childhood, from her 1893 birth in the Arctic to the age of sixteen, when her father, Admiral Robert E. Peary, reached the North Pole in 1909. My forthcoming novel Between Two Worlds also includes Marie as a character.

It was easy for me to fall in love with this child, who at the age of eight, dressed in seal furs on an ice-locked ship, played tricks on sailors and found ways to celebrate Christmas while the adults around her worried for their lives.

In 2005, in the early stages of writing The Snow Baby, I met Marie’s son Commander Edward Stafford, who was at that time in his late eighties. Though he lived in Florida, he periodically returned to Eagle Island near South Harpswell, Maine, to lead tours of the Peary family’s former summer home, now a state park. I was so eager to go on one of these tours, I took a plane trip of 3,000 miles from Seattle to New York with my four-year-old twins. After meeting up with my dear friend, author/illustrator Sanna Stanley and her three-year-old son, we drove three hundred miles to Portland, Maine. A small outboard motorboat took us across Casco Bay, past many green, forested islands, to our destination.

Set on Eagle Island’s rocky bluff, which to Admiral Peary looked like a ship, Peary placed his house where the pilot house of the ship would have been located.

Considering his age and how my previous attempts of e-mailing him through a university museum had gone awry, I’d thought perhaps he suffered ill health. On the contrary, the man I met on Eagle Island, wearing long shorts, T-shirt, and baseball cap, vigorously marching up and down the narrow stairs of the old house, was astonishingly robust. He held his back straight. His face conveyed the certainty of a man sure of himself. Indeed he’d earned seven battle stars in World War II on anti-submarine duty on naval destroyers and destroyer escorts in the Caribbean and Mediterranean. Stafford remarked that though his illustrious grandfather died when he was nineteen months old, he knew the man through Peary’s wife and daughter who loved him. Through them, something of his grandfather’s force of character transferred itself to him. True, as far as I’m concerned.

In my great enthusiasm to meet Stafford, I made a nuisance of myself, asking him one detailed question after another. Perhaps with a frown or inclination of his head, Stafford conveyed his irritation to his wife, who was on the tour with us. She asked me to please refrain from asking Stafford questions until the end. “He needs to save his voice,” she said diplomatically. Meanwhile, for the next hour, ten other tourists fired away their questions and he happily answered them. Then as we stood on the house’s sloping green lawn near the boat dock, he finally gave me ten minutes of his time.

Katherine Kirkpatrick, Commander Edward Stafford, Peggy Stafford, and tour boat captain.

Reflecting back, I realize it was naïve of me to assume Stafford would be happy to meet me just because I was writing a book about his mother. Celebrity families often keep to themselves for good reason. Stafford’s initial brisk attitude had everything to do with defending the honor of his often maligned grandfather.

But setting aside any feelings of disappointment about Stafford’s reaction to me, I spent an absolutely wonderful day on Eagle Island. Stafford told stories with flair, as well as with knowledge and authority. He was the best of guides. He said the island was part of him, and obviously he took great pleasure in sharing it.

I loved the house with its snug, shiplike, wood-paneled rooms, its panoramic views, its many tokens and reminders—such as Peary’s stuffed birds, mounted twenty-pound lobster, and Marie’s collection of tiny ivory figures—of the way an extraordinary family lived. My friend and I greatly enjoyed the island’s seventeen acres of fragrant woods, foxgloves everywhere in the underbrush, and rocky beaches. While I’d toured the house, she kept our active young children from the dangerous rocks and wild surf. Then the five of us explored the island together.

A three-sided stone fireplace separates the downstairs rooms in the Peary family’s home on Eagle Island.

The view from an upstairs room in the Peary family house.

Marie Peary’s books and keepsakes.

What’s more, just prior to leaving for an enchanted return boat ride in which dolphins leapt about our craft, Stafford gave me his business card. On the top right, printed in dark blue ink was the icon of a ship’s wheel with his name “Edward P. Stafford, Commander, U.S. Navy (Ret.)” and his address and phone number in Florida.

I wrote to him, enclosing a first draft of my manuscript for The Snow Baby, which by then was contracted to be published. About two months later I heard back, not from Stafford, but from a man whom Stafford had given the manuscript to, a representative of an historical society in Maine. He pointed out numerous shortcomings in the draft, then concluded, “if I should decide to go forward” (implying I should abandon my book?): “Keep in mind you have chosen to work over ground that has been covered many times over the past 100 years by experienced writers, many of them well versed in Arctic lore and possessed of years of actual Arctic exploration experience. To cover this subject matter with anything less than thoroughness and accuracy could expose you, the Peary and Stafford families, and organizations devoted to Arctic education programs to serious ridicule and embarrassment.”

With that splash of frigid polar water thrown on me, I set about a new draft, this time enlisting the expert help of members of a university museum. Within the next two years, I completed eight more drafts, two of which Stafford provided helpful feedback on.

