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Vivian Kirkfield: InHERview

God grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change,

the courage to change the things I can,

and the wisdom to know the difference.

At 72 years old, Vivian Kirkfield is a woman who still lives by her mother’s favorite saying, The Serenity Prayer. She does more than just accept those things she cannot change—she embraces them. As someone who historically shies away from new places and people, she’s summoned the courage to schedule an upcoming tour through Sydney, Auckland, Geneva, London, Bologna, Florence, and Milan. And after 50 years of marriage to a man she describes as “brilliant, kind, creative, generous, and funny,” but also as “selfish and intense,” she certainly has the wisdom to know the difference.

Bubbly and chatty, Vivian spent nearly two and a half hours chatting with me via Skype, recounting memories and talking children’s literature. In this, her debut year, she has three picture books coming out, with two more to follow in 2020. This level of success in such a difficult field doesn’t come easily. So how did she do it? At 70, we don’t just hit “reset,” wave a wand, and sell five picture books. Success of this nature is the result of more than short-term dedication and hard work. It comes from a deeper place. A place that’s created in life’s pivotal moments.

The moments that make us… us.

Vivian explains, “You don’t start out who you are. Every experience that you have makes you who you become. I’ve been very fortunate. I got blessed with this positive and resilient core that… it almost doesn’t matter what happens.” She remembers her first pivotal moment with laughter, but I can still hear her indignation as she recounts the story.

Vivian was a self-described peacemaker. The kind of empathetic kid who, at seven years old, put pretzels in the pocket of her robe so that she’d be able to feed her family if there was a disaster and they were forced to leave the house. A good kid who welcomed everybody with open arms, including the uncle whom nobody liked.

Like any good writer, Vivian paints the scene for me beautifully.

It was 1952, during the Cold War. She was five or six at the time, and children were expected to hide under their desks during air raid drills. Vivian regularly shared this space with Harry, the boy who lived downstairs, because “we were in love.” Even though they lived in the projects on the lower east side of NYC, they frequently ran across FDR Drive alone to play or picnic in East River Park.

As she reminisces, Vivian laughs in disbelief at how times have changed.

At one point, Harry began stealing pennies from his mother’s purse to buy Vivian candy. His mom eventually caught him, knocked on Vivian’s door, and announced to her mother that Vivian was the mastermind behind his thieving. And with that came Vivian’s first, and only, spanking.

“I was so insulted, because it wasn’t my fault!” Vivian’s exasperation, 65 years later, makes me laugh. “Were you insulted because you were spanked, or because you didn’t feel you deserved it?” I ask. She doesn’t hesitate with her answer.


But this pivotal memory has a second part. At her school, students would sometimes be placed in charge of the class of 35 students if the teacher had to leave for a short period of time. Once, a girl who didn’t like Vivian, was put in charge and wrote Vivian’s name on the blackboard. When the teacher returned, Vivian was put in the corner.

“So these moments,” I ask, “the smack, the corner… how did they change you?”

“They strengthened my core,” Vivian replies. “I (thought), I know how I need to behave in the world, and I may sometimes have to do things or say things that aren’t quite what I want. But that’s ok. Because I still know what I want, and I’ll always know what I want. So even if I have to submerge what I want for the moment, I still know. Nobody can take that away from me. I am who I am.”

In those moments, pivotal to Vivian’s sense of self, she learned something that sticks with her to this day. As she explains it, “If you’re going to be a writer, you have to know who you are and love who you are. ALL of you.”

“Did it take you long to figure out who you were?” I ask.

“Not really.” Vivian nods, wise to understand that this is not often the case for people. Then she pauses, wanting to share the insight from another pivotal moment in her life… without sharing the moment itself.

It happened when she was 16. Having started first grade at age 5, Vivian was already in college. She’d experienced more life than most modern 16-year-old girls. But still, she was 16. In her own words, “I was a good girl. But I wasn’t.” It was this moment, though—this “mistake”—that most strengthened her belief in herself and assured her that no matter what life threw at her, she could get past it. In the midst of this defining moment, she explains, her parents could have turned and walked away. But they didn’t. They supported her. They loved her through it. And in turn, Vivian learned to love herself. More than that… she learned to forgive herself.

Vivian’s face turns serious. “If I can face this, I thought, the rest of my life is gonna be a piece of cake.”

That’s the power of trauma. It can break you, or it can make you stronger.

And it strengthened Vivian.

Vivian changes the subject with an almost imperceptible nod. “Let me tell you about skydiving.”

