After the Call: A Healthy, Flourishing Weed

Illustrations created by Karen Hesse for this essay. Illustrations: Karen Hesse.

What do water and sunshine mean to a weed?

I was a skinny, freckle-faced ghost of a child. I had friends up and down my city block, but I was the weed in the garden.

Long walks on sweltering summer days led to the Enoch Pratt Free Library, where the canny gatekeeper, Margaret N. “Peggy” Coughlan, welcomed me in and opened her stacks of treasures to me.

Authors became my superheroes.

Our strip of urban backyard bordered an alley. A preteen with long, scabby legs, I nested in the crotch of a solitary apple tree, a book in my lap, invisible to the world. I read, I dreamed, I watched the alley activity…butterflies fluttered around a spiky shrub, stray cats and dogs investigated scent trails, the fruit and vegetable man in his horse-drawn wagon called out his wares. I find it hard to believe I had such experiences and sometimes wonder if I’m making it all up. But I’m not.

Teachers, magnificent teachers of different genders and different skin colors and different ways of recognizing a hungry learner when they saw one, reached out to me. Those teachers challenged me, encouraged me, watered and warmed the parched little weed that I was and helped me to grow. They told me I could write, required me to write, inspired me to write. And so I wrote. Mostly poetry, experimenting even then with voice, form, and content.

I became a mother. I put my children to bed at 7:00 p.m. and slept then, too. I woke at 1:00 a.m. and wrote until 6:00 a.m. I worked as a typesetter and proofreader during the day. I wrote through the night. Manuscripts traveled to publishing houses, and months and months later, rejection slips returned.

And then, fortuitously, I began a correspondence with editor Brenda Bowen. My writing got better, more honest. (I had been working with dying patients as a hospice volunteer, and there is nothing like working with the dying to keep you honest.) Miraculously, the doors to my publishing career first creaked and then swung open.

Ten beautifully published books later (ha, I make that sound so easy), I was in my little office overlooking the Connecticut River, working on a new writing project, when the phone rang. Ellen Fader’s voice on the other end of the line informed me that I’d just won the Newbery Award. My vision went dark. My knees gave way. I fainted. Really.

In my Newbery year I was invited to speak all over the country. I accepted every invitation. I met wonderful people, extraordinary people. I felt as safe in their midst as I once felt in the crotch of that apple tree. At the end of the year, I was very, very tired, but it was a good tired. And the doors that opened during that year never fully closed again. How amazing is that?

I am now on the threshold of my seventieth year. I’m creaky enough that I wouldn’t dare climb a tree. After twenty-four beautifully published books (twenty-five in September), the fierce need to write that once woke me in the middle of the night is quieter now. When I wake at one in the morning, it’s to go to the bathroom and to count my blessings.

Winning the Newbery for Out of the Dust has made me feel visible and whole. I am no longer that “ghost of a child,” and though I may still be a weed, I’m a healthy, flourishing one. Each of you, in some way, has contributed, either to my transformation, or to someone else’s. I thank you all.

From the May/June 2022 special issue of The Horn Book Magazine: The Newbery Centennial.

Karen Hesse

Karen Hesse won the Newbery Medal in 1998 for Out of the Dust (Scholastic). Granny and Bean (Candlewick) is forthcoming.

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