After the Call: Stories in a Bottle

I can only appreciate what winning the Newbery for Moon over Manifest means in the context of what it means to be a writer. And for me, writing is all about relationship. This may seem strange since writing is such a solitary endeavor. But it is fundamentally and profoundly relational. Yes, there is the solitary aspect of writing. We look within, exploring the stories inside ourselves. Give me a load of laundry to fold or a long car ride, and I can imagine characters I love, places that are colorful and real. But if it’s just for me, why put it on paper? Why puzzle over word order or use more descriptive language to make clear on the page what is already vivid in my head?

Because I’m not writing just for myself. We writers pour ourselves out in words — searching, discovering, revealing. And then we roll up our stories, place them in a bottle, and send them out into the deep. Hoping for what?

My hope is for an encounter. For someone to find the bottle, unroll my story, and in the reading, hopefully, have some meaning conveyed.

This desire to connect is nothing new. From our earliest days we used drumbeats, smoke signals, and cave drawings. Later we sent out flares, sonar pings, and radio waves. All saying the same thing: Here I am. But as writers, we cast our stories into the world and are left to wonder: Will anyone read them? Will they respond?

I suppose for the reader this response is not a necessary part of the experience. I’ve never met Madeleine L’Engle or Richard Peck or Eudora Welty. Never corresponded with any of them. As a reader I can feel an intimacy with these writers solely in the story. But what happens when I’m the writer hoping to create that experience?

I don’t think I realized at first my own desire to hear a ping in response or to have a bottle wash up on my own shore.

An unexpected result of receiving that amazing Newbery phone call was the abundance of invitations to participate in conferences, school visits, writing workshops, and literary festivals. Face-to-face encounters with readers who have wandered around in my stories.

Vanderpool signing Moon over Manifest. Photo courtesy of Clare Vanderpool.

Like the boy in ­Hickman, California, who communicated by pointing at letters on an alphabet board. He said he connected with one of the characters in my story who also engaged differently with the world. And the fourth- and fifth-grade students in Brooklyn, New York, who invited me to participate in their book discussion. One girl asked a question about a particular character’s motivation. I answered, but she had a different take on it: “I don’t mean to disagree with you, but I wonder if…” I loved how she brought her own understanding of the character to the discussion.

And then there was the fifth-grade boy in Nebraska. I met him at the book signing following my talk. He had chosen not to ask his question in front of the group. It was too personal to expose, and too important to be glossed over. He named a character in my book and said, “Why’d you kill him?” It felt like an accusation: “How could you? You could’ve saved him.” I understood his question — had asked it myself. His parting words: “It made me cry.” I still tear up when I think of that boy. He loved the character as much as I do. We both lost someone in that story, and we encountered each other in our grief.

So what has winning the Newbery meant for me? It has provided a current that buoyed my story bottle, propelling it farther than I could have dreamed. It has also bridged the distance between writer and reader, drawing us into a shared experience of story, and creating little eddies of encounter.

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

Clare Vanderpool

Clare Vanderpool won the Newbery Medal in 2011 for Moon over Manifest. Her most recent book is Navigating Early (both Delacorte).

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