Building a World for Kids

 

 

orange and yellow tentWe just got the official news that our summer camp for kids with trachs was cancelled this year. With all the closings due to COVID-19, it’s no surprise, but it’s absolutely gut wrenching for the campers and the volunteers who go each year. Especially for the campers. Last summer, as we packed up to leave, the little boy I drove up from Savannah asked me what day it was. I told him it was Friday. He promptly replied, “Then I want to come back Saturday.” He meant the very next day. Camp is a world of its own. It’s an escape from reality.

I’ve been reflecting a good bit this past week about camp. About what it means for kids with special needs, whose daily lives are filled with treatments, procedures and medications. Kids who are often singled out and maybe even bullied at school because of their differences.

This reflection led me to remember a hectic day last summer. We’d just gotten our group of campers into the cafeteria for lunch, when two of mine said they needed to use the restroom. One of them uttered those dreaded words, “I don’t know if I can hold it.” SO, we set off at top speed for the bathrooms. The two  campers in my care had just shimmied through a row of other campers seated at long tables, when a little guy I didn’t know from a different special needs camp jumped up and stood between me and my little guys.

Before I could say a word about needing to catch up to my charges, he said (in such a serious tone of voice it was almost alarming), “I’m in that house too.”

He stared at me. Expectant. Waiting. I had no clue what he was talking about for a good 10 seconds (as I’m hoping we won’t completely miss lunch because we have to walk back to our cabin and changes clothes before the next activity). Then it hit me. I was wearing a T shirt with a printed Gryffindor logo on it. Luckily, I recovered fairly quickly, considering. “Oh, yeah,” I said. “I’m a Gryffindor through and through.” His face. It just lit up completely. We’d connected. Not through that physical place, as magical as it is. But through a world built by J.K. Rowling.

This is why I’m passionate about writing books for kids. They can’t always escape physically to a place where their problems feel miles away. But, hopefully they can always pick up a book and escape to a world built by an author. In these days of isolation, we need this more than ever! We need to build connections with people we might not get a chance to see in person like we used to. We need to see someone across a crowded room, and stop them to say, “I’m in that house too.”

Gryffindor Emblem Wall Cut Out HARRY POTTER WIZARDING WORLD

 

Living History

After my dad passed away last year, Mom decided to move into an assisted living facility near my home. She wanted to be as independent as possible, and not be “right on top of us” in my house. It’s been a tough transition for all of us, in some ways. But I’ve also had the opportunity to grow my extended family through the fascinating friends Mom has made in her new home.

One of those new friends is Betty. Betty is 96 (turning 97 later this year) and still volunteers at the Mighty 8th Air Force museum in Savannah on a regular basis. She shared the story of her younger years with me recently, and we decided to make her story into a children’s nonfiction book. Here are some highlights:

Betty in Uniform
Betty in her Navy uniform during the World War II.

She was a part of a top secret project (Ultra) during World War II.

I wasn’t even aware that Americans were a part of this code-breaking effort. Like many other Americans, I watched the movie about Alan Turing a few years ago, and learned that researchers at Bletchley Park in England cracked the German Enigma code. It turns out, that was only part of the story. Betty was a part of the “rest of the story”. She worked with other Navy WAVES (Women Accepted for Volunteer Emergency Service) in Dayton, Ohio to build machines that we used to break the German Navy Enigma codes. Apparently, the German Navy added extra rotors to make the codes more difficult to break, and the British needed our help. Betty’s work on the project was so secretive, even she didn’t know the importance of the work she’d done until 1995 when she received an award from the National Security Agency (NSA). You can see the one remaining machine built by Betty and other WAVES at NSA’s cryptologic museum at Ft. Meade.

Betty and Waves in Classroom
Betty (top row, second from left) with other WAVES during a training class in Washington, DC 1943. Photo from Betty’s personal collection.

Betty was a National Swim Champion. Betty swam competitively during her teen, college and even Navy years. She won several National swim titles, but never realized her dream of competing in the Olympics as both the 1940 and 1944 Olympics were cancelled due to the war.

Betty on diving board
Another photo from her personal collection: Betty poses on the diving board of the National Cash Register’s Sugar Camp pool in Dayton, Ohio during the war years.

She met famous people. Betty swam with future movie star, Esther Williams when they were both teenagers. Ms. Williams’ Olympic dreams were also thwarted by the war. In addition, Betty had the chance to meet Orville Wright, of the famous Wright Brothers. Mr. Wright asked for permission to meet Betty after reading an article about the young Navy WAVE defending her swim title. One of the world’s greatest visionaries chatted with young Betty about her own dreams. She also remembers drenching Mr. Wright’s shirt when he gave her a hug, as she’d just climbed out of the pool. It’s a meeting she’s never forgotten. Interestingly, that newspaper article almost got Betty in major trouble. Her swim coach didn’t go through the proper channels to secure permission for her to compete, and since she was in the Navy, her commander wasn’t happy! When the next championship rolled around, her swim coach knew exactly how to secure permission the right way.

WAVES poster
One of the recruiting posters advertising the WAVES.

When the Navy began recruiting women into active duty, Betty wanted to do her part. She was raised to hunt, fish, swim and even solder wires with her father. It wasn’t in her nature to sit back and let the men go to war.

I recently interviewed Betty about her experiences during the war and looked through photo albums with her. It was such an honor to have her share her story with me. It felt like I was interviewing living history. I’m polishing up the manuscript of her story, and hoping to get it into the hands of a publisher! I’d love to see kids inspired by her story too.

Betty and Melissa

 

Jeremiah Justice Update

With the help of Kickstarter and some amazing collaborators, I was able to raise the funds I needed to bring Jeremiah Justice Saves the Day into the world. Local Savannah artist Rashad Doucet agreed to illustrate the book, and his work is amazing! Every page has movement and action. I think kids are truly going to love this book.

