About this time 25 years ago a box of books landed with a thud on my front porch. Comp copies of my first picture book.
The idea for this book came to me in the summer of 1981. We were living in our Greenbrier rental house. My niece Susan was staying with us for the weekend. She lay on the sofa reading. I was sitting on the green shag carpet thinking about nothing when I had a flash of the green pocketbook Mama gave me when I was five.
I left my pocketbook on the Trailways bus once, and the kind bus driver returned it to me. That memory made me think of all the times we rode the bus to Manassas to run errands, just two girls going to town. I loved those trips, knowing our day would end at Cocke’s Drugstore for ice cream.
A picture book was born.
Flash forward to June 1988. We were living in our own house and the story was finally finished. I sent The Big Green Pocketbook to my editor at Scholastic. The comment inside the BGP folder says, “She didn’t much like it but passed it to another editor there.” That editor rejected it as “too quiet” on Oct. 11. Never one to let grass grow under my feet, I sent it to Harper the very next day.
In the spring of 1989, my mother was very ill. I forgot about the manuscript until the morning of April 11 when I picked up the mail on my way to the hospital. I saw the return envelope, but was too worried about my mother to care. Later I noticed, in very tiny letters across the front, Not a rejection.
Laura Geringer requested a few changes (so minor, I don’t even remember them) before she acquired the book. Next she told me Felicia Bond agreed to be the illustrator, but it would be a while before the busy illustrator would get to it. I could not believe my luck. Felicia Bond!
In 1992, at ABA in New York (what Book Expo was called back then), I met Laura for coffee and she showed me Felicia’s final dummy. A year later, the book arrived!
At the next ABA, Harper gave away a promotional poster created by Felicia to announce the book and also tie in her other book characters. The poster hangs in my office.
Pocketbook was the lead title in Harper’s spring 1993 catalog. It got good reviews. No stars. No fanfare, just a nice little picture book.
Felicia’s fresh, breezy illustrations made my personal story universal. Readers everywhere could follow the simple day out with a mother and little girl (who Felicia called Pearl). She added the cats. She made the town so charming, I wish I could live there.
The book went into paperback in 1995. It was a Book-of-the-Month Club Alternate when it first came out, and then a Book-of-the-Month Club selection two years later.
I went on to write other picture books, and middle grade novels, and chapter books, and biographies, and easy readers, and straight nonfiction. As I churned out books, The Big Green Pocketbook kept selling quietly, year after year after year.
I featured the book in countless school and library programs . . . and still do to this day. Around 2000, the book gained new life as a text for second graders to learn economics. Maybe those second graders all became bankers because they wanted to work in a place with “cool marble walls that smell like pennies.”
Over the years, mothers told me, “You wrote The Big Green Pocketbook! That’s my daughter’s favorite book!” Then those comments became, “My daughter is in college but she still loves your book!” And then, “My daughter has a little girl and she reads your book to her.” (I was starting to feel like Mr. Chips from James Hilton’s novel.)
When the book reached its 20th birthday, I realized it would be considered a classic if it hung on another five years. And it did. I don’t know how many more years Pocketbook will stay in print. Forever, I hope.
Some things have to be explained to today’s children, like buses that aren’t school buses, and five and ten stores, and drugstores, and typewriters, as Miss Eileen the Story Teller does in her enthusiastic reading.
My mother left us in June 1989. She never got to see the book I wrote for her. But she is alive, not just in my memory, but as the mother in The Big Green Pocketbook.
Every time I open my book, I see her hooking her purse over her arm, and taking me by the hand as we walked down our driveway. In my mind, we are waiting for the Trailways at the bottom of the hill, just two girls going to town.
Happy Mother’s Day, Mama.