Thursday, March 20, 2008

If Only, If Only....

Writers provide us with some of the best moments of our lives. Sometimes they even change our lives. Yet they never know it.

Sure, once in a while they'll do a booksigning or speaking engagement and hear, "I love your books!" Every now and then the mail carrier brings a heartfelt letter of appreciation.

But in general that mysterious bond between writer and reader remains unspoken, with the writer sending out his or her "letters to the world" and the reader silently taking, but seldom giving back.

A few years ago I thought I might have the opportunity to give something back to an author whose work had meant a lot to me. Best known for her historical novel PRAIRIE SONGS, Pam Conrad was one of those authors who seemed capable of anything. In a career lasting less than a dozen years, she produced contemporary middle grade novels, ghost stories, picture books, young adult fiction (my favorites -- WHAT I DID FOR ROMAN and TAKING THE FERRY HOME), an adult novel, a biography, and the classroom Columbus Day staple, PEDRO'S JOURNAL.

In early 1995 I came across an autobiographical essay she'd written. Describing her childhood, Conrad said, "I used to be able to amuse myself with just two things -- a spalding and a deck of cards. Nanny had taught me to play solitaire and to build delicate castles of cards. During the summers I would get to go stay with Nanny for a week -- alone -- just me and her and PopPop. And all I'd need was a deck of cards and a spalding. And maybe a couple of books. My favorite books to read during those days were the Little House books by Laura Ingalls Wilder. There was also a book I will never forget, but have never been able to find again, called BALLET IN THE BARN."

Well, if there's one thing I'm good at, it's finding old books. And I thought it would be a wonderful surprise and tribute to Pam Conrad if I could track down a copy of this book and send it to her with a note saying how much her work had moved and inspired me.

I looked up BALLET IN THE BARN, learned the author's name was Regina J. Woody, and added the book to my "want list" -- a folded sheaf of papers I took to every used bookstore in town and later carried to New York where I checked the W-for-Woody section at the Strand and any other used bookstore I could find. Nearly every day I'd check the online used book sites to see if a copy was available, but never saw a single one listed. Ah well, I thought, it'll turn up someday. After all, Ms. Conrad's had discussed her recent, successful treatment for cancer and ended with the words, "As I write this I am only 47 -- not young to your way of thinking, I know, but I hope to live another 47 years. That's another lifetime -- plenty of time to tackle old ideas I've been mulling over and new ideas that keep popping up."

I figured that some time in the coming months or years -- in Pam Conrad's second lifetime -- I would find a copy of BALLET IN THE BARN for her.

A few months later, in early 1996, I opened the newspaper and saw the obituary. She barely made it to 48 -- her life ultimately as fragile as those "delicate castles of cards" she once built with her grandmother.

A dozen years have passed since then and would you believe I have still never seen a copy of BALLET IN THE BARN? I've occasionally seen it listed on-line at over $200 a copy. But I don't have an extra $200 -- and even if I did have that kind of money to honor Pam Conrad, it would probably be better spent as a donation to cancer research in her name. So instead I just keep on visiting used bookstores and checking out the W-for-Woody section. I know a copy will turn up one day for just a few bucks, and when it does, I'll donate it to the library where I work and instruct them to include a "In Memory of Pam Conrad" bookplate inside.

Yet she'll never know it.


Beth Fehlbaum, Author said...

Thank you for a touching tribute to a fine author.
Beth Fehlbaum, author
Courage in Patience, a story of hope for those who have endured abuse

Anonymous said...

Well, Just to make sure you know, I love your blog. It's one of my life's little pleasures. Thank you.

Peter D. Sieruta said...

Thank YOU. I appreciate the kind words and am really pleased you visit my blog.


IsDihara said...

Thank you for posting such a touching tribute and best of luck getting acquainted with the stacks in your new rare book collection!

YEAH YEAH Out Loud said...

Perhaps you would be willing to review our website/book/program.

It is a children’s self esteem program for use in early learning environments (3-8 year olds) through child care, educators (pre K-2nd grade), parents and children’s ministry.
Thanks; Kathy

Unknown said...

Hi, I also longed for Ballet in the Barn. I used to take it out constantly from the library when I was a young girl. I didn't remember the author-but found her online, and once when someone was offering a very expensive old copy of the book, I asked if maybe they had a cheaper one and they sold me an old copy, not-in-great-shape but enough so I could read the story. I have since collected Woody's other books.
Good luck,
Rivka Tal

buy jeans said...

The permanence of the internet makes this kind of joke even more amusing. I just saw this today, and it wasn't until the photo was MENTIONED in the post that I looked at it closely and scrolled back up to the date to see if it was an AF.

bluesage said...

HI, this message is for the author. I don't know if you're still looking, but I have a 1952 copy Of Ballet in the Barn which I will sell to you at a very fair price, make me an offer.