MOON SHADOW: Chapter Five
When I woke up late the next morning, I found my dad in the middle of our living room, his leg twisted into tree pose. “Namaste,” he called to me over the sound of rolling waves. When he did his yoga, Dad listened to Ocean Wanderings or Natural Morning. I was glad it was waves that day, since Natural Morning sounded a little like animals near death.
“Namaste.” I lifted a hand and saluted while pouring myself a bowl of very unnatural Lucky Charms. “And top o’ the mornin’ to you!”
“This really is the last time I’m buying that crap, Lucia.” My dad said this halfheartedly. He loved sugar cereal too.
“Bite?” I offered, wandering over to curl up on the couch next to my dad’s yoga mat. He was down on all fours but opened his mouth and happily accepted a spoonful of sugary marshmallows. “That’s a priceless image, Dad. How often do you see a combination of Cat/Cow and Lucky Charms?”
“Don’t tell anyone, okay?”
“You got it,” I promised. My dad was the biggest faker when it came to natural and homeopathic stuff like yoga and healthy eating. He was a closet McDonald’s junkie and had used his gym membership maybe three times in the last year. The yoga thing was relatively new—I was pretty sure he’d become Captain Om only because I’d told him about the “core, mind, and body” retreats Mom and her new girlfriend Johanna had tried to drag me to this summer in Sweden. Even though he would never trump blond, busty, hemp-wearing Johanna for my mom’s affections, Dad still loved mom desperately, and I think he believed in his heart of hearts that they could make it work. I wished he could figure out how to move on.
He popped up out of his Downward Dog and said, “How much homework do you have? Want to watch a James Bond marathon? We can order Chinese. Have a little post-birthday celebration. Your sister isn’t due home for hours, so let’s have some fun. Just the two of us.”
“Sounds great,” I said. But as I watched my dad roll up his yoga mat and stuff it under the couch, I thought about what we used to do for fun as a family: play soccer in the park, go for walks along the creek near our house, get together with other families for dinner or games. Why didn’t we do that anymore? Were my dad and I really supposed to just shrivel up into over-baked couch potatoes without my mom there to organize activities for us? “Actually, Dad . . . what do you think about going out?”
“Out?” he asked, scowling. He glanced down at his tank top and flannel pants.
“Yeah, like out to dinner. We could meet up with friends, maybe? Or head to the park and try to get a game of soccer going or something?”
He looked at me like I was an alien. “Why would we do that?”
I shook my head. He was right—why would we do that? I wanted to answer: So you’ll have a social life again or So you can show Mom that life goes on without her. But who was I to talk? I’d stopped doing most of the things I used to do after Velvet ditched me, just like Dad had after Mom left. Without Velvet around to tell me what we had planned, I didn’t really do much of anything. Jonathan and Anji were mostly school friends still. We hadn’t hung out on the weekends that much. And I wasn’t involved in any after-school activities. Going to the party at Velvet’s had been a pretty big deal. “I don’t know,” I finally said. “It was just an idea. But maybe we should just watch a movie.”
“That’s my girl,” Dad said with a silly wink. As I got the movie ready, he ran upstairs to change out of his tank top (a relief, trust me). When he came back down, he was holding a folded sheet of paper. “Open it.”
I took the paper in my hands and slid my fingernail under the tape that held it closed. Inside was a photo of a lunar eclipse.
“I borrowed a good camera from a guy at work and drove up to the cliffs to take this picture last night,” he said, beaming. “I’m going to get it blown-up and framed for your room. Your birthday eclipse.”
“I love it,” I said, hugging him tight. I glanced over dad’s shoulder at the picture in my hand as I squeezed him. It was perfect. But even still, I found it hard to shake off the creepy feeling that oozed over me whenever I thought about my birthday night. I couldn’t tell Dad about the weird missing hour on Velvet’s roof or he’d never let me out of the house again. So I just settled into my end of the couch for some James Bond action, wondering if I’d ever know the truth about what had happened to me on the night of my thirteenth birthday.
We were still on the couch several hours later when my mom called. “Happy birthday, baby. I tried you yesterday, but I guess you were off doing something fun?”
I had seen Mom’s call come through as I was getting ready for Velvet’s party, but I’d ignored it. Even after our summer of bonding in Sweden, I was still upset with her. The way she’d announced the divorce last spring had stung, and I hated that she expected me to understand.
There had been only two weeks left of sixth grade when Mom had called all of us into the living room for a family powwow. Family meetings were common and usually a little random, so I hadn’t been expecting much. At one family meeting, Mom had introduced the idea of adding more kale to our diet. During another she’d warned us that Mercury was in retrograde, so we all needed to work harder to be kind to one another.
That night, Mom had held Dad’s hand, closed her eyes in a Zen-like way, and said: “Kids, I—we—need to talk to you about something.” The kale conversation had started the same way so, honestly, divorce was the furthest thing from my mind. The only thing I could think about was the tacos we were having for dinner. Taco night was the only time my mom let us eat meat, and I was starving.
“Your father and I have decided to go down different paths throughout the rest of our journeys in this life.” I glanced at my dad as Mom spewed out her soothing-sounding words. The look on his face told me that whatever this was, it wasn’t a we decision. It was an I decision. “Though I love your father dearly, and he will forever remain a part of me . . .” That’s when Mom gazed at Dad and placed a soft kiss on his stubbly cheek. “My heart is pulling me to Sweden.”
My eyes bugged out of my head. “Like, IKEA?”
This got a small laugh from my mom. Romy gave me a look that made me zip it. Quick.
“I met a woman named Johanna, and we have discovered we’re spiritual soul mates. We complete each other.” Tears leaked from my mom’s eyes, but a smile was spread wide across her face. Some lady named Johanna had my mom happy-crying.
It was Romy’s turn to gape. “Johanna? Spiritual soul mate?” She spat this out with all the sweetness and warmth of a dirt-flavored Popsicle. “Lucia . . . Romy . . . I’m in love!” Mom gushed. “I know this is a hard time for me to leave you, considering you’re both on the brink of womanhood, but I hope you’ll understand that I need to follow the life that’s calling to me. In order to give completely, we must first nourish our own selves.”
