Yes, that's me—my face, anyway—poking through the mural at the Sierra Madre
Library, August 1970, a white cartoon spaceman reclining in zero gravity with the moon and stars in the background and a bright red book in my painted hands. Though my knees are on the cork tile of the library floor, my feet are well above the ground, blasting off into space with the same glee I would experience when, thirty-three Augusts later, I would sell my first novel.
That was the summer after Miss Wilson's fifth grade, the summer of my new braces (see them there, in my triumphant grin?) and, even more embarrassing, a first bra on my eleven-year-old breasts. The summer I waved goodbye through the back window of the family station wagon, leaving Chicago for a six-month rental in Los Angeles, where I would find myself in a tiny bedroom at the opposite end of the house from my parents and my brothers, an unbearably shy girl without a single friend.
The summer wouldn't, it turned out, be half as tough as the fall, when I would climb aboard my court-ordered school bus to hear a boy hiss, "If you don't shut up I'm going to rip that bra off your boobs," and lunchtime would find me running scared from a gaggle of taunting girls. Books have taught me a lot about that kind of thing, although not, by then, enough to make those months much easier. Or maybe they had; maybe it would have been worse if I hadn't read so much.
There was a big old climbing tree in the backyard of that rental house, a garden wall beyond which were flowers like I'd ever seen, and a van parked up the hillside housing long-haired hippies I was admonished to avoid. There was a library, too, just a short bike ride down the hill—a much longer ride back. And it was having a contest.
To win, I had only to read the most books.
Nearly every day, I took a book and some cookies and climbed the tree or sat on the garden wall or, after an elderly lady invited me to, in the garden itself. I read a lot of short books that summer, determined as I was to win that contest; most days, I flew downhill to the library on my Schwinn to return one and check out another. By August, though, the librarians were discreetly pointing me toward more challenging reading: books about spunky girls, the best of whom even shared my name—girls who did all sorts of interesting things that I began to dream I might do myself. I think of those books as my discovery, although looking back on it now I see kindly, patient librarians pointing a freckle-faced, long-haired blond girl with the name "Meg Waite" on her library card to books in the fiction section,under"L'Engle, Madeleine" and "Alcott, Louisa May."
I might have read A Wrinkle in Time again and again that summer except that ... well ... for the contest, it only counted once.
As I'm sure those librarians predicted, I spent that summer imaging myself as Meg Murray setting off into space with Charles Wallace and Calvin,as Meg March or her sister Jo, the "little woman" who wrote.
A year later, I would, like Jo, begin writing—diaries first, then poems. The confidence to try a novel myself would not come until I returned to Sierra Madre years later, leaving my law office in downtown Los Angeles on the spur of the moment, pointing my car eastward with no idea exactly where I'd lived those long six months but thinking if I could find the library, I could find the house.
I did find the library, and from that starting point I worked my way back to that long uphill. I wasn't quite sure I'd found the right house—the end house on a dead-end street off the hill street, but which street was it, exactly? The one tree that looked familiar no longer overlooked a garden, if it ever had. But I found what I was looking for anyway: the memory of lifting my feet to my bicycle handle bars, my hair flapping behind me as I sped downhill to librarians who would befriend a lonely child and stories that, though I didn't realize it then, would help me explore the possibilities of whom I might become.
Which turns out to be a somewhat-less-shy novelist with a husband and two children and, yes, plenty of friends. And I live two blocks from the Palo Alto library, main branch. No hills here, and a safety helmet holds my short hair in place these days, but still, it's an awfully nice ride.