- Girl in the Attic
Note: the following essay was presented in May 2013 as the Naomi Chase Lecture in Children’s Literature at the Elmer L. Andersen Library, University of Minnesota. This annual event is free and open to the public, and is cosponsored by the university’s College of Education and Human Development, the Department of Curriculum & Instruction, and the Children’s Literature Research Collections/Kerlan Collection. Previous Chase Lecturers include Sy Montgomery (2012), Jerry Pinkney (2011), and Gary Schmidt (2010).
The title of my talk, “Girl in the Attic,” arrived months before I had given any thought to the subject of this lecture. I thought of it as a place-holder, bestowed only because I was asked to submit a title right away. At the time, I had been musing about my girlhood, working on a sequence of fifty unrhymed sonnets about growing up in a military family in the 1950s. When I was asked for a title, I was nearing the end of my project, revisiting 1959, when I was in sixth grade. My dad, an Air Force officer, was stationed in Portsmouth, New Hampshire, where, at first, the family lived in a small apartment in a civilian apartment complex. When Daddy was sent to England on temporary duty, Mama rented a furnished colonial house and moved us to Kittery Point, Maine. There was a dressing-table in my bedroom, a Currier & Ives calendar and a framed print of a Raphael Madonna and Child on my bedroom walls. There was a little chair under the attic window, next to several neatly stacked boxes of old books. The house was catty-corner from the Kittery Point Public Library, a large room with mahogany tables and shelves full of musty cloth-covered books with brittle, yellowing pages. So I spent much of that year in the dusty attic, reading everything I could get my hands on, and feeling the early urges of the desire to write.
We didn’t have much of a home library, but ours, like (I think) the libraries of most Negro families of parents educated in what are now known as “the historically black colleges and universities” of that time, contained, of course, the essential King James Bible and collected works of Shakespeare, as well as some of the essential bibles of African American culture: books of poetry by Paul Lawrence Dunbar and Langston Hughes. But I started reading poetry first by reading volume 2, “Storytelling and Other Poems,” in the Childcraft set of books, which, along with the World Book Encyclopedia, followed our family [End Page 99] from temporary home to temporary home as my father was transferred.
Many of you must already know of Childcraft. I’ve never made a study of it, but it has come up in conversations I’ve had with several other poets as we’ve discovered that we fell in love with poetry in its beautifully illustrated pages. By the time of my reading in the attic, I had graduated from the poems selected for children in volume 1 (among the authors were Countee Cullen, Emily Dickinson, Paul Laurence Dunbar, John Masefield, Edna St. Vincent Millay, Carl Sandburg, Shakespeare, Robert Louis Stevenson, Sara Teasdale, and William Wordsworth), to poems in volume 2 selected for what I think would now be called “middle grade” or “young adult” readers (including the work of Wordsworth, Browning, Emerson, Longfellow, and Alfred Noyes). Childcraft whetted my appetite. I went on to read the female poets (I was a budding feminist) I could find in the Kittery Public Library: Celia Thaxter, who had lived on an island near Kittery Point and was something of a local hero; and Sara Teasdale, whose poem, “Barter,” remained my favorite for several years.
I may have read Edna St. Vincent Millay up there in the attic, too, and maybe—my parents would, I think, have noticed her 1950 Pulitzer Prize—Gwendolyn Brooks. For some reason, I don’t remember that. I discovered Emily Dickinson later. I’m sure that, if I had read her that early, I would have become a different poet. I’m not sure what I mean by that. What strikes me...