Dad dropped Mom’s hand. He wiped his palm on his khakis and cringed as he attempted a weak smile. “What your mom is trying to say is, she’s decided to move to Sweden for a while—to live with this Johanna—and we’re all supposed to be happy for her. She and I are getting a divorce.”
That’s what she was trying to say? I needed a translator to help me understand my own mom, and she was speaking English. I wondered if she would be easier to understand in Swedish.
“Let me get this straight,” Romy growled, her arms crossed. “You’re telling us you’re gay?”
“There’s no need to define it, dear. I’m telling you I’m in love.” “With a woman?”
“Yes. Johanna lives in the northern part of Sweden. Apparently her village is very beautiful.”
“And you’re moving there?” Romy’s lip curled into a sneer. “Leaving us?”
My head whipped back and forth between my mom and my sister.
While my dad and I steered away from conflict, they both loved to hash things out in the heat of the moment. I envied them, frankly. At the first sign of a fight, my tongue swelled up and refused to move. But there were plenty of times I would have given anything to be the sort of person who could blurt out exactly what I was thinking. I just didn’t have it in me.
Less conflict, more Zen. Or something like that.
Mom took a deep, cleansing breath. “Johanna and I met several years ago at a yoga retreat. We’ve kept in contact since then and over this past year, our relationship has deepened into something—”
That’s when Romy covered her ears and screamed. Really screamed. Sixteen years old with the lungs of a tantrum-prone toddler. Lucky for me, my sister was dramatic enough to get the message across for both of us. She screeched, “Gah! Mom, just stop talking! You have got to be freaking kidding me right now.”
Mom, of course, stepped forward and pulled both of us into a hug. I didn’t think a hug could cool the sting, but it did. Locked in my mom’s embrace, I felt myself stiffen, freeze. My body went numb. Our parents— seemingly without Dad’s input or approval—were getting divorced. Mom was in love with a Swedish yogi named Johanna, and she was ditching her family to move to the land of blond hair and furniture-store meatballs.
Romy freaked and hollered and slammed her bedroom door. Mom chased after her, begging her to talk through it, reminding her that bottling up her emotions was toxic. Meanwhile, I silently stewed and watched old TV shows with Dad, neither of us saying anything to the other. There was really nothing to say. Instead of tacos we ate microwave dinners and left the veggies uneaten, glistening with congealed butter in their little cardboard compartment. This was our way of lashing out.
Life moved fast after the big announcement. Mom packed up in a hurry, explaining—over and over again—that her move wasn’t permanent. She would come back home after a year (presumably with Johanna, if things worked out) but needed to take a little time for herself. To align her chi. Never mind the fact that she was leaving my chi in pieces.
Through the remaining days of sixth grade, I did my best to smile and be supportive. I hoped that if I stayed positive, it might ease the transition (for her and for me). There’s always a rainbow at the end of a bad storm. Every cloud has a silver lining. The best is yet to come.
Here’s the honest truth: I’ve never been a big believer in any of the positive-energy stuff my mom always yammers on about. But I put up a good front. Everyone likes a nice girl with a good attitude. No one ever wants to hear the truth.
Then came the kicker. Instead of celebrating the last day of school with our usual ice cream and a family hike by the river, my mom surprised us with the news that Romy and I would be joining her for the next two months in a small village outside the town of Kiruna, Sweden. She felt it was important that we get to know Johanna and adjust to this new life. No one seemed to realize that spending the summer with my mom and her new girlfriend in a strange land was not going to help me adjust to anything, except bitterness. Romy protested so much—and pulled the summer-job card—that she got out of it.
Me? I went. I just couldn’t put up a fight. How was I supposed to know that everything would break into even more pieces while I was gone?
Over the summer I discovered that Johanna was nice and everything. But two months with my new “family” wasn’t enough to convince me to accept Mom’s change of heart with open arms and confetti. I wanted her to explain herself, to tell me what was so wrong with the life she had that she had to move across the ocean to build a new one.
Now that I was home again, and Mom was still an ocean away, I could always feel the miles that stretched out between us when she called. There was a short silence; then Mom asked, “Yesterday was a big birthday, sweetie. Do you feel like you’ve come of age?” Gag. Mom had been all hopped up on buzzwords like this since her latest yoga retreat, and they weren’t helping me forgive her any faster.
“Sure, Mom. It’s like I’m finally whole.” I looked down, fully aware that nothing had changed. Nonexistent bust, the same pj pants I’d had since I was ten and hit a growth spurt, and my dad’s old KISS T-shirt. I was a real woman now.
She paused. “Really, sweetheart?” I swear I could hear the tears flowing. “I wish I could have been there with you for this.” I could almost smell her “relax” tea blend through the phone. Mom was overly sentimental and emotional about everything now that she wasn’t here for our day-to-day lives. I often wished I could tell her that that’s what you get when you walk out on a family.
“No, not really, Mom. No worries, you’re not missing much—except I can read minds now. But I told you that, right?”
“That’s not funny, Lucia. Did you get the book I sent? It made it in time?”
Mom gave me a book of some sort of bunk magic every year, and this year was no exception. My thirteenth birthday book was Legends of Shadow and Light. “Yeah, Mom, I got it. Looks like a good one.” I wondered if she could sense the sarcasm in my voice. Doubtful. In fact, I could hear her sniffling happily on the other end of the line.
But I definitely did not love the book she had sent. Just like every year, I had stuffed the book deep under my bed and hoped none of its creepy magic content would seep up from under my metal bed frame. I didn’t think that was really possible, but I wasn’t willing to risk it. Mom’s paranormal nonsense freaked me out. The woman had given me a moonstone because I was born during an eclipse, for goodness sake— you can’t get more superstitious than that. It’s not like the moon was going to steal me up into the sky and take me off to Lunar Landing.
As I waited for Mom to stop weeping on the other end of the phone, I wandered over to the front hall and pulled the moonstone out of my jacket pocket. My dad rolled his eyes when he saw me cupping it in my palm—he was on my team when it came to Mom’s magic worship. I rolled my eyes back at him, and then looked down at the rock in my palm. My eyes widened, and my heart began to beat faster. Something about the stone had changed.
The moonstone had always been just a solid, pearly white—but now there was a solid black vein running through it that made it look like the rock had split open. My palms were sweating, and a cold chill passed over me as I stared at the changed stone. The shadowy, black core hadn’t been there when I’d pulled it out at the grocery store before Velvet’s party. When had it changed?
“Do you feel any different?” Mom prodded. “Did you get a chance to see the eclipse last night? I’ve been waiting to call since I figured you’d be sleeping in this morning.”
“No, yes, and thanks.” My heart was beating furiously. I stared at the moonstone, realizing I suddenly did not feel well.
Mom laughed. “Very detailed. Seriously, Lucia . . . Is everything okay?” I could hear a catch in her voice, as if there was something specific she wanted to ask me. “Did you—”
“Everything’s fine, Mom,” I snapped, cutting her off. I didn’t want to have to lie to her about what had happened, which meant I couldn’t let her press. “The eclipse was cool.” The lie rolled off my tongue, and I waited for the moonstone to burn my hand or something. You’d figure that’s what would happen. It didn’t.
“Okay.” She sounded disappointed. Was she was expecting some other answer? It was tough to analyze someone’s words when you couldn’t see their facial expressions. Also, I had had a hard time believing much of what my mom said after we found out most of her life had been a lie.
“How’s Johanna?” I asked, steering the conversation in a new direction. I wrapped my fingers around the stone, hoping that if I couldn’t see it, I would forget about it. Pieces of last night’s bizarre dream kept flitting through my brain, a constant reminder that something strange had happened during the eclipse.
Mom sighed, as though she had more to say but didn’t want to push it. “She’s wonderful. We’re thinking of going back up to the north of Norway next month for another visit. Our last retreat was so relaxing, and I love the legends of the tribes up there. They’re so captivating, and few are in written record—so we’re digging into the verbal history slowly . . .” I zoned out. A few minutes later we said good-bye, and she promised to call in a day or two.
After we hung up, I shoved the rock—that’s all it was, a rock—into my hoodie pocket and vowed not to think about it anymore. I didn’t believe in Mom’s magic crap, and I certainly wasn’t going to believe that stupid rock had changed colors overnight. It was ridiculous. Obviously, I had just never noticed the dark vein before. Maybe it was a trick of the light. That was the only logical explanation. Even so, my stomach was knotted and uneasy for the rest of the afternoon.
My body tensed with the realization that I was alone. But then I heard Anji’s laughter from somewhere nearby and relaxed. I called out to my friends, but the band Velvet’s dad had hired for the party began to play a loud song down in the yard, and I knew no one could hear me. I glanced up. There was only the tiniest sliver of bright moon left. I hustled across the expansive rooftop. The band transitioned into a bass solo, and in that moment of quietness the crinkle of moon pie wrappers echoed through the still night. To keep myself from getting any more spooked, I rubbed my moonstone and thought about all the things I would wish for during my birthday eclipse:
I wished for Will—that he and I could go back to being friends like we were before.
I wished for guts—to let both Velvet and my mom know how much they’d hurt me this year.
I wished for confidence—to speak the truth, rather than kicking my anger deep down to fester and rot and boil inside.
I wished for bravery—that I might find my moment to step out of the shadows to shine.
If the first star of the night were worth one wish—Star light, star bright / First star I see tonight—how many would wishing on the eclipse get me? How many wishes might it take to change my life?
A cool blast of night air blew over the roof wall. Just as the moon took its last timid step into the full, round shadow of the earth, I heard the tentative crunch of a footstep on the terrace behind me. I was momentarily frozen with all those unspoken wishes trapped on my tongue. Suddenly and without warning I felt myself crumple to the ground.
MOON SHADOW Excerpt: Chapter One
“Moon pies are obvious, right, Lucia?” Jonathan Bauer piled an armload of gooey, plastic-wrapped treats into our shopping cart. “Ooh! What about Nutty Bars?” He held a yellow box in front of my face, pleading with his huge, puppy-dog eyes.
I squinted back and asked, “How do Nutty Bars fit with an eclipse theme?”
“They’re awesome?” Jonathan shrugged, then dumped them into the cart. “That must count for something.”
Our friend Anji—short for Anjali—Mehta hollered from the next aisle over, “If we’re going to ignore Lucia’s food rules, then I vote for Doritos over Sun Chips!” I could hear her opening a bag of chips; the crunching echoed in the empty grocery store aisle. “It’s your thirteenth birthday, Lu. Shouldn’t we celebrate in style? Sun Chips are the armpit of the chip section.”
“Come on, you guys,” I pleaded. “Sun Chips, moon pies, Starburst, star fruit . . . How lucky is it that star fruit is even in season somewhere in the world? Can we please stick with the theme?” I poked through our cart, admiring the small pile of outer-space-themed food we were buying for that night’s lunar eclipse. The last total eclipse that had been visible in our little piece of the northeast was on the night I was born. Because of this birth connection, I’d been obsessed with eclipses my whole life, but I hadn’t ever seen one live. “Besides, my dad only gave us twenty bucks. We can’t afford much.”
“Whoa,” Jonathan said, holding up one hand. “Your dad gave you twenty bucks? Nice. Mine gave me nothing.”
“Well, it is my birthday,” I reminded him. “And I didn’t want a cake.”
Jonathan half smiled. “Even if it were my birthday, my dad wouldn’t be handing over a twenty.”
I didn’t know what to say to that, so I pushed our cart around the corner and grabbed a chip from Anji’s open bag of Doritos. Then I dropped it back in. I always felt guilty eating food I hadn’t yet paid for. “Do you really want to ruin our eclipse feast with Doritos and Nutty Bars? I guarantee there will be other food at Velvet’s party.”
“Ugh. Don’t remind me that we’re going to Velvet’s party to eat this stuff,” Anji moaned. She rolled her eyes and put her hands on her hips, looking fierce in her green miniskirt and yellow tights. “Are you sure you want to go tonight? It feels wrong that this is how you want to celebrate your birthday.”
“I’m sure,” I said, even though I really wasn’t.
