The Magical Book

When I was a second grader, my school held a fundraiser to fill some empty shelves in the school library. Rather than just asking parents for money, the school had each child select a volume from a table filled with new books, take it home and ask Mommy and Daddy to puhleeeeze buy their sweet little offspring a book. After reading their new acquisition, the child would to donate the book to the school library so it could be enjoyed by all.

As class 2-A herded past the book tables, my ADHD brain locked on to a book wearing a bright yellow dust jacket with the title in bold red letters:100 Pounds of Popcorn by Hazel Krantz.

The cover illustration closed the deal: Four kids making a huge mess while popping mass quantities of popcorn. The random messiness made those kids seem more like me, and the fun they were having made me want to be more like them.

Sold.

However, when the day arrived when we were to donate our books, it became apparent that I hadn’t been properly briefed on the etiquette of school fundraising, for I committed the mortal sin of refusing to surrender my book to the librarian.

I’d already developed somewhat of a reputation by then (in 1962, ADHD was still known as “Rotten Little Brat Syndrome”), so when I made a bit of a scene over the librarian attempting to steal my book, the case was automatically escalated to the principal’s office. I’d already spent so much time there that I wouldn’t be surprised if even today there’s a chair in the waiting area bearing a brass name plate in my memory.

When my case came up on the principal’s docket, I stated my position in clear and certain terms: It was my book. I’d chosen it from the book table with my own grubby little paws. I paid for it with cash my mother gave me to buy a book. I’d even written my name inside the cover with a red pencil (though I don’t recall if I wrote it before or after they pressed me to donate it). I loved my little book, and the librarian couldn’t have it. End of discussion.

The battle escalated, as such battles are wont to do. When gentle reasoning failed, the principal hinted at the possibility of eternal damnation (being a Catholic school, they  could get away with that), and when all else failed, she pulled out the biggest weapon of all: a call to my parents. That threat almost worked, but one glance at my book’s cover renewed my resolve to endure any punishment required to win my case. After the threatened call, my father grudgingly agreed to buy a second copy for the library. He later extracted the price from my hide.

What drove me to fight so stubbornly for that book?

Reading 100 Pounds of Popcorn had revolutionized my eight-year-old life. Before that book, I thought everyone in the world was just like me. I had no idea that other families were different. In the pages of 100 Pounds of Popcorn, Hazel Krantz transported my tender heart to a world very unlike the one in which I lived.

To most, the Taylor family would seem unremarkable. A father, a mother, eleven-year-old Andy and his eight-year-old sister Sally Jean. On the way home from the beach, they see a huge bag of popping corn fall from the back of a truck, and being a moral, law-abiding type Mr Taylor tries to return it to its rightful owner. The owner isn’t able to retrieve the bag before it would spoil, and offers to let the Taylors keep it if they would like. Andy sets out to start a popcorn business with the help of his kid sister and several friends, and they all learn the hard way that there’s a lot more to selling popcorn than they thought.

Okay, so it’s a nice little story. How did that revolutionize my life?

The first time I read that book, I waited with tense anticipation for what I knew would happen. I waited, but what I expected never came. I read it again, just to make sure I hadn’t missed something. Then I read it again just because I didn’t want to leave the magical world.hidden in those pages, a world  where Andy’s father never yelled at him, never threw things in anger, and never once hit his wife or either of his children. Andy made some mistakes and learned lessons the hard way, but his father never called him stupid or any of those other names I’d expected. And Andy never once had to stop and discern whether his father was drunk or sober and adjust as needed to avoid his wrath.

In the pages of 100 Pounds of Popcorn, Hazel Krantz gave me a most wonderful gift. A glimpse of a world where children were free to be children, to learn and grow and live with all the hope and possibilities they could handle. I couldn’t explain it then as I can now, but that brief visit to normality changed me. It awakened my ability to dream, to imagine, to envision a better world than the one in which I’d existed.

Is it any wonder I fought so hard to hold on to such a magical book?

When God started talking to me about writing for children and young teens, I didn’t want to discuss it. I didn’t want to go back and revisit the wounds of my childhood. A dear friend and mentor (and highly successful children’s writer) finally took me aside and told me that those wounds equipped me to write things that nobody else can write, not even her. She then gently but firmly kicked my backside and asked me to quit making excuses and start doing what only I can do. (Thanks, Nancy. I needed that.)

Shortly after I returned home from the conference where that discussion occurred, I spotted my ragged, dog-eared copy of 100 Pounds of Popcorn on my bookshelf, took it down and read it again, just as I’ve done hundreds of times before. And I remembered the magic.

And then I started writing for tweens and early teens—because somewhere out there, there’s a boy or girl who needs that magic.

About “The N Word”

Everyone’s been buzzing this week about Dr. Laura Schlessinger’s decision to bail out of broadcast radio following that over-publicized “N-word” boo-boo on her nationally syndicated program. It’s really unfortunate that Dr. Laura feel the need to do jump ship—although there are four months between now and the end of the year, and I wouldn’t be surprised if she surfaces in January on some other radio network.  Stuff like that happens in this business all the time.

Even more unfortunate is that Dr. Laura’s point—a very valid point—has been lost in all the name-calling and rock-throwing that followed her unfortunate foot-chomping moment. If only she’d had the good sense to say, “N-word, N-word, N-word” instead of actually using the N-word, perhaps the conversation could have turned more productive.

Dr. Laura’s point was, quite simply, that there is a double-standard in our society when it comes to the N-word. When I searched for a suitable picture to accompany this post, I found zillions of pictures of African-Americans wearing T-shirts with the offensive word emblazoned upon them, album covers, artwork, and other such examples of the same word being used daily, and I’ve yet to hear of the African-American community boycotting musicians or protesting in front of stores selling the offensive apparel.

Let’s be honest here: If Michael Baisden or Tom Joyner had made the same point in the same way using the same words, would it have even caused a blip in the national press? I’ve heard both of those national radio talents say things that, in the mouth of any Caucasian radio talent, would cause an immediate one-way trip to unemploymentland.

It’s a double-standard. It’s wrong. Period.

Personally, I find the “N-word” offensive. It’s offensive on African-American lips, it’s offensive on Caucasian lips, it’s offensive on any lips.

As a boy, I used that word once in my father’s presence—and I do mean exactly once. When I picked myself up from the floor, he explained to me in his salty and straightforward manner that if he ever heard that word on my lips again, I’d be taking a break from further conversation while having my teeth removed from my throat. He went on to say that he served side-by-side with black men in World War II who bled the same shade of red he did. He learned to judge a man by the content of his character rather than the color of his skin. He taught me to use the same method of measure.

Looking back, I can still recall the passion that drove his anger that day. It still speaks to me as it did then, of heartache-laden memories he seldom allowed to surface, respect for those who served our country regardless of their race,  and anger he could usually control when sober but that overtook him when he drank. I always felt there was more to Dad’s interracial war experience than he shared with me that day.  I regret that I never pursued that with him.

I do not, however, regret that I never again said the “N-word” in his presence.

Getting Out of the Fish

In recent weeks God, as He is wont to do, has drop-kicked me out of my comfort zone.

I’ve learned an important lesson in this experience.

If ever you utter the phrase, “Lord, I’ll do anything but <insert scary ministry thing here>,” God is quite likely to call you to do <insert scary ministry thing here>. In fact, you can almost count on it. It’s not that He’s mean and wants to put us into places where we’d be miserable; it’s that our “scary ministry things” are often linked to places where we’re ruled by fear and need healing. In my case, God’s called me to the thing that for years I’ve avoided: Children’s Ministry.

