I’m not one to take big risks in my writing in general. My latest novel, and my first for middle grade readers is a bit of a detour in this area. I grew up in a middle class, white, Presbyterian household. My mom’s side of the family has been in this country since before the Revolutionary War. My dad’s came over from Scotland at some point, but I feel certain their culture and traditions were close to what we still follow in my family to this day. But here’s the thing. I’ve had this concept floating around in my head for over ten years about writing a novel about sisters. One sister was conceived out of desperation to offer the other sister a fighting chance at survival. When I first heard about the real life case of these sisters, I was enthralled. A family had a teenager with aggressive leukemia and the parents conceived a baby hoping she could donate bone marrow. There was controversy about the ethics of the parents’ decision and plenty of people weighed in with their views on television. (A follow up article with an update on the sisters appeared in the Los Angeles Times recently.)
A few years after I heard about this case, I saw an episode of E.R. (Season 7, The Greatest of Gifts) that depicts surgeon Peter Benton finding a small child hiding in a closet. He asks her where she is supposed to be and it turns out the child fled the oncology ward because she was scared of the big needles they put in her arms to give cells to her sister. When Dr. Benton attempts to explain to the girl’s mother that she feels like her feelings don’t matter, the mom gives him quite an earful about how tired she is of being judged. This brief subplot of the episode stoked the flames of interest in writing a story about the younger sister who was born to be a potential donor to the older one.
So why make my main character a different ethnicity than myself? According to the World Donor Marrow Association, while two out of three Caucasians find a match, the chances of a patient from another ethnic background can be as low as one in four. My nursing background has taught me that Hispanic people seem to find it hardest to get a perfect match. I’m soliciting Beta readers who are Mexican-American to help me create a believable character. It would be impossible for me to get all of the subtleties of the culture right if I don’t get the assistance of people who grew up in it. But, I’m glad I tackled this project. I’ve fallen in love with my characters and I think it will find a home in the hearts of some kids out there.
Photo credit: Word Clip Art