For years now, I have been reading to my girls the works of a well-known, award-winning children’s book author and illustrator. I’m not going to use names for reasons you’ll soon figure out, but one of his most famous books is about a bird who wishes to operate a public means of automotive conveyance. The other is about a young child and her favorite stuffed animal; he is left at the laundromat and she gets very upset.
I’ve been aware for some time that said author lives in Hipsterville or thereabouts — he is represented by a local gallery, and more to the point, I have seen him around town over the years.
Recently, because I have been taking more karate classes with all ranks, I have been meeting people at the dojo that I hadn’t met before. Among them, there was a Young Person whose first name was the same as the young girl in the stuffed animal book, and whose last name was the same as the author. It does not take a genius to figure out that who I had before me was, in fact, the author’s daughter and star of his books. She is this tiny person (seriously, she is in her mid-teens and Eliza might be as tall as her) with a deep voice and blue hair and I think every adult at the dojo not-so-secretly wants to adopt her because she is a charming combination of bad-ass and solemn teenage moppet.
It is strange to have a character whose story you have read to your kids over and over right there in front of you. During class I mostly concentrate on not accidentally punching her in the face because a. I obsess about that anyway during partnerwork and b. it feels like especially bad karma to mangle the heroine of one of my kids’ favorite books. (Although sometimes when I am faced off with her, as I was tonight, my thoughts are more along the lines of “Jesus H. Roosevelt Christ this 80-pound child is going to dismember me with her bare hands! And then she will bow politely, because she has excellent manners.”)
The book in which she features has 2 sequels, and now that I have met the inspiration behind the character I am finding myself thinking about what it must be like, being unwittingly a figure thousands of children relate to. I wonder if she’s ambivalent about the experience, and I wonder if it’s weird to her, being this literal intersection of fact and fiction. I have to resist the impulse to feel like I can draw any conclusions about her life as a toddler and a pre-schooler and a kindergartner. I mean, I read the books and I’ve seen the person; I don’t know how true the stories are but I can see that the character her father has drawn with such love most definitely resembles her. And yet I don’t know, truly, to what extent the experiences she has in the books are hers, or whether her reactions were as portrayed.
Although she’s not a celebrity in the usual sense we use the word, it’s making me think about what an uncomfortable state of being that can be. Imagine someone knowing — or more to the point, thinking they know — all about you, while you know nothing about them. It’s an imbalance of power weighted against the celebrity.
And that brings me back to the phenomenon of my fellow karate students — how little I know about some of them, and yet how little the trappings we usually consider important in knowing a person matter in the dojo. The years of showing up and doing the work in spite of injury or work or life getting in the way do more to develop trust that the recitation of any number of bona fides. And so when it comes to this particular story, all I really do know, for sure, and all that matters in the end, is this girl’s quiet but steadfast presence on the deck, and that the way she carries herself impresses me mightily from someone her age.