Okay, so what does a former zookeeper and expert on red wolves know about writing a funny adventurous book from the viewpoint of a fourteen-year-old boy? Evidently, quite a lot. I read the book Peak by Roland Smith in an advance reading copy. Normally, these copies are offered before the book comes out, but this offer of a book, out for several years and selling quite well, precedes the release of the sequel The Edge which will be out October 6.

The boy named Peak lets us know in the first paragraph that it could have been worse. “My parents could have named me Glacier, or Abyss, or Crampon. I’m not kidding. According to my mom all those names were on the list.” So begins his tongue-in-cheek tale of getting caught climbing a New York City skyscraper, facing the judge, and getting a sentence that befits the crime.

The angry judge doesn’t want the publicity that will begin a copycat daredevil string of kids climbing skyscrapers. His mother and stepfather get a probation deal that will send him out of the country to live with his natural father who runs a company taking people who plan to scale Mt. Everest. Little do they realize the father’s ulterior motive of making Peak the youngest person to scale the mountain. Peak’s early description of his father foreshadows his danger. “When you’re at the end of your rope there’s no one better than Josh Wood. Unfortunately, he doesn’t pay much attention until you are dangling.”

Although he never completely loses the delightful sense of humor that begins the book, Peak grows and changes as he faces the dangers of the mountain, sees the single-mindedness of the climbers, and feels empathy with the Sherpa guides who do the hardest work and take the greatest risks. The narrative moves the smart-mouth Peak through a tough trek up Everest to discover what is really important to him.

A magnificent writing lesson and vivid mountaineering details weave skillfully into the narrative. If you are looking for a book for a reluctant (or enthusiastic) teenage boy, this one fits the bill. Just don’t tell him how much he is going to learn. Oh, go ahead, order both books and give him a pair.


Ginger Boys

My mother wanted a redhead. My paternal grandmother, whom I never knew, had beautiful auburn hair or so we were told. Mama held out hope through four girls, but it never happened.

When my sister Beth, who had married a redhead, was expecting her first child, Mama renewed her hopes. Beth’s doctor encouraged that expectation.

We were living in France on Al’s first overseas assignment from the Army when Donna was born, and Mama sent an ecstatic letter telling us about Donna’s red hair. She mentioned it from time to time in letters during the remainder of our two years in France and Belgium.

As luck would have it, Beth and Don were in New Jersey, quite handy for our family of three to visit as we landed in NYC on our return to the states. It was a nice diversion during our wait over the weekend for our car to arrive. Donna, by now, was a very cute two-year-old with light brown hair. Born exactly one year apart, she and her three-year-old cousin had a great time and began a lifetime bond. Not long into the visit, I asked Beth, “What happened to Donna’s red hair?”

Beth laughed. “Donna never had red hair. Mama wanted it to be red so badly, she saw it that way.”

It took another generation for Mama to get her wish, and she’s not here to see it. Her two youngest great-grandsons, with a strawberry blonde mother, require no imagination to find the red hair. I’m just hoping the angels draw back the curtains of heaven now and then for her to watch and enjoy the ginger boys at play.


Sources of Light

Since Margaret McMullan will be featured on August 22 at the Mississippi Book Festival ( , our de Grummond Book Group chose her Sources of Light for our July selection. I approach books set in Mississippi during 1962-63 with trepidation. Too often, I find one dimensional characters – both black and white – populating the books. I did have some hope since I’d had positive past experiences with Margaret’s books and her Mississippi heritage. (How I Found the Strong, When I Crossed the No-Bob, and In My Mother’s House)

The book opens with Samantha (Sam) and her mother coming back as she enters ninth grade to her father’s native Mississippi after his heroic death in Vietnam. I knew Margaret’s characters would ring true when Samantha met her teacher. “The first day and every day afterward, Miss Jenkins wore a dark blue dress and stockings that sagged, the seams in the back growing crooked by noon.” I recognized this teacher, but I called her “Miss Hicks.”

