2017 in the Books
My husband and I were reflecting on the year last night. It was our most expensive year since we’ve been together. We had some struggles with unexpected medical expenses and car repairs that have really added up. But we had good things that cost money too: our youngest daughter’s extracurricular activities with band and drama, our oldest got married, and we took a trip to California for my high school reunion. Things in the news brought us down week after week, and we’ve relied a lot on Trevor Noah and Stephen Colbert to try to find a light edge so we could sleep at night. It’s easy to look at the last year and feel down, but I am an optimist. I try to focus on the highlights.
As an author, there were definitely some highlights. I published two books: my middle grade novel No One Needed to Know and my 3rd and final Juniper Sawfeather novel Echo of the Cliffs. These books haven’t been big sellers, but they have garnered great reviews, and NONTK has won four awards for its Special Needs Awareness theme. I honestly believe Echo of the Cliffs is the best of the 3 Juniper books, and I hope with the new Juniper Sawfeather Trilogy box set that’s available more people will read through the whole series to get to it.
In addition to the novels, I’ve had stories about Juniper Sawfeather published in the anthologies Kick Ass Girls of Fire and Ice YA Books (April) and Winter Wonder (December). I did a few personal appearances related to my books. My favorites were speaking on panels at the Southern Kentucky Festival of Books and at Nashville Comic Con. I also did a lecture and workshop at the MTSU Youth Writing Camp this last summer, which was a blast. Fingers crossed I get to do more of that kind of thing and school visits in 2018.
I didn’t finish writing the novel I started at the end of 2016. I was interrupted for final edits on Echo of the Cliffs, writing those short stories, and I did a big clean-up of an older work and submitted it to Fire and Ice YA Books. They have accepted On the Water (a young adult contemporary adventure with a ghost story) and it will be released in summer of 2018. I just submitted a story to another Fellowship of Fantasy anthology (publishers of Fantastic Creatures), so fingers crossed. I've also just started auditioning narrators for an audiobook of Cry of the Sea.
I did get back to working on my newest book this week while on winter break from work. It should be finished soon. (Sign up for my newsletter or follow me on Twitter or Facebook to keep up to date with publishing info.)
Another distraction from my writing was that my husband and I got involved in theater again after taking a full year off. We did To Kill a Mockingbird last May with a fairly new theater company in town. (He was Atticus and so amazing). Later, they talked him into playing the lead in Father of the Bride, and I wound up taking over a small role during dress rehearsals. Right after that show opened, we started rehearsals for Miracle on 34th Street, which I directed. (My last post was about that experience.) I know of some great shows happening in the next couple months, and I’d love to participate. But won’t. I want to focus on writing again for a while. I’ve got some cool ideas brewing, including a possible book for grown-ups. We’ll see what happens. My years never end the way I plan them.
As far as reading goes. I’ve read about 45 books this year. I’ve continued to be addicted to audiobooks and tend to get through the better known books and authors that way. I still primarily read indie on my Kindle or hardcovers signed by local authors. I’ve also continued to read mostly middle grade and young adult titles. I discovered Patrick Ness in 2016, and he still reigns as my new favorite author. I read two of his books this year. Many of the best books I read were contemporary dramas rather than fantasy. I also noticed when writing this that I favored thrillers this year, too.
Here are my favorites of 2017.
Best Book I Read All Year: The Sun is Also A Star by Nicola Yoon. I listened to this as an audiobook and found myself driving extra blocks or slowing down so I could keep listening. This story is amazing. It’s about love and fate. It features diverse characters and celebrates their unique traits. It’s both heartwrenching and heartwarming. I loved it so much, I'll probably check it out again. It's YA but will appeal to adults. The audiobook narrators are extremely talented, too, so I recommend listening to it if you can.
Best Book from a Big Publisher: Wonder by R. J. Palacio. This isn’t a new book, but I decided to read it before the movie came out (which I still haven’t seen). I love the way family is portrayed in this book. I love how this story is told from several points of view. I love how friendship is portrayed. It is a book about inclusion, love, and respect. All kids, all grown-ups, everyone should read this book.
(And I will point out shamelessly that if you like this book, you'll like my book No One Needed to Know, which has similar themes.)
My runner ups in this category were: A Monster Calls by Patrick Ness, More than This by Patrick Ness, The Hired Girl by Laura Amy Schlitz, The One and Only Ivan by Katherine Applegate, The Great American Whatever by Tim Federle.
Best Book from a Small Publisher: Before I Left by Daisy White. This is a new adult thriller. This book was mysterious and frightening with a wonderful look at England in the 60s. I highly recommend it.
Best Self-Published/Indie Book: Mercy’s Prince by Katy Huth Jones. This is an epic romantic fantasy, the first of a 5-book series. I didn’t know what to expect, but it is wonderful with well-rounded characters, danger, adventure, and dragons. I’m eager to read more of her books.
