It started with a lump in my throat. "I don't know if I can do this," I told my sister.
The feeling caught me by surprise. I had read and discussed my first book, Emma's Question, with all kinds of audiences--from wiggly preschoolers who made it through without having to go to the bathroom, to elementary school children who did not chase me off with iguanas and other classroom pets, to teachers and librarians used to hearing from famous authors. I had spoken with a steady voice and without tears, even though the book is based on an emotional time in the life of my family.
This time, however, I struggled with a stinging behind my eyes. I suddenly realized that this event--Sunday brunch at the Voxland family reunion--was dangerous territory. Clutching my book, I stood up and glanced at the group, all wonderfully and terribly. . . familiar. Smiling back at me were all the aunts, uncles, cousins, and other family members who populate my richest memories: the five once-lightweight kids who water-skied all together behind our Aluma Craft runabout; the uncles from the family farm "up north" who pulled the hay wagon while we city kids sat squealing atop a quivering tower of bales; the cousins with whom I shared Orange Crush and Cheeze Wiz sandwiches in Grandpa's cow pasture.
For the first time in years, the three remaining generations of Voxlands had gathered together--with one important exception. And that was the problem. It was as if there were an empty chair front and center.
Missing from the gathering was my mom, Randie Louise Nelson, daughter, sister, mother, aunt, grandmother--and the subject of Emma's Question. Unfortunately for all of us, she died in 2001 after a long and courageous battle with cancer.
As a new author, I love every opportunity to read Emma's Question and talk about my mom, and I believe the book is more hopeful than sad. But on that day I wondered . . . why did I write about something so personal and so hard? The answer is complicated. First, as an obsessive worrier, I have little control over the voices that pop into my head. The day I started the book Emma was a voice stuck in my brain, a little girl standing on a chair crying, "pay attention to me!" She was the little girl in me who just wanted my mom to get better and everything to go back to the way it was before. And she wouldn't be quiet.
Second, as a writer I believe that sometimes our best stories come from the experiences we'd least like to write about--our sharpest pain, our deepest fear, our most humiliating moment. When I visit classrooms, I encourage students to dig into these memories for the seeds of a story. If the incident carries deep emotion for the writer, the readers is likely to feel that emotion, too. The phone call telling me my mom was sick was a seed for Emma's Question, just as the humiliation of sticking the blue paintbrush in the red paint during my early days of kindergarten was a seed for my second book Polka-dot Fixes Kindergarten. (A bit of emotional baggage can be an asset).
Third, as a mom and someone who loves children, I believe that stories about difficult topics prepare children emotionally for life's inevitable challenges. As parents, we sometimes resist reading or talking to children about hard things until they occur. Deep down we want to protect the illusion (ours and our children's) that life consists of routines that we can count on forever--like the ice cream truck that rolled down our street every sunday night. These routines are a rich and comforting part of life, but they are not the whole picture. Inevitably, we all experience the telephone call that changes everything. When a child reads about hard topics--whether it be dealing with the illness of a family member, losing a pet, or confronting a bully--it helps prepare her to deal with emotionally charged situations before they occur and helps give her empathy for other children going through hard times. Sometimes books that deal honestly with emotional topics do trigger tears--though usually from the adults. (My experience is that children are often more curious than sad).
I made it through the reading of Emma's Question at the Voxland family reunion. My voice wobbled a bit, I stumbled over a few words, and I didn't look at the audience? It wasn't a stellar performance, but no one seemed to notice. Afterward, there were a few tears, along with laughter and hugging--lots and lots of hugging.
And that is life.
Catherine Urdahl is the author of Emma's Question. Visit her online at www.catherineurdahl.com.