Raising Lumie is your latest book with PYR, can you tell us a little about your inspiration for it?
I love writing about heroes (though not the kind with capes) plus I’m a big dog lover. So when I found out about how guide dogs for the blind are raised as puppies by volunteers who take the young dogs into their homes and raise them as their own — I knew I had found a community of everyday heroes. Add onto that my experience at a bereavement camp for young people called Good Grief — I saw such courage in those hurting kids. Such power in being real with their grief. I had found my next story.
Speak to the topics of loss, family, grief, and love in your novel.
Grief is something we all want to avoid — but it’s something we humans share. How we handle it and walk through it is critical — and stories rush to our aid. In Raising Lumie, 12-year-old Olive’s life is turned around when her dad dies; she’s not sure who she will be living with — but she is sure of one thing. She needs a dog. And here comes Maudie, her half sister, whom she has never met, and Maudie reaches out a hand to Olive, saying, let’s try to be a family together. We’re going to have to get to know each other fast. So this deep loss — this grief that walks with them on their journey — but they learn that joy is walking with them, too. I love that discovery. An instant family, a need to reach out beyond pain to help someone else, the connections these half sister share like playing guitars and singing. The huge changes, the decisions, the idea of helping someone else despite what is happening to them. The 24/7 puppy raising. What I learned about grief is how it isn’t just sadness — it’s sweet memories, honoring the person who died, enjoying life, weeping from sadness, relating yourself to new things. Such a complex thing grief is. And love — well, I wanted to show how it grows, how you don’t always “feel” it, you have to sometimes be deliberate about it. This story is very much how I feel about the power of love and what it can do.
Guide dog training is a fascinating and seldom explored topic. Why did you decide to incorporate this element into your story, and what sort of research did you do to learn more for your writing?
For me, Raising Lumie shows a hero puppy in training raised by a girl who might be the biggest dog lover in North America. Which dogs have the right stuff to go all the way in the program? What do you look for in a dog who can go the distance? I was fascinated by this and by the focus and determination of Olive who gives her all to help Lumie be all she can be.
Can you talk about your process, how your stories come to you, and how you are able to capture the poignancy you do?
There’s always a part of me in every story that I write— a broken part, a strong part, and something that makes me angry about the world that I would like to see fixed. I know my characters’ hearts and I feel their feelings. Sometimes I cry when something happens, sometimes I cheer. I feel uniquely close to Olive and Maudie in Raising Lumie. I allow myself to be vulnerable when I’m writing. As a writer I’ve learned to not be afraid of the things that have hurt me. I’ve learned to write about them and as I do, I find that readers relate to them in very personal ways.
What would you like to see kids take away from your book?
I want them to know that there are good people out in the world they can trust. That when dark times come, if we hang on, we can see a light break forth illuminating a healthy path forward. If they’ve had a loved one die, it’s never too late to honor that person. I want them to know that you don’t have to feel completely together or happy or whatever to help someone — you can just step out where you are and do it. I hope they will feel some of the joy that dogs have always given me, and I hope they will see the power of sacrifice (although I never use that word in the novel) — how stretching yourself to do something big and lasting — it has a colossal effect on you and those around you.
What guidance can you offer to educators on how to use your books in the classroom?
I spend a great deal of time trying to create realistic characters that young people can relate to. The problems my characters face are real ones and I pack as many life lessons into my stories and work hard to not let the seams show. I’ve talked to so many teachers who have mined those lessons beyond what I could imagine by bringing in experts in the fields my stories discuss, bringing in people in the community who are represented in the story. All of these ways and more make a story come alive! Also, a continuing theme in my books is that I give all of my main characters something they LOVE to do. Olive’s big love is dogs. Jeremiah in Soar is baseball. When young people are connected to that kind of passion they can often find their own. There will be a teaching guide to Raising Lumie on my website by April 2020.
How are your books useful to educators working with reluctant readers?
My books are fast-paced and deal with real issues and they are funny, so I think they have a hook. Kids want to stay with the story — boys and girls.
What advice would you offer to aspiring student writers?
Write whenever you can. Learn to love the craft — constantly push yourself to get better at it. Have a few people to share your work with — people you trust. Learn to accept criticism and let it make you a better writer. As far as getting published goes — that’s not nearly as important as becoming a fantastic writer.
If you weren’t writing, how would you spend your days?
I’d be an independent film maker or, gasp, try to see if I could be a stand-up comic.
What other titles would you recommend for readers of your books?
I have 14 novels and I can honestly say, I’m glad for each one. But Rules of the Road, Hope Was Here, Stand Tall, Close to Famous, Almost Home, Soar, and my latest, Raising Lumie, are some of my personal favorites.