I wanted to take the chance to share some of Rashad’s illustrations. Enjoy! More news will be coming soon regarding the date the book will be available to purchase. Thanks to everyone who has helped make this dream come true. I hope we can break some barriers and show that special needs kids can most definitely be superheroes.

 

Book Clubs

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A great conversation with a community book club about my second novel, Burning Prospects.

One of my favorite things about writing books is the chance to meet readers and discuss the plot and characters from my novels with them. Considering I don’t have an agent, publicist, and basically do nothing to promote my novels (shame on me, but I’m terrible at it!), I’ve been fortunate to receive invitations from quite a few book clubs. I’ve spoken to groups at several different churches, neighborhoods and one community group. It’s especially rewarding to be invited back to discuss a new book, when you’ve been a guest of the group previously with an earlier novel.

A couple of years ago, I spoke at a group that was open to the public. A local reporter called me to get a phone interview about my book prior to the event. When I arrived, I noticed an elderly man sitting alone. Everyone else was chatting with each other as they arrived, but this gentleman did not interact with anyone else in the group. The Villages Book Club blurb

Shortly after I began my talk, it became clear why he’d come. He hadn’t read Go Forward with Courage, but he came to “set the record straight” about what happened to the Japanese American citizens who were interned in camps during the war. In his opinion, they got better than they deserved because our government fed and sheltered them and kept them safe. If the tables had been turned, he insisted, the Japanese government would have killed any Americans living on their soil.

It was interesting to see the transformation that occurred in him during the meeting. After allowing him to express his opinion, I politely explained that my book was based on extensive research and first hand accounts. I provided him with the sources to find the information, and others in the room that had read the book informed him that my book paints a very balanced view of what happened, by framing it in the historical context of the times. If you are interested in learning more about Japanese Internment during WW2, Densho.org and The National World War II Museum are both great resources. Just search the archives for interviews from people who lived through the events.

The man began to ask questions, nod when certain points were brought up, and by the end of the meeting he thanked me for allowing him to speak. Nothing prepares a person for this type of encounter. I think that’s why it can be intimidating to accept an invitation to speak at a group where there will be back and forth dialogue, and Q & A. But I love hearing from my readers, and even the occasional “non-reader” who has an opinion about the subject matter.

If you’re a member of a book club, have you ever hosted an author visit? I’d love to hear about your experiences.

 

A Week of Mentorship

From the moment my feet touched the ground at the Highlight’s Foundation property in Pennsylvania, I knew I’d made the right choice. I selected Summer Camp at the Barn from a long list of amazing workshops for the opportunity of mentoring. I shared a van from the airport with three of the talented and generous mentors for the week, and from the beginning I felt welcome.

I discovered fairly quickly after arriving that it wasn’t only the official mentors I’d learn from during the week. The group of talented writers assembled at Summer Camp 2017 taught me more than I’d thought possible. Through critique sessions on the screened porch of the farmhouse, impromptu discussions between activities, and chats during meals, I learned. I grew as a writer. I felt a part of a community.

Here it is, October already, and I’m taking time to reflect on how much this experience meant to me. I’m happy to say that through a Facebook group and email list, some of us are exchanging manuscripts for critique and sharing exciting news. One of our group just signed with an agent, and another was chosen as a mentee in Pitchwars. I’m polishing two articles I plan to submit to Highlights, and have already received feedback from two of my fellow “summer camp” alums.

I would highly recommend this experience to anyone interested in writing for children and teens, no matter where you are in the writing journey. You will meet people at varying stages at Highlights that will become a part of your own journey. The generosity of the staff, mentors, and other attendees will remain with me for years to come.

 

The Power of Language

A man named Alex Tizon wrote an article for the June 2017 issue of The Atlantic magazine detailing the life of the woman he says raised him. He called her “Lola” and she made the journey with his family from the Philippines when the author was 5. It would be a lovely endearing story of a woman dedicated to his family except for one thing–she was essentially his family’s slave–unpaid, overworked, and unable to leave due to an expired visa.

Mr. Tizon died unexpectedly prior to this publication, but his wife was interviewed on NPR about the backlash the family has received after his revelations became public. One interesting thing about this story is the author’s decision to refer to Lola as a slave. In fact the title of the article is “My Family’s Slave.” According to Mr. Tizon’s wife, this terminology was never used to describe her by the family. But as her husband began the process of writing this story, he decided to use the word that best described her status in relationship to his family.

When I wrote Go Forward with Courage, I conducted extensive research about the evacuation of Japanese Americans from the west coast during WW2. I came across discussions about the importance of language–specifically the terms we use as a society to define people and events. Roger Daniels wrote an article, Words Do Matter: A Note on Inappropriate Terminology and the Incarceration of the Japanese AmericansHe makes excellent points about why, as a society, we still use the terms internment in relocation centers rather than incarceration in concentration camps. I get it–we all associate the term concentration camp with Nazi atrocities, making the term practically taboo. But our aversion to using the more correct language only serves to whitewash over the reality of what actually happened to over 100,000 people in our country.

It’s tempting to use lighter, fluffier words to diffuse the negative connotations associated with the harsher, but often more truthful definitions. In the case of Mr. Tizon and his family’s relationship with Lola, his decision to refer to her as his family’s slave seems to suggest that he understood the power of language.

I’d love to hear your thoughts.

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.

    ghost.jpg
    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.
    download (1)
    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.

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 capable of stopping a notorious super villain in his tracks. But that is exactly what he does. My character was born with a disability that required him to have a tracheostomy 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!

What I’ve Learned Reading My Grandma’s Journal

journal
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. 🙂
grandparents
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.

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.

white-eagle

“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”.

Pocono Chief White Eagle

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.