Wolf Hollow: What Does Evil Look Like?

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Image copyright: Dutton Books for Young Readers, Penguin Group (USA)

Wolf Hollow is a book that I couldn’t write about for quite a long time. It required some time to think about first–to marinate in my brain for awhile due to its themes. The writing is amazingly descriptive and beautiful. It evokes the same beautiful rural imagery of books like The War that Saved My Life, To Kill a Mockingbird, and Because of Winn Dixie. And like those books, it also deals with some very adult issues that kids face on a daily basis in this world.

In Wolf Hollow, the main character Annabelle comes from a loving home and is surrounded by a large support network. Even though the novel is set during war time, she lives a relatively peaceful life until a new girl moves to town to live with her grandparents. Enter one of the most unlikely villains you’re likely to encounter in children’s literature. Betty isn’t your typical school-yard bully. She isn’t Nelly Olson on steroids. She is sadistic. Cruel. Manipulative. Dangerous. Dishonest. Evil. She poses a threat to anyone who comes between her and whatever she takes a liking to at the moment.

How could a young girl be evil? Ms. Wolk brilliant shows readers this as the narrative unfolds. Her writing is gorgeous, and makes the reader feel as if he/she is right there in the thick of it all. The story will force a reader to face prejudices and ask the question,”What does evil look like?” Kids and adults alike will root for Annabelle and Toby (a veteran of WW1) who appears to suffer from PTSD (known as shell shock back then) and keeps to himself.

Betty makes it her mission to torment Toby. Her methods are calculated and terrifying to read about. You will ask yourself, “How could a little girl be this cruel?” Almost as frightening as the fact that Betty would do some of the awful things she does, is the fact that people so readily believe her side of things. She’s like a spider, craftily spinning her web and waiting for an innocent victim to wander into her trap. If J.K. Rowling had written a book about a middle school aged Bellatrix Lastrange, Betty could have been Bellatrix’s best friend–they are cut from the same cloth.

Wolk’s perfect pacing builds to a momentous climax. I won’t spoil the ending, but be prepared that it will make you think. It’s not easy, and certainly not your typical fairy tale happily ever after. But when are endings ever that way in real life?

A Review of Pax

Sometimes I wish I could start every new book with a completely blank slate–zero expectations. Occasionally it works out that way, especially if I’m browsing the shelves in the library and something happens to catch my eye. Usually though, there’s been enough buzz generated about a book by the time I read it that I’ve built my expectations fairly high.

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Copyright HarperCollins Publishing

This was definitely the case with the book Pax, a middle grade novel recommended for ages 10-14 by the publisher. The story is set in an indistinct time and place (though I assumed it was America due to the baseball references). All we know starting out is that there is a war brewing. We don’t know who are the “good guys” and who are the “bad guys” and honestly that seems to be the point the author is trying to make. In fact, Vola (a wounded veteran from a previous war) asks the MC Peter, “Do you think anyone in the history of this world ever set out to fight for the wrong side?”

Peter is twelve, his mother is dead and his father is emotionally unavailable with anger issues. His dad signs up to fight in the war and Peter is sent to live with his equally anger prone and emotionally zipped up grandfather. On the way to deliver Peter to his grandfather, Peter’s dad insists that his son’s pet fox be dumped by the roadside. He can’t risk having him underfoot at his father’s place. To Peter’s credit, he is heartbroken to abandon his pet (he rescued Pax as a tiny kit) but does it anyway–unable to bring himself to defy his father and ignite his temper.

The book alternates between the Points of View of the boy and the fox. There are some scenes depicting violence that cause death and injury to some animals. Some of the scenes in the novel seemed too contrived to be believable. I enjoyed the perspective of Pax (which means Peace in Latin) especially, as it brought back memories of one of my favorite childhood films, The Fox and the Hound. The author’s note at the end describes Ms. Pennypacker’s research with wildlife biologists to get aspects of fox behavior correct.

Overall, it was a good read. For a short book, it packs a big punch. If you’ve read Pax, I’d love to hear your opinion about the book.

My Favorite Ghost Stories

One thing about being an author is you never know what ideas will pop into your head. I was driving home from work a few weeks ago and I heard a song on the radio. The song started my mind down a certain train of thought. By the time I got home, I had a fully formed idea for a novel. After dinner, I went out by the pool with a clipboard, crashed into a chaise lounge chair and completed a 4 Act Plot Chart for a YA novel involving a MC who isn’t still living. This is a huge departure for my writing, but so far I’m enjoying this work in progress and just passed the 6K word mark.

