She was ten-years-old when we first met, and I was about a year younger. It didn't matter that I was a Chinese-American girl from the suburbs of Los Angeles and that Katie John was a white girl from Barton's Bluff, Missouri. We were soul mates, two misunderstood tomboys trying to navigate through the confusing world of our youth -- no longer little kids, yet nowhere near old enough to sit at the grown-up table.
My parents were teachers, so we didn't have a lot of money. However, I had something better. I had a library card. There were three books that I checked out over and over again -- Katie John, Depend On Katie John, and Honestly, Katie John. I'd get upset if they weren't on the shelf, because that meant that someone else was reading my books. Hello? Didn't they know that the novels were written just for me?
Mary Calhoun was the name on the title page. That was really all I knew about the author. We didn't have computers back then, and the closest thing to Google were the heavy volumes of the World Book Encyclopedia. Anyway, most of the authors we learned about in school were dead -- so I just assumed she was, too. Still, Mary Calhoun inspired me to dream that maybe one day I'd write a book... and that it would be in the library... and someone would check it out.
A couple of years ago I wrote an essay about Katie John for the Horn Book magazine. Those childhood novels, I explained, got me through good times and bad. I loved them so much that, even though I was still I kid, I swore that if I ever had a daughter, I'd name her Katie. Shortly after the piece appeared, I received the most unexpected e-mail. It was from Mary Calhoun. She had read the essay.
After almost a year of corresponding we arranged to meet. When the Pacific Surfliner train pulled into the San Juan Capistrano station, I spotted an elderly white-haired woman standing by the tracks. It could only be her. I was shy for about half a second, and then began to blather about what the Katie John books meant to me. As we sat across the table from one another at lunch, Mary was gracious and warm and funny, and I felt like I had known her most of my life. I guess, maybe I had.
Later, we strolled to the library and although the books we had written were in the library catalog, many were missing from the shelves. This made Mary and me happy. There was a kid out there reading our stories. Before we parted, I opened my backpack and pulled out the Katie John books I had collected over the years. They had gone out of print, so whenever I saw one, I'd buy it. Even though I had asked Mary Calhoun so many questions that day, I still had one more. "Would you please," I said, "sign these for me and my daughter, Katie?"
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