Friday, July 20, 2012

Dear Kate,

I know you've been gone from this earth nearly forty years and some will think it silly of me to write to you now, but I am pretty sure that you would not. I am writing to share how much your stories have meant to me, and will continue to, and also to disagree with your self-mocking remark:
"I hate to talk about myself, not because I'm modest, but because no matter how drastically I try to telescope all the things that have happened to me and all the ventures I've gotten into, the abridged story still sounds like a Baron Munchausen tale."
I disagree with you here. Certainly your life story was extraordinary, but the way you lived it was courageous and beautiful. This is why your stories resonate with so many. For instance, the first story of yours I read was A Tree for Peter, which my daughter Emily considers to be the most perfect book ever written, all about a fatherless, crippled boy living in poverty and ugliness, receiving a spade as a gift which he used to transform his neighborhood and the lives of all around him into beauty. That is you, Kate. I know you thought pictures told everything and words were just incidental, but you painted with words and were masterful at it. I know because I've never been able to see one of your illustrations and have such vivid pictures in my mind from each book. Reading Peter's story is now a Christmas tradition in our family.

In some way or other, you wove yourself into every invention you wrote. You had such a rich childhood, your father so admired by all who knew him that he drew many friends and students to your remarkable home. It was a rich atmosphere for a child to grow up in, full of books, conversations, music and art. No wonder you became such an avid little artist so early. When you wrote The Good Master and The Singing Tree you were reliving some of those experiences, especially the time your father took his "spoiled little girl" out to the  country. He wanted you to observe the way the peasants lived, you wanted to sow wild oats, and those simple people curbed your willfulness like taming a wild colt. Yes, you were privileged to nourish your artistic  talents at the Academy of Art of Budapest and to spend summers in Paris, Rome, Berlin - but, no one can begrudge it because The Great War to end all wars tore your world apart soon enough.

True to your character, you made light of the fact that you were studying anatomy on two fronts, one in art  school, the other as a nurse at the front. The horror pictures you lived in during that time almost broke you,  physically sending you to the hospital as a patient yourself as a result, but your passion for life gave you the courage to travel to America to start a new life.

How frightened you could have been, not knowing a word of English, the culture so different from your own, but you tore into it in typical Kate fashion. Did you see working in factories, stenciling lamp shades or drawing greeting cards as demeaning? No. Even then, you were making something beautiful for others and  learning a new language with a vengeance. You sure did since I can't think of many other children's authors with such powerful, vivid language skill.

Just as you were finding a little niche as a children's book illustrator, everything dried up because of the Great Depression, which you remember as the coldest winters in history. Life dealt you some rough blows again, but no, there you are prattling on and on over lunch to an editor who had to give you the bad news that she doesn't have any more work for you. You charmed her so much with your tales of growing up in Budapest that she suggested you write a book. So, never-say-never Kate, went straight home and started scribbling,  packed a crate full of long-hand manuscript and your very first book was not only published, but ended up a Newbery runner-up, the year Caddie Woodlawn won (illustrated by you), and Janet Elizabeth Gray's Young Walter Scott biography won an Honor (illustrated by you as well). You were bound to be a winner and won that  award yourself two years later with The White Stag.

It was the introduction to that book that really drew me to you as a person. Charlotte Mason would have loved how you were so disgusted with the
"modern book on Hungarian history...typical twentieth-century book, its pages an unending chain of facts, facts, facts, as regular, logical, and as hard as the learned pens of learned historians could make them."
That was not the Hungary you knew, the history you had had woven into your childhood. So you slammed the reference books shut and started spinning your own magic about the Huns and Magyars of your lively imagination,
"I took a ball of golden thread with me and unwound it as I trailed the white stag of legends from the great tomb of Nimrod to the green plains between two blue  rivers...for those who want to hear the voice of pagan gods in wind and thunder, who want to see fairies dance in the moonlight, who can believe that faith can move mountains, can follow that thread on the pages  of this book."
You certainly didn't have problems with English in that fanciful, poetically told tale. You were right, it is "a fragile thread" that "cannot bear the weight of facts and dates." The children of America became acquainted with Hungary and thought of it as a beautiful place.

This letter is too long, but before closing, I must thank you for my most beloved of all your stories, The Chestry Oak. The way you began in the misty memories of Michael's childhood, described the strength of love and loyalty, and revealed God's masterful plan despite the terror and brokenness of war is beautiful well, I guess you are right, beyond words. You would howl with gleeful laughter to hear how our family was reading the closing chapters of that book on the way to church one Sunday. When we arrived, sniffling and wiping our eyes, friends gathered around with concern. "Are you guys all right?" they wondered. "Oh, very. We just finished the most beautiful book."

I know that story would tickle you because your sense of humor is infectious. We also have laughed our way through many hilarious adventures with you. I think of The Open Gate, that conniving but very insightful  grandmother getting her "citified" children and grandchildren to buy a farm seemingly by accident! We howled through their ineptitudes because we were living that story right then ourselves. You helped us take ourselves less seriously and enriched our own family memories in that one. Speaking of city people learning to love the country, my little ones will carry the beautiful pictures in The Tenement Tree with them forever. I must ask you about trees one day, you loved them so much. Well, you just loved life, it's evils part of the beautiful tapestry of the whole of it.

Knowing that I still have more of your gifts to literature to enjoy ahead of me is the most delicious idea of all. I look forward to Lazy Tinka, Listening, Philomena, A Brand New Uncle, and Gypsy. I will savor each one and will reread them all. You made your life a beautiful experience by letting joy ripple through it all and the springs that fed your imagination refresh our souls, reveal life in all its glory. You said you wrote your first book just to prove you couldn't and that your subsequent success made you lose reverence for people who write. "A writer just talks on paper," you joked, but your pages are not just talk. You bring us to beautiful places, show us beautiful people, weave beautiful stories. If you could see our graphics, our scrolling text, our bored and listless children now, you would know why I value your "talk" so highly, Kate.

For the joy of reading,



  1. What a truly wonderful letter! Kate holds such a special place in our family as well. My favorite of favorites.

  2. Thank YOU for this lovely letter. What a great idea for narration also. I had my high school students write a dialogue of the conversation at a dinner with GK Chesterton. Emily found The Chestry Oak for me before the conference. I had read it to the boys when we were on vacation in New England from the library. Emma has not read it yet. She is enthralled with Judith of France by Margaret Leighton: her birthday gift. I posted a link to this to the CMeLearn group. Lazy Tinka was my favorite. I jumped up and down in the aisle at a used book booth when I found a copy!