*What led you to write this book?
As a high school teacher for twenty-five years, I primarily taught kids of color. And yet, in the books and stories we read, almost all of the characters were Caucasian, and most with reasonably stable home lives. I decided as an author to write about the kids I knew best – kids of color, gay kids, marginalized kids, poor kids, foster kids, kids with disabilities – because I want all youth to see themselves represented in a positive light within the pages of teen literature.
*Which is more important characters or setting?
Characters are, for me, much more important than setting. I’ve read books where the author went into minute detail about every piece of furniture in every single room, but my mind conjured the room the way I wanted it to look so all that detail was wasted on me. Same with overly describing character’s clothing – it’s not necessary and slows down the story, in my view. I want to know what makes characters tick and how they deal with moral dilemmas. If I don’t feel attached to a character, no matter how well a book is written I can’t get into it and might not even finish it. I’ve been very gratified that focusing on characters in my books has paid off. Readers seem connect with one or more of them in a meaningful way.
Most of my teen or child characters are based on kids I’ve known or taught. They are composites, yes, but by me grounding them in real people and real events that actually happened, I can more effectively make my fictional characters live and breathe for the reader.
*What do you hope readers take away from your work?
I hope they come to the understanding that no matter what we look like or how much money we have or how smart we are, no matter our race, ethnicity, gender, or orientation, no matter our abilities or disabilities – at the end of every day we’re all the same. We’re all human. We’re human first, and everything else second. We spend way too much time in this country focusing on what we perceive to be the weaknesses or differences in others. The teen characters in my books prove that our strengths always outweigh our weaknesses, and our diversity, i.e. our differentness, is to be celebrated, not hidden away. If more adults would focus on the natural talents and gifts of kids instead of always trying to make everyone “fit in,” then all children would have a real chance to soar. As a writer of teen lit, my goal is to empower every kid, not just the ones most Americans “look like” or even “act like.”
*What do you do when you are not writing?
I work out daily and supervise teens in their gym workouts. I tutor. And I do volunteer work with kids. I’m still active with with the Big Brothers Big Sisters program with my eighth “Little Brother” (he’s ten years old.) I also continue my work with incarcerated kids and use social media, my blog, and my books to advocate for better treatment of children and teens in all venues of our society.
*Which book impacted you as a teenager?
As an 8th grader, Thomas Tryon’s The Other blew me away and really cemented my desire to be a writer. I was so stunned by the ending that I immediately read the book through a second rime to figure out how the author had so cleverly tricked me. It was a masterpiece of writing and a very moving story in its own right.
*Do you have a reoccurring theme to your books?
My main theme is that life works best when we strive to do what’s right, rather than what’s easy. My characters are always confronted with real-life moral dilemmas that require them to choose between the easy path or sacrificing something to do what’s right. Children and teens need to receive this message because the world is already filled with far too many self-absorbed people. Kids need to know they really can be the change they want to see in the world, but that means doing what’s right, not what’s easy.
*What’s next for you?
I have written a middle grade+ book called Warrior Kids: A Tale of New Camelot. It’s a standalone sequel to my Children of the Knight series. This one deals with the environmental crisis and climate change. It will release in October and I’m making the eBook free to all educators to share with their students. Teachers can purchase the paperbacks from me at my cost or from the publisher through their schools. The themes and messages in this book are important and very timely – the finale takes place at the 21st United Nations Conference of the Parties in Paris this December. As a teacher, I seldom found supplemental books that would entertain my students and also educate them about important issues, so I decided to write one. LOL
EXCERPT FROM SPINNER
They were in.
Now to find the grave.
They had a map, of sorts. With the graveyard paperwork Alex’s mother had sent was a map that had numbers on it. Roy knew from his own mother’s funeral that those numbers meant the different graves. One area was circled on the map, and Roy had told them that must be where Alex’s folks were buried. All they had to do was follow the map.
Yeah, he thought, as they stood in a darkened graveyard looking at a paper map with a tiny flashlight beam, trying to figure out just where in the hell on that map they were, sounded easy at the time. Since he was the only one who drove, the others let him plot their way. But shit, he hadn’t been here since last year on his mom’s anniversary to put flowers and, well, that had been during the day!
Israel stood quietly keening with fear, his eyes darting everywhere at once, while Java and Alex waited patiently for Roy to figure things out. Their best landmark was a lake near to where Alex’s parents were buried. They’d have to wander around till they found it.
“They’re near some lake, and there’s a fountain, I think, so we should, like hear water splashing, right?” Java shrugged, but Alex nodded excitedly. “Yeah, we will. Let’s look around till we hear it.”
They moved out into the tree scattered, grave-filled cemetery with nervous anticipation. Java carried the shovels because he didn’t trust Israel not to drop them if a gopher ran past in the dark.