Ever since first grade, Velvet Mills—self-appointed queen of the “Chosen Ones”—had hosted a huge annual party that every kid in our grade was invited to. In third grade she’d had a pool party at a fancy hotel. In fourth her parents rented out a whole bowling alley and let everyone order food off the menu. Last year, in sixth grade, Velvet’s mom hired a party planner to turn their backyard into a full-on beach with sand and tiki lights and everything. There were hula dancers wiggling around, and this chubby guy hung out all night roasting a whole pig over a fire. Her parties were seriously over-the-top. Everyone talked about them for the rest of the year—which is exactly what Velvet wanted. She was the kind of person who lived to be loved and admired. Velvet was also one of the girls in our grade who nearly every other girl longed to be. Her dad was the chairman of Peep Records, she wore clothes you couldn’t buy at a regular mall, and she oozed the kind of cool confidence I’ll never have.
Until a few months ago there wouldn’t have been any question about me going to my former-BFF’s big fall bash. I used to do everything Velvet did, without a second thought. But that all changed last summer. Still, there were some parts of my old life I wasn’t willing to let go. “We don’t want to be the only seventh graders who don’t show up. Trust me. Besides, the Millses have a killer roof deck where we’ll have an amazing view of the eclipse.” I folded my hands together and begged. “Pretty please . . . come with me?”
“You’re telling me you want to go to Velvet’s party because of a roof deck?” Anji sighed. She knew just enough about my history with Velvet that she couldn’t stand my former best friend. I had only been hanging out with Anji and Jonathan for a month and a half—since the first week of seventh grade— but I had already discovered they were both unfailingly loyal. It’s what I loved most about them. It’s also what made them so different from Velvet. “Velvet doesn’t deserve to have you there. You need to move on and get out of her shadow. Am I wrong?”
“No,” I mumbled. “You’re not wrong.” But I was just being agreeable. Even though Velvet had hurt me, deep down I didn’t really want to believe that we would never be friends again or that my life would never go back to the way it once was. Velvet had knocked me down, but I guess a piece of me hoped that showing up at this party would be a good first step to show her that she couldn’t keep me down. “But I still want to go. We can hide out on the roof deck with our eclipse treats.”
Jonathan pulled a few random things out of our cart and stacked them on an empty store shelf. “Fine, no Nutty Bars,” he muttered. “Meanie.” He pushed his scruffy hair behind his ears and pouted, his head hanging heavy and low.
“I’m sorry!” My cheeks were flaming. I hated fighting, and I didn’t want Jonathan or Anji to think I was a bully. Our friendship was still new enough that I often worried about ruining things. Reaching for the box of Nutty Bars, I said, “Get whatever you want. It’s no biggie. And we don’t have to go to Velvet’s party if you don’t want to. It was just an idea.”
Anji tugged me toward the beverage coolers, immediately opening a Coke she pulled from the refrigerator. “Listen up, Ms. Frank: You are allowed to be bossy from time to time. Especially on your birthday. So no worries. This is your night.” She grinned at me and said, “Just a hunch, but . . . I bet you made a list of every possible eclipse-themed food ages ago, didn’t you? And now it’s killing you that we’re trying to stray from your plan. Jonathan was teasing.”
“I know.” I forced a smile and nervously rubbed at the moonstone in my pocket, willing it to work its calming magic. The rock was a silly trinket my mom had tucked into my bassinet on the night I was born—an amulet of protection, she had reminded me a hundred times since then. I guess I’m supposed to feel connected to and calmed by the moonstone because I was born during an eclipse. I don’t really buy it, but the stone is pretty—pure milky- white with a soft, greenish glow—and rubbing it usually does have a calming effect. “And no, I did not make a list of eclipse foods. This is spur of the moment, whimsical fun.” I pointed into the cooler. “Look, Sunny Delight! Could there be a more perfect drink for tonight?” I hate Sunny Delight. It makes me gag. But it has the word “sun” in it, which made it perfect for the occasion.
As I set the Sunny D in the cart, Anji reached into my back pocket and pulled out the folded piece of paper I thought I’d so cleverly hidden. She read, “‘Moon pies, Sunny Delight, Sun Chips, Starburst.’ Hmm, that’s funny. This looks like a list to me.” She waved the paper around in the air.
“At least the star fruit was a late addition,” I pointed out. “Karmic kismet.” “What’s karmic kismet?” Jonathan asked.
“It sort of means fate delivered a happy little surprise,” I told him. “A lucky
accident. Finding a ripe star fruit is like the universe’s reward for making me wait thirteen years to see my first eclipse. Since it’s happening on my birthday, this whole night is karmic kismet, really.”
“I’m beginning to figure out that nothing in your life is karmic kismet.” Anji batted her eyelashes at me and rubbed one tiny hand through her short, spiky hair. “Do you realize you plan everything? Even bathroom breaks.”
“I do not!” My face blazed with embarrassment. But I so do. Why risk it? Life is full of surprises, and few of them are good. I mean, math pop quizzes, getting your period, broken friendships, your parents’ divorce . . . these are the sorts of things that just sort of sneak up on you. I’d prefer to live off a script, if that were an option. So I plan whatever I can, trying to keep control over as many pieces of my life as possible.
When I was little, my mom used to drag me around to visit her odd collection of friends who were astrologists and psychics and hypnotists and junk. She would lure me to their incense-laden houses with the promise of candy and cable TV, and watch hopefully as they predicted I’d have a long life and a happy family and all the other things a mom might wish for her daughter. Unfortunately, none of Mom’s friends had ever told me exactly how my life would play out, and really, that would have been much more useful. I wish they could have outlined my life for me, put it into a tidy storyline that had moments of significance highlighted in green, so I’d know what to be prepared for.
Jonathan hopped up on the little bar on the back of the cart and twirled an invisible lasso, waiting for Anji to push him down the aisle. She giggled and
gave him a shove. While Jonathan sailed toward the ice cream, Anji yelled back, “Second stall in the first floor bathroom, right after third and sixth period.”
“Are you still talking about my bathroom schedule?” I cringed, my face getting even warmer. “And how do you even know that?”
Anji shrugged, as though it was normal that we were talking about my bathroom breaks. “I’m your friend. Friends keep tabs on each other. We share everything. I bet your body programs itself with the start of each school year, so you pee at ten fifty and two fifteen, even when you’re home on the weekends. Tell me I’m right.”
I grabbed the cart, pushing it and Jonathan toward the checkout lane. I was eager to get to Velvet’s party and to get off this subject. I could see my sister, Romy, giving me the evil eye from out in the parking lot. She’d agreed to give us ten minutes to shop but promised she would leave us stranded if we were in the store any longer than that. When she first got her driver’s license, Romy had promised to drive me everywhere as soon as she was allowed. She had talked about going to the movies, just the two of us, and driving us both to the pool in the summer. But ever since my parents’ divorce, all her promises had been forgotten. After Mom left, Romy didn’t like to do anything nice unless she was forced or bribed.
“Schedules are nice,” I told Anji. “It’s helpful to be predictable.” Anji and Jonathan exchanged a look and laughed. Sometimes I still felt like an outsider with the two of them. They had gone to a different elementary school from me and had been best friends for years. I still thanked my lucky stars that I had found them after Velvet had stranded me just before middle school began. Sometimes, though, our differences were super obvious. They were both so laid back. I was so not.
While I paid, Anji flipped through the magazine racks. “Check it out—an eclipse story! Landon and Langdon Louis are conjoined twins, connected at the head, who were magically separated during the last lunar eclipse.” She gazed up from her trashy tabloid, eyebrows raised. “Cool.”
“You seem smart, but . . . ,” Jonathan started, trailing off. He pulled a dime from the depths of his pockets to round out my cash pool. “That’s obviously made up—those aren’t real names.”
I laughed along, happy to have the conversation shift to something other than my bladder. While the checker bagged our stuff, I pulled a different tabloid off the rack. The clerk was watching us closely, wise to the fact that we had no intention of buying the magazines. “Is it just the names that seem strange in that story?” I asked Jonathan. “You think the magical splitting of conjoined twins makes perfect sense?”
I glanced at the cover of the second magazine and read one of the subheadings: “‘Vermont woman wishes for the return of her fiancé during Friday’s lunar eclipse. Fiancé mysteriously disappeared during the last eclipse.’ That’s really sad.”
“Well, she shouldn’t have taken her eyes off him. The magic of the moon swept her true love away and left her alone. Or it could have been that the fiancé left her for someone else.” Jonathan shrugged one shoulder. “Whatever. If it was the eclipse that made him disappear, I’m sure he’ll reappear tonight— that’s the way this kind of magic has to work, right? Otherwise they wouldn’t have a story to print next month.”
I nodded, despite the fact that stories like this gave me the heebie-jeebies. This was just the sort of thing I’d listened to my mom and her friends talk about when I was younger. Some people—my mom’s kind of people—
believed eclipses were magical. More than the sun, earth, and moon aligning and casting crazy shadows. For years I’d heard Mom’s friends talking about legends and myths behind how and why the moon or sun got gobbled up by a dragon or an angry toad. Many cultures had their theories, but they all sounded silly to me.
Personally, I loved the way all the crazy stuff that happened up in the sky felt and looked like magic but had a solid foundation in science and planetary movement. Astronomical magic could be explained—unlike creepy-weird stuff like ghosts and shape-shifters and mind readers and other nonsense my mom bought into. I didn’t believe in any of the made-up legends I’d heard Mom and her friends oohing and aahing about, but I did believe an eclipse would be beautiful. I couldn’t wait to be tucked inside that fold between the moon and earth’s shadow.
“Look at this,” Jonathan said, paging through another copy of the magazine. “The Vermont lady is going to make a wish on the eclipse that her fiancé will come back. According to this lady and some space dude named Larry, wishing on an eclipse is like wishing on a star—but better. I think I’ll try it.”
I wouldn’t mind a few wishes of my own coming true. As stupid as the idea sounded, I wondered if wishing on the eclipse was worth a shot. And did I get extra wishes because it was my birthday eclipse? That seemed only fair.
“It’s seven,” Anji said suddenly, dumping the tabloid on top of the candy display. “We need to move or we’re not going to make it to Velvet’s in time for the eclipse. Not that missing the party would be the worst thing in the world. . .”
I stuffed both my and Anji’s magazines back in the rack, taking one last look at the sad face of the woman with the lost fiancé. “I read online that they
hire actors to pose for the pictures with those magazine stories,” I said. “But how crazy would it be if something like this were real?”
Jonathan wiggled his fingers and wooed like a ghost in a kid cartoon. Anji danced toward the sliding doors that led outside, singing, “Once upon a time there was light in her life . . .” She paused and turned back, pointing dramatically at me. “Tonight is Lucia’s night, for a total eclipse ofthe heart!”
I’ve always been an avid series reader. Growing up, I was obsessed with Baby-sitter’s Club, Sweet Valley High, Nancy Drew, Ramona, Judy Blume’s Fudge books, and Frog & Toad. As an adult, I’ve expanded to The Penderwicks, Junie B., Wimpy Kid…and Kristan Higgins’ adult romantic comedies. Every time I open up a book in one of my favorite series, it feels like opening the door to find a house full of friends.
There is something comforting about the predictability of series books; a sense of security knowing what you can expect before reading the first page. I love that I can always count on my favorite series to follow a certain formula and end the way they’re supposed to end—with a few twists-and-turns and surprising character evolutions along the way. So when I set out to write the first Puppy Pirates book, I knew there were some “rules” I needed to follow if I wanted to earn kids’ trust.
In my opinion, the three most important aspects of early chapter books are: humor, accessible characters, and a consistent structure. Luckily, I love writing silly scenes and have a two nine-year-olds and an eleven-year-old at home who are huge goofballs…so that part comes easily and naturally. As for characters: before I figured out what should happen in the Puppy Pirates stories, I thought about who my crew would be. As I developed each character, I created a detailed character bible that I refer to constantly when I’m writing these books. Character consistency is key and kids are very careful readers, so I keep notes of my pups’ favorite nap spots, fur color, hobbies, and favorite phrases, among other things.
For me, the hardest part of writing is plot and structure. Before I started writing the first Puppy Pirates adventure, I knew I wanted to build a series—so I had to come up with a solid structure that would hold up for many adventures.