By then, though I had no expectations whatsoever that Stafford would like my book, I myself felt pleased with it. In the end, the commander did voice his approval. Inside a Christmas card picturing Santa Claus delivering packages by rowboat to a lighthouse, he’d written in block capital letters, “A BEAUTIFUL BOOK, WELL-WRITTEN AND A PLEASURE. THANKS SO MUCH. ED STAFFORD.”

Sanna Stanley.

The Peary family house on Eagle Island, Maine.

ALA Award Envy

Elizabeth Wein and Katherine Kirkpatrick, Setauket, New York, 1999

On Monday, January 27, 2014, I’ll be watching the webcast of the American Library Association’s Youth Media Award announcements, broadcast live from Philadelphia. Everyone in children’s and young adult publishing will be eagerly anticipating the results. In our field, the garnering of a Newbery, Caldecott, or Printz Award is equivalent to an athlete winning a gold medal in the Olympics.

My annual February/March readathon, a time of discovering new books and engaging in stimulating discussion, begins after the announcements. Some years, I’ll read not only every Newbery and Printz winner and honor book, but I’ll also work my way through YALSA’s Best Fiction list. Other years, I’ll stop reading after only a few books; especially if a title of my own has come out. While reading an award-winning book that I don’t feel is worthy, I snap it closed and return all the others to the library unread—shelving the feelings of frustration that their gold and silver seals invoke.

I know better than to view the ALA awards as the be-all and end-all of my writing life. Nevertheless, I get caught up in the annual fervor. The truth is there are thousands of us authors out there, and there are thousands more of our books published every year than there are ALA awards and citations to go around. No matter how good a book may be, chances are excellent that it will go unnoticed among the vast sea of other titles.

In my clearer moments I realize that notions of awards and their perceived value are dark, swirling storm clouds in our minds: If we can guide the plane above such foggy distractions, the view will be beautiful, bright, and expansive. For we can all enjoy a true and lasting sense of abundance on a higher level when we give up our limited definitions of success.

The image of the airplane is an apt one to illustrate the story I’m about to tell.

Last year, on Monday, January 28, 2013, I was in the audience at the ALA Media Awards press conference in Seattle when I heard that my dear friend of 27 years, Elizabeth Wein, won a Printz Honor for her aviation-themed book Code Name Verity.

Elizabeth Wein and Katherine Kirkpatrick in Avebury, England, 1999

I’d surmised from the buzz at the ALA Midwinter Meeting that Code Name Verity was a contender for the Printz. My friend, half a world away in Scotland, suspected it, too. Her enormously popular breakout novel had already garnered a ton of starred reviews and media attention. But of course, ALA award announcements often defy expectations, and frequent surprises add to the drama of this high-stakes event.

I wanted Elizabeth to win the Printz, really and truly. But at the same time, as I took my seat that morning in the mobbed auditorium of the Seattle Convention Center, I wasn’t completely sure what my reaction would be if she did. I gave myself a little talk: If Elizabeth wins this award, and if you, Katherine Kirkpatrick, are not one hundred percent happy for her, then you are a miserable, selfish, covetous wretch and you don’t deserve to win any awards in the future.

For those of you who watch the live webcasts of the ALA press conference, let me tell you, there’s nothing like attending the event in person. You notice the MC’s bright red socks. And hear how incredibly loud the audience applauded. And feel the heat of the bright lights and movie cameras. Experience the palpable excitement in the air.

The MC encouraged us to cheer as he read the names of the Printz judges, and I shouted heartily along with everyone else. I had no idea who they were; it didn’t matter. It was fun to get caught up in the energy of the crowd.

Katherine Kirkpatrick and Elizabeth Wein, Errwood Hall, Goyt Valley, England, 1984

When I heard the words “Code Name Verity” in the honor category, my heart stopped. Honor? Why not winner?! Not that I’d yet read the winning title or any of the other honor books. But at that moment I felt childishly defensive of Code Name Verity, while also knowing that attaining a Printz Honor is almost equally as awesome, weighty, and life-changing as receiving the grand prize.

It wasn’t until about an hour after the press conference that the good news really sank in. I remember standing by myself at the top of the convention center’s escalator under a sky-high ceiling, surrounded by towering walls of glass. A feeling of expansive joy came over me. I was, and am, so proud of Elizabeth and happy for her, for getting her pilot’s license, for writing her fabulous breakout novel, for receiving the fame and recognition she deserves.

I felt happy about myself, too, for being a good friend and for feeling a generosity of spirit. As I was telling a complete stranger at the coat check, your character is tested when someone you’re close to gets something you’ve always wanted.

Friendship, all forms of love and true caring, exist outside of man-made rankings and hierarchies. I feel this truth profoundly when I think about Elizabeth and the good times we’ve had together, before and after college graduation, dreaming of becoming authors, having books published, getting married, having children. We traversed the map of Britain together, and even flew in a private plane to the Isle of Wight.

I wouldn’t trade this friendship for the Printz Award.

Katherine Kirkpatrick, Elizabeth Wein and daughter, with the Piper Warrior, Isle of Wight, England, 1999