Guest blog post by Maybe Tomorrow? author Charlotte Agell
“Ms. Agell, do you ever get writer’s block?” Emily asks me.
She is a sixth grader, and we are standing in the hallway by the Poem Booth, just outside my classroom in a public middle school on the coast of Maine, a place full of readers and writers. The Poem Booth is a retired phone booth, now hosting student and teacher poems. Hers is a writer-to-writer question.
“Not really,” I find myself saying. “It’s more like I have too many ideas, kind of like butterflies.”
For some reason, this pair of images stick with me: The block so solid, impenetrable, heavy. The butterflies so light, bright, ephemeral.
Meanwhile, on my studio desk at home, there is Elba. She sits glumly, a small, purple clay rhino found in a local African import store. She’s brightly colored, but deeply sad. That’s all I know about her for a long, long time. Then, all at once, after my conversation with Emily, I know whose block it is, and whose butterflies they are, too. Norris the irrepressible leaps into action and meets Elba the beleaguered. They begin to talk to each other. Once I actually start writing, the book more or less flies to me — on butterfly wings perhaps.
My book, Maybe Tomorrow?, is about debilitating grief and depression. This may seem like odd, even inappropriate subject matter for a picture book. But through my students, I’ve learned how important it is to address life’s big issues, such as sadness and death. As an educator and as a human being, I firmly believe in “going there” with kids, in allowing us opportunities to be fully human together.
But not by forcing these opportunities.
To me, a good book is an open door. When someone needs to talk about something, a book might offer safe passage. This is bibliotherapy. To hand the right book to someone at the right time can be healing. But I feel especially adamant that “advance bibliotherapy” can be even more helpful. Chance favors the prepared mind, after all (thanks, Louis Pasteur!). To have read a lot is to know many things, to have encountered many situations. Readers are empathic, readers have inner resources. I feel lucky to work in a school where children have so much choice in reading, as well as time for it in the day. In this way, they have so many teachers, so many open doors, so many bridges.
When I was very young, we moved from my native Sweden to Canada. I remember learning English along with my mother, in part by taking out pram-loads* of books from the Town of Mount Royal public library. (Baby sisters were useful for something!)*
Later, we moved to Hong Kong. There, a book saved my sixth-grade life. Halfway through the school year, I was new and hiding in the library of a bewilderingly large British school. I was reading Anne of Green Gables. I looked up, and there was Marie, with her long plaits, head also buried in the same series. We were both reading about Anne Shirley and her bosom buddy, Diana. Both Marie and I surely each needed a buddy. A book opened that door.
I have written other books that address weighty topics, such as having gay parents and adoption. But Maybe Tomorrow? is my most “going there” work. I feel truly grateful that the amazing Ana Ramírez González is the illustrator. Her art is so full of LOVE, and that’s just what this story of profound grief and genuine healing needs. As my wise daughter once told me, “Don’t try to fix it, just listen.” That is what a true friend does.