Over the years, I’ve staunchly held that my gifts don’t fit Children’s Ministry. I even suggested that if I were to attempt to work with children, I would duct tape them and lock them in a closet—which claim usually had the desired effect, causing those who disagreed with my assessment to back off.

What a load of crap.

The real reason I’ve resisted working with children is that I didn’t want to go back and dredge up unpleasant memories from my childhood. Simply stated, I am to Children’s Ministry what Jonah was to Nineveh. God has pursued me with incredible patience, just as He pursued Jonah. I can even look back and see a similar pattern in my resistance and rebellion, even a parallel to the “big fish” thing.

Let me tell ya, it stinks inside that fish. Not recommended.

Back in May, I made a life-changing decision to get out of the fish. When the Lord tapped my shoulder and said, “Let’s talk about writing fiction for tweens,” rather than my usual diversionary tactics, I answered with a simple “Okay.” Not that I’ll never again write adult fiction, but for now my focus is completely on middle-grade fiction. Oh, and for the benefit of those not familiar with the term, middle grade does not mean mediocre, as some folks I know actually thought when I first used the term. It’s writing targeted to the middle grades, generally 9-12 year olds. It is exactly what God called me to write. It proves He has a sense of humor. Those were some of the worst years of my life, and He’s called me to go back there and write from that misery.

Come to think of it, that’s not humor—it’s downright brilliant, making me go back and heal some wounds I never even wanted to admit to having. It’s stirred up some interesting memories and insights, some of which I’ll blog about here in the near future.

I took a giant step five weeks ago. I volunteered to help with our church’s Children’s Ministry on a more-or-less trial basis. For the past five weeks, we’ve done a re-run of our VBS program on Sunday mornings. Today, our Minister to Children asked how I felt about my experience and if I wanted to stay.

I said yes.

In fact, you couldn’t drag me out of that children’s wing with two cranes and a bulldozer.

Okay, Lord, you can go ahead and move the fish. I won’t need him anymore.

I’m “all in.”

Ancient Egypt and the Fourth of July

We’ve had a rare and wonderful couple of days around the Case complex. Rare, because I haven’t written a word in the past two days. Wonderful, because Sharon and I did something today we’d been talking about for months—we went to see the World of the Pharaohs exhibit at the Arkansas Arts Center. It was either today or wait until Mr. Peabody fixes the WABAC machine, since today marked the closing day of the exhibit. We’ve been talking about going ever since the exhibit opened last September. At least we didn’t wait until the last minute. There were approximately 343 minutes left before closing when we arrived.

I wish I could share my pictures with you, but unfortunately no photography was permitted in the exhibition hall. Dozens of stern-looking men and women watched every move we made, lest someone whip out an iPhone and take an illicit picture of a rare artifact rather than buying a postcard from the Egyptian tchochke section of the gift shop.

To me, it’s always interesting to explore a culture different from my own.  Not everyone agrees with me, I’m sure. Take the folks who travel to foreign lands are get upset because the people there don’t speak American English. If you want to be surrounded by people just like you, why not stay home and give the more adventurous a little elbow room?

If there’s one thing I wish I had a picture of, it’s a sign that appeared near the exit of the final room of the exhibit, the room with the mummies and sarcophagi. They wisely put that room at the end of the exhibit so all the kids being forced by Mom and Dad to broaden their historical acumen had something to look forward to that kept them focused (sort of). The sign touched on a point of controversy that’s been discussed repeatedly over the years: By displaying these sarcophagi and the linen-wrapped human remains found therein, are we disturbing and/or disrespecting the dead?

I’ve found myself thinking about that question for the past several hours, long after leaving the exhibit. I’m far from an expert on the religion of ancient Egypt, but I know they believed in an afterlife.  I believe in an afterlife too, though not at all the same kind of afterlife they did. I think, however, that the ancient Egyptians wanted the same thing most of us want: to be remembered. I can think of no situation sadder than a life ending and nobody wanting to remember that life,  or mourn, or grieve their loss.