The grass slowed Alex’s wheels so he let Roy push the chair from behind to conserve his arm strength. Most of the graves were the small ones like his mom had, just a flat metal plate with names and dates on them. The wind gusted and blew leaves from the fading trees onto the grass, swirling them around their feet as they walked. No one spoke. The silence crushed them. Dark, ominous clouds only added to the horror-film atmosphere, and Roy wished he hadn’t watched so many of those movies at Izzy’s house.
The grass rose up into hills and mounds, all scattered with graves that they passed nervously between. Roy felt weird, walking on top of dead people like this, and he could hear Israel panting with fear. He was about to approach and calm the boy when Java stepped up and flanked Izzy, offering his own muscular body as protection. The gesture surprised Roy, just like the one atop his truck, given Java’s daily frustration with Izzy’s ADHD. But the move clearly helped Izzy, who looked at Java and smiled with gratitude.
The flat graves gave way to the kind with tall headstones by the time the splashing of water came from ahead in the darkness. Roy increased his speed. The tall headstones looked really old, and for some reason they creeped him out more than the newer ones, like somehow older dead bodies would be more likely to haunt them or something.
The splashing grew louder, and the wind stronger. It also got colder, and Roy shivered. Must be the lake water making him cold, he told himself, hoping that was the only reason. The image of that huge, evil cat crept ceaselessly into his mind as he pushed Alex toward his parents’ graves. To find out what? That Alex was a bigger freak than he thought? That he might destroy the world some day? Roy knew these things could never happen, not from Alex. But Alex feared himself even more than he feared the cat. And that broke Roy’s heart every time he thought about it.
The lake loomed ahead, not too big, but bigger than Roy could calculate using his body-height method. A jet of water shot into the air at its center and fell back, hitting the surface with the kind of splashing sounds he used to make in the bathtub as a child.
Java and Israel stopped by the shore of the lake and turned to face him. Roy let go of Alex’s chair and slipped out the map. He squatted down so Alex could see and turned on the tiny penlight. Together, they squinted at the circled spot and tried to figure out which direction it was from the fountain of water.
After a few moments of bobbing his head up and down from the map to their surroundings, Roy thought he’d figured it out. He pointed to their right, to an older part of the graveyard that was a mix of flat plates and stone markers. “Over there.”
The others nodded and they set off. They passed nervously through the rows of graves. Even though Alex hadn’t said anything, Roy felt eyes on them. Lots of eyes.
But every time he looked around there was nothing but the wind and rustling leaves and their own cushioned footfalls against the grass.
I’m crazy, he thought, imagining dead people watching.
Or maybe it was those creepy-ass stone angels bending toward a grave, hands clasped before them in prayer. Maybe they were watching. Whatever it was, Roy’s skin crawled.
This was the section. He stopped pushing Alex, and the others stopped, too. Now was the part they all hated – reading. They had to look at each grave and try to figure out which one belonged to Alex’s parents.
Alex looked at him and Roy whispered, “The last name starts with “O,” right?” Alex nodded. Roy squinted at the paper and found the name. He could tell because there were two names in front of it and that meant the “O” word was the last name. He pointed to it for Java and Israel. “That’s the name we gotta find.”
“Are dead people, like, you know, laid out by ABCs?”
Israel asked. Java looked at him in annoyance. “Fool, do you even know your ABCs?”
Israel shrugged. “Some of ’em. I always get stuck around, like, ‘G’ or ‘P’ or something like that. I never could–”
Before Israel could start rambling, Roy whispered, “Just look for a last name starting with ‘O.’ Then we’ll check it with the paper.”
Java nodded, but Israel’s mouth fell open. “You mean we gotta split up?”
“Just around here, fool,” Java snapped, keeping his deep voice low and controlled.
“But there’s dead people here!” Israel hissed, his eyes wide with fear.
“That’s why it be called a graveyard,” Java spat, his temper obviously rising.
“Look guys,” Alex said, “you two stick together and me and Roy’ll stick together. ’Kay?”
Java grunted, but Israel nodded rapidly. “Yeah, that’s better.”
The two groups wandered off in opposite directions, each with a penlight.
Roy aimed his light while Alex slowly pushed himself between the graves. The beam struck each headstone or metal plaque long enough for both of them to squint at the last name, and then Roy moved it along to the next. He still felt that sensation of being watched, and it sent chills up and down his spine. The cold, biting wind didn’t help, and he kept his hood up and over his head to keep his hair from blowing into his eyes.
He spotted the other flashlight beam a short distance away, but there seemed to be no one else anywhere around. So who was watching them? Finally, he stepped closer to Alex and leaned down to his face. “Someone’s watching us.”
Alex peered out from his hood, brushed hair from in front of his eyes, and looked at him soberly. “Not someone. Some thing.”
Roy froze. “What thing?”