Best Local Author Book: Goodbye Days by Jeff Zentner. If you want a good cry, read this book. It’s so moving, with an incredible message about surviving grief. It is one of four young adult novels I read this year about teens dealing with the death of someone to a car accident. This was, by far, the best one. I will point out that Zentner is a bestselling author. We have a lot of these here in Nashville. I keep hoping I’ll catch the magic from one of them.
Best Audiobook: All the Bright Places by Jennifer Niven. This wasn’t my favorite story of the year, although it is a very moving romance between two complicated and wounded young people. The narration, however, is fantastic. I’m sure commuters around me saw me gasping, laughing, and crying in my car.
Best Series: The only complete series I listened to this year was Red Queen by Victoria Aveyard. It definitely drew me in so I would keep listening one book after the other. At times I thought it was a bit over-written and drawn out. I’m about to finish the second book in Stephen King’s Jim Hodges Trilogy, and even though I won't finish the series until 2018, these thrillers have got to take the prize. I’ve been on pins and needles through both books so far. The audiobooks are read expertly by Will Patton (Remember the Titans, The Postman).
Best Grown-Up Book: Shadow Man by Alan Drew. Okay, I’ll confess, I went to high school with this author. But that aside, this is a fantastic thriller. It takes place in a fictional version of my hometown in the 80s and is about a detective trying to find a serial killer and stumbling on a second crime that is much more personal. If you haven't discovered it yet, go out and get a copy. It’s intense, and I highly recommend it.
What were some of your favorite highlights as a reader or author this year? I’d love to hear from you. Have the happiest of New Years!
Why I Believe in the Magic of Christmas
Whatever her motivations were, Lucy was right when she told Charlie Brown that a great way to get into Christmas spirit was to direct a Christmas play. This year I was asked to direct a stage production of Miracle on 34th Street for Centerstage Theatre, a fairly new community theater company here in Middle Tennessee. I had previously performed with my husband in their productions of To Kill a Mockingbird and Father of the Bride. I like this theater’s mission of being a true community theater, open to performers whether they are just starting out or have been performing for years. I also like their commitment to diverse casting.
We started rehearsals the week after Father of the Bride opened in October. This was not a musical, but I added songs for the store elves to sing and wrote a little “Elf Theater” show for them to do. The elves were played by 12 and 13 year old kids, I had six other children, in the show between 7-11 years old, and two of my "grown-up roles" were played by 17-year-old boys. I have directed shows before but not many. It had been five years since my last time at the helm, and that was a play I wrote myself (Don Coyote).
We had a lovely cast of people who got along brilliantly. I purposely cast several women in roles that had been played by men in the movie version: our judge, the prosecuting attorney, and Kris Kringle’s doctor. Yes, it is easier to find women for community theater than men, but I liked the idea of all these professionals being women from the get-go. If you don’t know the story of Miracle on 34th Street, it is about a divorced mother who is a manager at Macy’s department store in New York. She has taught her daughter not to believe in Santa Claus or fairy tales. But then a man shows up who believes he is the real Santa Claus, and he changes their lives.
I told my actresses that in my mind all of them were different versions of Doris, the mother. The attorney was the hardcore disbeliever, the judge was the one trying to find the sense in it all and make the right choice, and the doctor was the believer. It was fun working it all out. I’m a writer, so sometimes I get caught up in the motivations behind my characters’ actions. I applied a lot of this to my directing of the play. Sometimes I think my actors liked this, and sometimes they cocked their heads and wondered what point I was making.
In the end, the show was quite lovely, and I was very proud of it. It was a lot of fun. Doing a Christmas play is a great way to get into the spirit of the holidays. Sometimes you get a little tired of Christmas by the time it finally rolls along, especially if you start rehearsing early. (I did a blog post a couple months back about how, for me, most of this year has been about Christmas). This year, as the director of a show, my Christmas spirit thrived with each performance. I got to sit back and watch the performances instead of having the stress that comes with being onstage in live theater. It was a nice experience to just enjoy this story coming to life night after night, watching it evolve and take on a life of its own.
I wrote a director’s note for the program. I’m a bit wordy (if you haven’t noticed, ha ha), so they put it in this teeny-tiny font to fit it in, and I’m pretty sure no one read it. I thought I’d share it here on my blog. My thoughts about Santa and belief in magic just in time for Christmas.
I have always loved Miracle on 34th Street, with a particular fondness for the 1947 black and white version. However, this movie always bothered me a little as a kid. I couldn’t fully get my head around whether or not I believed Kris Kringle was, in fact, Santa Claus. Like little Susan, I wanted to believe, but it just didn’t make sense to me that real Santa would be milling about New York in December and didn’t have more important things to do like being in the North Pole making toys with the elves.