Therein is a thread that connects us all, regardless of our religious belief (or lack thereof): we want to be remembered after we die.  Any honest author will admit that they dream of writing something so powerful that it continues to speak for generations after they’re gone. Medical researchers dream of discovering the cure to some fatal disease and having that cure bear their name long after they’ve breathed their last. Even the steelworkers who erect our modern skyscrapers take pride in knowing that over which they’ve labored will outlive them.

The sign called attention to an inscription on the wall of the room where the actual remains were displayed. It was a blessing that called on their gods to bless those individuals whose mummified remains I had just viewed—a blessing that listed the name of every individual whose remains we’d seen.  I could not recite that blessing without violating my own belief that I should not pray to false gods or idols, but I respected that blessing. As long as the names of those people are spoken and respected, they have the kind of afterlife they craved, an afterlife in which they are not forgotten.

In processing all this, it’s occurred to me that just yesterday we celebrated the day when America declared its independence, a day that began the first of many wars fought to achieve and maintain the freedom most Americans take for granted. One of our most sacred freedoms is the right to choose our religious belief and affiliation. While it’s become a popular sport to look down our noses and badmouth people who don’t believe exactly the way we do, I think it’s important to remember that the same blood that was shed to protect my right to embrace Christianity with both hands and both feet protects the rights of Jews, Muslims, Buddhists, atheists, and whatever-else-ists to believe what they believe. I may respectfully disagree with what you believe, I will fight to the death to defend your right to believe it.

May we never forget the names of those whose blood has defended our right to respectfully disagree.

Father’s Day, Hats, and Hand Grenades

fathersdaysignI suppose it would have been appropriate for me to post about Father’s Day a little earlier than 7PM on Sunday, but frankly I didn’t plan on writing a Father’s Day blog post this year. Then two things happened to change my mind.

First, my Pastor read something from the pulpit this morning. Then, I stumbled on this great Father’s Day picture and just had to share it with y’all.

While the casual observer might think this hilarious photo is out of character with the rest of this post, in a weird and wonderful way the two go together like steaks and charcoal. I’m quite certain that when my daughter Sara sees this she’ll roar, because she and I have such similar senses of humor that we usually can just look at each other, instantly think of the same punch line, and burst into simultaneous laughter while everyone else is wondering what’s so funny.

Sara, who is now 30 years old and just finished her eighth year teaching German to elementary school kids, is fond of saying that she is a fascinating study of nature versus nurture. The interesting thing is that when people who know us learn we are a blended family they always assume she’s my blood and Sharon adopted her, when in fact it was I who adopted Sara on December 18, 1992.

Which brings us to the second part of this post, the part that happened first. This morning, my Pastor read something from the pulpit. I recognized the piece before the first sentence reached the back row—a 500 word essay Sara wrote last year when she nominated me for the Arkansas Baptist News Father of the Year award. Here is what she wrote, without a single jot or tittle edited by me:

Most people just take the father God gives them at birth.  Not me.

God knew I needed a father I could touch to understand how much I am loved by Him.  After all, a woman’s image of God is often a replica of her image of her earthly father.  Since 1990, I’ve had a clearer image of God’s love because of my father.

I was nine, in 1989, when my mama met him.  She loved him a lot.  She asked if I loved him too. Until then, every man I had ever loved had gone away and left me and my mama behind.  I wanted my mama to have him.  I wanted to love him, but I was afraid he’d leave her, so I wouldn’t let myself. After all, it was my father who had abandoned me after my parents divorced in 1987.

About a year later in July 1990, my mama married him, but I was still afraid to love him.

It took some time, but eventually, I learned to trust him.  I asked him to become my father, legally. I was fourteen when on December 18, 1992, he stood before a judge, telling God and man that he chose me; that he wanted to be my father.  I wanted that too.

It’s been over fifteen years since that day.

