Rory's Promise

How could I have guessed when I signed on to read and review an advance reading copy of Rory’s Promise by Michaela MacColl and Rosemary Nichols that I would actually meet the authors before I wrote the review? This historical fiction, set in the 1800s orphan world of New York City and an Arizona mining community, draws the reader into Rory’s struggle.   

Sandwiched between my reading the book and writing my review, the writers showed up at the Highlights retreat I attended. The book was published by Calkins Creek, an imprint of Highlights, and edited by Carolyn Yoder, the leader of our retreat.

The first bit of wonder for retreat participants came in their unique personal relationship since Rosemary is Michaela’s former stepmother, divorced from her father. As writers, we also joined in awe and questioned how they could partner to turn out this fascinating story. Most of us could not imagine writing with somebody else, especially something fictional. The short Me, Rosemary, Michaelaanswer is Micheala is the story person and Rosemary is the historical person, but each delves into the other’s side. We heard about a complicated process between the two of them that included fourteen editorial passes with Carolyn.

The story is well worth the trouble as Rory finagles her way through difficulties that pile on and increase as she tries to keep her promise never to forsake her younger sister. Grasping for a bit of status,  Rory and her sister Vi classify themselves as foundlings, which they think puts them in a bit better light with their parents dead, in contrast to the orphans abandoned by destitute mothers.

The difficult journey out West where Anglo and Mexican parents fight over babies they want to adopt is based on well-researched material and includes bits of true stories. Slight historical changes to fit the story are listed in back matter in the author’s note. The authors assured us the truth was in many ways even harder than the fiction they wrote.

Up until the final pages, I feared there was no way for the book to come to a satisfactory close. Rory’s Promise is written for middle grade and up. Note that “up” has no lid. If you love a good historical novel, this book is for you. I had come to that conclusion even before I met the delightful authors.



My division of the year into two seasons – College Football Season and The Rest of the Year – began as a tradition with my father when we lived ten miles north of Ole Miss. He taught me to follow the game on the radio and loved having a Saturday afternoon companion to cheer on the Rebels. Having a brother-in-law who was the university’s Alumni Director for many years and graduating from that fine institution has added to my fervor. I’ve rooted for them through good years, bad years, and two rounds of Mannings.

A different team and a third generation of college football enthusiasts was added during our nine year stay at Fort Sam Houston in San Antonio. Just up the road in Waco, Baylor University played during the Grant Teaff years, and we believed. Contributing a chunk of my salary later – for eight years – as two sons got degrees at Baylor added considerably to my fervor for their Bears. Our family cheered “Sic ‘em, Bears” as we watched together.

Now you might think I would have to choose a favorite here. That has happened only once in history. In 1975, Ole Miss and Baylor played each other in Waco. My brother-in-law got us tickets in the Ole Miss Alumni section to bring our oldest son to the game and gave him a warning that he had to give “Hotty Toddy” cheers for Ole Miss. Murray was relieved when the president of the Alumni Association gave his uncle a stern look and said, “Son, you cheer for whoever you want to.” Murray sicced those bears and tried not to overdo his gloat when Baylor won.

[In an aside, just in case you are wondering what “Hotty Toddy” means, according to the website, it means nothing and everything. Go figure. Eli Manning is quoted as saying it just means you’re an Ole Miss fan. I think that’s about it.]

My season began last night with Ole Miss vs. Boise State. Thank goodness they didn’t play on that garish Boise State blue field. The first half wasn’t pretty, but I’ll take the 35-13 win.  

Sunday night the tradition takes in a fourth generation. Son #1 plans to be back in Waco at the christening of the new Baylor stadium with his son. Son #2 will make traditional football dip to eat with tortilla chips while watching at home with his son. I’m claiming a virtual game-watching presence with both sons and grandsons as I make my own dip to share and watch with Al.

The Rest of the Year is over. College Football Season is underway.

Hotty Toddy! Sic ‘em, Bears!


The Fourteenth Goldfish

Coincidence seems to turn up often in my life. I finished reading The Fourteenth Goldfish by Jennifer L. Holm just before I turned out the light to go to sleep. Shortly after I woke the next morning, an early morning radio news report on NPR featured the relationship between a positive attitude toward aging and increased longevity. The connection between a middle grade book and gerontology struck me as odd.

I’ve long been a fan of Jennifer Holm’s books. My favorites are her historical novels based on family stories – Penny from Heaven, Boston Jane, and the May Amelia books. My judgment evidently is shared by the Newbery Committees since she has shown up three times on their Honor Book lists. This book is quite different from those with a dose of intriguing fantasy.

