By Nancy Smiler Levinson
No plan was hatched. It just happened one morning, the first day of sixth grade at Burroughs Elementary in Minneapolis. Like many a pre-adolescent girl trying on a different identity, the previous year I’d changed my spelling from Nancy to Nancie, dotting the i with a tiny heart.
In my new classroom that morning, I slid into a desk seat, Karen Lindahl across the aisle and Karen Neidermeyer behind-me, the three of us whispering about the new teacher. Our first man teacher. Was he mean? Married? Why did his mustache look like a brush? Good morning, my name is Mr. Johnston, he announced. What are your names? Begin with row one here, nice and loud.
John, Tom, Susan Lee, Karen Ann, John. . . when it came my turn I said, “Diana.” Oh! I perked up at my own voice. Mr. Johnston didn’t know me, and now he would call me Diana, the lovely name of the school librarian.
For a full class day I floated on my gossamer name, akin to the pretty blond lady who sat at a desk piled high with books and helped us borrow them with a stamp on a card next to our signatures. But the next day the teacher approached me with the class record book in hand, puzzled why no Diana Smiler was listed. I was exposed! Well, Nancy, I have a daughter who insists we call her Wonder Woman. He winked. Two questions answered. He was married. He was not mean.
Shortly thereafter, while reading a library book (an historical Russian story called Katrinka), I learned that my grandfather had emigrated from Russia to Minnesota with the name Smilovitch, but my father had gone to court and changed it. If I had been born in that icy, barren, country, I mused, my name would have been Natasha Smilovitch. That’s the name I wrote on my Katrinka book report. Mr. Johnston made a smiley face next to it alongside a grade of A+.
I celebrated my twelfth birthday late autumn and devoured three gifted Nancy Drew mysteries. Years later I would learn that the author of the series, Carolyn Keene, was not her real name. She wasn’t even a real person. Carolyn Keene, it turned out, was a writing company with a bevy of writers handed plot outlines.
Snow-bound one day that winter, I put pencil to a big notebook from Woolworths and wrote a short story. My first. I’d become infatuated with both a new name and teenage glam. So teenage Kim daringly stowed away on a ship headed for adventure.
I took my husband’s name, Levinson, when we married. Before our meeting, I’d worked as a newspaper reporter and educational book editor. With the birth of our two sons, (basic, standard names, Matthew and Daniel), I became a stay-at-home mom until they entered school. Throughout those years we encountered Max and the wild things; Charlotte and her web; Christopher Robin with Winnie the Pooh, Amelia Bedelia; Curious George. . . We read poems, serious and silly. We bid goodnight to the moon. Again and again.
During those afternoons and bedtimes, sharing, bonding, feeling, growing. . . I was reading beautiful poetic language, finely tuned rhythm, while all along, unconsciously, the lyrical sounds were tapping into me. And then something happened. I began writing for children.
A wide world of naming opened to me—names that fit characters in their times and settings, imperative always in creating authentic individuals. I based an historical fiction chapter book on the original book wagon, invented in 1900 by a Maryland librarian. With a strong German population in the region, I named my protagonist Clara. Naming the librarian offered no choice because she was real. Mary Titcomb.
Betsy came to life as a prairie child seeking friendship with a citified newcomer, Emmeline. A 1920s middle-grade story, Sweet Notes, Sour Notes, about a boy struggling to play the violin, is named David. He calls his grandpa the Yiddish word, Zadey. His sister is Rose and her mischievous friend, Queenie.
Your Friend, Natalie Popper, a young girl going to sleep-away camp for the first time, was close to me. Hence. Natalie, and Popper for rhythm. Her much-admired counselor is Babs, the name of one of my childhood camp counselors. Another story centered on a radical, feisty grandmother shocking her family and the township by wearing bloomers and riding a bicycle! She endeared herself to me as Lola Slocum, while the outraged schoolhouse head appeared as Principal Snippenlooper.
When I began publishing, in the 1980s, writers were beginning to include their maiden names. So, following the crowd, I made my mark as Nancy Smiler Levinson. Several books later, I came to regret that mouthful, but it was too late to change. I might have become an A-list author or at least more memorable had I picked a pen name like N. Shakespeare, Pink, or Lady Blu-blu I hadn’t hatched a plan.
© 2019 Nancy Smiler Levinson
Nancy is the author of thirty books for young readers. Her stories, poems, and essays have appeared in numerous magazines, literary journals, and anthologies. Moments of Dawn: A Poetic Memoir of Love & Family, Affliction & Affirmation was published by Conflux Press. She is a member of Sheila Bender’s “Writing It Real” and lives in Los Angeles.