Anyone who knows me, will understand this isn’t a scary story. I don’t do horror in any shape or form. In fact, I’m a huge chicken when it comes to scary books or movies. Beginning this new project made me start thinking about my favorite books and movies that involve ghosts of any kind. Some of them are mildly scary, but certainly not horrifically so. So, without further ado, here’s a list of my favorites.

  1. Ghost. What’s not to love about this 1990 movie with Patrick Swayze and Demi Moore? It’s got all the emotions you want to see in a romance, plus the comedic element added by Whoopi Goldberg (who completely nails the role of the psychic Swayze nags into agreeing to help him). You’ll laugh, cry, scream at the screen, and even swoon at the famous pottery wheel scene.

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    Image copyright Warner Brothers Studios
  2. A Christmas Carol by Charles Dickens. This classic tale has been retold many ways over the 100+ years since it was released, but it’s never lost its punch. This great exchange at the very beginning of the novel between Ebenezer Scrooge and his nephew is just a tiny example of the wit evidenced in this book:

    “A merry Christmas, uncle! God save you!” cried a cheerful voice. It was the voice of Scrooge’s nephew, who came upon him so quickly that this was the first intimation he had of his approach.
    “Bah!” said Scrooge, “Humbug!”
    He had so heated himself with rapid walking in the fog and frost, this nephew of Scrooge’s, that he was all in a glow; his face was ruddy and handsome; his eyes sparkled, and his breath smoked again.
    “Christmas a humbug, uncle!” said Scrooge’s nephew. “You don’t mean that, I am sure?”
    “I do,” said Scrooge. “Merry Christmas! What right have you to be merry? What reason have you to be merry? You’re poor enough.”
    “Come, then,” returned the nephew gaily. “What right have you to be dismal? What reason have you to be morose? You’re rich enough.”
    Scrooge having no better answer ready on the spur of the moment, said, “Bah!” again; and followed it up with “Humbug.”
    “Don’t be cross, uncle!” said the nephew.
    “What else can I be,” returned the uncle, “when I live in such a world of fools as this? Merry Christmas! Out upon merry Christmas! What’s Christmas time to you but a time for paying bills without money; a time for finding yourself a year older, but not an hour richer; a time for balancing your books and having every item in ’em through a round dozen of months presented dead against you? If I could work my will,” said Scrooge indignantly, “every idiot who goes about with ‘Merry Christmas’ on his lips, should be boiled with his own pudding, and buried with a stake of holly through his heart. He should!”

     

    Does it get any better than this? Haha. Boiled in his own pudding? But this novel isn’t all humor. There are poignant lessons learned by Scrooge that can benefit us all to this day. * Note: The link above directs you to a free copy of the novel online through The Gutenberg Project.

  3. The Sixth Sense. Oh this movie…sigh. I loved it. I dragged my husband to see it a second time because I just couldn’t believe we’d miss the signs that could have led us to figure out the big plot twist before it happened. And yes, on the second viewing it was much more obvious. 🙂 But what I loved about this movie was the heart of the MC, and his relationships with child psychologist Bruce Willis and his Mom. The scene in the car with his mom where he recounts for her something his grandma told him will cause an ugly cry instantly.
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    Image copyright Buena Vista Studios

    4. The Lovely Bones by Alice Sebold. I knew nothing about this book when I began reading it, but by the end it had a powerful hold on me. As a pediatric nurse, I’ve experienced first hand the devastating effects losing a child can have on a family. Even as a child dies, he/she worries about the sadness of the parents.  A child viewing the post-mortem disaster her family becomes in the wake of her death makes for a gripping novel. It’s a parent’s worst nightmare in more ways than one.

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    Copyright Random House 

    5. Casper the Friendly Ghost. Admittedly, this one goes back to watching the cartoon as a child (and reading the comics!). It was comforting to think of ghosts as friendly and childlike. Nothing like the scary ghosts of my teen years, like the ones found in The Shining or Poltergeist. My sister was always terrified of ghosts, but I never have been. But like I said earlier, I’m a chicken so I avoid reading or watching scary ghost stories if I can help it. 🙂 Casper is my kind of ghost! Casper_the_Friendly_Ghost_issue_No.1_(March,_1991)

     

    I’m sure I could think of more favorites, but I need to get back to working on my own ghost story. As a writer, you have to write never knowing for sure if your story will see the light of day. So you’ve got to love what you do. If you have favorite ghost stories, I’d love for you to comment and share them. Thanks.