Not surprisingly, I became a very practical-minded grown-up, and despite juggling careers as a teacher, entertainer and children’s book author, I don’t allow myself to have many flights of fancy. I relate to Doris and her efforts to shield her daughter from a life of believing in things that can’t possibly be real because I too have been disappointed and let down at times. And yet, is that really the right thing to do? Shouldn’t children be allowed to cling to their innocent imaginations as long as possible? Imagination leads to dreams; dreams lead to hope; hope leads to positive action. So much of childhood disappears so quickly nowadays. We saw that at auditions when I asked every child what they wanted for Christmas, and only one of them asked for an actual toy.
Thirty years ago I played Peter Pan and encouraged all the children in the audience to clap and shout that they believed in fairies so Tinkerbell wouldn’t die. Today, I ask you all of you to open up your minds and believe in Santa Claus. Believe in magic. Believe in goodness and selflessness. Believe in pure joy. I know it’s silly, but believe.
Thank you to the cast and crew here at Centerstage Theatre for taking this journey with Kevin and me. Everyone has worked so faithfully. We’ve done many Christmas shows over the years, and this will always stand out as a favorite memory.
Now I must get back to cooking Christmas dinner. If you have time, please leave a comment, scroll down to read some of my other posts, or poke around the website. I have lots of excerpts of my work posted. I wish you all a Merry Christmas and wonderful holiday season.
Are Christmas Stories about Bullies?
As is tradition, the night my family decorated our Christmas tree we listened to holiday music. “Rudolph the Red-nosed Reindeer” came on, and my 23-year-old stepdaughter launched into a cynical rant about how that was the WORST Christmas story ever. “Everyone bullies Rudolph because he has a birth defect, and Santa allows it to happen. Then Santa USES Rudolph because of his deformity, and that’s why everyone likes him.” Granted, this criticism was said with a fair bit of wry humor. Still, I balked at her assessment of this Christmas classic.
But over the next few days her cynicism wormed itself into my brain. Was that story really about someone being exploited rather than being celebrated?
Last weekend, I went to see my older stepdaughter perform in a live production of Charlie Brown’s Christmas. This staging was identical to the old cartoon version, complete with live music. All my nostalgia was satisfied.
However, the cynicism from the previous weekend still nagged at me. With skeptical eyes, I watched poor Charlie as Violet informed him that she would never consider sending him a Christmas card. Was Lucy setting Charlie up to fail on purpose when she asked him to direct the Christmas show? Was she anticipating how poorly he’d be treated, between the kids ignoring him while they danced and teasing him when he picked the wrong tree? He mopes away and abandons his little tree. We all think it’s a happy ending because the kids gather around and fix up the tree and then sing Christmas carols, but what is really happening here? They fix the TREE? “All it needs is a little love,” Linus says. But… But… What about poor Charlie? Does anyone ever say sorry to him? Do they hug him and make him feel better. Nope. Not even his dog.
Of course there are bullies in the comedy movie A Christmas Story. It's a large part of the plot. That movie is a poking fun at the Christmas season in an era gone by so we don’t take it too seriously. Still, Ralphie ‘wins’ by beating up the bully. We cheer for him. It’s about time, we think as we watch this happen. Ralphie doesn’t get in trouble because his mother is forgiving and understanding. She doesn’t tell Dad. She’s a good mom. I love this movie so much, but what is this teaching kids? Do we need to have a sit-down with them after the film and talk about the right way to handle bullies? Punching them in the face is probably not the correct solution.
So, now that I’m looking at the world through this lens, I take a moment to consider the Christmas story I wrote this year “Sharing the Spotlight” which is based on characters from my children’s novel No One Needed to Know. In this story, Heidi (12) and her brother Donald (16) have holiday programs at their schools on the same night. In the second half of the story, Heidi has finished her program and is now watching her brother in his choir performance. The choir is doing a medley of carols, and it appears to her that her brother, who is autistic, is being made fun of by his choir teacher. It infuriates her.
Excerpt from "Sharing the Spotlight"
The medley switched from “We Wish You a Merry Christmas”, which had featured all the weird figgy pudding lines, to “12 Days of Christmas”. This was my very least favorite Christmas carol. I never understood it. Why were there twelve days of Christmas? Plus, I could never keep track of anything in the list after six geese a-laying. The choir sang it ridiculously fast, and the audience loved this double-time rendition. People smiled and chuckled around me. I shrugged and decided it was all right. I had to admire the choir for what they were doing. I sure couldn’t sing that song that fast. How did they remember all the words? They must’ve rehearsed a lot.
