On Dogs, Grief, and Kindness: A Conversation with Author Audrey Verick

 

I’ll admit it: Audrey Vernick is one of my favorite people on the planet. I’m crazy about her. She’s very funny, a terrific writer, and she loves baseball. Though Audrey might not readily admit it, she is, in fact, infinitely kind. What more could anyone ask for? Audrey has a new middle-grade novel coming out early this May, After the Worst Thing Happens, so I invited her over to visit with my Nation of Readers to talk about dogs and grief and life’s other inspirations. But first, let’s take a minute and gaze at this book cover, illustrated by Helen Crawford-White.

 

Audrey, you are well-known for your collaborative efforts, including picture books that were co-authored with Liz Garton Scanlon as well as two works of middle-grade fiction with Olugbemisola Rhuday-Perkovich. What happened this time around? Were you not able to get somebody else to do half the work?

They got wise to my scam.

Art by Norman Rockwell.

Figures. You Tom Sawyer’d them! “Boy, am I ever having fun white-washing this fence writing this book!”

Actually, some books declare themselves as a joint project and this book, which I started writing seven years ago, before I’d ever collaborated on a novel, did no such thing. But it is a brilliant concept, finding someone to write HALF A BOOK with you! I highly recommend it.

 

 

I sometimes hear writers claim that “the book wrote itself.” I need one of those! With my books, I do all the work. It’s exhausting.

Amen! It’s why my challenged work ethic is better suited to picture books. Novels take forever.

You credit Liz in the dedication for her support? How did that work, exactly?

I had written and abandoned an awful start to this book. I dreaded getting back to work on it, and sent it to her, hoping she’d say, yeah, stick that one in a drawer for a long time and by that I obviously mean forever. But she was really moved by how raw and tender Army was and she friendly-insisted that I keep going. She’s very wise, so I generally listen to her.

Army is a twelve-year-old girl whose parents are in the disaster business. They do repairs to homes and businesses after floods, fires, and storms. I laughed at the name of their business: Never Happened. You’re funny. But that’s not just a quick joke. It becomes a metaphor for one way of dealing with disasters of the heart.

Yeah. I’m sure an insightful person would have a lot to say about how emotionally vacant many of the parents in my books are, but yes, Army’s mother, in particular, is a big believer in out of sight, out of mind. Never happened. No sense in dwelling. It’s a less than perfect ideology for Army as she struggles with genuine grief for the first time in her life.

So you went ahead and did it: the dog dies.

Audrey Vernick: Dog Killer.

I admire how you handled it. The death wasn’t used to emotionally manipulate the reader –- it occurs off the page, to soften the blow –- and yet Army’s grief is real. As a long-time dog owner, I know that death and loss is built into the experience. Children love their pets.

Dog death, or pet death, is often the first true, deeply felt tragedy in a child’s life. Also, I want to be clear that anyone who picks up this book knows from reading the flap copy that the dog dies. It happens near the beginning.

What I couldn’t have known when I wrote an early draft of this book is that the very day I heard this book would be published I was in the midst of a beloved dog, Hootie, dying. She had just turned seven. So the doggie-grief parts? Truly and deeply felt.

 

Yet this is a book about what happens after the worst thing happens. Most significantly, Army, the 12-year-old main character, encounters a new neighbor, Madison. Tell us about her. What drew you to that subject matter?

This book came together so oddly. I was hit by three images, all of which hit me, inexplicably, on the same tiny stretch of sidewalk up the block from my
home over a period of years. First—I passed a ServPro van, which has the tagline painted across the back, “Like it never even happened.” I was drawn to that idea, of erasing disaster (especially in the wake of Hurricane Sandy, which hit my community hard).

There’s a scene early in the book in which Army sees a young child she doesn’t know walking alone down the middle of the street, barefoot. This happened to me.

And years later, in that same spot on the sidewalk, that child’s mother told me that her young daughter often wandered and was once spotted on the roof of her house. All of those combined to become this book. Oh, and the way the dog dies -— that almost happened to our dog, Rookie (who thankfully lived a very long life).

It’s challenging to write a book about a grieving character. Most folks don’t want to read sad books that depress us. We can just watch Fox News instead. Yet in After the Worst Thing That Happens, there’s so much humor and kindness and quirkiness, and that’s what shines through for me: Army’s journey and growth. Booklist recently came out with a very positive review. I thought they nailed it with this line: “Vernick’s story covers so much, but it manages to weave the different elements into a cohesive whole, with Army at the bright center of it all. The subjects are heavy, but Army’s young voice infuses them with humor and warmth.”

Army really surprised me. There are a lot of adjectives people could use to describe ME and kind isn’t likely one of the first for most people.

Personally, the word “short” leaps to mind.

Wow, Jimmy. Thanks! At a recent school visit, I listened as the first group—kindergartners and first-graders—settled into the media center. One boy looked me over and then leaned over to the kid sitting next to him and said, “The author’s not very big.”

Ha! Not that there’s anything wrong with that. On a completely unrelated note, let’s interrupt this interview to pay tribute to NBA legend Mugsy Bogues. 

 

Okay, we’re back!

Army’s drive to do this kindness for neighbors who need help really surprised me. In fact, I worried that her desire to be so proactively helpful to relative strangers would come off as unbelievable, because at the start I wasn’t clear what exactly would drive that when she was mired in grief.

I believed it for a couple of reasons. First, kids are like that. It’s one of the great things about our jobs, we get to see these young people in action and many of them are downright amazing. In a world that sometimes feels hopeless, they remain our best hope. Army, who has been brought so low –- her heart just aches and swells –- almost feels a physical need to put something positive into the world. To give, and love, and care. She’s really a terrific kid, I liked her very much. And I believed in her. Well done!

Thank you, Jimmy P.!

 


Audrey Vernick lives in New Jersey, near the ocean, with her family and one black dog. Her new book will hit the shelves on May 5th, 2020, published by Holiday House. Presales available now where fine books are sold. Also look for
Scarlet’s Tale, a picture book illustrated by Jarvis — that’s it, just Jarvis — coming in July.

Love in the Time of COVID-19

Today is my mother’s 94th birthday. She lives in a retirement community, Peconic Landing, in Greenport, Long Island. She requires advanced care and her mind has gone cloudy with only occasional patches of sun.

Our original plan was to travel down to visit this weekend, spend the night, surprise her with cake, balloons, and small gifts. But that was before the virus. Before the world changed. From what we’ve been told, as of two days ago, Peconic has already experienced three virus-related deaths. It now begins to wash like a great wave through the community, affecting healthcare workers and elderly patients alike. I don’t know if I’ll ever see my mother again.

These are hard times. For much of it, we are strong and brave and something close to our regular selves. Other times, we might feel that weight drag us down. For a few minutes, alone in my room, the tears come. I tried to call, something that I’ve all but given up on in the past. Thanks to the help of the staff, the call gets through. Our conversation becomes confused very quickly. Eventually, in the muddled silence, I hang up. Goodbye, I say.

It’s far better to see her in person, face to face, squeeze her hand, push the wheelchair outside, look out into the bay. My mother enjoys a cup of Lipton tea with sugar and still, amazingly, eats like a stevedore. That’s one of her signature expressions, which I love. Such a visit is not possible right now, will likely never again be possible.

Yet here in upstate, the sun is shining and the sky is blue. It’s the first day of Spring. Our two youngest children, Gavin and Maggie, are home with us. Our oldest, Nick, is healthy and working at home in New York City, supposedly the new epicenter of America’s coronavirus epidemic. My wife, Lisa, a midwife, is an amazing woman, doing important work. She touches lives in deeply meaningful ways. I’m infinitely proud of her.

There is still so much to love in this world. The trees, the clouds, the morning’s dawn chorus, our friends and family. Forgive me, if for a moment, I forget. I think we all have to forgive ourselves during these lapses. These moments when we feel it closing in around us. I’d planned on getting some work done this afternoon, attempting to make a bright, upbeat video for young readers who might have enjoyed my books. Throw it on Youtube, maybe somebody would find it. That’s something positive, right? But now? I’m not feeling it. Work can wait until tomorrow. This effing virus. Oh Mom, oh my family, this small mercy is not the ending I wanted to write, not the first day of Spring I had imagined with balloons, and small gifts, and cake. 

FAN MAIL WEDNESDAY #298: Request From a Teacher Who Wants to Read Online to Her Class

 

I’m sharing this letter from a 2nd-grade teacher since I know it’s representative of what’s going on out there for so many parents and educators. 

 

Good evening! 
I’m a second grade teacher in Harpers Ferry, West Virginia. My class has been reading some of your Jigsaw Jones books and I was wondering if I could have permission to create, maybe You Tube, a video that my students can access at home. Or, if you have another idea I am welcome to it! We are on chapter 9 of The Case of the Stolen Baseball Cards but I’d probably have to start at the beginning since it’s been over a week since we have been in school. 
We’ve already read The Case of Hermie the Missing Hamster and hope to read The Case of the Race Against Time next.
Thanks so much for your support!

Lori,

I replied . . . 
Lori,

Illustration by R.W. Alley from Jigsaw Jones: The Case of the Hat Burglar.

Thank you for your email. You are doing valuable work, and I appreciate the request. Yes, emphatically, by all means, read and share and keep doing what you do.

The only request I have, suggested by my publisher, is that you delete the videos once school is back in session.
My best to you. Stay smart, stay safe, protect the vulnerable.
With love in my heart (I’m growing extra-sappy in these times).
And again, I feel very strongly that I’m the one who should be thanking you.
James Preller

Online Support: Working with Teachers, Schools

Everyone is scrambling to catch up with an ever-evolving news cycle where the world beneath our feet seems to radically shift by the hour. Schools are closed or closing. We’re all supposed to stay indoors. We’re not sure how best to respond.

As an author of children’s books, familiar with speaking to large groups at school visits, I haven’t figured out my best response to all of this just yet. But I do expect to offer up some Youtube content, book talks, readings — I’m not really sure at this time what would be most helpful. There’s a learning curve, most certainly. 

Illustration by R.W. Alley from Jigsaw Jones: The Case of the Hat Burglar.

If you are interested in anything like that, or in something more interactive with readers, please feel free to contact me at jamespreller@aol.com and hopefully I can provide some support for meaningful, book-centered learning. 

My inclination is that this would be free or low cost, depending on the time and effort required. I’ll keep posting as this concept develops. Please don’t hesitate to write to me with your thoughts, questions, ideas. I’ve never used Zoom before, but my wife has, and it sounds user-friendly. Most important of all, please take this virus seriously. Stay home. Hunker down. Read, think, reflect. Take long walks. We’ll get through this. 

FAN MAIL WEDNESDAY #297: Includes a Free Pro Tip on Becoming a Writer!

 

Fan Mail Wednesday actually falls on a Wednesday this time around, because eventually that’s bound to happen. The law of averages! This letter comes from Max, a Jigsaw Jones fan in Kentucky, which I understand is a state somewhere near Ohio. Never been there, though my rescue dog, Echo, hails from those parts. I’d love to do school visits in Kentucky someday.

Don’t make me beg, people. Zing me a text at Jamespreller@aol.com and we’ll work it out. Of course, we can wait for this virus to settle down. Weird, right?

BTW, I love it when a FREE BONUS DRAWING is included. Thanks for that, Max. Anyway, the letter: 

I replied:

Dear Max,

Thank you for your kind letter. I’m so happy you read The Case from Outer Space. It is one of my favorites. Were you surprised by the ending?

Illustration by R.W. Alley.

One of the first inspirations for that book came from my love for “Little Free Libraries.” I’d seen them popping up all over the place and they appealed to me enormously. I’ve even seen schools that have them. Leave a book, take a book. I love that!

So I began to ask myself a writer’s two most important words: WHAT IF? Those are the magic words that get the imagination wandering. I thought, What if someone finds a mysterious note tucked inside a book in a Little Free Library?

Could such a thing be possible? I talked to librarians. They told me they find items inside books all the time. Photos, grocery lists, baseball cards -– even a banana peel.

Another part of the book came from a long interest in NASA and space exploration. I’ve often gazed at the stars and wondered if anyone else might be out there, somewhere in the twinkling beyond, far past our solar system of eight planets and into the outer reaches of the expanding universe. Wow. I smile just thinking about it.

If you truly wish to become a good author, there’s good news. You are already on the right path! Keep reading, keep feeding your brain with words and ideas. Just about every writer I know started out by being a reader. But you don’t have to sit around reading all day. Live! Do things! Play sports, run around, make friends, build stuff, look at clouds and trees, cook yummy desserts, enjoy yourself and everything there is in this amazing world of ours –- and, okay, also read.

And, you know, Max, maybe one day you’ll pick up a pencil and draw a picture. You’ll write down some words. Maybe start a story of your own.

Keep thinking, keep reading, keep being good old Max.

Thank you, my new friend in Kentucky, I’m so glad to receive your letter.

James Preller