When I was a kid, I didn’t realize authors were real people. I read all the time, but the books were my friends, not the authors. The characters in the books were so real to me, it didn’t make sense that anyone actually made them up.
My Holy Trifecta of Authors when I was in fifth grade was Paula Danziger, Norma Klein, and Ellen Conford. They wrote stories where the things that happened to the main characters were things that might happen to me. The girls in the books were a lot like I was. Maybe their parents split up, or they liked food a lot, or they only knew how to face life’s chaos with humor and exasperated shrugs.
Ellen Conford’s books especially resonated with me. Her characters seemed like teased-out versions of me and my friends, threads of similarity pulled out and woven together into a book. And I learned things too. I learned about shaving my legs in Hail, Hail, Camp Timberwood. Me and the Terrible Two made me appreciate being an only child who lived on a corner with no other kids around. The Luck of Pokey Bloom sent me scheming with various moneymaking adventures (none of which made a cent). And To All My Fans, With Love, From Sylvie, which was the closest thing to a horror novel I read as a kid, mostly put a healthy fear of strange men in me, and made me very, very glad for my normal suburban life.
But most of all there was The Alfred G. Graebner Memorial High School Handbook of Rules and Regulations. This book! Not only did the main character and her friends seem so much like mine, but her name was actually Julie. Julie and her friends were hilarious, their life at school was ridiculous and real, and — probably in no small part because of our shared name — it seemed like Julie’s reactions to situations were exactly what mine would be. It was like reading about myself in an alternate reality.
As I got older, I understood in a vague way that children’s book authors were the ones who wrote the books, but a huge part of me still couldn’t grasp that the characters in the books weren’t real. Because they were. I see that now, that when an author creates someone well, that character is real to them, and becomes real to the reader. It’s magic though, trickery, wonder, and a very difficult concept for a 10-year-old in 1981. Or a 30-year-old in 2001.
When my oldest, Henry, was 4, we enrolled him in preschool. At Cottage Road Neighborhood School they studied music and cooking, put on plays every other week, and had a reading room piled with pillows. Henry loved it. I was in library school and reading huge piles of children’s books (for school! so fun). The couple that ran the school, Gloria and Michael, got pregnant, and their doctor told them that maybe Gloria shouldn’t shlep huge bags of books from the library to the preschoolers every week, so I volunteered to get the books for the rest of the year. Why not? I was in the library all the time anyway, and it’d be good librarian practice.
I was on the phone with Gloria talking about this, talking about the books I’d gotten on my initial runs, talking about how much I love children’s books. Gloria said, “Actually, Michael’s mother is…” and the name on the caller ID suddenly flashed in my memory. CONFORD. Michael’s mother is…Ellen Conford.
I burst into tears.
It was so weird. Ellen Conford was a real person? Not only was Ellen Conford a real person, but she had a son, and he was teaching musical theory to my 4-year-old?
Michael told me his mom had based a lot of the characters on him and his friends and I almost had to breathe into a paper bag.
Something shifted in me. I’ve always wanted to be a writer. I’ve always loved children’s books. But it wasn’t until that moment that I really realized who children’s book authors were. They were real people. They were alive, and had families, and played Scrabble.
I could do it.
I never met Ellen Conford. I don’t know what I would have done. Fainted or thrown up on her shoes, most likely.
Ellen Conford died on Friday, March 20.
Thank you, Ellen Conford, for writing about real children. And thank you for being a real, human writer, so I could become a real, human writer too.