Celebrating the hard-working princess

Children's book author E.D. Baker takes inspiration from her Harford County horse farm

May 09, 2010|By Mary Carole McCauley, The Baltimore Sun

CHURCHVILLE, Md. – The princesses who inhabit author E.D. Baker's 10 children's books are more likely to have a laugh like a honking goose than like a tinkling bell.

Baker's royal heroines curtsy clumsily, can't make small talk and are occasionally mistaken for one of the servants.

Every single one of them is immersed in the natural world. And, because these young women have a tendency to trip over their oversized feet, they frequently return to the castle covered head to toe with some of the natural world's more odiferous substances.

In short, Baker's heroines resemble a teen-age version of the 55-year-old author, herself

Baker, who also runs a horse farm in Churchville, has become a rising star on the children's literature circuit. On Tuesday, Bloomsbury Children's Books will release her newest novel, "The Wide-Awake Princess," which like the others, will be marketed toward a middle-school audience.

"The princesses in traditional fairy tales always annoyed me," Baker says.

"They don't do anything for themselves. Life just happens to them. I wanted to write about princesses who could not just help themselves, but help others. I want my readers to know they don't have to depend on other people to take care of them."

"The Wide-Awake Princess" jumbles together a collection of fairy tales, from "Sleeping Beauty" to "The Princess and the Pea" to "Hansel and Gretel" — but with Baker's inimitable twist. The novel is narrated by Annie, Sleeping Beauty's younger sister. She's the only member of the royal family who can perform not even the teensiest wisp of magic.

"I wanted Annie to be the antithesis of someone who's given everything," Baker says. "I wanted her to be a real person."

It was these hale, hearty, can-do, get-your-hands-dirty princesses who inspired editor Victoria Wells Arms to pick the manuscript for "The Frog Princess" from Bloomsbury USA's slush pile in the fall of 2001. It became the first book to be published by the company's new children's imprint — and eventually inspired a 2009 animated Disney film.

"Preteen and teenaged girls never feel beautiful," Wells Arms says. "One of Elizabeth's strengths is that she's able to translate that worry into something that's funny and charming. She understands a middle-schooler's sense of humor."

Baker, the editor says, is one of the imprint's most popular and successful authors.

"None of Elizabeth's books has hit the best-seller list yet, but they sell and sell and sell," Wells Arms says. " 'The Frog Princess' is 8 years old. It's still in bookstores, and there have been loads of foreign sales. Elizabeth has yet to show us everything she can do. I think she has yet to give us her biggest book."

A reliable presence in Baker's fiction are animals, many of which are modeled on the four-legged creatures who inhabit the 12-acre farm that the novelist runs with her two adult daughters, Kimmy and Ellie. (Her son, Nate, lives in Fells Point.)

Baker's spread, with the quirky moniker of First Proper Farm, is a bucolic place. A white house with dark blue shutters dating to 1915 is surrounded by fenced-in pastures and low, red stables. There's a wide front porch that catches the breezes, a swing big enough for two, a whiff of hay and pitchers of lemonade.

Visitors are happily introduced to four dogs, two ducks, four Nubian goats, more cats than can be counted, and 25 purebred Appaloosa horses with striped hooves and delicately mottled skin.

Though the Bakers have some invaluable part-time help, the mother and daughters do the bulk of the work for breeding and showing the horses themselves.

"I wanted to leave something for my children to inherit after I die," Baker says. "My girls didn't go to Harvard. We don't have what we have because things were given to us. It's because we work hard."

That they do.

After a full day of mucking stalls, Baker turns with anticipation and relief to her desk, where she writes for another five hours. She has set herself a goal to publish two books a year.

"Writing is my passion," Baker says. "I don't think of it as work, but as my treat, as what I get to do once I've finished work. I love being able to go into this world I've created, and the jigsaw puzzle element of it, putting all these pieces together."

Baker was born in Buffalo, N.Y., and she has been writing down her ideas for stories for as long as she could shove a pencil across the page.

She doesn't remember that these early bouts of creativity received any special encouragement, and she never thought of writing as more than a hobby until she hit middle age, got divorced and found herself trying to support three children.

"You are a product of what happens in your life," she says, "I've had some hard times. After I got divorced, we sold our big house and moved into a little, tiny rowhouse. All our furniture was in the basement, and when it rained, the basement flooded and ruined everything."

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