I thought I would change directions today to share my passion. Since early childhood, I have always loved the written word: reading it, writing it, touching the pages…
So, it comes as no surprise that I am now a writer.
There. I said it.
With six YA titles under my belt, I’m changing genres to experiment with middle-grade fiction.
I’d love to hear your thoughts on these early chapters of Sunflower Sisters.
“But, Dad, you just can’t pluck us up and carry us off like this! It’s not fair!”
We were moving? Why?
“Sweetheart, it’s only for a year. Maybe less. Think of it as an adventure.”
Evidently, my dad had inherited some land in Virginia. He couldn’t claim it unless he committed to living on the existing property for a year. It sounded kinda hokey to me. I mean, why do I have to go?
“Mom! Tell him we can’t!” I shrieked. This isn’t happening. They can’t do this to me.
“Enough of the hysterics, Julia. It’s decided. You’ll love it. New friends, a different school, plenty of stories to share when we return.”
That’s typical Mom, even if her tone was far from convincing. I caught a fleeting eye twitch before she walked into the other room. Mom’s eye only twitched when she was upset, so Dad’s news was obviously not a mutual decision.
“Dad!” I hated to beg but knew the best way to get his attention was to play the daddy’s girl card. Am I spoiled? Maybe a little. Do I know it? Yep.
“There’s nothing to talk about, JuJu. We’re leaving most of the furniture here, but you need to pack your clothes and decide on what items in your room you can’t live without.”
And that was that. No further discussion. No explanations. No sympathy.
For not the first time, I swallowed down the bile that threatened to erupt all over me and the back seat. Car sickness had never bothered me before. But, then again, these windy mountain roads were also new to me.
Dad had suggested that I ride in the front seat of the U-Haul with him, but I was still mad at him and chose to curl around the suitcases in the backseat of Mom’s Lincoln.
“If I had known you were riding with me, I would have organized things differently, JuJu,” Mom said when I made my last-minute decision.
By the time we arrived in Monterey, Virginia, I had convinced myself this was penance for every bad thought I had ever had about anyone and that if I worked hard on self-improvement, I would wake up and be back home in a place that didn’t smell like…
“Ewww, Mom what is that?”
The pungent aroma filtering in through the car’s air vents was contradictory to any I had ever known.
The stench distracted me from realizing we had come to a stop.
“Oh, don’t let that ol’ skunk bother ya, girl. You’ll get used to the perfume afore long.”
A gruff voice teased from outside the car in response to my protests. Sheltering my nose from the offensive odor, I straightened myself to peer out the car window.
“We’re here, JuJu.”
Mom’s lack of enthusiasm matched the drab landscape in front of me.
A sprawling two-story building slanted toward us, threatening to fall to the ground at any minute. What was probably once a picturesque wraparound porch leaned oddly in various directions, reminding me of a distorted carnival mirror. Bird’s nests spilled from the gutters and I swore I saw a squirrel disappear into a gaping hole over an upstairs window.
“Pretty spectacular, huh?” The same stranger’s voice said proudly.
Pulling my attention away from the monstrosity before me, I took my first look at the man.
He focused his attention on the structure with sincere admiration, letting me know he was, indeed, serious.
At first glance, the man’s age was not apparent. Although his raspy voice indicated old man vibes, his eyes were clear and alert. He could be any age between Dad and my grandpa. His faded flannel shirt was buttoned up to pinch at the neck, the wrists tightened by a wrap of what might be silver duct tape. He looked and smelled dusty.
With obvious reluctance, the man pulled his attention back to us and thrust his hand out to Mom.
“Hello, Ma’am. I’m Henry. We’ve been expecting you. I hope you had a pleasant journey.”
Mom received his welcome by cautiously accepting the handshake.
Evidently, it passed whatever test she had for shaking hands.
“Hello, Henry. My name is Nancy Pembrook. My husband said you would meet us here. I thought he would arrive first, but he must have fallen behind.” Mom turned to me with a tremulous smile. “This is my daughter Julia. We call her JuJu.”
“You’re late,” a deadpan voice interrupted any comment I might have had.
A girl about my age announced out of nowhere.
“You were supposed to be here Thursday. Today is Saturday. I hope this is not stale.”
“Now, Elsbeth, don’t get so excited. These fine folks have traveled far to get here.” Henry said. “This here’s my niece, Elsbeth. She’s been pretty excited to meet you.”
Thrusting a strangely wrapped square package at me, the girl continued her judgment.
“If the crust is hard, it’s your fault.”
Elsbeth stared at me through the thickest eyeglasses ever, illuminating the biggest, bluest eyes I’d ever seen. After a further inspection, that seemed to be her only physical redemption.
