Tuesday, May 10, 2011

Gone Too Soon

On Sunday, in honor of Mother's Day, I asked blog readers if their mothers had influenced their love of reading and books. Grrlpup, Bybee, Esperanza, P.J. Grath, Laura Canon, Calliope, and Linda provided some fascinating responses, sharing stories of mothers who read as well as one nervous mother who "as soon as I was old enough to read on my own <...> sent me to my room to read."

Calliope wrote about the stories and poems that her mother read to her, adding that she herself now works in a library, reading to children.

I was particularly interested to learn that Calliope's mother was poet Valerie Worth.

Although Ms. Worth published her first children's book in 1972, I'm ashamed to say I was unfamiliar with her work until I was given the assignment of writing a biographical/critical entry about her for a reference book in the mid-1990s.

I immediately went to the library and checked out all of Ms. Worth's poetry books (which include SMALL POEMS, MORE SMALL POEMS, and others) and her occasional work of fiction (CURLICUES, GYPSY GOLD, FOX HILL.)

Reading these books, I became entranced bythe author's gemlike poetry, written with both exquisite imagery and an economy of words. How about this one, called "dog":

Under a maple tree
The dog lies down,
Lolls his limp
Tongue, yawns,
Rests his long chin
Carefully between
Front paws;
Looks up, alert;
Chops, with heavy
Jaws, at a slow fly,
Blinks, rolls
On his side,
Sighs, closes
His eyes: sleeps
All afternoon
in his loose skin.

Perfect! As is the entire book, full of word-pictures describing ducks ("His round-tipped wooden / Yellow-painted beak,") carrots ("Cool and hard, / Like some crisp metal") and marbles "poured clicking, / Water-smooth, back / To their bag."

And I was so overwhelmed by Ms. Worth's book of holiday poems, AT CHRISTMAS, that I immediately ordered a copy for myself so I could read it every year in December.

Excited that I had discovered this new (to me) writer, I then began working on the biographical section of my essay. That's when I discovered that Valerie Worth had died in 1994, at the age of sixty.


While it's true that she left a wonderful legacy of words, I couldn't help but feel sad that there would be no more Valerie Worth books.

I always feel this way when I hear about a children's book writer or illustrator who died "before their time."

Louise Fitzhugh of HARRIET THE SPY fame, dead at 46.

Caldecott winner David Wisniewski, dead at 49.

Robert C. O'Brien created a classic with MRS. FRISBY AND THE RATS OF NIMH, but didn't live to write much more, dying at age 55.

Once a teenage writing-illustrating sensation, John Steptoe was moving into a new phase of his career when he died at the age of 38.

Although she wrote scores of children's books including GOODNIGHT MOON, Margaret Wise Brown was only 42 when she died.

More recently there was Linda Smith, who sold eight children's books to HarperCollins, including WHEN MOON FELL DOWN and MRS. BIDDLEBOX, but died at age 39 before a single one was published.

Then there was Siobhan Dowd, who had just made a big splash with her novels A SWIFT PURE CRY and THE LONDON EYE MYSTERY when she died at age 47.

We'll always be grateful for the books these authors left behind...but you can't help but wonder how many other wonderful stories they would have created if their lives had not been cut short.

Is it presumptuous to imagine that, for some, their best work still lay ahead?

But rather than get depressed by these thoughts, I like to imagine that wherever they are now, these creators are still busy doing what they did best -- spinning wonderful new stories for another audience. Stories they will share with us someday when we join them.


Wendy said...

It's almost frightening to think what Ellen Raskin might have done if she hadn't died so young.

Calliope said...

Thank you for the lovely tribute to my mother and her poetry. Although we will never know treasures she would have written had she not died too young, we are grateful that she left behind many unpublished poems, some of which have been published posthumously, including Peacock and Other Poems (2002, illustrated by Natalie Babbitt) and Animal Poems (2007, illustrated by Steve Jenkins). Another book is due out in 2012.

Joanne R. Fritz said...

And most recently, L.K. Madigan (Lisa Kay Wolfson), author of the Morris Award-winning FLASH BURNOUT, died in February at age 47.

Touching post, Peter. So true.

CLM said...

I always think about what Elizabeth Marie Pope might have written if she had started younger! I gather she was concentrating on her academic career - tsk tsk. The Sherwood Ring and Perilous Gard are two of my favorites.

ChrisinNY said...

As a child, I always imagined authors as august (and ancient). I remember being bitterly disappointed when I was about 15 when I realized, 1) Elizabeth Enright had died in the past few years (I hadn't even known she was still alive) and 2) I'd missed my chance to write to her and tell her how much her books meant to me. I still regret that.

hschinske said...

Elizabeth Enright wasn't all that old, either -- only 58. I seem to remember reading that she committed suicide, though I am not sure of that. It's definite that her son, Oliver Gillham, took his life at 59, eight months after his wife's death. http://www.boston.com/bostonglobe/obituaries/articles/2008/06/01/oliver_gillham_urban_planner_at_59/?page=1
So sad. He sounds like such an interesting person.

Helen Schinske

Elli Woollard said...

Thank you for sharing that dog poem - absolutely beautiful.

Ali said...

Not a children/YA novelist, although I read The Crowded Street first as a jaded, cynical 15 year old existentialist, Winifred Holtby died at 36 having just completed her masterpiece, South Riding. Tragically young.

Andrea Greenwood said...

I remember feeling incredibly pained to discover in 1972 that my favorite author (Enright) was already dead. I couldn't believe it -- she felt so alive!!! And the only person who could have illustrated Gone Away better than the Krushes was Enright herself, of course. I am working on a biography of her now, and accidentally stumbled upon the facts of her tragic ending, and then had all confirmed and expanded upon by her heirs. Oliver was profoundly shaped by his mother's suicide (he was 19 when she died),and after his wife died of cancer, he could not go on. Nevertheless, both created much beauty and joy. Unbelievable talent! I loved reading Chris' comment, regretting not having had the chance to tell Enright how much she meant. I feel the same way. I think it's why I am writing the book.

Peter D. Sieruta said...


Thanks so much for your comments. Keep writing, as we definitely need a biography of Elizabeth Enright! I have just completed a book for Candlewick with writers Elizabeth Bird and Julie Danielson; our book talks about the "untold" history of children's literature. Our manuscript includes a veiled reference to Elizabeth Enright's death because (despite rumors) I never could track down any definitive proof of her suicide. I did find references to her son's death and felt that reinforced the Enright rumors, as it's not uncommon for the children of suicide victims to also make this sad choice. In my collection, I have a book inscribed from one of her children (I believe Nicholas) to a friend saying that he wished his mother had lived to know this friend because she would have liked him. All the more poignant when you know the circumstances of her death. Thanks for your note.