July 28, 2019

Post-Holiday Post

Hello, once again. (Let’s hope there are many ‘once agains’!)

Since I last wrote I’ve been on holiday or on vacation, depending on which kind of English  you speak in your country. It was for six days only, due to the pressure of work and all the other things and duties that constrain my life, but it was especially lovely: my first and, I hope, not last visit to Japan. Proof: a maiko girl (trainee geisha) and me in Kyoto.

She, at least, is gorgeous. Me? I’m just a 73 year old tourist.

I won’t go on and on about this trip because frankly, in my experience of travel over a lifetime, no one wants to know. But the history, art, architecture and culture were so different from ours that it created a kind of serenity in my soul. And at the Osaka aquarium, they didn’t believe I was a senior and asked to see my passport. What’s not to love about a place like that? All the Japanese people we encountered were ultra-kind and most indulgent to hapless tourists who knew no Japanese apart from hello and thank you.   A policemen left his post to take us to a tiny restaurant (he had to find it himself, first) when we were lost. A hotel worker took us all the way out of our hotel, across the a road into another building, down a floor, and along a long corridor to the post office. Incredible. They appear to want everyone, including themselves, to be permanently un-rattled and  happy, which is the flip-side of some of the countries I have visited, where rudeness rules roost. I was able to give our guides copies of my own books in Japanese—a surprise that made them and me very happy. We’ll be going back. Apart from anything else, we miss the Japanese toilets.

Now this in-your-face picture of the front cover of The Tiny Star is yet another alert to its imminent appearance in Australia on October 1st. In Melbourne, in late June, I met with Freya Blackwood, the inestimable illustrator, and the publishers and marketing gurus at Penguin RandomHouse, and key booksellers. As I have no social media profile (on purpose) the only thing I can do is put this cover in your face time and time again. Apologies. Please don’t get sick of it. You haven’t read it yet! Every adult who has read it cries. But children always come at a book from a different perspective, so I’m hoping they find the ending happy and sort of uneventful. (Under this photo is one of Freya and me.)

The creators of The Tiny Star: me and Freya Blackwood in June 2019

This is the story of how The Tiny Star came about… My husband and I were among the last in our group of friends to become grandparents. Our daughter, Chloë, had been born almost 39 years before our grandson came into the world, but we remembered clearly the stunning joy of being brand new parents.  I knew within minutes of Chloë’s birth that I would kill to protect her from harm. And still would. Our friends told us that being grandparents was a whole different thing. We wondered what could be so different, for heaven’s sake, from loving one’s own offspring and loving a grandchild. I mean, love-is-love-is-love, isn’t it?

Then, ten weeks earlier than was expected, our grandson appeared. He weighed only a kilo (2.2lbs). His tiny arms were the size of my index finger. He was, in retrospect and in photos, as hideous as a baby monkey, but when I saw him for the first time I was so dizzy with love for my exquisitely beautiful grandchild—the most gorgeous child ever born in the history of the world, that I had to hold on to the humid crib to stop myself from collapsing. On our daily visits we were outside the ward long before it opened at 4 o’clock, almost beating the doors down to get to him. Chloë had ceased to exist. I believe this is a common feeling among new grandparents, which is deeply disturbing for their once-adored adult children.

Because he was so tiny at birth, our precious grandson remained in the hospital for two and half months. Knowing what I do about brain development, I was anxious that he mightn’t develop as he should because he wouldn’t be hearing all the sounds of language that a child usually hears in utero. So, from the second afternoon of his life I read to him daily. I chose the tiniest edition of any of my books (it happened to be Whoever You Are), so as not to draw attention to myself in the crowded neo-natal ward. I would open one of the little round windows in his humid-crib and, crouching in close, read the book in the same lilting, rhythmic manner every time, to comfort him, to tell him I was there, to help his brain respond in all the right ways, to develop his language, to show him how fabulous books are and, most importantly, to ensure that he and I would fall in love with each other. As if that might not happen!

I saw the faces of some of the others around me and realised how crazy they thought i was to be reading to a newborn midget infant who couldn’t understand a word I was saying. But how will he ever understand words, I wanted to shout, if he doesn’t hear them first? This is my constant cry to any parent, grandparent or carer who thinks it’s all right to start reading to a child at two or three years old. No! Birth is the blissful best time to begin.

For the first two years of his life we were our grandson’s daytime carers. (Our daughter was a politician at the time.) We were like parents all over again, in our mid-sixties, except that this time around we had all the time in the world to just be. When the child was engaged in an activity we had time to be engaged in it too, to float along without a care, without needing to stop and rush off somewhere. There was ample time for the reading aloud of books and books and more books. The rewards were manifold. His speech  developed rapidly. Just before his second birthday, in an ecstasy of excitement, he said, ‘We saw a bug! Climbing up the wall! It’s very delicate. We can’t touch it.’ And he was similarly alight the same day when he noticed that the moon was high in the sky in broad daylight. ‘It’s a half-moon,’ he said. ‘It’s a very, very half-moon.’ He was on the cusp of reading at the age of four and flew into literacy in his first few months at school.

Our pride in him reached ridiculous heights. He was and remains the most beautiful, gifted, lovely-natured, perfect child who has ever lived. Just like every other grandchild in the world.  That is, he’s totally normal (what???) and un-surprising in everyone else’s eyes except ours. I have observed, almost in disbelief in spite of myself, the thrilling, unexpected effects arising from his love of books, his love of me, and mine for him. He and I have become so attached to each other that the thought of my dying and leaving him bereft makes me want to sob. I get a lump in my throat at the very thought of it. Which is where this latest book was born: The Tiny Star, a life-cycle story of tenderness and comfort for any child or adult whose aged grandparents or parents are, all once, no longer there. It does have a happy ending, I promise.

So, what next? I’m about to go back to the USA for the first time for two and half years, to be the featured writer at the national convention of the Society for Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators. Los Angeles, here I come. It will be my 118th visit to America. Yes, you read the numbers correctly. When I return home in mid-August I will be alive with news of my other new book: Roly Poly, first copies of which will be available at that convention only, before its publication, also in October. Roly Poly will be published in Australia too, before the end of this year. Too much excitement can be a good thing.

I’ll be back again figuratively and literally, pretty soon. Until then, go well.

Mem Fox xxx