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May 10, 2024

Unfinished Stories

We wrap up this year’s Mother’s Day Author Blog series with Ann Hood, whose books include the novels THE BOOK THAT MATTERS MOST and THE KNITTING CIRCLE, and the memoir FLY GIRL. In her latest work of fiction, THE STOLEN CHILD (an upcoming Bets On pick), an unlikely duo ventures through France and Italy to solve the mystery of a child’s fate. Ann loved reading with her children, Sam and Grace, as they bonded over Babar, Madeline and every Roald Dahl book. But sadly, there was one story that they were never able to finish.

My small mill town of West Warwick, Rhode Island, didn’t get a library until I was in fifth grade. Until then, I read the backs of cereal boxes, all of the Childhood of Famous Americans book series in my classroom, my cousin’s Nancy Drew books, and a borrowed copy of LITTLE WOMEN. The autumn day in 1967 that our library finally opened, I ran straight to the adult section, bypassing the children’s room with its colorful books and miniature chairs. As a result of my desperation, I never read classic children’s books. No GOODNIGHT MOON or CHARLOTTE’S WEB for me. While other kids were traveling to Narnia and through a tesseract, I was reading highly inappropriate novels like VALLEY OF THE DOLLS and PEYTON PLACE.
When I was young, my mother worked in a candy factory during the day and took accounting classes at night. In between, she made our school lunches, ran the PTA, studied tax codes and took care of her elderly mother. She never missed a school play or honors ceremony, but she did not read me bedtime stories or any stories. She was too tired by bedtime to do anything except smoke a cigarette and maybe catch the news on television.
Whenever I begged for a Nancy Drew book at the discount store, she always said, “Books are a waste of money.” This is probably why, whenever I had enough allowance money saved up, I bought stacks and stacks of books. The summer I was able to pick out a new bedroom set --- white trimmed in antique gold --- to my mother’s great disappointment, I chose the matching bookcase instead of the mirrored vanity. “But you could sit here and put on your make-up,” she said dolefully, running her fingertips down the oval, adjustable mirror. She couldn’t understand that I preferred to look down at stories unfolding instead of up at my own reflection.
I showered my own kids, Sam and Grace, with books. Grace loved Babar and George and Martha; for Sam, it was Madeline and Lyle, Lyle Crocodile. Every night, the three of us sunk into the oversized leopard bean bag chair, our legs intertwined, their blond heads propped on my shoulders. “In an old house in Paris, all covered with vines,” I’d read, and they’d join in: “Lived twelve little girls in two straight lines!” When George asked Martha, “How did you find me?” Sam and Grace would answer: “I’m your best friend, George. I always know where to find you.”
We felt like a team, these quirky, wonderful children and me, as we made our way through THE PHANTOM TOLLBOOTH, A WRINKLE IN TIME and every Roald Dahl. In the spring of 2002, we began FROM THE MIXED-UP FILES OF MRS. BASIL E. FRANKWEILER. The story of Claudia and her brother, Jamie, running away from home and hiding in the Metropolitan Museum of Art captivated us, but especially Grace. She even started saving coins like the Kincaid kids to run away with her best friend, Adrian Roop, “when we grow up.” After I read “…feeling like part of a team happens invisibly. You might call it caring. You could even call it love,” I hugged them both extra hard, breathing in their smells of sweat and toothpaste and fruity shampoo.
One night, we left off when the children see the 24-inch statue of an angel that may or may not be a Michelangelo. I placed the book opened face down on the bureau, not knowing that it would stay that way for a very long time. The next morning, Grace spiked a fever and we rushed her to the hospital, where 36 hours later she died from a virulent form of strep. It was many, many weeks before Sam and I, brokenhearted, resumed our nightly reading ritual. What we both knew was that we would never finish FROM THE MIXED-UP FILES OF MRS. BASIL E. FRANKWEILER, not without Grace. And we didn’t. Even now, 22 years later, I do not know what happened next.
Sometimes I think of who Grace might have become. Would she be an artist like her five-year-old self? Would she have reached six-feet tall like her pediatrician predicted? Would her eyes have stayed the same light blue, her hair the same pale blond? Where would she live? Who would she have become? But hers too is an unfinished story, one in which I’ll never know what would have happened next.