We all have a history.
Even my picture book, Sweet Moon Baby: An Adoption Tale, carries a unique backstory.
When I was four years old, I had three goals: a husband, a daughter, and a book. I was sketchy about how to accomplish the first two, so I tackled the book. In purple crayon, I wrote the story of a runaway popcorn ball on our living room wall.
Once my shocked parents recovered from the discovery, they explained that stories belonged on paper. My father patiently recorded my words in a notebook as I recited the great journey of this bouncing character. My mother constantly read to me, favoring stories about hard work, not wispy wishes. The Little Engine That Could was her favorite. “I think I can” became my motto.
My path was set.
I wrote for my school newspapers and literary magazines, eventually earning a master’s degree in English that led to a number of professions. During my time as a high school teacher, I met my husband Cliff, a kindergarten teacher with stacks of picture books.
There it was – a reminder of the childhood ambition I’d lost track of over time.
I spent the next years writing at night, earning piles of rejections. Occasional, encouraging editorial notes kept me muttering, “I think I can,” although the odds seemed hopeless.
As time passed, it became clear we weren’t going to become parents easily. Then out of the blue, an unexpected letter arrived about China’s new adoption program.
Another ahh-ha moment. We hadn’t thought of that.
After completing rounds of paperwork, we were stuck in red-tape complications that riddled the early days of international adoptions. The brief wait we were promised dragged on and on.
My husband faltered; I persisted, determined little engine-chugging mother that I was.
At long last our daughter, Margaret May Yuping, was handed to us on a summer day in China. I was happy but devastated by the unknowable adventure that led her to us. Her journey forward might be a clear path, but her past would forever be a shoreless sea.
How would it feel to my beautiful girl to be historically adrift?
I began thinking of a way to create a timeless story, an adoption folk tale. When her first English word was moon, I had a writer’s realization. Perhaps that had been her magical nighttime crib view from the orphanage window. Perhaps her favorite toys in America reminded her of animals she had seen in China.
Unlikely, I know.
But that’s how a writer’s mind imagines the what-if-ness every story requires. I tried plot lines in my mind. Simultaneously, however, one of my manuscripts under strong consideration was ultimately rejected. Although the editor was enthusiastic, her new publisher refused to add it to their list. Disheartened, I gave up my notion of becoming an author.
My engine ground to a halt halfway up the mountain.
Then when Maggie turned five, she asked what I had wanted to be when I grew up. By this point, she realized other mothers worked outside the home. I read her the rejected story that was almost published. “You should write more, Mama,” she said.
How could I expect her to believe in ambitious dreams if I gave up on mine?
So I put her on my lap at the computer and began writing Sweet Moon Baby. She became the necessary little engine chugging beside me, urging me to get back on track and believe. When we stood together for the book’s launch party at St. Paul’s Red Balloon Bookshop, I realized I’d been waiting since I was four for the right story.
I reached the mountaintop because of her.
But the story didn’t stop there.
At my first school visit, when I finished reading the book aloud, a kindergarten Chinese adoptee eagerly announced: “I’m the real Sweet Moon Baby.” My eyes teared up as I realized the power of identifying with a book. This tale was her life, too.
Yes, I completed the three-point goal of my four-year-old self, but the book has become the metaphorical rice basket carrying countless precious children and their families down a meaningfully personal river. It has opened the way to necessary questions, honest conversations, and imaginative endings.
At its best, a book is never just one story.
Karen Henry Clark has been a book reviewer, teacher, college administrator, and advertising copywriter, but becoming an Alfred A. Knopf author for Sweet Moon Baby is her proudest professional achievement. She posts about life’s ordinary surprises on her blog For All I Can Tell. Please consider liking her Facebook page.