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May 7, 2011

Erica Bauermeister: On a Different Kind of Mother Bunny

Posted by Anonymous

Bestselling author Erica Bauermeister’s forthcoming title, JOY FOR BEGINNERS, is a book about women, for women. Below, she thanks her own mother for showing her that reading was a free pass to privacy, and for introducing her to a very special --- and rather feminist --- children’s book that would later appear in her first novel.

joy-for-beginners.jpgI was the fourth daughter in six years; my brother arrived eight years later. Suffice to say, my mother rarely had time to read unless it was to us. But I knew she loved books from the ones she read aloud or put into our hands as we got old enough to do the job for ourselves. I was a cautious child and she gave me Laura Ingalls Wilder and Anne of Green Gables, girl characters from Indonesia and Africa and Europe, from my own time and long ago, road maps for a more confident life.

In the midst of a house full of people, reading was a free pass to privacy. On long road trips, my mother allowed me to hide in the far back of the station wagon, surrounded only by luggage, slipping deeply and blissfully into my book of the moment. She gave me what I’m sure she almost never had for herself –-- a room of my own –-- and taught me that it didn’t have to be a physical space.  

Then I hit adolescence, and just like so many of the characters I had read about, I lost sight of how intelligent my mother was. I went to college and graduate school and became inflamed with frustration at the lack of women authors represented in the literature classes I took. I set out to counteract a deep injustice –-- one that I was quite certain I had discovered all on my own. I co-authored a book called 500 GREAT BOOKS BY WOMEN, and then, with my own daughter in mind, I set to work on a reader’s guide for children called LET’S HEAR IT FOR THE GIRLS. In the process I got to revisit Laura and Anne; I got to find books about girls from around the world. And in the midst of that research I came across a book that I had forgotten all about –-- a children’s story of a country bunny and gold shoes.  But this time I read it as a mother and it stopped me in my tracks.  

There is a moment in my novel, THE SCHOOL OF ESSENTIAL INGREDIENTS, when Isabelle is remembering her life as a young mother, when she would read to her daughters “the story of the country bunny, until they quieted into sleep and she sat and thought about having golden slippers that would let her fly around the world and do extraordinary things and be back by morning.” I didn’t include the title of the book on purpose --– the scene was, among other things, a love note to my mother. I figured if readers caught the reference they would have their own private moment of added meaning, but if not, the image was strong enough to stand.

What surprised me were all the women who came up to me at bookstore readings, eyes shining, copies of THE COUNTRY BUNNY AND THE LITTLE GOLD SHOES in their hands. The stories they told me of their mothers, who had read the book to them. Of their astonishment when they revisited the book as adults and saw the radical feminism in a children’s book, written by a man in 1939, which told the story of a young mother with many children, who wants to do a man’s job, as a woman --– and what it made them realize about their own mothers, who had worn stockings while they vacuumed the house and worn hair curlers to bed back in the 1950s and 60s. Of how they were now reading the book to their own children --– and hoping someday their children would see what they now saw. 

So here’s a moment to slow down and say happy Mother’s Day to all the mothers who put books into our hands, and here’s to becoming grown up enough to realize the gift we were given. Because, as my mother would say, it’s never too late for a well-written thank you note. . .

Erica Bauermeister is the bestselling author of the novel THE SCHOOL OF ESSENTIAL INGREDIENTS and the forthcoming JOY FOR BEGINNERS, out June 9th.