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 FRESH FROM THE INKWELL 

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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P: PHYLLIS

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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O: OBSTACLES

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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F: FRIENDSHIP

"Nobody can make me hate you for being American," Maryam told Jandy tearfully before they said goodbye in SECRET OF THE SEVENTH GATE, not knowing if they would ever meet again. Fast forward to Texas several months later, to RIDDLE OF THE SAMOVAR. When letters from Iran tail off, and phone calls can't get through, how will the girls' friendship survive? Readers want to know!

The main theme of the first book was the triumph of friendship (along with faith and family) over hatred and prejudice. Its sequel develops along those lines, with the addition of hospitality - symbolized by the samovar - when the Darabi family shows up in need of shelter.

Can Jandy return the kindness she received from Maryam in 1975, when Dad first got his job in Iran? Or will her attempts flop like the March Hare's ears at the Mad Hatter's tea party in ALICE? How will a teenager uprooted from her culture and extended family be treated by students and teachers at Hickory Bend Junior High? Read More 
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D: DANGER

In SECRET OF THE SEVENTH GATE, hostility toward Americans intensifies with anonymous notes, phone calls, and street protests. When Jandy and Cracker investigate strange goings-on at the mosque, Nasser the school gardener stones their dog, Meshki. They run home, but continue to work on the case with Maryam at school. Then a religious holiday turns violent; Jandy summons help for an injured man, who turns out to be Nasser. The school play goes ahead with a number of kids missing because ex-pats are leaving Iran.

Next day, Dad's boss instructs engineers and their families to take a bus to Abadan airport; but Dad's passport is stolen. On the way to Maryam's house with Meshki, whom she has agreed to foster, Jandy distracts two soldiers by drawing their portrait, while Cracker sneaks into the empty house on the corner and emerges with the passport. Now they have missed the bus! Dr. Darabi offers a ride and they head south down the desert road, chased by local revolutionaries. One hazard leads to another, until all the family is safe inside their plane.

Jandy reads a Persian proverb in the book Maryam gave her for Christmas: "The best thing you can bring back from your travels is yourself unharmed." Will Hickory Bend, Texas, feel like a haven of peace after escaping such danger? Or will it seem too tame, especially for mystery-loving Cracker? They worry about the friends - and dog - they left behind. According to news reports, the Shah has been deposed; Ayatollah Khomeini has returned from exile. For moderate Iranians, the Revolution is not going as hoped.

Will the kids decipher the cryptic note hidden in a samovar? Why does Maryam sound upset when Jandy speaks to her on the phone? Will they ever meet again, as she prayed at the airport last December? Has Meshki been shot, or did he run off, only to roam the streets again?

Like Cracker puzzling over his codes, I can't yet see how to shape a sequel around another play (ALICE); the trials of transferring grades from Iran while catching up on Texas curriculum; plus Jandy's challenge of helping Maryam fit in at HB High, when no longer sure of her own place there. I trust it will all work itself out as I write. Read More 
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