Rita Leganski, whose debut novel THE SILENCE OF BONAVENTURE ARROW releases on February 26th, talks about the book she initially did not want but that ultimately changed her life at the age of eight. And she had a fellow student named Kenny P. to thank for that.
Books change lives. It’s easy to imagine TO KILL A MOCKINGBIRD or BRAVE NEW WORLD or any number of novels having a lasting effect on someone. A book changed my life when I was eight years old. It was not a famous novel. It was not even a book I wanted.
I grew up in northern Wisconsin, which under enough snow looks just like the tundra. I had two favorite escapes from winter: one was books and the other the Christmas gift exchange at school. My two escapes once collided.
The gift exchange started with drawing names from a decorated shoe box. The instructions were the same every year: Don’t tell anyone whose name you’d drawn, since the reveal was half the fun. Wrap the gift. Bring it in on the last day before Christmas break. And, most important of all, do NOT spend more than two dollars. Financial wherewithal meant less than nothing to the Sisters of St. Francis. For instance, if you showed up at the beginning of the year with the Crayola Box of 64, it was going to get confiscated and replaced with a Box of 16. Glory could not be bought at St. Mary’s.
Ours was a small farming community; there were no big-chain superstores, specialty shops, or malls. A two-dollar gift would likely come from Woolworth’s or McClellan’s, or maybe from the meager pickings at the Red Owl, the Kay-Dee, or Hunter’s --- Mom & Pop operations no one would ever mistake for supermarkets. Come to think of it, there was a little gift shop called the Delight ʼEm, but its stock-in-trade was religious goods and knick-knacks like those collectible thimbles you’d buy for your grandma.
Despite the assured humility of the gifts, their exchange was no less an extravaganza than anything that went on at Rockefeller Center. We were wound up tight and had to get all the way to 2:30 without incident. But there were cupcakes involved, and we were what you might call easily pleased. We’d behave for weeks on end at the promise of a cupcake. (They don’t make kids like they used to.)
So there I was, eight years old and full of Christmas hope. One by one my classmates were called to receive their gifts: Debra, Jimmy, Lisa….Rita! Eyes straight ahead and speed-walking on my chunky little legs, I made it to the front of the room. Hands outstretched, “Thank you, Sister.” The tag said it was from Kenny P. My hands shook as I peeled away the wrapping. It was a book. It was a book about --- cymbal crash, thud --- trucks. My dejection was swift and all-consuming. I didn’t know how to hide the disappointment that threatened to crumple my face into crying. I snuck some peeks and saw other girls with sticker books, or hair barrettes and pretty combs, or diaries with little keys. I stood on the shore of a pink and lavender sea while all those other girls swam. Oh, the heartbreak! How could Kenny P. have done such a thing? Hadn’t he told his mother he’d drawn a girl’s name? All I wanted was to go home.
My mother listened as I sobbed out my story. She talked to me about how Kenny was from a family of six boys and probably thought that a book about trucks was just about the best thing ever. I wasn’t buying it. Kenny was stupid. The book was stupid. I didn’t want it.
Then one snowy day, I read that stupid book. It contained a story about a truck being packed so a family could move, and another about trucks that are built to carry farm animals. There was one about an oil tanker and one about a shiny milk truck. And on the very last page was a big semi-trailer, and underneath it were these questions: What do you think is in this truck? Where has it come from? Where is it going?
Like Alice falling into Wonderland, I fell into the Land of Possibilities. Not a bad place for a future writer to go. I returned to it often while writing THE SILENCE OF BONAVENTURE ARROW, asking myself such questions as: What’s in that box? What does the note say? Which character knows? Which character doesn’t? Why could a young boy hear the past? When did he start to hear secrets?
Thank you, Kenny P.