Strolling along Chicago's Michigan Ave (also known as The Magnificent Mile) has been on my agenda on every visit to the Windy City. I'd transverse the Riverwalk, craning my neck to capture picturesque photos of the skyline as its latest additions cast shadows on the blue-green water below. Because my husband is an architect, summer visits during his AIA conventions have become commonplace. So, while he is cooped up inside, drinking in the air-conditioning, I find myself touring the sweltering streets on many solo adventures. I know the city well and feel comfortable navigating it alone. In fact, in 2015, I really got to know every corner of Chicago, while running the 26.2-mile course in the marathon.
I've become so familiar with the destination that during my last visit, I literally skidded to a screeching halt when I came upon a unique plaque outside of another art deco masterpiece. Was it new? Summer's late afternoon sun was a blazing fireball above, dripping sweat into my eyes so severely, I hardly believed them. American Writers Museum was written on the facade. Seriously? Was his kismet or what? This writer had found one of Chicago's hidden gems!
The next morning, I ascended one floor up from the lobby and found an unassuming, yet inviting set of glass doors. Because I had purchased my ticket online, it was a quick transition from the front desk right into the first exhibition. I already had goosebumps as I stepped through a threshold to artwork and a giant tree covering the walls and orange stools spread all over the comfy carpet. It mimicked the most adorable children's library and housed tables dedicated to some of the most beloved American kidlit stories, including Charlotte's Web, Little Women, and Where the Wild Things Are. As a writer of children's literature, I found myself immersed in the stories behind the stories, adorably displayed in board books.
The first books we read play a powerful, shape-changing role in our lives. "Children's books are a gateway to a lifelong love of literature and art," say historian Leonard S. Marcus. "They give us the heroes we need just when we need them: at the start of our quest to discover who and what we are. They give us stories we will long remember."
Books for young people have been published in North America for more than 300 years--from well before the founding of the United States. Through them, writers and artists have crystallized each generation's hopes and dreams for the next generation, and young people have learned what it means to be an American . . . and a human being. As Marcus observes: "To understand what our nation has cared about over time, we have only to look at the books we have given our children and teens."
The next room displayed impressive exhibits stretching the length of three walls, with historical details about American authors, including many of my favorites: Laura Ingalls Wilder, Louisa May Alcott, F. Scott Fitzgerald, and E.B. White. I loved that the author bios mentioned analysis of their writing as it pertains to the topic of being "American." This theme was carried throughout the entire space, leading up to a gorgeous digital installation titled "Word Waterfall." The screen flashed quotes and highlighted what many have debated about the meaning of "American-ness."
When I ponder the topic of "American-ness," I am drawn to what Maureen Corrigan articulated about F. Scott Fitzgerald's The Great Gatsby:
"Gatsby's magic emanates not only from his powerhouse poetic style--in which ordinary American language becomes unearthly--but from the authority with which it nails who we want to be as Americans. Not who we are: who we want to be. It's that wanting that runs through every page of Gatsby, making it our greatest American novel."
I couldn't agree more. And this why Fitzgerald's masterpiece is MY favorite novel. And I expressed my opinion on an adorable bookmark display in a fascinating exhibition on the history of bookselling in the US. What was the Top Book on a list by the visitors of the museum? The Great Gatsby!
As I toured the quiet, comfortable space, many hands-on exhibits explored the on-going theme of What does it mean to be American? The was impeccably carried out throughout a display of stamped luggage tags celebrating immigration and asking you to describe your family's unique journey to America. Incidentally, I've traced my roots back to Slovakia, Ireland, England, and Germany/Austria. I also explored this theme in my novel The Winning Ingredient, as my main character Mia DeSalvo attempts to save her immigrant family's legacy and business and preserve their American Dream. To me, the answer is very much like Corrigan's quote above. It is about limitless possibilities and hard work. American is a place where your dreams can become realities. No one says it's easy. But nothing worthwhile ever is. America is a place where you can turn a few weeks, months, or years of writing into a best-selling novel. The definitely is the Dream!
Why I Write was also an exhibition topic and something I've answered in this very blog (See: Why I Write Kidlit). Every writer has the thing/things that inspire them. This job may seem easy, but it certainly isn't. No one else is drawing out your words and putting them on the printed page for you. But that is also why it is so empowering. As a writer of books for children and teens, I also feel a huge sense of responsibility to produce age-appropriate but also entertaining and endearing stories.
I loved the exhibition on Ray Bradbury, of Fahrenheit 451 fame. And as a space buff, I was intrigued to learn that he was as well. His stories were even added to a disc sent on a Mars Rover. He loved writing about space travel and influenced the space program here in the United States. As the display indicated:
"Bradbury wrote about what made us human. Space travelers saw worlds of possibilities through Bradbury, and brought his message to the stars."
Did you know Ray Bradbury and Walt Disney were friends? You'll see his influence all over Disney parks, including Spaceship Earth. What was also impressive? Bradbury wrote his stories on an old typewriter, the model of which I had a chance to try out in the museum. Now, I personally am an expert typist and even learned to type on a typewriter. But this thing was a disaster! I respect him even more.
The final stop on my tour was the Mind of a Writer section, outlining writing tips and providing insights into how writers think. Popular writers were highlighted in this exhibit, with their advice on how they honed their craft.
Of course, practice, practice, practice is always the best mantra. You can't edit a blank page, right?
The most popular advice I've heard over the years regarding becoming a better writer is to read as much as you can, especially within your genre and age-group.
By the way, did you know E.B. White (Charlotte's Web) revised the famous Elements of Style?
I finished my visit in the gift shop, of course, where I purchased an awesome mug (are you really a writer if you don't drink coffee?) and a cute bamboo pen (another important tool). In the end, I was left inspired and educated. I'm so proud to be an official member of this club of American Writers. Books are influential and timeless. to reiterate what Leonard S. Marcus said above: "To understand what our nation has cared about over time, we have only to look at the books we have given our children and teens." That can be said for all of literature because, to discover where we want to go, we must learn where we've been.
I highly recommend visiting this hidden gem the next time you are in Chicago.
American Writers Museum
180 North Michigan Ave.
Chicago, IL 60601
Ticket prices vary up to $14 (Children under 12 are FREE)
Recommend purchasing online for easy entrance