Richardson, an editor of children’s books at Chronicle Books in San Francisco, tells the story of a traumatic event from her childhood.
I was seven when my house burned down in the Oakland Hills Firestorm and a close friend of my family’s was killed. As we approach the 30th anniversary of that event, I see the way I was formed and shaped by it—perhaps like the pearl, the traditional 30th anniversary gift—and the way my publishing career, and the books I acquire, have been, too.
On that first day of the fire, I was rescuing belongings from our house, talking with neighbors, watching the fire approach slowly and then explode suddenly, and making a speedy exit past flames on the side of the road. For the next week we searched for our missing friend, who was unable to escape the storm. For the next month we stayed with friends in a home overflowing with fire refugees. For the next year we accepted donations, working hard to rebuild our lives while settling in to a new community. The Firestorm is among the biggest traumas I’ve experienced. But those kinds of traumas shape a person in such fundamental ways—and the fire has forever impacted the road I’ve traveled.
My dad and I didn’t know where my mom kept our photos—I was so young, my parents are divorced, and my mom was out of town that weekend. As a result, my dad and I didn’t rescue them—as I did my teddy bear and laundry basket—and I have very few photos of me from before the fire. I wrote my college application essay about those missing photos and the power of seeing yourself in photography. That’s what got me into UC Berkeley, allowing me to return to the area, just miles from the home that burned. My mom and I had moved away immediately after the fire, and so this was my first time living in the community that had gone through what I had gone through, felt what I had felt.
I didn’t actually see a photo of the fire from the time it happened until my senior year of college, 15 years later. Totally improbable in the age of the internet, I suppose, but nonetheless true. Describing it to my mother who hadn’t been there for the evacuation just wasn’t the same—I craved the validation every human craves: yes, this really did happen, and yes, it was terrifying. While browsing at the newly opened Mrs. Dalloway’s Bookstore in Berkeley one day after class, I discovered a book on Rockridge history published by Arcadia. I think I must have opened it up hoping against hope that it would have some reference to the fire. Flipping to the back to look at the most recent photos, I found just what I was looking for. I couldn’t stop staring at them. My hands shook as I bought the book, and I walked down College Avenue sobbing openly. It was the first time I’d seen what had, until then, only existed in my head.
I went back to Mrs. Dalloway’s on another day to tell the bookseller at the information desk how grateful I was to have found the book at the store. And she introduced me to Fire in the Hills, a collection of essays and photographs, with essays written by both Marion and Ann, the co-owners of Mrs. Dalloway’s. This was too much for my little heart. Not just one but two books, both found in this beautiful store, and two of the essays written by the owners. A connection had been forged. I came back with my resume, telling the story to yet another bookseller, and was hired on as part of the family. I’ve worked there off and on for 15 years. What a welcoming haven for a bookish girl like me.
Some time later I saw that Arcadia was hiring for an editorial intern in its San Francisco office (which no longer exists). In my cover letter I told the story of the impact those several photos had had on me, and I’m convinced that’s what got me my initial interview. I was soon hired on there as an editorial assistant, and spent a year creating books with them, working with other communities’ photographs and stories, feeling privileged to share them with the world. When I confessed to my boss that I loved children’s literature, she encouraged me to quit and pursue it. Perhaps without that gutsy piece of mentorship my life would have turned out quite differently.
I’ve since gone on to work in children’s publishing, where we talk a lot about the power of a child seeing themselves in a book. I was perhaps an overgrown child when I discovered these two books, but they linked me to my childhood in a powerful way. They connected me to my family of booksellers, and ultimately to my profession as an editor.
After 12 years at Chronicle Books, I’ve just published my first book about a fire, The Fox and the Forest Fire by Danny Popovici, about a boy whose house burns down, and the way he and his mother rebuild their lives. It’s about resilience and recovery. It’s the book I wish I’d had as a kid, the book I needed. And in fall 2023 I feel lucky to be able to publish another book about wildfire firefighters: They Hold the Line by Dan Paley, illustrated by Molly Mendoza.
Today I live just a few blocks from the Oakland Firestorm memorial, where the tiles I painted as a child still hang, and where our family friend’s name is commemorated on a plaque of those who lost their lives. When I commuted to the office pre-pandemic I’d walk by that memorial every day, and be reminded by the messages on those tiles to always use my best china. These days as I work from home I’m surrounded by the furniture that was donated to me after the Oakland Hills Firestorm. On that childhood bookshelf now sits The Fox and the Forest Fire. I hope kids just like me, impacted by fire, see themselves in it.
As I write, the air is heavy with smoke from nearby fires. Though that long-ago fire has cooled, and those ashes have long since settled, other fires still rage. My heart goes out to those kids, and those communities. May you know you aren’t alone.