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 FRESH FROM THE INKWELL 

W: WONDERLAND

The Hickory Bend production of “Alice” is a new interpretation with a Texas twist by a local writer. Wonderland is re-named Tumbleweed Land. The play mixes events and characters from cowboy history with those of Lewis Carroll’s two books.

Jandy‘s encounters at her new/old school parallel those of Alice down the rabbit hole and through the looking glass. She gets lost in the warren of hallways joining the buildings. A good student made to feel stupid, she can recite Persian poetry, but has missed out on American classics. Friends leave her behind with their chit-chat about fashions and film stars.

Down is up, and up is down. People talk in riddles. Nothing makes sense. Jandy must find her own ways to navigate the landscape. After a weird and wonderful adventure, she will emerge at Tamam Shud (the Very End in Farsi), with renewed confidence and relief that it is over. Read More 

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V: VANDERGRIFF

How do authors come up with names for characters? Their own lives? The telephone directory? The sound of a name, or its meaning/connotation? All of the above?

Jandy’s favorite teacher at the International school in Iran got her last name from Vandergriff Park in Arlington, Texas. It had a special association for me. My SCBWI chapter held workshops and conferences in a building there, before we outgrew it. As with many of my own teachers, I don’t even know Miss Vandergriff’s first name! Presumably I gave her one. It must be in the bio sheet I drafted when I began to plot SECRET OT THE SEVENTH GATE. So I can look it up if needed.

Miss Vandergriff wears her hair In a French knot, paints her fingernails pearly pink, and wears a jasmine fragrance. That much I rememember. She may not appear physically in RIDDLE OF THE SAMOVAR. I’m not ruling it out, as most Americans have left Iran by 1979, or soon will. Maryam heard a rumor that she was engaged to an Iranian pilot, so she may choose to stay. But her influence over Jandy’s life continues.

Admiring her set for the Ali Baba show, Miss Vandergriff had pronounced her the “best little artist this side of the Dez River!” This gives Jandy confidence to pursue art when she returns to Hickory Bend. Might she become the "best little artist this side of the Red River"? Unable to fit art into her class schedule, she volunteers to paint scenery for a local production of Alice in Wonderland.

Jandy had also been in Miss Vandergriff's class for 8th grade English, but Maryam attended a separate class with students whose second language was English. For the lesson featured in SEVENTH GATE, Jandy created an Arabian Nights tale (number 1,002) while listening to Rimsky-Korsakov's "Sheherazade" - absorbing Persian and Russian culture at the same time.

A teacher's approach to life and work affects kids' lives in big and small ways, for better or for worse. His or her words are imprinted on minds and report cards for decades to come. Read More 

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U: UNITY

What makes this book hold together like glue? Like staples? Like saddle stitching? Not literally, but figuratively speaking. I named it RIDDLE OF THE SAMOVAR. So, the samovar has to take center stage (or at least make its presence felt) throughout the story. The discovery and decoding of its contents must drive the plot. Maryam, Tammie, Grant, cousins, teachers, and the “Alice” cast, if they are to participate at all, must somehow fit into the unifying principle – the riddle of the samovar. Read More 

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T: TAMMIE TRAYLOR

Tammie Traylor bounces on to the page in her purple Buffalette uniform, popping watermelon bubble gum. Her hair is pulled across her head and secured with spray-net and two tight ponytails. Her voice is perky, ever ready with a cheer for Hickory Creek, be it volleyball, basketball, or football. Cheerleading is her life. She has moved on from the pursuits she and Jandy shared -- before the Grahams moved away.

"So what happened at Camp Mockingbird?" readers will ask, when I first drop the hint of a falling-out between the two girls in fifth grade.

I don't know myself yet! But the root of Tammie's resentment lies with Jandy's abandonment of her (or so it seems) when Clint Graham took a job in Iran. Like Jandy's Aunt Phyllis, the Traylors cannot fathom why anyone would travel so far to visit, let alone to live. What about the language? Food? Way of life? Religion?

"The world needs stay-put people," Shirley Anne Traylor tells Tammie, "and that's what we are."

A small part of Tammie, however, secretly wonders what it would be like to take that step, to have the courage to begin such an adventure.

By 1979, Jandy's adventure has come to an end. She feels like Alice ejected from the rabbit hole into reality, still getting her bearings. She tries to explain that the ex-pat community in Shekarabad was its own kind of world, neither Iranian nor American, but a mix of interesting people from several continents. Some of them have returned to their countries of origin, and Jandy longs to hear from them, because they understand.

The counselor fusses about incomplete grades. Classmates tire of her "harping on" or "harking back to" Iran. Former friends have changed, but accuse Jandy of changing. Teachers expose gaps in Jandy's knowledge of US History. Cousins under the influence of their mom, Phyllis Graham, rub it in about family celebrations she and Calvin missed out on.

How fair is it that Tammie does all the cheerleading she wants, choreographs ALICE, and helps out in the school office, while her mom (the counselor) can't find a time-slot for Jandy to take 8th grade Art? It's possible that Tammie misfiled Jandy's records accidentally. But how do we know it wasn't deliberate - either to get back at her for the Camp Mockingbird incident, or just to be mean? Somehow the conflict between the girls will tie in with the Riddle of the Samovar. I don't know how, but it will. My subconscious imp (as the late, prolific author Phyllis Whitney called him) is working on the case as we speak. Read More 
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S: SEVENTIES

As one who lived through the 1970s in my twenties, I didn’t recognize “That ‘70s Show” (which appeared on TV in the ‘90s) as true to the decade. Were we really that moronic in our speech and dress? Am I just ashamed to admit it? I guess anything can seem normal at the time, even new fads that take a while to accept, at least for parents. Yet, trawling the albums today, we laugh at photos of our Afro hair, platforms shoes, bold, striped sweaters, and clunky technology.

It has been suggested to me that kids prefer to read stories set in today’s time. But time-travel books like the Magic Tree House series remain popular, and the Seventies are long enough ago to contrast with 21st century life in an amusing way. What, no cell phones? No video games? Mom, Dad, Grandma, what did you do for fun?

If the characters’ thoughts and feelings are genuine, they will resonate with kids today. Family conflict, friendship, jealousy, ambition, fear, etc. are part of the human condition, which hasn’t changed since Cain killed Abel.

As the decade draws to a close, the residents of Hickory Bend will looks forward to the brave new world of the 1980s. Wahoo! Read More 
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