Alyson Richman graduated from Wellesley College in 1994. The acclaimed author of THE MASK CARVER'S SON, she lives in Long Island, New York, with her family. Here she talks about one of the first book-gifts she ever received, THE SAND LADY by Gwendolyn Reed.
I couldn’t have been more than five years old when I received it, but it made me believe magic was possible.
It was a book, THE SAND LADY, which told the story of a young girl sent to live with her grandmother in an old house on top of a cliff at the edge of the sea. When the girl complains that she wished she lived in the valley, where all the houses stood clustered together, her grandmother tells her to “go for a walk and see what you can see.”
The girl discovers the beach. Lonely, she begins to craft a friend for herself. She first draws a circle in the sand, then two blue pebbles for the eyes. Seaweed is draped around to serve as hair. Her imagination begins to take over --- she draws a neck, then a necklace to encircle it. She searches the sand to find more materials that have washed ashore. She notices shells for the first time: “shells like fans, shells that twisted, and the round empty houses of snails… pink and yellow shells so thin you could see them… mussel shells as blue as plums.”
She uses the shells to decorate the mermaid’s tail. She picks daisy flowers and Queen’s Anne’s lace for the mermaid to grasp in her hands. Lastly, she finds a red ribbon underneath a rock and places it on the face to create a smile.
With a magical force that can only be described through the rush of pages, the young girl’s creation comes to life. Like a golem fashioned from the sand, the mermaid emerges as real as flesh and blood. She talks to the girl and flaps her pink and golden tail.
The girl, who used to be alone at the house on the cliff, sat together with her new friend the mermaid on a stone. “Together they looked at the sky and the water,” and the mermaid describes every shade of blue in the sea. When they focus on the sky, the mermaid tells her the whole history of the world shrouded within.
I had searched for this book, which had fallen out-of-print, after I had children of my own. I wanted to read to them the story of the girl who created a friend out of beach glass, tumbled stone, and a scrap of ribbon.
I wanted them to know the power of one’s imagination; in a book, you could fashion a friend out from the sea and will her to life. I wanted them to use their eyes, search their own backyard for materials that could be aligned to their vision.
I wanted them to know that “seeing” and “creating” were things that should be threaded together as tightly as two interlocked hands. An eternal embrace that could accompany them wherever they went.
Four years ago, my husband and I bought a white house, with black-clapboard shutters, high on a hill. A rocky beach, steps jaggedly below. My son was three, my daughter as large as a loaf of bread in my arms.
During that first holiday season in our new house, my mother came over with my childhood copy of Gwendolyn Reed’s THE SAND LADY. It was missing the jacket cover. The pages were slightly yellow at the edges. But the illustrations were magnificently preserved in their Technicolor watercolor-washes. The pink and yellow shells of the mermaid’s tale made me shiver with excitement. I traced my finger over the face with the ribbon-smile.
“You always loved this book,” she said.
I nodded and told her how I had looked for it for years.
We didn’t say the obvious: that the house in the book resembled so closely the one we were now sitting in.
After the winter thawed, the first thing I did that spring was take my son down to the beach and search the shore with him to make our own mermaid. I showed him how the mussel shells could be her eyes. We collected seaweed for her hair, and my heart soared when he suggested two crab claws for the hands. And although we didn’t find a ribbon for a mouth, we found a piece of string. His little hands fashioned it so the smile was wavy and turned upwards. I nodded approvingly. It served its purpose. And as a wind swept over our mermaid and rippled the string in its path, we both exchanged knowing glances. Together, we had seen it come alive.