I’m gearing up to talk to a different kind of audience these days, and I can hardly wait.
I’ve done quite a bit of public speaking since I graduated from law school in 1999. This would surprise the heck out of any of my classmates who were privy to the panic attacks I had there on occasion. But I’ve grown (and pushed myself) enough to be able to enjoy talking about the law in court; and about the fun I’ve had with writing and self-publishing to groups of writers; and about how “it’s never too late to make mid-course corrections” to folks wondering whether there’s another leap worth taking.
Those have all been to groups of grownups, however. What I’m feeling so excited about, and so hopeful as well, is to now start talking about Finnigan the Circus Cat with children. And in particular, to share not only tales of beloved pets, and flights of imagination, and the idea of how big stores can emerge from little things…but what I didn’t know when I was the tender age of these young readers.
Which is that it is entirely okay to make mistakes. They’re just a healthy part of life and learning.
It’s a lesson I’ve been learning and repeating to myself for years now, and I still feel like I’m playing “catch up.”
The easiest way to make the point is to share with children the story of how I ended up drawing the pictures of Finnigan and his friends inside the book. I hadn’t planned to do it, but I ran out of time to get someone else to do them for me.
And so I did what I never would have thought of when I was eight or nine…I marched into to the children’s section of the library, and pulled out a dozen “how to draw” books about cats and other animals, and got very busy with a pad of paper, a pencil, and a large eraser. I used that eraser a lot!
My first tries at following the simple instructions in the library books weren’t perfect. Nor were the second. Or the third. Somehow assembling several circles and a couple of triangles into the shape of a cat’s face is truly an art, not a science! Many of my attempts and sketches involved more erasing than actual drawing. But I eventually powered through and got the job done, and now I can stand back and say “yeah, they look good…even though they’re not perfect!”
I wish I’d known that when I was young enough to be a Finnigan reader.
When I was a kid, I could draw…but all I ever drew was horses. Literally. A couple of decades ago, my parents dropped off a large cardboard box of artwork I’d done when I was in grade school. I opened it up out of curiosity one quiet evening, and pulled page after page after page of sketches I’d done of horses. There were pencil sketches, and charcoal sketches, and pastel chalk sketches—some quite pretty! But I realized as I made my way through the contents of the box and my entire childhood record that the idea of straying outside those familiar contours and trying to draw something new almost never occurred to me. And it’s not like we didn’t have a cat and a dog around for me to practice on!
As I grew older, I feel now, the notion of being perceived as foolish or imperfect or a novice at anything became, in its way, crippling. In college, where I was studying newspaper journalism (writing came easy, remember!), I signed up for a semester course in broadcast journalism. I dropped the class after about two days. The prospect of running around campus with recording equipment and engaging other students in mock interviews when I wasn’t already completely familiar with every aspect of the process absolutely terrified me. And so I just walked away, my comfort zone intact, my education lessened. I still look back at that, decades later, and think “how foolish was that?”
A lightbulb moment finally came just a few years later, courtesy of motherhood and Fred Rogers. I was still a relatively new mother, and one day as I stepped into the kitchen to make a sandwich, an episode of Mister Rogers Neighborhood started on the television in the living room, and there was absolutely no tearing my toddler daughter away from the screen. She was utterly enthralled.
And so we began a daily habit of watching Fred Rogers talk to Mr. McFeely and Daniel Striped Tiger and Robert Troll and others. Truth be told, the slow pace of the show first bored me to tears. But then one day I finally “got it.” I can’t remember if Fred Rogers had fumbled tying his shoe laces or missed a button on his cardigan sweater, but I realized that he had built the ordinary mistake into the narrative for an important reason.
“What?” I thought. “You don’t have to be perfect to be loved?” What a novel, wonderful lesson. And I’ve tried to keep it in the forefront of my thinking since then.
So, in those upcoming school and library talks, I expect to have some pretty fun discussions about family pets and their adventures, and how the real Finnigan inspired the “circus cat” Finnigan of the story, and build in some simple drawing exercises as well.
I can guarantee we will all be making some mistakes as we try to fashion the contours of a cat out of circles and triangles—that’s why pencils have erasers. And that’s exactly what I want them to know!