I don’t normally scavenge through other people’s garbage, but there was good reason to go through the bags my kid was throwing out: Money.

At $2.70 per bag in our city of Portland, it would cost some $16 to toss the half dozen bags she would put out after a big end-of-summer room cleaning.

I had my doubts that the bags actually contained what we call “garbage-garbage.” In fact, I was pretty sure that many of them were full of things we could put out for free in the recycling bin.

It might have been the boxy shapes clearly showing through the plastic bags that tipped me off. Boxy shapes that were, in fact, empty shoe boxes.

I began routinely going through the bags after these big cleans. Cardboard boxes were broken down and recycled, and schoolbooks (oh, the shame! But at least she was cleaning her room) got returned to the schools. And the notebooks got adopted by me.

Every fall we had dutifully bought notebooks for her classes. And every summer these partially used notebooks, with varying amounts of perfectly good paper still left inside them, were thrown away.


Apparently my kid hadn’t taken to heart her great-grandmother’s saying that “every piece of paper has two sides,” a motto to live by if I ever heard one, along with my personal favorite, “Use it up, wear it out, make it do or do without.”

I was happy to model these mottos by using the old notebooks. While I do much of my writing on the computer, I still like pen and paper for scribbling notes and first drafts.

It seemed especially apt that I should use my kid’s cast-off notebooks to draft my books because, in some sense, my books are written for the reader she was.

Even though she had taught herself to read by leafing through picture books, she was a “reluctant reader.” Very few books grabbed her. She wasn’t going to ask for another chapter if the last one hadn’t ended with a darn good reason to turn the page.

Reading aloud to her, I became a better writer. Now I have three novels for elementary school-age readers published, and a fourth in the works.

But soon I’ll need a new source of paper. School is college now. The going-back-to-school room cleanings don’t yield as many garbage bags, and they aren’t filled with paper or cardboard anymore. Once I discovered that the bags were just full of “garbage-garbage,” I stopped going through them. And I guess this should make me happy. She’s recycling! She’s at college!

But as I near the end of the last notebook, I’m feeling sad. Her first name and last initial is on the front cover in permanent marker: Zora K.

I want to say: Thanks, Zora. Thanks for letting me read to you when you were young. Thanks for making me a better writer. Thanks for the treasures you left in unexpected places.

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