Years ago, I was given the opportunity to write a series of Scooby-Doo chapter book mysteries (FYI: I write books about other people’s characters using a pseudonym!). To prepare, I binge-watched a bunch of Scooby TV episodes and paid close attention to the structure of the show. I realized that part of Scooby Doo’s appeal is the predictability…you know that in every episode, Shaggy and Scooby will eat a snack, there will always be a chase scene, and every mystery has a masked bad guy (or girl).
When I set out to write Puppy Pirates, I decided to take a cue from Scooby and develop a clear structure for the series that kids can count on from book to book. I don’t always follow it exactly, but most books go something like this:
- Chapter 1-2: Intro with a pug prank/practical joke that becomes crucial for solving the climactic problem
- Chapter 3: Henry/Wally (my main characters) are put in peril
- Chapter 4: Chase scene that leads to a bigger problem
- Chapter 5: Resolve original conflict…but now they’re in even more trouble!
- Chapters 6-8: Main conflict—chases, battles, challenges
- Chapter 9: Wally faces a fear and overcomes it
- Chapter 10: Wally/Henry friendship moment/resolution
So far, I’ve written eight books in this series (with two more on the horizon), and having a road map to guide me on each adventure has been a big help. I always start with this basic structure, and then figure out what twists and turns and character developments will get kids excited about reading the next book. I love writing this series just as much as I enjoy reading series. Luckily, it’s just about time for me to start writing the next Puppy Pirates adventure—all my mates are waiting for me aboard the Salty Bone, so let the outlining begin!
Gertie's Leap to Greatness by Kate Beasley instantly became one of my all-time favorite books. I never love it when people compare characters or books to Beverly Cleary's Ramona - but in this case, it is a totally fair comparison. Gertie is deliciously flawed, lovable, impulsive, and full of big ideas. This book is extraordinary and hilarious. I highly recommend it to any age kid or adult!
Counting Thyme by Melanie Conklin is a touching - and oftentimes funny - novel about a girl whose younger brother has cancer. Thyme's brother's treatment plan forces the family to move from California to New York City, and Thyme must deal with a new school, new friends, and being a great sister. She's a wonderful main character, full of empathy and honesty.
I finally got to read The Seventh Wish by Kate Messner. I love Kate's writing, so I'm not sure why it took so long for me to dig into this one. In this story, the twelve-year-old main character has an older sister who falls prey to heroin addiction when she goes off to college. Kate writes her books with so much humor and heart - and she clearly does so much research, and understands how kids think and feel - that this book with big issues isn't heavy-handed, nor would it be difficult for a fourth or fifth grader to understand and absorb. I'm putting this on my fifth grader's must-read list.
An excellent book for middle-grade readers is Sticks and Stones by Abby Cooper. The main character, Elyse, has a special condition that makes words appear on her body - good words, bad words, anything people call her. It's a super-fun novel about believing in and loving yourself, with the perfect amount of magic. Some of the themes remind me a lot of MOON SHADOW (my soon-to-be-published novel), so I really enjoyed this one.
Nine, Ten: A September 11 Story by Nora Raleigh Baskin was another winner this past month. An excellent account of the days leading up to September 11, and how that day impacted four very different middle-school-aged kids. Sad and tense, but also really uplifting.
Erin Soderberg Downing and Anica Mrose Rissi first met fifteen years ago at Scholastic, Inc. in New York City, where they both got their start in publishing as editors. Years later, after Erin switched from editing to writing, they collaborated as author/editor on two of Erin’s YA novels for Simon Pulse (Drive Me Crazy and Kiss It). Now, after many twists and turns in both of their publishing lives, both Erin and Anica are writing chapter-book series starring dogs, and they’ve teamed up once again to talk about how their pasts in publishing—and their adorable pups—have shaped who they are as writers.
Erin: After working with you for so many years as the (very talented) editor of my edgy teen novels, I have to admit…I was a little surprised when you told me you were writing a chapter-book series. Why chapter books? Why such a dramatic shift from the novels you had been working on as editor?
Anica: To be honest, it surprised me, too! As a YA editor, I specialized in boundary-pushing books for older readers, filled with edgy storylines and raw truths. As a chapter-book writer, I’ve stepped far away from that edge, but I’m still interested in telling stories with emotional intensity and honesty.
The ANNA, BANANA series is an exploration of what it means to be a good friend, especially in moments of conflict. It taps deep into the reserves of my own elementary-school experiences with friendship triangles and tensions, jealousies and fights. Best friendships are intense, and when things go wrong, it’s confusing and painful, especially when you’re younger and those emotions are newer.
But this is a chapter-book series, and chapter books are fun, so even when Anna is working through very real conflicts with her friends, I try to tell her story with humor and hope, and give readers a chance to laugh. Anna’s wiener dog, Banana, provides a lot of opportunities for lighter moments in the series, as well as giving Anna a soft, furry shoulder to lean on. She was most definitely inspired by my own dog, Arugula, who never fails to make me smile. (Rooga is also a fantastic writing partner and invaluable to my drafting process. Like all dogs, she loves routine, so she encourages me to write every day. She provides companionship and moral support, and supplies ideas and inspiration for the doggiest scenes in my books. Plus, she reminds me to take regular walks and snack breaks. My best advice to any writer is: Get a dog!)
What inspired you to write stories for this age group and what’s been the best part of making the move from books for older readers to chapter books? When I read PUPPY PIRATES, I can tell you’re having so much fun with it.
Erin: Thank you! I do have fun writing these stories. I’ve really enjoyed coming up with a ton of terrible dog puns and developing a huge crew of silly characters (most of the pups on board the Salty Bone are inspired by dogs I’ve known and loved!).
I first started writing younger middle-grade novels and chapter books when my oldest daughter was in Kindergarten. She became a strong reader at a very young age, and we struggled to find enough books—specifically series—for her that were fun to read, but weren’t too challenging (or scary) thematically. I wrote THE QUIRKS series for her. When my twins were in Kindergarten, my son Henry—also a strong reader—begged me to write an adventure story. Around the same time, we got a goldendoodle puppy named Wally and dressed him as a pirate for Halloween…the rest is history.
There are a couple things I especially enjoy about writing books for younger readers. One big highlight is that I get to work with my kids to develop the stories. At eight, eight, and ten, they’re so great at helping me come up with funny little details and scenes. I also steal a lot of material from our dog Wally to add realistic puppy details. The other wonderful thing I’ve discovered while writing chapter books and younger middle grade stories is a very supportive community of teachers and kids (like the Nerdy Book Club!). The YA author community is very strong, of course, but I really feel like I found my people when I started writing middle grade. Middle grade novels shaped me as a person, and as a reader and writer. Now, I love that I get to regularly connect with educators who care so deeply about nurturing the love and habit of reading in their students. My goal with the PUPPY PIRATES series is to take kids on a fun adventure in each book, and make them want to come back for more.
What’s your favorite part about writing ANNA, BANANA (I’ve told you my daughter Ruby is a big fan of the series, right?)? And I have to know…do you like writing more than editing (I do!)?
Anica: Ha! I’m not sure I could say which job I like better. I loved being an editor, and I feel so lucky to be writing, but my relationship with my own manuscripts-in-progress is much more…complicated than the love I felt for the projects I got to shape and champion. As an editor, a key part of my job was to have confidence in and vision for every project I took on. Being a writer involves a lot more vulnerability and uncertainty. It is a lesson in letting go of control. I’m finding that to be both beautiful and terrifying.
My favorite parts of the writing process are the beginning and the end: the initial flurry of new ideas, and the final rounds of revision. All that work in between—of cranking out a first draft so I’ll have something to revise, and shaping it into something resembling the book I want it to be—is for me the hardest part. That’s the stage where the biggest flood of insecurities rushes in, and it’s tempting to give up and let the book drown in my self-doubt. But here’s my writerly life vest: I know, deep down, thanks to all those years of working with other writers, that it can be done, that there are many different ways to turn an idea into book, that it’s okay if it’s very, very messy along the way, and that I’ll get there too if I just keep going. I’m grateful for all the authors (including you!) who let me in on the ups and downs of their writing processes and allowed me to witness their challenges and triumphs along the way.
Another thing I learned about writing from being an editor: You don’t have to go it alone. In fact, you shouldn’t! Every writer needs an editor, and finding friends, collaborators, commiserators, and community within the children’s book world has been hugely important to my productivity, perseverance, and mental health. Plus, it makes the work of writing much more fun.
Erin: I totally agree! In fact, here’s a little secret many people don’t know: I don’t just brainstorm PUPPY PIRATES ideas and scenes with my kids, I also work with a friend (my “silent partner”) to develop the outline for each book. If I had had to write this series alone, it wouldn’t be nearly as fun. It’s really exciting to bounce ideas back and forth with my writing buddy and laugh about the stories together. I also love collaborating with my illustrators (Russ Cox and Luz Tapia) to make scenes and characters really pop. That’s one of the other fun things about writing chapter books vs. YA—you get to see your stories come to life in pictures!
I hear you on the self-doubt thing. I’m so grateful I have a dog who loves me no matter what…and also that I got to spend a few years as an editor before starting to write my own books. My experience as an editor helped me realize that every writer struggles with self-doubt and sometimes-stinky first drafts. Though I’ve had a couple of low periods where I’ve struggled to keep my chin up, I really do love my job—despite the constant fears and insecurities. Knowing you’re not the only writer worrying and fretting and wondering if you’re a total fraud doesn’t necessarily make this job easier (or my first drafts any better), but it does help a bit. Still, I freak out every single time I send a draft to an editor or reader—what if it’s terrible? What if she/he hates it? What if I have to rewrite it from scratch?! (For the record: All of those things have happened a few times…) But I know that until I take that first step toward getting feedback, my story can’t improve and move on in the process. When I visit schools, I talk with kids about how important it is to share your work with others. Even though it can be hard to get critical feedback, it’s also the only way your writing can get better.
Anica: So true! It can be hard to hear critical feedback, but often the comments I most want to push back against at first are the ones that prove most useful in the end. When I get that kind of feedback on a manuscript, I try to approach it like a puzzle or game and ask myself, “Okay, if I had to incorporate this clearly terrible feedback from this person who does not recognize my genius, how would I do it?” And more often than not, I discover my editor or critique partner was the real genius all along.
I talk a lot about revisions during school visits, too. I love seeing the excitement and surprise on kids’ faces when they hear how often and extensively a manuscript gets revised, and that giving myself permission to write a truly terrible first draft is the only way I can get a draft written at all. No story comes out perfectly from the start! But messes can turn into magic, if you just keep stirring with everything you’ve got.
Erin: This—this—is why you made such a great editor, Anica! You always gave those cheerful little speeches before delivering the dreaded revision letter. It’s thanks to editors like you that I have written—and then revised and polished—way more books than I could have ever imagined possible.
Writing, revising, self-promotion, speaking at conferences, presenting to a gym filled with kids—all of those things are really hard and scary and daunting, but I’ve realized they’re all an important part of this process. If we don’t put ourselves out there and risk failure or embarrassment, we won’t ever get anywhere. As Old Salt, one of my favorite pups in PUPPY PIRATES, says: “Being brave isn’t about having no fear, it’s about being afraid of what you have to do and doing it anyway. You just have to believe you can do it, and you have to want it. Look deep in your heart, and decide what you really want.”
Thanks, friend, for sharing another adventure with me! I love working with you. Want to wrap up with one of your favorite ANNA quotes?
Anica: Oooh, I love that Old Salt quote. And, ditto: I love working with you, too…even when you put me on the spot about choosing a favorite quote, and make me feel like Sadie in this exchange:
Sadie scrunched up her nose and shook her head. Her curls bounced. “I can’t answer this one,” she said.
“We’d still love you if you smelled like school lunch,” I promised her.
“We’d just love you from a little farther away,” Isabel teased.
Growing up, I longed to be less weird. I spent much of my youth obsessing over how different I was from all of my friends: taller, stranger, less coordinated, always-saying-the-wrong-thing-at-the-wro
It took me a long time—too long—to realize just how wrong I was. To discover that there is no secret to fitting in…in fact, there is no such thing as fitting in, not really. We all have days, weeks, years when it seems we’re just not the right shape or size or (insert other worries here) to squeeze into the life we’ve been given.