Crossing the Cultural Divide

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For some reason, I’ve been reflecting on the three years my family spent living in Germany lately. Maybe it’s because the world seems so divided these days, or maybe because my kids are grown and I’m nostalgic for the family time we shared back then.

We took advantage of the wonderful opportunity to live overseas and traveled as much as our schedule and bank account allowed. In those travels, we met a great many people. People of different religions, races and cultural practices than us. Our kids played with other kids on playgrounds and swimming pools, even though they couldn’t understand a word of the other’s language. Verbal communication is important–we all know that. But a smile or an act of kindness transcends language barriers and reminds us that we are all sharing this planet together.

The older I get, the more I seek out friendships with people who come from different backgrounds than I do. It makes my life fuller and helps me view the world in a broader sense–and not merely from my own narrow cultural lens. It’s reflected in my writing as well. As I envision characters for my stories, they are much more diverse than they were a few years ago when I started writing.

I hope you have a change to share a smile with someone today, even if that someone speaks a different language. Like the proverb says, “All people smile in the same language.”

A Tiny Superhero with a Huge Heart

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Baby Groot from Guardians of the Galaxy 2 (Marvel) takes down a much bigger bad guy! Copyright Walt Disney Motion Picture Studios. 

I have always loved characters that surprise me. Especially if that character is a child that no one expects to do great things. This character is found in all of my favorite books by Roald Dahl–unloved, orphaned, tiny, impoverished–whatever the reason, the world at large has low expectations for the character. And then, our scrappy little kid goes on to prove the world was completely mistaken and we learn that he/she is truly amazing.

In my recently completed picture book manuscript, my main character is certainly not the kid anyone would expect to be a superhero and save his school from a robber. But that is exactly what he does. My character was born with a disability that required him to have a special tube placed in his neck to help him breathe. But don’t count him out just yet. He’s packing a hidden punch.

As a pediatric nurse, I’ve been awed and inspired countless times by the enormity of courage packed into tiny little bodies. Kids are my passion, and writing stories that show their powers (in ways the world doesn’t expect) is more fun than should be legal. I hope that one day this story will make it out into the world and you can share in the fun of watching my tiny little guy with the huge heart take down the bad guys. Until then, Google some videos of Baby Groot in action for a guaranteed smile!

A Look at Childhood Poverty

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Several years ago when I taught fourth grade, I attended a training on childhood poverty. We were each handed a tool to measure how comfortable we were doing various tasks. The questions were things like, “Would you know how to cash a check without a bank account?” and “Could you organize a formal function for 300 guests with a seating chart?” I don’t remember what the exact questions were, but when I was finished and was told how to “score” my inventory, it revealed that I was solidly middle class. How could this assessment measure my social class? It simply looked at the tasks that I felt I could easily accomplish. I felt completely comfortable performing tasks that middle class Americans tend to perform on a regular basis, and because of this “comfort zone”, I was categorized as middle class.

Why is this important? Because most teachers in America come from a middle class background. It’s what they know. It’s where they are comfortable. It’s what they understand. Therefore, when planning lessons, assigning homework, holding conferences with parents and interacting with students, the teachers are viewing each situation through a “middle-class lens.”Through this workshop, it became apparent to me that the very way I perceive the world, react to situations, evaluate objects and behave are all tied to my socioeconomic level.

And this is fine if I’m teaching in a school where my students all have the same perceptions and experiences. But what about when we have students who live in poverty? When assigning homework and projects, don’t I make the assumption that my students will have pencils, crayons, paper and electricity? And to be honest, don’t we tend to assume that a student will have a parent to help them? Because we help our kids and our own parents helped us. This is where we can run into trouble.

The book, How to Steal a Dog, offers readers a glimpse into what life is like for a child living in poverty. Even though Georgina’s family has lost their apartment (after being abandoned by her father), life goes on for them. Her mom still has to work and the kids still have to go to school. They live in their car with no assurance of safety, no comfort, and no real hope that things will get better any time soon. Georgina’s teacher isn’t aware of her changed circumstances and makes incorrect assumptions.

I highly recommend this book. Read it yourself and read it with your kids. It offers a wonderful insight into what life is like for families living in poverty. Families who are hit with unexpected setbacks or tragedies that change their circumstances in the blink of an eye. If you’ve read this book, I’d love to hear what you think. Also, if you’re a teacher with experience teaching children who live in poverty, please reach out and let me know of your experiences.