Sam moves into a world she does not know as racial tensions of the Civil Rights Movement are coming to a head. Even her lack of awareness rings true since military kids, in a multicultural world of their own, often pay small attention to news that doesn’t seem to concern them. She sees this new world through the lens of a camera given to her by her mother’s boy friend and hears the sounds of love, persuasion, arguments, and anger against the background of an unceasing whistling hum of summer cicadas.

The book is not a comfortable read, but it rings true as characters with complications either try to prevent or try to find their way in the new order that is coming in Mississippi. Sam becomes torn herself in her relationship with boyfriend Scout, wondering just how far she can trust him.

Like Deborah Wiles in Countdown and Revolution, Margaret’s Southern characters are complicated juxtaposing things like their admiration for Sam’s father’s heroism alongside their racism. This young adult book is well worth the read even if you no longer fit the young adult category – but not if you’re looking for something light and fluffy.


Mad About Monday

Call me an oddball. Oh, you already did? Well, if you want to have another go at it, let me give you some ammunition.

A few days ago, I was wandering through some of the stuff that one of my beloved daughters-in-law has promised to put out on the side of the road in a stretch Hefty bag when I die. (An event we are not planning any time soon.) Lest you have bad thoughts for the daughter-in-law, the pile of stuff means little to anybody except me so she’ll be doing the rest of the family a favor to get rid of it – and I won’t care. She is going to wait until I die – I think.

As I plundered, I ran across a statement in a long ago letter to my parents, “Monday turned out like Mondays do here – one day I’ll write a letter devoted to Mondays!” As far as I know, I never got around to writing that letter so I’m making up for it by praising Monday in my blog.

You see, I actually like Mondays. I did when I was teaching. I loved starting a new week with fresh ideas for what my students would learn and experience. (They might have told you I came with innovative means of torture. They are free to write their own rebuttals.) Now I follow a weekend routine saving Saturdays for laundry, writing business, and a modicum of housework and Sundays for church, reading, and relaxation. This means by Monday morning, I’m ready to get back to work on something new and creative or a good rewrite.

If that is not enough weirdness, let me add that my favorite time of day is 5 AM. Before you groan, just think about it. Nobody calls you on the phone at 5 AM. Nobody rings the doorbell at 5 AM. Truthfully, I think few people know that 5 AM is a real hour in the day. Even my husband sleeps right through it. Peace and quiet reigns with no demands from anybody since nobody else is up. I frequently get more words on paper or in the computer between 5 and 7 than I do during the combined hours of the rest of the day. As a bonus, a frequent treat is a beautiful sunrise. Another little known fact because few people are up to see it: sunrises are even more beautiful than sunsets.

I know many of you have looked forward to today because it’s Friday, and Fridays are good in their own way. After all, it’s only three days until Monday comes again.


Serafina and the Black Cloak

In the basement of the Biltmore Estate in Ashville, North Carolina, “Serafina opened her eyes and scanned the darkened workshop, looking for any rats stupid enough to come into her territory while she slept,” and so begins a strange story.

Robert Beatty in Serafina and the Black Cloak weaves a tale that keeps the reader wavering between belief and unbelief that mystical forces control residents of a mansion known for its Southern charm. But then, what Southern mansion worthy of its salt doesn’t have a bit of supernatural history? Denials abound, along with advocates who vouch for eerie occurrences.

The question becomes personal for Serafina who has her own questions from her residence with her father in the basement. Who is her mother? How did she come to live here? Why can she never show herself to the true residents? How did she acquire the skill of catching rats in the dark that has led her father to bestow on her the title of Biltmore Estate’s C. R. C (Chief Rat Catcher)?

Serafina’s real challenge comes after she witnesses a man whose black cloak seems to swallow up a little girl and children begin to go missing. Her skills, whether from her mysterious background or her practice of catching rats in the dark, bring her out of her safe basement haven on a hair-raising adventure to solve the mystery.

Middle-graders and adults who like to teeter on the edge of disbelief will enjoy the book. Extra pleasure awaits those who are familiar with Southern mansions, especially the Biltmore Estate.