When I visit schools to talk about writing and books, I often ask: “Have any of you ever had a time when you felt like you didn’t quite fit in?” I watch kids look around nervously for a second, then the hands go up. Eventually, every hand—including mine—goes up (unless it’s a room full of fifth graders…they almost never admit to being different). I see the relief on kids’ faces when they see the other hands and realize they’re not alone. Everyone feels a little quirky now and then. We’ve all felt like we’re miles away from what others perceive to be “normal”—and knowing you’re not the only one who has experienced that feeling makes it better somehow.
A few years ago, my own babies (now eight, eight, and nine) started to grapple with the concept of fitting in. I watched them begin to worry about how other people in the world saw them, and I realized I was entering a new era of parenting. My job was shifting: from changing their diapers to changing their attitudes, from keeping them safe to keeping them strong.
One late-September day, my just-turned-four-year-old twins and I went to get my Kindergartener at the bus stop. The little ones were in the middle of a game of pretend, so my son made his way to the bus stop wearing a pale pink, lace-trimmed, flouncy dress (as a boy with two sisters often does). He had worn this dress—or others like it—outside the house many times before without a care in the world. But that day, something changed. It was an instantaneous shift. As we approached the bus stop, he slowed and then stopped. I looked back and saw him cowering inside a bush, trying to hide from all the bigger kids scrambling off the bus.
“What’s up?” I asked, urging him out of the branches. “You okay?”
Tears welled up in his eyes. He scowled at me. “I look stupid.”
“You look great,” I promised. (He really does look lovely in pink—see photo evidence!)
“I hate this dress.” He stomped off, ran home, and changed—certain the bigger boys jumping off the bus were laughing about the little boy in his sister’s dress (for the record, they weren’t). He never wore a dress outside the house again. This was the first time he realized how icky it felt when people laughed at him.
From the day they were born, I’ve tried to help my kids understand that there will be times in life when people will make fun of what you’re doing, tease you for how you look or act, or laugh about things you say (and not because you tell great knock-knock jokes). I hope I’ve done a good job of convincing them that if we’re strong and believe we are exceptional no matter what—and call for support from family, teachers, friends, church, etc.—it might be a little easier to handle any teasing thrown our way. If we believe our differences make us unique in a good way, that’s a great first step in tackling the yuckiness of feeling like an outsider. I’m sure every parent has a slightly different message. Mine might be wrong, but I can only tell them what I know from my own experience.
The same holds true for my writing: I write stories that reflect the life and feelings I know, and hope that my (often lighthearted and humorous) way of dealing with tough stuff on the page can be a comfort to someone else who is going through a similar situation. I don’t write books with a goal of imparting a message—I just want them to be fun!—but I do write books that I hope will resonate. I write stories that I hope reflect kids’ own experiences and fears and worries and dreams.
It was shortly after the pink dress incident that I started writing The Quirks, my middle-grade series about a family of magical misfits. The Quirks are a delightfully strange family who have spent years moving from town to town, desperately trying to hide the magic powers that make it hard for them to feel like they “fit in.” When the series opens, the family believes their Quirks are a problem. They try to squash and hide their magic, hoping they can trick people into thinking they’re “normal,” just like everyone else in town. But over time, they begin to realize that their differences can be a good thing. The most exhilarating thing for me was writing the last line of the four book series, when the Quirks—led by a brave ten-year-old girl—finally decide it’s time to peel away all of their masks and disguises, step out their front door as themselves, and “finally show the world how fabulous it is to be a Quirk.”
I wrote this series for myself, for my kids, and for any other kids who have ever felt like they were a little unusual or have had a hard time fitting in—at home, at school, at the bus stop or cafeteria or after-school program. I wish we were all a little better at embracing our Quirks and flaunting them without fear. I sincerely hope that my kids will grow up believing that being called quirky or weird or strange can be interpreted as a kind of compliment. Because if there’s one thing I’ve learned about being a bit of an odd duck, it’s this: when you exist outside the “normal” box, life is never boring.
Anna and the French Kiss (Stephanie Perkins)
Eleanor & Park (Rainbow Rowell)
Jellicoe Road (Melina Marchetta)
Going Too Far (Jennifer Echols)
Sean Griswold's Head (Lindsey Leavitt)
Perfect Chemistry (Simone Elkeles)
Dirty Little Secrets (CJ Omololu)
The Boyfriend List (E. Lockhart)
Breadcrumbs (Anne Ursu)
Bigger than a Breadbox (Laurel Snyder)
Harriet the Spy (Louise Fitzhugh)
The One and Only Ivan (Katherine Applegate)
Twelve (and all the other "Winnie" books by Lauren Myracle)
The Incorrigible Children of Ashton Place series (MaryRose Wood)
Princess Academy (Shannon Hale)
The BFG (Roald Dahl)
Bras & Broomsticks (Magic in Manhattan series by Sarah Mlynowski)
11 Birthdays (Wendy Mass)
Younger Middle Grade/Chapter Books/Great for New Independent Readers
Ramona series (especially Ramona Quimby Age 8, Beverly Cleary)
Tales of a Fourth Grade Nothing (Judy Blume)
Puppy Place series (Ellen Miles)
THE QUIRKS (by Erin Soderberg - me - of course!)
Spiderwick Chronicles (Holly Black)
I don't read a lot of adult, but the best I've read lately: The Husband's Secret (Liane Moriarty)
To Kill a Mockingbird (Harper Lee)
The Westing Game (Ellen Raskin)
What are your favorites?!
While I'm in Boston, I'm looking forward to meeting a ton of authors I admire. I was lucky enough to be invited to join Kate Messner in a morning jog/run/walk with other authors and teachers and librarians. I said yes, because it will be fun, but it's BEFORE 7 AM! I do not usually do anything before 7 am, so I really hope librarian and teacher friends show up and make the early morning extra rosy. If you happen to be in Boston next week for NCTE, wouldn't you love to get up early and join us for some crisp Boston air? If you snap a picture of yourself with one of the authors hobbling along that morning, bring it to the Bloomsbury booth on Saturday during my signing (2:30-3:30) and they will give you a copy of THE QUIRKS! Yay! Free books and exercise. A true score.