Despite my dedication to the cause, I never thought a children’s book would have me voluntarily up and out at four-thirty on a frosty November Sunday morning. But the heavens and the forecast were so arrayed that I wanted to take my chance to watch the Leonid meteor shower light up the sky.
I wasn’t inspired to this atypical reveille by an interest in astronomy but by E. L. Konigsburg’s short story “The Night of the Leonids” (collected in Altogether, One at a Time), which I read some twenty years ago in library school. The story is what first alerted me to the Leonids and their hoped-for spectacular display every thirty-three years or so, but what I’ve carried with me is a single exchange of dialogue. I remembered, roughly, the outline of the story: Lewis is visiting his New York City grandmother, and her enthusiasm for seeing the “Shower of Stars” is contagious. They go late at night to Central Park to watch, but the sky is clouded over. Lewis is disappointed and whiny (“I’ll be forty-three before I can ever see a Leonid”), angering Grandmother (she smacks him; I’d forgotten that) for a reason he takes a while to figure out:
“You add it up,” Grandmother said. Not kindly.
So I did. I added it up. Sixty-three and thirty-three don’t add up to another chance.
In this issue Nancy Willard talks about what we take from stories: “not the plot but a scene, a character, or an image buried deep in the shadow of the main event.” The shadowed images in Konigsburg’s story are of regret, loss, and death, themes perhaps not of first interest to young readers but ones that may come, peculiarly, to sustain them in maturity. Stories grow along with us.
They can also give us a reason to get up in the morning. The Leonids were beautiful over Jamaica Pond; if not offering the snow-on-the-windshield effect predicted by some astronomers, they streaked with satisfying glow and frequency. But even more gratifying was my feeling of keeping a promise to Lewis’s grandmother, and knowing that although the Leonids will be lost to our view for a while, I can keep the story with me.
From the January/February 2002 issue of The Horn Book Magazine.