I grew up in a farmhouse, in the rural land of Upstate New York. I remember clearly one night, when my parents had to go out, leaving me in charge of my brother. I was 8 and he was 2. I was tucking him in to bed when I heard a rustling noise in the corner of the room. And then there was a bird, its wings so large, flapping and flying around the room. It must have come in through the open window. It was fast, and noisy, and I was scared.
But I didn’t want my brother to know that. We sat on the bed, him in my lap, against the headboard, and every time the bird swooped, I held my brother’s hand and together we waved hello. As the bird circled and dipped toward us, again and again and again, my brother smiled and waved, and I pretended everything was fine.
I wanted my parents to come home, very badly. But I didn’t want my brother to know that — I was his protector that night.
When I had children of my own, my instinct was the same — I wanted to protect them from the world, and I wanted to do that by preparing them for whatever might come their way. I didn’t want them to be afraid.
I come from a family of word people — each summer my mother would take my three siblings and me to the Didymus Thomas Library in Remsen, N.Y., and we would leave with a huge bin of books to last us awhile. Saturday afternoons were always spent playing Scrabble with my grandmother. She could get feisty, telling me she “smelled wood burning” when I took too long at my turn. I didn’t really get that joke till I was older. All told, it’s not so surprising that I grew up to be first a book editor, and then a literary agent, where I help bring books I love into the world.
It’s also not surprising that the best way I could think of to protect my children and help them learn to navigate the world was through the safe pages of a book, reading together, as the stories we read took us where we needed to go, taught us what we needed to know.
Owl Babies was one of the best. It was a great solace to all of us, because when Sarah and Percy and Bill are left alone, they begin to find comfort in each other, and they begin to understand that they’re going to be okay, even if their mom never comes back. And then, when the page turns to Mother Owl, swooping in with the words “AND SHE CAME,” all in capital letters, we breathed, deep, with relief, every one of us, every single time.
On the morning of 9/11, our oldest was just 2, and we lived in Manhattan. The planes struck and the towers fell, and the shock and grief all around was unknown and wild — for those who died and those who lost someone, and for the city and the world we’d known before that day, for our children, for the future.
I wasn’t sure at that time how to protect my child, or help her learn how to navigate this new world.
A week or so later, an artist friend of mine in Brussels sent me and my daughter a painting, of a frightened grieving man, planting a flagpole at the World Trade Center site, its flag bearing a big beautiful red heart, blowing in the breeze. The painting made me feel connected, and it became a symbol for me of courage, bravery, and of people holding each other in the face of tragedy and fear.
This tiny gesture, from my friend to me, and the image he created of one man connecting to the world, gave me courage to go on.
I began to carry a bottle of water, in my purse, wherever I went. And I bought a miner’s headlight, to keep in there too. I was ready to do my part, small as it was, if something happened again.
A decade and a half after I received that gift, I sat with my children, 15 miles west of the Lincoln Tunnel in Maplewood, N.J., glued to CNN, watching news of the lockdown in Brussels that took place after the attacks in Paris.
The 2-year-old was now 17, and she had a sister and a brother, 13 and 11.
I had to know if my friend was okay. Not only he, but also his wife and his child, who was the same age as our middle child. I wrote my friend an email, every day of the lockdown. I asked whether he was okay. I wanted to know his daily rhythms. Could he walk outside, water the garden? Where was he and was he safe?
And he answered me. He said he continued to walk the dog. He said that his 12-year-old daughter insisted on riding the subway to school, despite a bomb going off earlier that week. He said he and his wife continued to shop at the Moroccan grocery store that others were avoiding.
Their story reminded me of the myth of the hummingbird — the smallest of all birds, who flies several times to the fire in a burning forest, while the other animals are fleeing. A boar tells the bird he is stupid to think he will end the fire that way and the bird answers, “I do my part.”
I thought about that hummingbird and every hummingbird — what if they all carried a few drops of water? Maybe they could put out the fire.
And that’s the inspiration behind Come With Me, a story that my friend in Brussels and I made together, about how each one of us can do their part. As always, I turned to words, to the book, to understand how we can navigate this world, but this time I did so as a writer. What better place to show that as small and insignificant as it might seem, our part matters?
Holly M. McGhee is a writer and the founder of Pippin Properties Inc., a boutique literary agency. She was an executive editor at HarperCollins. Her debut middle-grade novel, Matylda, Bright & Tender, was published in March, and Come with Me, illustrated by Belgian artist Pascal Lemaitre, is available now. McGhee is on Twitter @hollymmcghee.
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