She looked away from me and said to no one in particular, “What a miserable profession
this has become. Broken, broken people.”
“Excuse me,” I objected. “I am not broken. I’ve sold eighteen books today, and my dad said
I only had to sell fifteen.”
“Well, at least your pimp is having a good day. Go back to your table. You’re not supposed
to talk to me, remember?”
“They’re her stories,” I blurted. “They’re the stories my mom used to tell us at bedtime. To
help us get to sleep.”
Mrs. M. sighed. “The pimping deepens. Oh, we’re all pimps, Charlie. Pretending to care
about our sad little readers. Pretending our silly stories help them.”
“I don’t think they help,” I said, another huge confession. “They sure aren’t helping me...
Okay, gotta go. Good luck with your writing, Mrs. M.”
As I hurried away she called, “Good luck with your childhood.”
First of all, let me say how much I love Mrs. M. and how much I loved creating her, giving her a voice, making her say all those cryptic things about children and books and what she calls the “strip shows” of children’s literature conferences. If you have been in the business ofwriting books for children as long as I have, you have endured many Mrs. M. moments. It was very cathartic to create her, to make her cynical and suspicious of false sentiment and also unsure of the worth of her own contributions to her genre. She knows that much of it is contrived and weightless.
The real joy of creating a character like her became clearer to me when I shared bits of scenes in Beetle Boy as a novel-in-progress with writer friends. My writer’s support group howled in recognition at the darkness I was conveying about our chosen professions. They loved it. They told me to keep going. They thanked me for creating Mrs. M. She is, as I suspected, at the bloody heart of our efforts to reach children and yet remain the jaded, critical-eyed adults we really are.
I have always hated seeing children used and exploited by their parents for money and attention. I have seen it both in and outside my profession and I have been unable to rescue the children involved as Mrs. M. rescues poor Charlie Porter. What joy to create a character who can create a place of safety for a child in so much need. If we are serious in our work for children, then we all have a bit of Mrs. M. in us, snorting in derision at the ways we hide behind sentimentality and superficiality, wishing we truly had more to offer the children who need us most.