I didn’t know it then, but I was broken inside, when it came to understanding what it meant to have a father who loves me and really does want me to be his daughter.  God knew that, and He always provides.

My father had been prepared, by God, to have a daughter.  He wanted a daughter even though there hadn’t been a girl born into his family in many generations.  God knew that he’d have a daughter and gave him the desire to be a little girl’s father.  God gives us the desires of our hearts.

At times, I have felt forsaken, abandoned, and so alone that I couldn’t see the presence of anyone around me–even God, Himself.  Thankfully, God put His skin on my father to help me learn to see Him when I feel alone.

As I have learned to trust him, I have trusted God more too.  I’ve always known, in my head, that God wants to tuck me in at night, wipe away my tears, walk hand in hand with me, and be my Father.  I can say that in the past fifteen years, I’ve been able to move that knowledge, slowly, from my head into my heart.

People often say that it takes a “real man” to be a father.  If you’re adopted, there’s more.  Because it takes a VERY special kind of “real man” to be a father to someone else’s child.

I’m exceedingly grateful that I know a “VERY special kind of ‘real man'”.  He’s more than a father to me.  He picked me to be his daughter.

His name is Dan Case, and I love him a lot.

–Sara Case, Fathers’ Day, 2008

Even though I’d read this before—more than once—I will admit to shedding humble tears. I am so very blessed, and so thankful for God’s amazing restoration and grace in my life, that I’ve found it difficult to find words to express myself. If you know me, you know that anything that can shut me up so effectively is a mighty big deal.

I love you, Sara. Thanks for a wonderful Father’s Day–and for the privilege of being your father.

Thirty Seconds of Fame

Whew! It’s been a crazy few days in Dan-land. I attended the annual ACFW Conference last Thursday through Sunday, and I’m just now getting to the place where I’m slowing down to catch my breath. Crazy days, to be sure—but good crazy.

Check it out! I won!

Yup, that’s me. Do I look a little giddy? Well, I should, because I was. My novel The Voice took first place in the 2008 ACFW Genesis contest, Contemporary Fiction category.

It was a surreal moment for me. Sure, I knew there was a 1 in 5 chance I’d win. There was also a 4 in 5 chance that I wouldn’t, and the other competitors were far from weak writers. I decided well in advance that I’d maybe take third place, with a slim shot at second. After third and second were announced, I wasn’t sure what to think.

When I heard my name and title, I think I stopped breathing for a few seconds. By the time I took my first step toward the stage, I knew exactly how I had to deliver my 30-second acceptance speech.

You see, early Thursday morning just before leaving for the airport, my wife Sharon told me she really wanted to go to the conference with me this year, because she knew I would win and she wanted to be there to see it. She may have said something early on, but she never pursued it because it would be an expensive trip and we had a lot of expense this year. I could see it in her eyes. She honestly believed I would win. She deserved to come along if she wanted to; I could never do any of this without her love and support. Had I known sooner, I would have found a way to cover the cost—but it was too late.

On my way to the stage, I pulled out my cellphone and called her. I had just stepped onto the stage when she answered and I gave her the news from the podium. I can’t recall every word of my acceptance speech; I wish I had a recording so I knew what all I said. There is, however, one part I remember well. I thanked God for the woman on the phone, someone who was not surprised to hear I had won first place, would not be surprised when I receive a contract from the wise publishing house that buys The Voice, and she will not be surprised if one day she sees my name on a best-seller list. She believes in me even when I don’t believe in myself, sees great things in me I cannot always see, and is the very best Gift God ever gave me, second only to Salvation. She’s my wife, Sharon, and without her I would have never been at that podium.

I concluded by having all 600 or so attendees greet Sharon as I held up the phone. I believe the resounding roar made even the rowdy, chicken-dancing wedding party next door pause, even if for only a moment.

So, I’m now a Genesis winner. There was a lot of interest in The Voice before the awards, and even more afterward. I have editors and agents pursuing me, quite a change from the normal routine. As I told a couple of folks that night, my new goal is to become disqualified for next year’s Genesis contest (contracted authors are ineligible).

I’ve had my thirty seconds of fame and I’m back in Little Rock, back at the keyboard, getting back into the routine of life. Before me stands a frightening question.

Can I deliver what I’ve promised?

Watch this space and find out.

Writer Coaster

Life is like a roller coaster–you’ve got your ups, you’ve got your downs, and just when you think you’re on a straight, level stretch, an unexpected curve throws you around a little. We have moments of anticipation as we climb the hill, and moments of either exhilaration or terror on the way back down.

The past couple of weeks have been a fine example of that roller coaster in action. First came the unexpected exhilaration of learning that I’m a finalist in the ACFW Genesis Contest (a national competition for unpublished novelists). The excitement came with a deadline: I had 48 hours to review the comments of the first-round judges and polish my entry before resubmitting for final round judging. Deadlines like this one are always adrenaline-laden thrill rides for me, and I honestly had a blast polishing and fine-tuning my entry.

Then, came a balancing heartbreak. Wookie, my long-time writing partner, creative consultant and quadruped muse, died.

WookieWookie has been a part of my writing life for eleven years. Back when the words “blog” and “Google” were not yet invented and I was sending out a daily email and playing with web site ideas, she provided many moments of inspiration and insight, not to mention stress relief–there’s great relaxation found in the purring of a kitten. She spent hours sitting on the back of my high-backed office chair, providing her creative services. Even in her old age, though terribly weak and frail, she provided consulting and therapeutic services from one of her favorite places of late, curled up on my lap between my belly and laptop.

I knew she wouldn’t be around forever. I even knew she was in her final days. What I didn’t know was how it would affect me when I stepped out of the bedroom and found her lifeless, furry form stretched out on the floor in the middle of the upstairs hall. Deep inside, I knew she was gone before I ever went looking for her, when I arose to answer nature’s call and she didn’t come into the bathroom and demand that the water dish be freshened. She hadn’t been snuggled on the bed with us either, though there had always been times when she preferred a bit of space and napped in the hallway. When my bladder awakened me, before I ever climbed out of the bed, I sensed it. When I found her in the hall, a wave of peaceful sadness hit me, but not one of surprise.

What did surprise me is how difficult it’s been to write in the five days since Wookie’s death. I’ve been incredibly busy with day-job projects, which provided a convenient excuse, but even in those moments when I’ve tried with all my might to make the words appear on the pages, what little has come forth has been nothing more than bilge. I’ve had so much that I’ve needed to write–thank you notes to Genesis judges, blog postings, the other 80,000 words of the novel I’m working on currently–and I’ve barely been able to write emails.

I sit here writing this, and I can almost see Wookie’s frail frame climbing up the chair, pushing with gentle authority until I move my left had out of the way and let her through to her destination. I recall the way she took over my lap at will, even in the trembling weakness of her final days, settling gingerly into her spot, struggling against her discomfort, determined to hide it from my notice. The way she purred when she found just the right spot, and looked up at me with as much adoration as a cat could stand to express. We understood each other, and even on the last evening of her life she inspired me as we shared what would be our last such moment of closeness.

Writers often find healing in their craft, and I’ve found healing in writing this little blog entry. I’m sure it’s grammatically imperfect and rife with the wickedness of excessive adverbs and passive voice, not likely to win any contests or impress any publishing power brokers. But as I write these words and contemplate my empty lap, the tears I so desperately needed to shed have come forth. While Wookie would certainly offer critique and editorial input, I believe that she would approve. I know that tomorrow, when I open my laptop to write, the words will come again, and Wookie will join the gallery of faithful felines who’ve taken up residence in my heart over the years and took a sliver of my heart with them when they left.

Wookie, however, took more than a sliver–she took a whole slice.