My Yellow Balloon: How It All Began

It all started in ninth grade (and I won’t say how many years ago that was for me…). My English teacher, Ms. Cannon, taught a “Death and Dying” unit for our class. The unit culminated in one final project, where we could choose one of 15 exercises. I chose the last one: 15) Write a children’s book explaining death to them.

I was the only person in the class to choose number fifteen.

I didn’t have a story idea and didn’t know how I was going to complete the assignment. In my young life, I had already experienced more than my fair share of death and loss — I come from a large Greek family, so I had visited many sick relatives in the hospital, been through the shock of unexpected tragedies, and attended more funerals than the average American kid. Also, my parents got divorced when I was nine. I was an especially sensitive child and each of those losses was significant — they made a huge impact on my life.

The week before my assignment was due, I remember playing with my little brother, Joey, in his room. He was one and a half years old, and as we were playing, I remember a very sudden mind-movie. I don’t know what to call it — a daydream? It was like the story was being told to me. I wasn’t making decisions or determining plot twists; it just…occurred. And I watched. I put Joey in his high chair, gave him a cookie, sat at the kitchen table and wrote out what I saw.

The only part that gave me pause was the ending. I couldn’t see it. Once the balloon got away, I tried really hard to figure out how to explain it to the reader, but it came out clunky, and manufactured. I experimented with endings like, “When you die you are like a balloon rising up into the sky…” and other such moral-of-the-story type finishes. Nothing ever really satisfied me or sounded authentic. But the assignment was due, so I turned it in.

My teacher absolutely loved it and asked me to stay after class one day. She said she wanted to, with my permission, try to have it published. I remember being shocked that she thought so highly of the work and it really meant a lot to me. She never succeeded in getting it published, but her efforts weren’t wasted. It was her encouragement that carried me forward with the resolution to have this story published one day. We need more teachers like her. I wish all students could be so encouraged and inspired.

For many years after high school, I carried my assignment, My Yellow Balloon, with me wherever I went. It was a small fabric-bound journal that I decorated with pictures, glued crayon illustrations on the right and my text on the left. At the time I wrote this story I was already acting professionally. I graduated, went away to college, met my husband, moved to London, came back, started a family, and I still carried that little book with me wherever I went.

Years later, the end came to me as suddenly and profoundly as the beginning had. I was driving my two oldest children home from the park. At the time they were five and two, both cranky and crying in the backseat. I drove in a hurry, so I could change diapers, give food, and make everyone more comfortable. That is where I was when the mind-movie played again and I saw the whole ending. I couldn’t believe it. It was so clear and it was such a magical moment — everything was so bright, so rich, so sharp. Immediately I pulled over the car and wrote the ending on a deposit slip from the bank so I wouldn’t forget it.

And that was when I took out the manuscript again and re-worked it. It’s gone through quite a few iterations. In the original, there was no father, but then I saw a father in it. In the original, it wasn’t set in the 1930’s — that decision came later for reasons I’ll explain in another blog. The balloon man was added then, too.

So to answer the question of how it all began, I would say this book began as something I was assigned to do, but in a way, the book was assigned to me. It’s come to me over many years, in the universe’s perfect timing. I’m just glad I was alert enough to notice, open enough to receive, and strong enough to give it life.

My Yellow Balloon is available today for purchase: