A storyteller's craft, honed at bath time

Once upon a time, in a neighborhood near Beverly Boulevard and Rossmore Avenue in Los Angeles, a little girl named Susan had a nightly chore:

She had to give her younger sister, Georgia, a bath.

But Georgia wanted more than soap and shampoo. She wanted to hear a story, so Susan, without fail, sat on the lid of the toilet and made up a new one every night. While her mother worked as a waitress at Van de Kamp's restaurant, Susan told dreamy stories about all sorts of things, big and small, such as why a poof of dust appears when a peanut shell is cracked open.

Georgia was curious about where all these great stories came from, and Susan told her she plucked them out of the laundry hamper. That funny odor in the hamper, she told her sister, was the smell of stories that had rubbed off people's clothes and skin.

That nightly ritual took place roughly half a century ago. But Susan Patron never got over her love of telling stories. She grew up to become a children's librarian in Los Angeles, retiring two years ago after more than 30 years on the job. That was the year she also became an award-winning children's writer, taking the prestigious Newbery Medal in 2007 for a book called "The Higher Power of Lucky."

I didn't know any of this when I bought another of Patron's books, "Maybe Yes, Maybe No, Maybe Maybe," at Skylight Books in Los Feliz a few months ago. I picked it up because I liked the opening paragraphs.

It began with a little girl named PK pulling stories out of a hamper every night while her little sister, Rabbit, took a bath.

My daughter loved it as much as I did, admiring PK's pluck and curiosity, along with her collection of cherry pits, which she uses to make bean bags. I later learned that Patron lived just a few miles from me. Last week, I invited myself to her home in Hollywood.

I wanted to talk about the declining state of libraries in this era of shrinking budgets, but I also wanted to thank her for the book my daughter and I adored. I was feeling a little nostalgic, I told Patron, because my daughter has learned to read and doesn't need me as much for that anymore.

Patron, sitting in the cozy study where she has now written eight books, interrupted me.

"Don't stop reading to her," she said, telling me that as a librarian, as well as an author, she believes fervently that no child is too old, no matter how good a reader, to stop hearing stories.

Patron said that as a child, she didn't think Georgia was clean in that bathtub until her fingers were wrinkled, so she got a lot of practice creating stories. If the hamper was empty, she knew of other places to get stories, thanks to a school visit from a librarian who read "Charlotte's Web" to her class.

Patron began going to the somewhat intimidating Wilshire branch library, which was built in Italian Renaissance style. She became more comfortable after getting to know the librarian, and it was around that time that she knew she wanted to become a writer. Her parents didn't discourage her but suggested it might be wise to study for a job that might actually pay the rent, so becoming a librarian seemed logical.

When she met a Frenchman named Rene, they often went to a Los Feliz bookstore on dates. Rene, who became her husband, encouraged her to write and was not discouraged by the rejection slips she got in the mail after submitting her first manuscript.

One day in the late 1980s, while they were on a break at their cabin in the Eastern Sierra, the phone rang and a publisher was on the line. Orchard Books was eager to buy her manuscript.

"I burst into tears," Patron said.

"I knew it all along," Rene said.

Rene now restores rare books in his shop in back of their Spanish-style home as Patron toils away in her study. Though she's retired from library work, it tears her up to witness the slow demise of so great a public institution.

Library systems everywhere are getting squeezed, cutting staff, trying to do more with less even as the sour economy drives more people to libraries for books and for resources that might help guide them to new careers.

"A library is more than a building," she said. The best ones are community centers; places where children can be transported to different times and places -- and sometimes inspired to become writers themselves.

She and Rene have no children of their own, but Patron has connected with thousands of youngsters, many of whom write to her as though she were a family member.

"I can connect to Lucky because my mom died," wrote a reader named Gabriela, the letter sitting on a table next to Patron's desk. "I would be very excited if you wrote back to me because you are one of my favorite authors. I would also cherish it for all my life, and I would always keep it."

Yes, Patron said. She'll write back. She always does.

The book that won the Newbery made news for another reason. Patron used the word "scrotum" in it on the first page, where a rattlesnake bites a dog in a sensitive spot. Some librarians refused to stock the book, and Patron found the controversy over an anatomical reference amusing, especially given that no one seems to be screaming about all the mayhem and vulgarity that kids are regularly exposed to on television.

Her eighth book, which she just submitted, might stir things up, as well. In it, a boy who loves dinosaurs welcomes his mother back from a prison stint and finds that she's become a born-again Christian. The mom believes the world is only several thousand years old, meaning that his beloved dinosaurs could not have existed eons ago.

Not that Patron has had any such experience in her own life, she said. But her stories are coming to her from new places now, as well as from her catalog of childhood memories.

In "Maybe, Maybe," her doubting little sister peeks into the hamper in search of stories and finds none. "I made my brain wait a long time," Rabbit tells PK. "I still couldn't find any stories."

And PK explains, "It is not something I can show you how, Rabbit. It is just a kind of magic in that hamper."


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