Sixth grade was a rough year for lots of people, and I’m not an exception. Nobody realized it at the time, but looking back I recognize the signs of my anxiety disorder–overwhelming dread, obsessive counting, forgetfulness, crippling inability to focus or make decisions, the total destruction of my fingertips. I still deal with this, but as an adult I understand what’s going on, and as a child I was just panicky and stressed all the time. It doesn’t help that I wasn’t just not popular–I was unpopular, in that I was the subject of active, organized, widespread teasing and bullying. That wasn’t new, but I was getting older, and I was starting to care more. That’s not to say there weren’t bright spots, because there were. I distinctly remember three: band, the couple of friends I had at school, and Robin McKinley.
Robin McKinley came into my life because my 10-year-old morality was sketchy at best: I picked up The Hero and the Crown from the shelf that my social studies teacher reserved for her homeroom students’ library books. I don’t know if I intended to give it back, but I do know that I never did, and the guy who had checked it out had to pay for it. I’m not sorry. He was a jerk. Anyway, I read that book over and over and over, until I could recite passages (I still can). I would finish it only to start again immediately, and I carried it with me everywhere like a talisman against evil. Or crushing lonliness. My memories of 6th grade can only be categorized in two ways: Being Miserable, or Reading The Hero and the Crown. I don’t think it’s an exaggeration to say this book saved my life. Over the last two decades I have returned to it, and her other books, more times than I can count, in times of joy as well as sorrow, and each time I’ve read one of her books I’ve found all the perspective, validation, inspiration, entertainment, hope, comfort, and motherfucking great storytelling I could want.
Her partner of 23 years, Peter Dickinson, recently passed away. She was silent on social media for several months before reporting his second stroke; the next time we heard from her was today, when she posted the eulogy she delivered at his memorial service. It is heartfelt and well-crafted.
I’ve never met Robin McKinley, but she has been with me through some of the most difficult periods of my life, beginning in sixth grade and extending into my early 30s (so far). Her books shaped the woman and writer I am in too many ways to name. I owe her an unpayable debt, and I adore her. She is going through the unimaginable and I have nothing to offer her except empty words from a person she has never met.
She didn’t write her books for me, but they were a gift to me anyway. I’m going to go buy some more of Peter’s books, and I’m going to plant a tree for him, and for her, and I’m going to keep crying. And then I’m going to work on my novel, ok, because sometimes all you can do is take the gift someone gave you and try to give a gift to someone else.