The idea for this book came from three experiences; two of them were reading experiences.
I read in The New York Times that the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City had bought a statue for $225. At the time of the purchase they did not know who had sculptured it, but they suspected that it had been done by someone famous in the Italian Renaissance; they knew that they had an enormous bargain. (The statue, by the way, is called The Lady with the Primroses; it is not an angel, and it was not sculptured by Michelangelo.)
Shortly after that article appeared in the paper I read a book that told the adventures of some children who, upon being sent by ship from their island home to England, were captured by pirates. In the company of the pirates, the children became piratical themselves; they lost the thin veneer of civilization that they had acquired in their island home.
The third thing that happened was a picnic that our family took while we were vacationing at Yellowstone Park. After buying salami and bread and chocolate milk and paper cups and paper plates and paper napkins and potato chips and pickles, we looked for a place to eat. There were no outdoor tables and chairs, so when we came to a clearing in the wood, I suggested that we all eat there. We all crouched slightly above the ground and began to spread out our meal. Then the complaints began: the chocolate milk was getting warm, and there were ants over everything, and the sun was melting the icing on the cupcakes. This was hardly having to rough it and yet my small group could think of nothing but the discomfort.
I thought to myself that if my children ever left home they would never become barbarians even if they were captured by pirates. Civilization was not a veneer to them; it was a crust. They would want at least all the comforts of home plus a few extra dashes of elegance. Where, I wondered, would they consider running to if they ever left home? They certainly would never consider any place less elegant than the Metropolitan Museum of Art.
Yes, the Metropolitan Museum of Art. All those magnificent beds and all that elegance. And then, I thought, while they were there, perhaps they would discover the secret of a mysterious bargain statue and in doing so, perhaps they could discover a much more important secret, the need to be different—on the inside where it counts.
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