Right now, I have a deep, burning, urgent need to read Fair Day and Another Step Begun, and I Would Go Barefoot All Summer For You, two long-out-of-print YA novels by Katie Letcher Lyle. This is not want. This is need, like these books are a part of my writer self that I did not know were missing, until something, likely falling down a YA rabbit hole on Goodreads, jogged my memory. I’d read Fair Day when I was in junior high, and fell wildly in love with the exquisite use of language, how a story set in then-contemporary 1970s America could have the feel of a time and place long ago and faraway. I did not read Barefoot, and I think I may, at the time, have scoffed at the title, but that only means I was not ready for that book then. I am, now.
Both books have their roots in medieval ballads, Fair Day a direct contemporary (for 1970s) retelling of the centuries-old ballad, Child Waters. I don’t know how these books came back to my attention, but, right now, it hurts that I don’t have them, which is a clear signal that there is something in them that I need. Neither book is in the library system, though two nonfiction books on plants by the same author are. Not quite the same, so the search continues. Ebay or Amazon it is, unless I strike gold at the local UBS, which is probably a longshot, but still going to try.
My memories of Fair Day are hazy, but I remember, while reading that book in the second floor study hall (if I remember physically where I was at the time I read something, it’s a sure sign it has become part of my idea soup) how it felt both modern and ancient at the same time, in a sort of world set apart. I love that kind of thing. Give me a pop singer backed by a symphony orchestra, or modern music played as though it were from centuries before, and I am going to play it until somebody’s ears bleed. This is one reason why my family knows that it is a good idea to keep me well supplied with backup earbuds at all times. There is no such thing as playing a song on repeat too many times if it has something to say to my storybrain.
It’s the same with books. If there is something about a book that gives me that “Yes. That.” feeling, then I have to have it, hold it, touch it, smell it, stare at the covers, flip through the pages, until it becomes a part of me. Once it’s in, it doesn’t come out. Well, it does, as something from it will find its way into a story or character or idea, and it will be reproduced, but the original inspiration stays put, ready for me to draw from it again, as needed, in near or far future.
Why this/these book(s) now? I don’t know, but I have learned not to question it. Sure, the cover does have a vague sort of historical romancey feel, if one looks in the right light. I don’t remember if Ellen and her child’s father end up together, and I don’t want to know until I (re)read, so I don’t know if this a romance. I don’t want to know. The heroine in the foreground, the man on horseback in the distance, the dirt road between them, her long, loose hair, her oversized coat, the bare trees reaching to the cloudy sky, the lyrical title, the memory of how the school library was often my sanctuary when life got rough. I remember the bite of cold air on my skin. I remember falling down and getting up and going onward, onward, onward, left foot, right foot, left foot, right foot.
I did not read Barefoot, but, when I read “Toby Bright is coming,” said Aunt Rose, my storybrain quickened. Yes. That. Shut up and take my money. I need this book. Don’t need to know another thing about it, and, in fact, don’t want to know. Given that the heroine is thirteen, I don’t think this is a romance. I think it’s what those old-timey people in centuries past would call “calf love,” and I am fine with that.
Maybe I’m entering the magpie stage for whatever comes next, acquiring bricks for a house I have yet to design, much less build. As of this week, I am six chapters and change into the second draft of Her Last First Kiss, and there’s a new Melva chapter from the Beach Ball sitting in my in-box, which means I need to send her one back. There needs to be a What Next putting itself together on the back burner, because I am going to come to The End on both of these projects, and I do not want to blink into the abyss.
So, yes, medieval ballads. Check. Soak in the exquisite marriage of language and emotion until I am drunk on it. Check. Emotional afterglow that is still with me I’m not going to say how many decades later. Yes. This. This is what I want to take in. This is what I want to put out. Titles that feel like music. Lyrical prose. Characters who let me feel each beat of their heart as though it were my own. I want to read that. I want to write that.
For now, I can stare at the covers and pick apart the design elements, maybe mess around with paint and ink on paper of my own, to see what comes about, either to come up with something similar, or figure out how the original artist did it. Note what music feels the rightest while I do, and see what imaginary friends poke through the fog in the process. The journey of a thousand miles, they say, begins with a single step. Maybe this is one of those. Only one way to find out.