Believe in yourself

Yesterday was a big day. Huge, in fact. It was the day that the sixty-four 5th graders had the chance to meet their favorite heroine, CRACKERS! Crackers is a character in my current WIP, BETWEEN THE LINES, a historical depiction of the friendship of three 5th grade girls, one a motherless tomboy (Crackers), one a distracted dreamer (Hattie), and one a genius of the first order (Beverly Jo) who just happens to be the first African-American student at an all white school on the heels of the ‘67 Detroit riots.

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When I was in the initial stages of planning this book and had made the decision to tell the story of three unlikely friends, I thought about the women who have touched my life—those special friends who changed the course of my understanding and grew my world exponentially. I was a sheltered youth, growing up in a tiny Catholic community and seldom exposed to differences and mind-expanding notions until I attended college. It was at Eastern Michigan University that I met these two women, Ann McCracken and Beverly Nichols, who changed my view of the world.

Much like the characters in Between the Lines, Ann and Beverly were different from my usual friends. Ann was an unfiltered, quick-witted crackerjack and Beverly was a warm-hearted, brilliant girl who just happened to be black. I was struck by their differences and the “rules” prescribed to us by the times. Ann and I were not allowed to speak to Beverly on campus, but only in the privacy of our shared dorm room. Ann was busy wearing the drapes, sitting on the closet shelf in order to scare the living daylights out of me when I returned from class, and Beverly was busy teaching me about kindness and the ways in which we are all the same on the inside. Both of them forced me to reconsider the strict boundaries I’d established for myself, and to look at the world through wider eyes.

As I mentioned, I was young and very naive.

Forty-four years later I was assigned with the task of writing a novel for Middle Grades. My fifth grade students entrusted me with this project, and I was under pressure to deliver. After all, they had completed all the assignments I’d given them; it was my turn. It’s no surprise that I returned to my own history and the lessons I’d learned as a youth that I hoped I could bestow on my former students in a compelling and entertaining book.

Enter CRACKERS. This is not the first time I have modeled a character after Ann McCracken. She has one of the most sparkly, stand-up comedian personalities in the universe and let’s just say she’s provided me with a plethora of material over the years. You can visit her coed character, Janie, in The Wrong Guy which I’ve recently rereleased. But, I digress.

As part of writing Between the Lines, I have been involving the students in the Dave Fiske/Lori LaBoe classrooms. I spent the first part of the school year talking to them about the importance of establishing characters. Who could be a more winning character than Ann, the girl who was not only my roommate but became my lifelong friend? Needless to say, I evidently crafted her character well because the students have been begging me for months to bring her into the classroom. Not that I had to work hard to create her 5th grade self. I could write this girl’s personality in my sleep.

Here’s what she said to the kids after bringing them to tears with laughter: “Believe in YOURSELF! When no one else believes in you and when all you hear is, ‘you’ll never do it, you aren’t that smart,’ show them what you can accomplish. You can overcome anything if you set your mind to it.”

Ann in the 5th GRADE!

Ann in the 5th GRADE!

Ann’s overcome many obstacles in her life–the loss of her mother when she was six years old, the ineptness of a young father who was forced to raise two girls on his own, and the classic wicked stepmother. But instead of becoming a victim and caving in on herself and giving up, she used humor to cope and pushed herself to focus on her assets, not her weaknesses. Ann made the choice to overcome the odds, which were definitely not in her favor. This spunky little tomboy made something of herself and spent thirty-three years teaching and connecting with youth in a challenging school district—with kids she understood and mentored with the same lessons she had learned. “Believe in YOURSELF! Nothing is impossible!”

Thanks, Crackers, for visiting the classroom and inspiring our youth. It was a special day that sixty-four 5th graders will never forget, and one that I will always treasure!

Look for the release of Between the Lines near the end of 2014!