Fifteen years ago, I bought a dress for my two-year-old daughter. I thought it was the perfect little toddler dress – a red jumper that had a bit of a bell-shaped swing. I even paid full price for it, counter to my usual shopping philosophy.
My daughter however, was not enthusiastic about my taste in clothing. When I put the dress on her, she sat down on her wee diapered tush and cried, “I don’t like this dress Mommy. Take it off! Take it OFF!”
There are some battles worth fighting for. There are others where it’s best if you just write about them. This mother-daughter impasse was the inspiration for Ella Sarah Gets Dressed; the first children’s book I both wrote and illustrated, which won a Caldecott Honor award, way back in 2004.
Now my Ella Sarah picks out her own clothing, and pays for it too. She has defined her own style and has modeled and blogged for a local shoe store for the past three years. I even find myself consulting her on many of my wardrobe concoctions. I dare not wear an outfit that raises an eyebrow from her!
I am bringing this up now because I have been thinking a lot about this child I’ve known for nearly eighteen years. And I’ve been thinking about her because she is about to leave me. She will be going to college in New York in the Fall.
I would be waxing sentimental at this point whether I had written a book about Ella or not, but having preserved that moment in our lives in print perhaps makes it feel more poignant. Or sappy. Or both.
Ella has been a willing model for many of my illustrations over the years. There is nothing like having a kid handy when you are working on a children’s book. She outgrew my picture book needs quite a few years ago, to be replaced by her sister, who in turn has been replaced by younger neighborhood children, but I’ve done many images that owe their accuracy to Ella’s cooperative posing.
So maybe what I am feeling as we all prepare for her flight east – along with the joy and pride and sadness and worry and hope – is gratitude. She gave me a enormous gift in being the inspiration for a story that became a book – a book that added my name to a venerable list of illustrators in addition to making me a published author. I never expected such a payoff when I boarded this motherhood boat.
Ella plans to major in Graphic Design and Communications. She says she wants to work in publishing some day. She may even study illustration for a while. Perhaps I have returned the favor and inspired her a just a bit?
Whatever she does, may she find as supportive a community of people with whom to work as I have. Go with grace, little bird!