When N read the Clarice Bean books by Lauren Child a while back (Utterly Me and so on), she immediately shot off a letter to Child telling her how much she had “utterly” enjoyed the stories and the illustrations. I encouraged her to write the letter, knowing, as a writer, how much it means to me to receive mail from readers — though I suspect LC gets a tad more than I do, and from a much different audience.
I launched my new novel And Me Among Them last week, and went on a reading tour. When I arrived home, there was a post-it note on the front door. “Look on fridge. From me and Lauren Child.” Actually there were notes like this all over the house — on the toilet seat and on the door to the office, on my computer and in our bedroom. So of course I went to the fridge, and there was a letter from Lauren Child — or rather her assistant — to N.
Thank you very much for your lovely letter to Lauren. She was utterly thrilled to hear that you enjoy her books and we both love your flower sketches! I hope that you like the Clarice Bean postcard that Lauren has sent you and that you keep up the great reading!
N was thrilled. She had already drafted her response, saying how much she “utterly loved” the letter and the post card, and signing off “A’ll wrigt to you soon!” I’m curious to see how one responds to such a response, and how long the utter thank you’s will ping pong back and forth. Who knows? N and the assistant may become pen pals.
A pen pal is something N’s been wanting. I had one when I was a child, an English girl who was a distant cousin, and I used to love getting her letters on that crisp, important-looking blue airmail paper. She had tiny Englishy handwriting, a pet horse and a grown-up haircut, and seemed so much more sophisticated than me. I have no idea what’s become of her, but no doubt my image from way back when is still sealed into her childhood photo albums, just as she is there in mine.
Handwritten letters are few and far between these days. Even handwriting — cursive — seems to be dying out. A while ago I read a dismaying NYT article in which a young woman talked about barely being able to read her grandmother’s journal after she died. “It was kind of cryptic,” she said. She tried to decipher it as if it was code. “I’m not used to reading cursive or writing it myself.”
For now, I see how excited N is about learning cursive. How grown up she feels to be able to read and also form the letters herself. But will it last, as her proficiency on the keyboard also increases? Last year she’d squiggle all over a page, doing nonsensical loops and curls, and then ask me what it said, assuming she had written something legible to me, if beyond her own abilities. But now she’s starting to move past printing and join the swirling letters in a more intentional way, with care and curiosity. I hope her enthusiasm keeps growing. I know for me as a writer there is a difference in the way I connect with my words when I put pen to paper rather than fingertips to keyboard. But it happens less and less often, and my penmanship shows it.
All this makes me think of the new project underway with my sister — a book about our grandmother’s family in London, England, before WW1. As part of our research we gather old family documents — baptism, marriage, and death certificates — and scrutinize them for clues to the past. When our copies arrive it is such a treat to open the envelope and slide the paper out. What can a signature really reveal about a cowkeeper great-great grandfather we never knew? Somehow, it delights all the same, knowing the letters were formed by his own hand.
The images above come from The Graphics Fairy, one of my favourite places of late.