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After a 5th grade production of "Alice in Wonderland" thirty years ago, a parent thanked me for letting her shy daughter play the Queen of Hearts, because it had boosted her self-confidence. Sally's classmate Brian had relished the role of King. Both children were what you might call solidly built, making their presence felt like Pavarotti onstage. Then there was absent-minded Chester scurrying about with his watch on a chain as the White Rabbit, and Mad Hatter Michael pontificating at the tea party in a top hat, priced 10 shillings and sixpence. It would be interesting to know how much of it they remember now, in their forties, likely with kids of their own at the same school!

As I get to know my characters in the fictional town of Hickory Bend, I will enjoy drawing up a cast list for "Alice with a Texas twist" and watching the drama unfold, on and offstage. Cal wants to be the hookah-smoking caterpillar, but he and his cousin Luke might end up as Tweedledum and Tweedledee. Costumes made by Sue Graham and other moms will offer possibilities for mistaken identity, or notes hidden in pockets, clues to the Riddle of the Samovar.

Let the show begin!  Read More 
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Jandy mentions Aunt Phyllis in SECRET OF THE SEVENTH GATE as a relative who fails to understand why Clint (Phyllis’s brother) would drag his family halfway around the world, even for a short-term contract. The school counselor, Shirley Anne Traylor, expresses similar views when trying to sort out Jandy’s grades in RIDDLE OF THE SAMOVAR.

Meanwhile in Iran, Maryam’s Aunt Simin is close-minded in matters of religion. “God is too holy to have a son,” she asserts, “and the Bible is full of lies.” My 2nd graders at a Christian school in Texas cried in horror when I read that part of my book to them. Blasphemy!

I haven’t decided how much of a role these aunts will play in the sequel. But I’m sure they will let me know soon enough. Read More 
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Jandy's adjustment to life back in Hickory Bend after three years in Iran is fraught with setbacks. Classmates ridicule gaps in her knowledge of rock music; teachers berate her ignorance about American history. The school counselor insists that Jandy still lacks one math class, and they cannot fit art in her schedule. Then Mom suggests a nerdy tutor to boost her chemistry grade. Relatives wonder why Dad ever took that job overseas, and the Islamic Revolution hasn't helped matters.

Old friends have moved on to new pursuits - band, cheerleading, athletics. If only Maryam were here! Communication with Iran, by mail or phone, has broken down. Brother Cal is upset that his dog disappeared while staying with Maryam, and takes it out on Jandy. But if they can't work together, how will they solve the Riddle of the Samovar? That knotty problem carries enough complications of its own.

Maryam's arrival in Texas, which should be an exciting, longed-for event, is hampered by resentment from Cal and prejudice from a clique of mean girls. Worse yet, Jandy's attempts to get her a role in "Alice" backfire, when students (protesting the shah's admittance into the US) take over the Embassy in Tehran. No wonder she feels like Alice down the rabbit hole. Read More 
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“Gotcha last!” Cracker called through the bazaar. He aimed a nut at Jandy, and it hit the back of her head.

She thinks about this game three months later, while eating California pistachios in Texas. The last time they played it was at Maryam’s house just before the Ashura parade took a hostile turn. Jandy wonders how much longer her brother will play these games with her. But it won’t be the same without Maryam.

She remembers how her family belted out “Jingle Bells” in the car one evening, on a quest for a Christmas tree. Then a road block had forced them to turn back, because Hank’s Chicken had been set on fire as an anti-American protest.

The Grahams still like to sip hot tea Iranian style, from small glasses, with sugar cubes on their tongues. Mom cooks lamb biryani with jasmine rice, and picks up authentic baklava from a Dallas bakery. So what if classmates think them weird, or even un-American? These rituals keep alive the memory of their Middle-East experience. Read More 
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In SECRET OF THE SEVENTH GATE, Jandy and Cracker rescue a stray Lab and name him Meshki -- Farsi for black. He helps them sniff out clues for the latest mystery, but also gets them in trouble. Dogs are unclean in the Islamic religion. So, when Nasser the gardener sees Meshki with the kids outside the mosque, he throws rocks, and they have to run home. Cracker thinks the dog's previous owners were from Oklahoma, which may or may not tie in with the sequel.

When the Graham family leaves Iran in a hurry, their friend Maryam Darabi agrees to take care of Meshki, not knowing if or when they will return. Eight months later, Cracker -- or Cal, as he now prefers -- pines for Meshki and wonders how they can get him out of Iran. Worse yet, a tearful Maryam tells Jandy by phone, before being cut off, that the dog had been shot by a Revolutionary guard. Is he dead? Injured? Roaming the streets again? Cal wishes they hadn't entrusted Meshki to Maryam, which causes tension between him and Jandy as they await further news.

I haven't decided yet what happens to Meshki. A backup plan, if he can't come to Texas, is for Grandma Graham to give Cal a golden retriever pup, or for him to choose one at the animal shelter. I've read plenty of sad, realistic children's books, but don't want to turn mine into too much of a tragedy. My friend Alison and her 10-year-old daughter were quite upset when Jandy had to leave her teddy bear behind in SECRET OF THE SEVENTH GATE. Another option is for one of the teachers who stayed in Iran to adopt Meshki. Read More 
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