A week or so ago, I joined a zoom call with some incredible teachers from Long Island’s Literacy Matters. I was there with Pascal Lemaitre, with whom I’ve made three picture books. It was 8 p.m. Eastern, I was in New York City, and it was 1 a.m. in Brussels, where Pascal lives. These teachers had spent a long day with their students, and now they were here to talk with me and Pascal about our inspiration, our books, life . . .
Their work ethic, their passion . . . the fact that they had dedicated time this night to further help their students navigate life successfully inspired me so much, and I hope my books inspire them too.
The hour and a half blew by, and the conversation helped me distill why I write.
I write because I want to ease the journey for those who come behind me.
I write because bravery is something that is free to give, and because I can be brave for people I love. I can be brave through my words.
I write because the truth shall set us free.
I write because it heals me, and I hope my words help heal the world.
I remember writing COME WITH ME, in 2016:
“All over the world,
the news told
of anger and hatred—
People against people.
And the little girl was frightened by everything she heard
I remember there being a discussion at the publisher—was it okay to use the word “hatred"? I listened to everybody’s argument, and I said that the word “hatred” was essential in those opening lines. That word was essential because it was the truth, and every child understands there is hatred in the world. Acknowledging it is the first step in weakening its power. Acknowledging it gives our children the strength to begin to fight it.
Come with Me sprang from 9/11 and the Paris bombings in 2016, which then led to the lockdown in Brussels. For the full back story, you can read my blog here. It sprang from my friendship with Pascal, in which we found ways to help each other, my being in NYC when 9/11 happened and him being in Brussels in 2016. It was important to both of us to understand that even in our despair, there were still things we could do, however small, to make the world a better place.
And while Come with Me was on submission, months after I finished it, the words on those pages helped me . . .
I’d been sitting on my knees in the family room, staring at the television screen, at the Pulse nightclub shootings in Florida, thinking about my oldest, now a transgender man, knowing that he and his friends could have been dancing in that club, celebrating the joy of being alive, of being free to be who they were . . .
and that just as easily they could all be dead.
Because of hatred.
My eyes were fixed to the screen.
And then . . . my words came back to me, from the manuscript. “I want to do something of my own.”
And so I stood up, and walked out the door to a pops concert at the high school, on the lawn. And that simple act, that everyday ritual of going on, going out and back into the world, was what I could do in that moment. I could remember that there was still a blue sky musical magical world out there.
My memory of that blue sky world intact brings me to my most recent book.
It’s not brave in the daring way that Come with Me is brave, but for me, it’s harder won and more subtle—it’s about my discovery that no matter where we are or what our circumstance, if we take the time to look around and pay attention, there is beauty to be found.
It was Camus who said, “Even in the midst of winter I found in me an invincible summer.”
“The friends thought it a wonder,
lilacs in spring beginning to bloom.
Tiny clusters of flowers—
purple, dark and light,
fuchsia and white.
“I like their colors,” said Rabbit.
Bunny breathed in the blossoms.
“I like their smell.”
“I wish they would bloom forever,” said Rabbit.
“Forever?” Bunny asked. “For always?”
“No . . . not exactly. Not that kind of forever.”
“I know what you mean,”
said Bunny this time.
“The kind of forever where
you remember it even after
I want every child to know that as small as their part may seem, it matters to the world. There is always something we can do.
I want every child to have the experience of being quiet, listening, paying attention, and seeing the beauty that is in every day.
It’s my belief that every child is born with an open heart. And that often, as they grow up and older, it’s easy for those hearts to begin to close.
I want to write books to help keep their hearts open, and to keep mine open, too.
Holly M. McGhee is the President of Pippin Properties, Inc. a boutique literary agency located in New York City, as well as the New York Times bestselling author of Come with Me, Listen, a Brainpickings Favorite Book of the Year, and her most recent, What the World Could Make, all picture books illustrated by Belgian artist Pascal Lemaitre. Her award winning middle grade novel, Matylda, Bright & Tender, was published in 2017. McGhee divides her time between New York City and Maplewood, NJ.