 

 

 

 

Photo Credit: FS&G, 2007. Frances Foster Books

 

What I’ve Learned Reading My Grandma’s Journal

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The first page of Grandma’s journal in 1933

My heart soared when I read the first line of Grandma’s journal. “Today has been perfect.” Wow, what could be better? She was 28 years old, married to the love of her life and a new mother. But on the very same page, I read how scared she was to think of her little boy ever being sick. Fast forward 20 years, and that beautiful young man was dead from brain cancer which struck him during his first year of college. Reading the intimate thoughts of a person I’d loved so dearly was an emotional roller coaster. However, I learned some lessons from her words that I want to share.

  1. My grandparents loved each other. Almost daily, she expressed her gratitude for the wonderful man she’d married. I delighted in reading of my grandpa coming home from duty at the Naval Hospital in Rhode Island where they were stationed and helping wash and fold diapers, cook dinner, clean dishes or anything else to help make things easier for my grandma. So much for my preconceived notions of gender roles of American couples in the 1930s!
  2. They helped their families no matter what. Even in the midst of a depression and a cut in my grandpa’s navy salary, they sent bi-monthly checks to help siblings go to school and sent money to help her parents “make ends meet” each month. They would drive 2 hours to provide respite care to in-laws who were caregivers for an elderly parent. Many times over the months chronicled in her journal, my grandma wished she could help even more and expressed worry for her family members.
  3. Bank were literally closed. After mention several times of bank closures, I went and looked it up. Sure enough, in an effort to restore confidence in American banks (by keeping people from rushing the banks to remove their money) FDR closed banks for a period of time. Many times she wrote of uncertainty about the future and worried how they’d manage.
  4. Some things never change! Certain emotions and sentiments are universal. Over the course of these months, Grandma expressed her frustration with “politicians in Washington”, her hopes for the future, her love for her child and spouse, and her gratitude for it all.
  5. President Roosevelt was almost assassinated. I probably read this in a text book years ago, but I’d obviously forgotten it. Grandma mentioned her brother going to Washington for the inauguration of FDR (which strangely was in March, not January) but also expressed her shock that a month earlier someone had tried to kill him. Sure enough, back to the Internet I went, and discovered that when he was still President-elect, a man in Miami fired shots at him.
  6. They used funny expressions in the ’30s! I learned that “plum caflooey” means an awful lot of something and that if you’ve “fallen off the roof” it’s time to stock up on feminine supplies for the month. Also, if a person is “prickly”, you may just want to give them some space. I’m sure there are more, but these are the ones that jumped out at me. 🙂
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Jane, Austin and Bobby Walter

If you have the chance to read a journal of a loved one, please do. It was such a treasure to me and it creates the desire to leave words for my future grandchildren to read.

The Song of the Valley Dweller

Have you ever been to a place that has captivated you? A place with the spirit of an enchantress? Somewhere you want to stay forever? I’ve been fortunate enough to spend many of my life’s hours in such a place. Nestled in the Blue Ridge Mountains of North Georgia is a tiny valley that most people have never heard of- but if you’ve been there, you’re not likely to forget. It oozes with charm and a level of serenity that will almost convince you that you’ve stepped back in time.

My great-grandfather, Dr. John Coit, was captivated by the Nacoochee Valley. The views he saw all around him-mountains, streams, rivers, granite cliffs, waterfalls, sunsets, etc., inspired him to pen a poem titled, The Song of the Valley Dweller. It is a beautiful love story, written for a place, rather than a lover. The last two stanzas of the poem read:

Fair Nacoochee, Vale of beauty,
Thou has won my very heart,
All my love is gladly given, 
For a smile of love thou art.
Lynch, Tallulah, Tray, and Yonah, 
May thy circling summits high,
Ever guard this charming valley,
As the years pass swiftly by.
Then if I should fail to hear Him,
And these hand should folded be.
And this heart must cease its labor
Ere the Master’s face I see;
Then may those who know and love me,
Come and lay me close to rest
By the bright streams of Nacoochee,
Near the hills I love the best.

J.K. Coit, May 1922

Years after these words were inscribed as a tribute to the valley, his adopted daughter (my grandmother) moved there with her family. My grandfather became the only doctor in the valley and treated patients in a room converted into his office. The house, with its wrap-around porch and mountain views, was enticing enough to inspire someone in a NYC office to select an image shot from that very porch as the cover of the New York Times best selling  novel, The Notebook.

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The 1800’s era farmhouse comes complete with ghost stories, Native American legends, and a sleeping porch upstairs with full windows on 3 sides. Lucky for my own family, and others who’d love to experience these majestic views for themselves, the house operates as a Bed and Breakfast named, The Stovall House. If you are planning a trip to this area, at least plan to stop in for a meal at the restaurant and soak up the views from the porch.