Oh, how Marly would have a field day with this girl.
I thought about my best friend’s probable reaction. Dishwater blond hair stood scrunched up on top of Elsbeth’s round face. She had a fair complexion that was void of animation other than her unpenetrable stare.
Mom elbowed a response out of my dumbfounded mouth.
“Oh, I’m sure it’s fine,” I sputtered.
“Good, good,” the man named Henry said and clapped his hands together in approval. “Elsbeth, why don’t ya take Julia inside and give her a tour of her new home?”
Before I could shoot Mom a pleading look of fear, my tour guide had me by the elbow, pressing me forward.
“You’ll like the house.” Elsbeth monotones. “Especially your room.”
How on earth did she know which room is mine? I haven’t even seen any of the rooms yet!
We entered what must be a living room without pausing. Up the squeaky steps we went, Elsbeth pushing me forward all the way, not giving me a chance to look around.
The door to my room stood open. I felt the light breeze from an opened window. The oil of furniture polish scented the room.
A large canopy bed dominated the center of the room. I
didn’t know what you liked. I did my best.”
Elsbeth’s voice didn’t sound concerned.
Other than the bed piled high with an assortment of colored pillows and a mess of stuffed animals, there was no evidence of decorations. A wilted sunflower threatened to topple out of its mason jar vase on the window ledge.
“You like to read, don’t you.”
Her question in the form of a statement confused me and she really didn’t appear to want a response as she lead me to a crooked bookshelf on the far side of the bed.
“These are some of my favorites. We’ll talk about them as you finish them.”
Without waiting for a reply, my tour guide kept talking.
“School starts Monday. You should start reading soon.”
I did not know what one had to do with the other, but felt like I needed to take control of this situation. Soon.
“I think I’m going to be kind of busy for a few days, We need to unpack and get settled in. So I probably won’t have a lot of time to read.”
If this upset her, Elsbeth’s expression didn’t show it, so I took the opportunity to find out more about my temporary, I hoped, new home.
“So, I need to contact my best friend and let her know what’s going on here. Is there a password for the internet?”
For a brief second, I thought I detected a flicker of emotion Elsbeth’s face; but it disappeared before I could process it.
“We do not have internet here. Sometimes we get to connect at school. There is no cellular phone service either.”
“You’re kidding, right?”
Elsbeth’s stoic stance answered that question quickly.
“So, how do you talk to people if there’s no texting or Face Chat? How am I supposed to talk to Marly?” More importantly, how could I exist without my social media? My friends would forget about me and Marly would find a new best friend while I died a slow death here in nowhere, Virginia.
As I paced the wood floor, I realized I was mumbling my thoughts out loud, unaware of Elsbeth’s scrutiny.
“You can write to her. We have a post office downtown.”
“Downtown? There’s a downtown?” Anxiety raised the volume of my voice at least an octave, creating a sound resembling a screech.
Elsbeth didn’t flinch but continued to enlighten me on the joys of my new lifestyle.
“Several of the girls have pen pals. I have two. One is in Russia and the other is in France.”
Pen pals? I didn’t want to be pen pals with Marly! She’s my best friend! The only time we write to one another is when we pass notes to each other in class or text about what we’re going to wear to school the next day.
“How do you talk to your friends without Wi-Fi or cell phones?” I asked.
“We talk at school if we need to. You do have a telephone in the kitchen.” Elsbeth’s continued disregard for my needs was grating on my already frazzled nerves.
“I talk to my bestie every day. This is just not going to work.” I heard the whine in my voice but didn’t care.
Staring at Elsbeth didn’t solve anything other than to make me increasingly uncomfortable. How could she be so unemotional?
“I mean, don’t you talk to yours every day?”
“My what?” Elsbeth’s lips moved, but there was no feeling behind her question.
“Your best friend! Don’t you talk to your best friend every day?” I screamed.
Elsbeth stared at me.
And stared at me.
And stared. At. Me.
“You do have friends, don’t you?”
“I do now,” she said.
There is a fine line that differentiates young adult and middle-grade fiction.
Middle-grade fiction refers to books written for readers between the ages of 8 and 12, while young adult fiction refers to books written for readers roughly between the ages of 12 and 18.
I identify strongly with those middle years. After teaching high school English for 18 years, a transition to an eighth-grade classroom landed me smack dab in my true comfort zone. I’ve always believed that eighth grade is the most impactful year. It’s the last year of childhood. It’s the last opportunity to claim innocence.
Lisa, Lady With the Cane
Musical inspiration for Sunflower Sisters: Old Crow Medicine Show: