Fall, 1991. Croats and Serbs are fighting in the former Yugoslavia. Refugees are fleeing death squads in El Salvador. But the Soviet Union is breaking apart, peace talks are succeeding in Cambodia, talks in Madrid between Israel and its neighbors look promising.
I was 34 years old and living in Burlington, Vermont, with my husband and our two kids, who are 3 and 6. My first picture book, Bat Time, had recently been released, and I’m awaiting the long-delayed publication what will be my second book, Mommy’s Lap. I’m also writing for adults. I’ve published my first short story in the literary journal Shenandoah. Another journal will publish a story of mine in the spring.
In the midst of this fertile time, when I’m writing and sending out dozens of picture book and short story manuscripts – and receiving dozens of rejections, I write a picture book called Bees in the Trees. It’s about a beekeeper and an apple grower who have a spat that grows into a feud, until they end up building a wall of junk between in their properties. It’s a foolish attempt to keep their bees and their trees apart. Naturally (pun intended) the bees know better, and the friendship is saved.
Fast-forward through the next 26 years since. Bees in the Trees goes out to and comes back from publisher after publisher. Eventually, I set it aside, and go on to publish Breakout at the Bug Lab, Crab Moon and Big Surprise in the Bug Tank. My kids enter high school, and I move away from writing children’s books — first to work for a newspaper and my kids to college, and then to write an ambitious novel for adults.
That novel, which took me nearly a decade to complete, still hasn’t found a home. But it did connect me to my wonderful current agent Linda Epstein, who encouraged me to look back at my children’s books. In my search for abandoned projects, Bees in the Trees resurfaced and got revised, and eventually found a happy home at Scholastic, with a terrific editor Tracy Mack, and the fabulous artist Blanca Gomez .
It was Tracy’s idea that the book needed a new title. I confess that at first I resisted. It’s hard to part with something you’ve known for more than two decades. But as the book officially hits store today, its new title, ARE WE STILL FRIENDS? couldn’t feel more timely.
This spring, I will turn 60. My kids are 29 and 31, and my grandson Theo is old enough to tell Beatrice and Abel’s story — which is now dedicated to him. I get to share this new / old book with friends from all over – some new ones, some whom I’ve known forever, many who I thought I’d lost but have re-found through the magic of the Internet. Are we still friends? Indeed!
Publishing a new children’s book so many years after the last one feels like rekindling a long-lost love affair. I can’t tell you how thrilled I am to return to the world of kid lit.
And finally, how could I have imagined, back in 1991, the walls– both figurative and literal – that are being built today, not just along national borders, but also between communities and friends, and within families divided by political ideologies. Now more than ever, we need to follow the example of the natural world and try to remember that we share a small, fragile planet on which our common interests far outweigh our differences.