Tonight I had the honor of being one of several people to pay tribute to Susan Bloom at the Children’s Literature Institute at Simmons University. This is what I shared with those gathered to remember this most remarkable woman:
Susan Bloom was my teacher, my mentor, and my friend. She gave me my first teaching opportunities as her TA, she cheered me on at every step of my career, and in every facet of my life. I miss her terribly.
I was 23-years-old the first time I spoke with her. Newly accepted to the Simmons program in Children’s Literature, but not sure how I’d manage to attend since I couldn’t move to Boston and was living two hours away with my partner and 3-year-old son, I called her as program Director to seek advice. She overflowed with encouragement. “I’m sure you’ll work it out,” she said. “You just have to!”
I decided to believe her (she was nothing if not persuasive, right?). And one part of how I worked it out was that I commuted by bus so that I could devote that time to course readings. Susan, learning of this plan and likely flouting all kinds of institutional liability policies, offered to drive me to the bus station in Newton after our Picturebook class meetings. Those weekly drives solidified our early friendship. We talked about our families, television shows, politics, and books, of course, books. And once, when we were running late, Susan jackknifed her car in front of the bus as it was pulling away to block its path so I could scurry onboard, wide-eyed, and apologizing to the slack-jawed bus-driver. “I think that might have been a felony,” Susan later said, conspiratorially, and not without a good deal of pride.
And as for the Picturebook course itself, it’s not an exaggeration to say it changed the course of my career. At the beginning of the semester, I sheepishly approached Susan and said, “I’ve never really studied art.”
“Well,” she said brightly, “Now’s your chance!”
What could I do, but take that chance? And Susan made me feel safe in taking risks in my learning, buoyed by her effusive encouragement and by her own obvious delight in the material she was teaching. “If I could restart my career in another profession, I think I’d be a typographer,” she announced in class one day. “Wouldn’t you?” Her glee in imagining this alternate path was akin to what one might expect someone to feel upon imagining a life as a spy, or a pilot, or some other adventurous vocation. It was an off-the-cuff statement that she probably wouldn’t remember saying, but it stuck with me and changed me as I witnessed and aspired to emulate her disarming way of wholly experiencing and offering up things—like typography!—that brought her joy.
Susan was with me in some of the most joyful moments of my life. She celebrated the births and adoptions of my children, and especially enjoyed hearing about my eldest, Rory, a theater kid and bookworm who at 3-years-old corrected her pronunciation of deBrunhoff’s famous elephant when she asked him in her Boston-accent, “Do you know Bah-bah?” And he said, “I think you mean BaBAR.” “Well,” she said, “I think you’re right!”
When I told her I was getting remarried, the first things she said after congratulating me was, “And you’ll have the wedding at my house!” And because of that persuasiveness I mentioned earlier, I immediately agreed—failing to consult my husband-to-be. She and Cathie made our wedding cake, a chocolate and raspberry-cream-frosted feat of deliciousness.
She was also there for me in hard times. “I am in your corner, Megan,” she said at a time when my corner felt terribly, frighteningly empty, taking my face in her hands and locking eyes with me. Another time, she said, “What you need is distraction,” and she mailed me a Louise Penny murder mystery that she’d read after hearing that Hilary Clinton read the series in the aftermath of the 2016 election, needing to escape to a story that wasn’t her own.
Jo Knowles, one of the many students and writers whose careers Susan nurtured, turned to a story that wasn’t her own to reference Charlotte’s Web in her contributions to Susan’s obituary. Reading Jo’s E.B. White-inspired words made me think of something he wrote to a reader: “All that I hope to say in books, all that I ever hope to say, is that I love the world.” Susan found so many ways to say that she loved the world. I now find myself in a stage of grief that makes me love the world a bit less for her absence. But, I believe she is still “in my corner” in all the most important ways—in the ways she changed me and made way for me, and I believe that’s true for all of you, her family, her friends, colleagues, and students.