everything grows with love

Stories about My Experiences with Writers & Illustrators Who Bring Light into the World…by Bonnie Ingber Verburg

Virginia Hamilton: IN THE BEGINNING: An Editorial Afternoon

It is 1987, and my father is dying of lung cancer. I have taken a leave of absence as Editor-in-Chief at Harcourt to be here with him, in the home where I grew up. He is in the final stages of a brief but highly aggressive  illness, and while he is sleeping, I spread my work out on the family dining room table.

Today I am working on the last pieces of Virginia Hamilton’s In the Beginning: Creation Stories from Around the World, and the book is more profound and beautiful than I could have imagined. When we started this journey, we didn’t have any idea what her research would reveal, and every time I’ve had dinner with Virginia to talk about it, she’s been glowing with some new, wildly imaginative creation story she’s found. The tales are amazing, and they are from all over the world. It’s fascinating to see how people have explained their existence since the beginning of storytelling. She wants to cover tales from every corner of the planet, to keep it balanced and diverse. It is a trick for her to dig up stories from some of these places, and there are also stories that are so x-rated she can’t possibly include them. Some make her laugh. It is not an easy book to write, but it is endlessly fascinating. When she finally makes her choices of the stories she will include, I am stunned by the content.

Cover of

Cover via Amazon

We both see the book as a celebration of human differences as well as all we have in common, and that’s how I am hoping people will approach it. So I am deep in thought, working on the introduction and the flap copy. Virginia and I have been lobbying hard at Harcourt to have Barry Moser’s watercolor illustration of Ra on the jacket. There is quite a bit of resistance, but Virginia and I prevail, and we joke that this will be the first “heavy metal” children’s book cover. Pages of text and illustrations are spread across the big cherry table on this September afternoon, and I’m working away with my favorite pencil.

That is when my mother comes downstairs. Upstairs, in their bedroom, my father, who has always been a big, strong man, has been reduced to 80 pounds. The cancer has spread all over his body, although nobody talks about this. We have been watching the person we love most in the entire world get eaten alive in front of us.

My mother asks me what I’m doing, and I tell her about the book. I need to preface her reaction by telling you that my mother was an intellectual genius who read as many as five newspapers a day, and she did a great deal with her life to enhance the lives of others, primarily as a political activist. She was a woman with vision and courage. But today she is furious that I am doing this book. Livid. She doesn’t want me to work on it at all. When it becomes clear that I am not going to stop working on it, she tells me it is of critical importance that my name won’t be on it–she doesn’t want anyone to know I’ve had any part in it. She is shocked and recoils from the book and the concept, and I still don’t understand why.

“This is how people cope with their difficulties,” she says to me, breaking down. “This is where they get their faith so they can continue to live. And you are making fun of them!” She goes back upstairs to tend to my father. He stopped eating days ago and lies in bed, blinded by the cancer, unable to move or speak, mostly asleep or unconscious. Later, when I take a break and look in on him, my mother is gently holding his hand and reading from the Bible. Does he hear her? Can he feel her hand?

That night I call Virginia and explain to her that we need to change the introduction. And I need to change the flap copy. We need to change the entire approach to the book–the shape of the copy that pulls it together. Because my mother is right. To the people who believe these stories, it is the Truth. We must be extremely careful and respectful. And we must say this. We were never making light of any of the beliefs in the book, but we did not make the point my mother made. Virginia and I talk about it, and we agree, and as a consequence she changes the introduction so this point is made–and made forcefully enough that you can’t miss it.  (I will say, over and over, that one of the great qualities Virginia had as a writer was her willingness to listen, to consider, and to handle suggestions with sheer genius. She enjoyed being challenged and questioned, although she would never agree to make even a slight change if she did not wholeheartedly agree with it.)

At ALA Midwinter, one of the members of the BBYA committee contests the Mayan creation story, saying it can’t be accurate because the Mayans did not have enough wood to put it into their story. This is the kind of thing that is a real challenge, because I have all the research at home from Virginia, and I have all the visual research from Barry Moser. I call each of them and go over the research again, just to be sure. There it is, faxed to me at the hotel. And the nutty thing is this: Virginia didn’t make up this Mayan creation story. The Mayans did. Virginia didn’t put the creation of Wood Man into the story–she just collected it and retold it. But I am a guest, and my role is to listen to the committee and keep my lips zipped. They are kind enough to actually discuss the book a second time, but I leave the room with the clear sense it will be voted down because of this question about the Mayans. I walk back up to my hotel room and ask myself why I am wasting my time with this ridiculous career. I am exhausted, and my shoulders are stooped, and more than anything, I want to give up making books and go home. My beloved dad is dead, and I’m depressed anyway, and after I put the key in my door, there is a phone message that In the Beginning has apparently been chosen as a Newbery Honor Book. After the BBYA discussions, I don’t believe it.

The next morning at the announcements, I find out it is really true. If anything, I’ve been worried the book might be banned. Putting the Judeo-Christian creation story in a collection along with twenty-four other creation tales could be the end of my career, and that has worried me. So the good news is particularly sweet. It was a concept I asked Virginia to tackle, and I run to a phone bank. The committee has already called Virginia, and I call her, too. She’s pleased!  After I congratulate her, I call my mother. As soon as she answers, I burst into tears. “I want to tell Dad,” I sob into the phone. My mother is sweet. “I’m happy for both of us,” she says. She has forgotten the project and her objection to it. Sadly I will soon get a call that she has cancer, too–brain cancer. They will die a little more than a year apart.

And the book? I don’t have to worry that it will be banned. And despite my mother’s protests that day, my name did end up in the book–because it is dedicated to me. And tonight, as I write this so many years later, after both of my parents have been gone for decades, and Virginia has crossed over, too, I smile with the thought that a book with so many gods in it probably had a pretty safe place in the universe all along.

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