“When did you go skydiving?” I ask.

“When I was 64!” Vivian laughs as she recounts the memory. She had just self-published SHOW ME HOW, the book she wanted to have when she was a teacher and ran a daycare. The collection of 100 picture book stories, each teamed with a craft and a cooking experience, obviously remains a great source of pride.

“I’d written this wonderful book, but books don’t sell when they sit in boxes,” she says. But the prospect of approaching sellers and libraries intimidated her.

Until, at 64, she went skydiving with her son.

“When my feet touched the ground, I knew that if I could jump out of a perfectly good airplane, I could do just about anything,” Vivian says, more to herself than to me. Skydiving empowered her to leave her comfort zone. After skydiving, she asked bookstores and libraries to carry her book. She embraced social media. She learned to use a computer.

“That was the moment I realized, there is nothing I cannot do.”

After listening to Vivian giggle like a schoolgirl about how cute the skydiving instructor was, I finally summon the courage to ask about her late husband.

“Tell me about Stuart.” Vivian’s face softens with his memory. They’d met at Brooklyn College during freshman year. Though they were dating other people, they sat near one another in two classes and became casual friends.

But that changed on November 22, 1963, in English 1.1, when the announcement boomed over the loudspeaker.

President Kennedy had been shot and killed.

Vivian describes the scene as a chaotic one. Girls cried. Boys punched walls. The professor refused to release the students, understanding that they weren’t thinking clearly. By the time the lecture ended, an upset Vivian announced to no one in particular, “I’m not taking that bus home.”

Stuart offered to walk her home, changing both their lives in a moment. “We learned a lot about each other on that walk,” Vivian says. “We were both so vulnerable.”

{Stuart’s painting} SHOW ME HOW BLVD is named for Vivian’s first book title. PPP = Positive Parental Participation. The restaurant is named after Vivian.

It only took a few weeks before the pair realized that they belonged together. They broke up with their respective partners, became engaged their senior year, and married shortly after graduating from college. Since they were both teachers, time frequently joined them at the hip. They bonded, both as teachers and creatives. In fact, Stuart wrote a book in 1986—The Fine Bamboo Fly Rod: Secrets of Restoration and Repair—and was a beautiful, self-taught painter.  But no marriage flourishes without bumps.

Stuart’s first heart attack happened at 35, when they had three young children. Then he had another, about seven years later… this one requiring open-heart surgery. Then another, about seven years after that one. Even without these health challenges, though, life was not smooth-sailing. Stuart carried anger and resentment from childhood and held grudges as an adult. His highs were very, very high, and his lows were very, very low. But because Vivian embraced the peacekeeper within, and because their love was strong, the peace was kept.

For 54 years, the peace was kept.

I didn’t ask how Stuart died, because it doesn’t matter. He was in pain for years before his death; I understand that no one wants their loved ones to hurt. And yes, Vivian admits, she lost her best friend, but “he’s already part of my DNA. Stuart will always be with me.”

His spirit is indelible.

But now, she explains, “I’m free.” Having always done whatever everyone else needed, she is now free to do what she needs. Free to flap her wings. Travel. Have friends over.

Write beautiful picture books.

And then, because she once jumped from a plane, she can sell them.

I have no doubt this woman will do whatever she wants. At 72, Vivian Kirkfield has brand new dreams.

And no one will stop her from achieving them.

Writer for children – reader forever…that’s Vivian Kirkfield in five words. She’s got abucket list that contains many more than five words – but she’s already checked off skydiving, parasailing and banana-boat riding. When she is not looking for ways to fall from the sky or sink under the water, she can be found writing picture books that she hopes will encourage young kids to become lovers of books and reading. She is the author of Pippa’s Passover Plate (Holiday House, Feb 2019); Four Otters Toboggan: An Animal Counting Book (PomegranateKids, March 2019); Sweet Dreams, Sarah (Creston Books, May 2019); Making Their Voices Heard: The Inspiring Friendship of Ella Fitzgerald and Marilyn Monroe (Little Bee Books, Spring 2020); From Here to There: Inventions That Changed the Way the World Moves (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, Fall 2020). Vivian lives in the quaint New Hampshire town of Amherst where the old stone library is her favorite hangout and her young grandson is her favorite board game partner. You can visit Vivian on her website, Picture Books Help Kids Soar, where she hosts the #50PreciousWords Writing Challenge every March. Or connect with her on Facebook, Twitter, Pinterest, Instagram, Linkedin, and just about anywhere people are playing with picture books.


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