I focused in on my brother, watching his mouth fly over the lyrics. He was getting it. All of it. He wasn’t lagging behind one little bit. Peter had completely given up and was back to staring at his fingers. I turned to Russell, about to point this out to him, when all of a sudden I heard “Five Golden Rings!!!” sung so loud by my brother it was like he was trying to be heard outside.
The audience erupted in laughter and applause. The song paused for a moment. All the blood in my body rushed to my face. I was so embarrassed for my brother.
“Oh no,” I moaned quietly, sinking down in my seat so I could barely see over the head of the man sitting in front of me.
The laughter ebbed. The choir started up again, singing those last four lines even faster than before, as if to make up time. This was the craziest song I’d ever heard. Oh, and then the next verse began. “On the sixth day of Christmas, my true love gave to me…”
The girls sang, “Six geese a-laying.”
Then Donald. Again. “FIVE GOLDEN RINGS!” All by himself. As loud as possible.
More laughter. More applause. My parents laughed and applauded. Russell and his parents laughed and applauded. Everyone in this auditorium was having a good chuckle at my brother’s expense. Did Mrs. Ambrose plan this? What kind of teacher was she, making a spectacle of my special needs brother?
Next verse. All the boys sang, “Seven swans a swimming” followed by the girls singing “six geese a-laying”.
I dared to peek over the man’s head. Everyone in the choir, including Peter, was smiling now. They were having a grand old time. Their bodies pivoted toward my brother. Mrs. Ambrose gestured to him. He raised his right hand and pointed his finger toward the ceiling like a politician making a point in a debate, and warbled “FIVE GOLDEN RINGS!” As the audience laughed and clapped again, he put his hands together as if to clap for himself.
I put my hands over my face. This was the worst.
Thankfully, the medley shifted after that verse to “Good King Wenceslas”. I’ve always hated that song, too. For this song, the choir made a big thing out of saying “Wenceslas”. The word went back and forth from the boys to the girls, being pronounced different ways, until Mrs. Ambrose stopped them. She didn’t say anything out loud, but her hands gestured the syllables of the word. All the kids said “Ohhhhh” in unison. Mrs. Ambrose began conducting again, and now they got it correct.
“Good King Wence-las once looked down…”
Everyone was laughing again. I just stared at the choir, my mouth hanging open. Was it supposed to be funny?
Heidi eventually finds out that everyone loved what her brother was doing and celebrates him after the show.
Have I written Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer? Is the teacher like Santa and using Donald to make her show more entertaining? Does everyone love Donald because he’s been exploited in this way?
Or is it the way I intended – Donald is being given a chance to shine. Mrs. Ambrose isn’t taking advantage of him, or making him the object of ridicule, but is giving him a genuine moment to revel in the music and be highlighted for who he is. Heidi’s brother may have some quirks and ticks, but he is all joy. It shows during his performance. Heidi comes to realize that her brother’s spotlight moment in the show isn’t about showing off or being the center of attention, but rather about a pure, honest love of celebrating Christmas.
Two nights ago my youngest daughter’s high school band performed their Winter Concert. She and several of her friends have been volunteering all semester with United Sound, an organization that makes it possible for kids with special needs to learn how to play an instrument. Caylin helped teach a young man with Down Syndrome to play the saxophone. The United Sound group joined the band for one number of the concert. None of them had solos, but they were visible and a big part of the piece. It went great. We gave them a standing ovation, and I was so proud of my daughter and her friends for being part of this great, inclusive experience.
The concert made me think of my older brother who has developmental disabilities and how his friends in the high school choral and drama departments accepted him. It made me think about Heidi supporting her older brother at his choir concert in my story. It made me think about the reindeer welcoming Rudolph to help light the way (not to mention the fact that it was Rudolph who convinced Santa to find homes for all the misfit toys). It made me think about the fact that someone needed to hug poor Charlie Brown and thank him for being the first one to see that that little broken tree could be something special.
My cynicism has fled, and I am once again full of Christmas spirit. This is the time of year to be hopeful for the future and see the good in each other. I hope that you have a wonderful holiday season.
Please comment below if you enjoyed this post. I’d love to hear from you.
“Sharing the Spotlight” is featured in Winter Wonder, a collection of nine stories for readers 9 and older, now available for only $0.99 at Kindle and Nook. It's also available in print.
No One Needed to Know, my novel about autism acceptance and bullying, just won its 4th award – the Gold Medal for Special Needs Awareness from the 2017 Human Relations Indie Book Awards. It’s available in print through Prime at Amazon, so you still have time to order it as a gift for a young reader you know for Christmas.
D. G. Driver
Award-winning author of books for teen and tween readers. Learn more about her and her writing at www.dgdriver.com
Author D. G. Driver's
Write and Rewrite Blog
“There are no bad stories, just ones that haven’t found their right words yet.”
A blog mostly about the process of revision with occasional guest posts, book reviews, and posts related to my books.