If you do get a chance to stop in, I’d love to hear about it. Also, if you have a place in this world that has captivated you the way this valley has captivated me and so many others before me, please let me know.

Go Forward with Courage

Sometimes book titles can literally be the hardest part of writing an entire novel. You can spend months or years thoughtfully creating characters, putting them into situations that create drama or suspense for your readers, and crafting dialogue that feels natural and realistic. But once the book is finished, finding the perfect title that feels worthy of the story can be elusive–nothing seems quite right. If you’re lucky, you’ll come across something that strikes like lightning, and you’ll know you’ve landed the perfect title.

That was the case for my latest novel, Go Forward with Courage. A central part of the novel deals with Michi and her family, who are forced to relocate to an internment camp in Arkansas after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor. For the thousands of families impacted by the Executive Order to remove all citizens of Japanese ancestry from the west coast, every step of their journeys to these camps took courage. But it didn’t end there. When they were finally allowed to leave at the war’s end to return home, what were they returning to? It varied of course, but for many of these displaced persons, they had nothing tangible to return to.

The title, Go Forward with Courage comes from a quote by a Native American Chief after his realization that he had no other choice but accompany his people to a reservation.

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“When you are in doubt, be still, and wait; when doubt no longer exists for you, then go forward with courage. So long as mists envelope you, be still; be still until the sunlight pours through and dispels the mists — as it surely will. Then act with courage”.

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When I came across this quote while writing the novel, the similarity of the plight of the Japanese-American citizens displaced from their homes to the Native Americans generations earlier seemed incredibly relevant. My character Michi, and the thousands of others like her, would need courage to face the unknown waiting for them when they returned “home” after the war. Some of the images captured from that time period, express more than my own words ever could.

I have so much admiration for the people who rebuilt lives after having them interrupted during the war. The courage it took is inspiring, and I hope that my story does them justice.

Still a Somber Day 75 Years Later

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On this day, the few remaining veterans who survived the Japanese attacks at Pearl Harbor 75 years ago and can still make the trip, are headed to Hawaii. There will be memorial parade commemorating the day that the fates of the world shifted for so many. Reading and listening to accounts of these survivors prompted me to write a novel that begins on this fateful morning in 1941.

In my novel, Go Forward with Courage, young Jackson loses his father on this day. His father (like my grandfather) is a doctor in the US Navy. Jackson’s father Lieutenant Commander William Lieber is killed while treating injured sailors being brought from Battleship Row.

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Photo Courtesy of The National Archives taken from an official US Navy photograph

Jackson’s mother, Margaret has to decide where to take her children after the death of her husband and decides to go back to where she’d grown up–McGehee, Arkansas. She believes that the war can never touch her children there. Margaret returns home with her children after a long estrangement caused by her decision to marry the son of German immigrants. Her father, a veteran of the Great War, was too consumed with bitterness toward the Germans after his experiences as a POW there to see that William was completely devoted to his only daughter.

 

Meanwhile, in California another family’s life is shattered by the bombings at Pearl Harbor in a different way. Michi’s family owns a grocery store, but soon has to pack their belongings and leave for an internment camp after President Roosevelt signs the executive order that mandates the evacuation of all persons of Japanese ancestry.

Michi’s family ends up at Rohwer “Relocation Center” just a few miles from where Jackson is now living with his grandparents. Jackson and Michi ultimately cross paths and are forced to deal with feelings of hatred and betrayal they both feel due to the circumstances of their lives.

This time period has provided endless fodder for novelists for decades. For me, the appeal of this story was the convergence of two individuals impacted by the same event; the bombing at Pearl Harbor. I wondered how a young man who lost his father to Japanese bombers would feel about coming face to face with so many people in his mother’s hometown that looked like his enemy. And I wondered how a young woman, born in this country and entitled to the same rights as every other American citizen, would feel toward the locals in a place where she’d been forced to go. In researching the novel, I read every first hand account I could come across to gain more understanding of the personal experiences my characters might have had.

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If you’ve read my novel, I’d love to hear from you. If you have any personal experiences or were told stories from the war by your parents or grandparents, I’d love to hear them. World War 2, which America entered immediately after the attacks on December 7, was a defining moment for America. The internment of Japanese Americans during the war is something that should be studied in schools and discussed at length with every generation. If you’re interested in learning more on the subject, I highly recommend you visit Densho.org. If you’d like to read more about the actual camp where Michi’s family lived during the war, there is a museum there. Another great resource for a vast array of information regarding how the war affected Americans is at the National WW II Musuem’s website. Thanks for reading and commenting!