Eleven year old Ellie copes with loss of a best friend, divorced parents, a new relationship for her mom, and dead goldfish – all fairly normal problems for a rising sixth grader. The twist comes when her scientific grandfather figures out a way to return to his youth and become her peer.

Ellie and her mom, who realize what he has done, pass Grandpa Melvin off as a cousin. The story line twists and turns as Grandpa alternately uses his knowledge from his years of living or behaves as an adolescent boy.

I questioned Grandpa Melvin’s decision to come back as 13-year-old. I loved the years I spent teaching people who were that age, but I consider those junior high years as the very worst in my own life.

The book was great fun to read and true to both of Melvin’s ages. I kept thinking it could also give rise to some good discussions about the pros and cons of being forever young. I pictured a middle school/junior high student and a grandparent reading it either together or separately and then discussing the pros and cons of their own ages and the consequences of never growing older.  

The book comes out tomorrow, August 26. I recommend it to people of either of Melvin’s ages.


Just Right

A retreat means different things to different people. I’m a bit like Goldilocks with her “too hot” and “too cold” – looking for “just right.” I see references to anticipated trips to the beach and think, “How boring.” At the opposite end are those who go to theme parks, and I think, “Over stimulation.” I am away this week at the one that, for me, is “just right.”

I am at the Carolyn Yoder Alumni Retreat put on by The Highlights Foundation. Yes, they are the ones who publish Highlights for Children that you loved as a child and still find in your doctor’s office. She is their nonfiction editor for the magazine and the book publishing arm. As you might guess, you can come to an Alumni Retreat if you have been to one of her workshops before.

At the moment, I’m sitting alone on the front screened-in porch of the family home in the Pocono Mountains where Highlights began, watching the sun come out after a summer shower. Surrounded by pens, paper, and computer that spread across their old dining table, I have no calls except to write words.

For a solid week, the only scheduled time has been three and a half hours of one-on-one fine tuning time with Carolyn, three chef prepared meals a day, and nightly critiques. My fellow attendees are serious about writing. On the few occasions when someone has shared this dining table, she gave brief friendly greetings before beginning her own writing in companionable silence.

The closest I’ve come to being distracted from writing has been watching a chipmunk eat his breakfast, a spell in the tree swing down the hill, and a short daily walk to watch Calkins Creek babble its way under the bridge.
I’ve found the retreat that’s “just right” for me:
    A week away
        At Calkins Creek
    With words to write
        But few to speak.


Lisette's List

If you read Susan Vreeland’s Girl in Hyacinth Blue, you will know why I jumped at the chance for an advance reading copy of Lisette’s List. (If you didn’t you might want to rush out and find a copy to read while you wait for the release date of Lisette’s List on August 26.)

I have a great partiality for well-researched historical fiction in the hands of a good story-teller. This book fits both parts of that description. Parisienne Lisette reluctantly leaves the city she loves with her husband Andre to follow the call of her husband’s dying grandfather Pascal in the rural village of Roussillon.

Neither of them could have predicted what the reader anticipates in the 1937 date at the beginning of chapter one about the war that is ahead and what it might do to their lives. Part of Lisette’s coping with change is list-making. As a habitual list-maker, I empathize.

Lisette becomes a ready listener to Pascal’s stories and his lessons in art. His lessons lead her to add Item 4 to her list, “Learn what makes a painting great.” Early foreshadowing of things to come are in Pascal’s words, “When something changes your life, Lisette, you remember everything. Someday you’ll see.”

Well-rounded fictional characters populate the worlds of Paris and the rural village of Roussillon. Real world political and art figures from World War II add realistic background along with a mystery about where Andre hid his grandfather’s cherished paintings before he went off to war.

The reader sees Lisette’s appreciation of her new world as she remains in the village learning to live the rural life and knows she can soon check off item 12, “Learn how to be self-sufficient.” One of my favorite glimpses of her spirit is her wonder at her own good fortune in the midst of difficulty as she receives a painting done expressly for her. I’ll not spoil the story by telling what internationally know artist painted it. I found the way this part of the story unfolded and its lingering presence for the rest of the book intriguing.

I liked this book for much more than her frequent mention of my favorite pastry when we lived in France - pain au chocolat. In fact, that part just made me hungry. There may be a stop at  C’est la Vie, our authentic French bakery right here in Hattiesburg, in my near future. I recommend the book, perhaps read with a cup of coffee and bit of French pastry at hand.