Most of my 2018 was spent renovating the homestead built on our family’s cranberry marsh in central Wisconsin in the 1870s. One of the goals for this project was to carve out space for my writing. When my husband first proposed transforming the uninsulated attic, I wasn’t convinced. My biggest issue was the very narrow, steep stairway leading up to it. But with some clever engineering, our carpenters were able to make safe stairs that now lead to a heated, well-lit, lovely home for me to write children’s books.
During endless internet searches for stair-spiration, I came across photos of stairs made to look like a stack of books. I decided this was a creative way to add a personal design element to the newly constructed, straight staircase, and my family quickly agreed. What better way to enter a space meant for writing than to climb up beloved books? Hand-painting the titles seemed daunting, so I searched Etsy for a solution. Here I found Vivian of VIPdecals, who makes custom stair riser book decals. The hardest part of the process was choosing which titles to include. I wanted to pick books that shaped my childhood, books that I remembered my librarian mother reading to me, books I returned to again and again. I wanted Matilda, which I first read in the backseat of my family’s minivan, gasping when I discovered the identity of Miss Honey’s aunt. And The Diary of Anne Frank, which my uncle gave to me inscribed with a note made all the more poignant because he was battling terminal illness. And George and Martha, James Marshall’s masterpiece that taught me more about true friendship than most novels.
One of my self-imposed rules was only one step per author or series. This was particularly tricky for Harry Potter, and my family had several passionate debates over which one to include. In the end, each of the 14 steps displays a book that has influenced my writing, my belief system, and my life in the way that only books you read as a young person can.
After we moved into the farmhouse, I spent an entire weekend covered in a rainbow of splatters as I painted the background colors of the book spines. When the paint was dry, I applied the decals, working from the simplest to the most complicated font. The end result felt like the perfect way to prepare my thoughts on the way up to write my own stories.
On a whim, I took a few photos and posted them on Twitter, thinking my writer friends might enjoy them. What happened next was truly surprising. People really liked the book steps, and I was stunned to see them retweeted over and over. I received replies from people near and far about which books had a profound impact on their lives and bonded with strangers over shared favorites.
My mother refuses to join social media, so I texted her the photos. Her response reminded me that it’s not just the books that influence us, but the book providers. When my mom was a child, owning books was a luxury her family didn’t have. But the man who delivered their eggs, who also happened to be the library custodian, brought her old books the library had removed from their collection. Had the egg man done his job and discarded those books, my mom might not have become a veracious reader, or the first person in her family to go to college, or have gone on to earn her master’s degree in library science. She might not have read all of those stair books to me at bedtime. I might not have become a writer. When I climb my steps, I thank Anne Frank and James Marshall and Roald Dahl and J.K. Rowling and my husband, for knowing the attic would make the perfect writing space, but I also thank Mr. Larson, the egg man.
This old house will surely outlast me, and I suppose some future cranberry grower might pull off the decals and paint the risers white. Or, maybe that person will make new ones and display the books that shaped his or her childhood. I think of the many authors, both aspiring and published, that commented on Twitter and can’t help but wonder if those books are being written right now.
Lisl H. Detlefsen is the author of a growing number of picture books, including If You Had a Jetpack and Right This Very Minute.