Flood water smells old. It smells like something decaying, like something that has been left out for too long, like a mix of oil and compost and mold. Flood silt is heavy. It sticks to everything it touches. A pair of blue jeans covered in it is almost too hard to carry. I know these things. I know what it feels like to walk down a block lined with more appliances than trees and more garbage than grass. Facing clean-up and recovery is lonely--deep in the bones lonely--and while part of that loss of control means surrendering to the awful thing that has happened, another part means accepting help--from friends but also from strangers. And that's why I also know what it feels like to have a stranger walk up my front porch steps, ask if she can take the pile of muddy, wet laundry from my front yard and wash it for me--and to not know what to say--and to finally say yes--and to have my life change forever because of that one word.
Early this fall, Tropical Storm Irene swept through my home state of Vermont, my town, my street and my home--and all of a sudden I was inside Marble Boys, my middle-grade novel about Hurricane Katrina, in a way I had never, ever, ever imagined.
I began to write Marble Boys in September 2005. The story was born out my son Luc's question, "Who exactly is going to get my blue jeans?" as we dropped off a bag of food and clothing for the Hurricane Katrina Relief Drive at the Vermont State Police Barracks. I didn't know how, exactly, to answer his question. I didn't know who would get his blue jeans. But it--or he--stayed with me. This mystery person. Who would he be? Would he be Luc's age? Would he love to skateboard too? Play the trombone? Be afraid of making telephone calls? And so I began to imagine: What if a boy in Vermont named Henry donated a pair of his blue jeans to the relief effort in New Orleans and a boy named Zavion got them? And what if Henry put his lucky marble--which he had just deemed unlucky because of his own terrible tragedy--into a pocket of those pants? And what if Zavion found the marble and wondered who had given him this magical gift?