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December 25, 2011

Barbara O`Neal on the Power of Childhood Favorites

Posted by Katherine


Barbara O’Neal fell in love with food and restaurants at the age of fifteen, when she landed a job in a Greek café and served baklava for the first time. She sold her first novel in her twenties, and has since won a plethora of awards, including two Colorado Book Awards and six prestigous RITAs, including one for THE LOST RECIPE FOR HAPPINESS in 2010. Her novels have been published widely in Europe and Australia, and she travels internationally, presenting workshops, hiking hundreds of miles, and of course, eating. She lives with her partner, a British endurance athlete, and their collection of cats and dogs, in Colorado Springs. Here she talks about recovering memories on Christmas.


After my husband and I divorced, my teen sons were both struggling a bit with forming new traditions for Christmas.  Both were lonely and missed the old ways, and Miles, my younger child, decided to give his brother Ian a copy of THE GIVING TREE by the great Shel Silverstein. It was Ian’s favorite childhood book, and we have a tape of him at two, “reading” it aloud, one of the most touching archives of their childhood.  

Knowing how Ian would feel, and worried that he would not know how to make a similar gesture for this hollow Christmas since he was in his second year of college, far away, when he called to ask what Miles might want, I suggested OWL MOON by the magically poetic Jane Yolen.   Miles loved that book so much as a toddler that we checked it out of the library over and over and over again until I bought him his own copy for Christmas when he was four.  He carried it around with him everywhere. 

The exchange went exactly as I had imagined.  Ian leafed through THE GIVING TREE, and cried.  “I didn’t realize it was so sad!” he said.  But he was wildly touched.  And Miles had not even remembered OWL MOON until he started reading it.  The two of them sat quietly, touching childhood, touching each other’s hearts, touching the unshakable home that resides in each of them, with each other and with books.

After some reflection, I sometimes felt terrible that I’d undercut the surprise and power of Miles’s idea to give his brother THE GIVING TREE.  It was the misguided impulse of a mother who was worried about both of her children, but it probably was misguided. 

Or so I thought until a few nights ago, when Miles came over to get a few things out of the boxes he has in storage at my house.  He and his wife of eight months are expecting their first baby in February, and Miles came over to find his baby blanket and that Christmas-time copy of OWL MOON.  My big, burly, bearded man-child bent his head over the pages and in memory, I saw him at four, opening his Christmas present, and at 17, opening it again, and now, soon to be a father himself, who will read it to his daughter.  

One day, Ian will read THE GIVING TREE to his children, and both of my sons, reading, will remember their bedroom together, tucked on each side of me, as we read aloud their favorite stories.  Each will remember, too, the Christmas they were there for each other, with a book, and love.