By Stacy Kess firstname.lastname@example.org
April 1, 2014
When she was 12 years old, Carmella Van Vleet wanted to be three things when she grew up: a mother, a teacher and a writer.
“I’ve done all three things,” said the Lewis Center author of “Eliza Bing is (Not) a Big, Fat Quitter,” a 2014 Junior Library Guild selection.
Although Van Vleet has written a number of children’s non-fiction titles, this is her first novel for middle grade readers. To celebrate, she will be signing copies of her book Friday at Fundamentals Parent-Teacher Bookstore, 25 W. Winter St.
The journey from teacher to mother to author was a winding road, but Van Vleet said it’s what brought her to write “Eliza Bing” – along with inspiration from her 16-year-old daughter, Abbey.
“Eliza came out of something my daughter said,” Van Vleet said. “She said, ‘I’m the letter Y. I’m not quite a consonant, but I’m not quite a vowel.’”
Abbey told her mother she felt she didn’t quite fit in. Neither does ‘Eliza,’ an 11-year-old who finds herself losing her best friend, working with ADHD and succeeding in martial arts.
ADHD is part of Abbey’s story, too, Van Vleet said, but it is not a negative issue in either her or Eliza’s lives; rather it’s just part of life and, at times, something that can even drive them to success.
That’s why Van Vleet focused on Eliza’s Tae kwan do training – a martial art both Van Vleet and her daughter practice. Both are now third degree black belts.
“I didn’t want it to be an issue book,” Van Vleet said. “I wanted (Eliza) to succeed because of her ADHD, not in spite of it.”
That concept has won “Eliza Bing” praise from critics at Kirkus and Publishers Weekly, along with more than 4 stars from readers reviews on Goodreads.com.
“I’ve been very happy with the reviews,” she said. “I try not to put a lot of stock in reviews, but I’ll be honest that it’s nice to get good reviews.”
For Van Vleet, the real success is reaching her goal of writing a novel for middle grade readers.
“There’s something about that age that I can connect to,” she said.
It’s not just years spent as a teacher, Van Vleet said; it’s also her inner child.
“We remember the books we read as kids because that’s when we are changing,” she said. “I think 9 out of 10 adults can say ‘Oh, that was my favorite book (as a kid).’”
Van Vleet left teaching in 1992 when her first son was born. She said she wrote her first novel for young adult readers that first year while her son was napping.
“And it was awful, awful, awful,” she said. “It will never see the light of day.”
Despite her self-critique, she said completing the novel gave her the confidence to write a humor column for a local paper. That led her to seek a publisher for a book of humor columns; the publisher rejected it, but asked her instead to write parenting guides.
When her publisher switched focus to children’s nonfiction titles, she did too.
“So I started writing children’s activity books,” Van Vleet said. “And I loved that. It was like teaching on paper.”
She honed her skills writing for the middle grade readers, but still had not reached her goal of publishing a novel.
“Three things changed the course of my career,” she said.
First, she read the book “Savvy,” a fantasy novel by Ingrid Law. She was inspired.
“I thought, I want to do that,” Van Vleet said. “I want to affect people in that way.”
Then she saw an interview with Heather Pick, a Columbus TV reporter who died of breast cancer in 2008.
“I didn’t know her, but I remember her talling people in one of her last interviews, ‘Don’t wait.’”
Then, Abbey was diagnosed with ADHD.
Van Vleet said for Abbey, the diagnosis was “a key and not a lock,” opening up possibilities to succeed. It did the same for Van Vleet.
She began working on “Eliza Bing,” which was released this year by Holiday House publishing.
“Every little step moved me a little closer to that,” she said.
Van Vleet said she has another novel in the works, this time for adults, but she plans to set that aside to begin work on a young adult novel, again inspired by Abbey. She is also anticipating the completion and release of a picture book, “To the Stars,” about and co-authored by astronaut Kathy Sullivan, the first American woman to walk in space. The book is set to release in 2016, and is currently being prepared for illustration.
Van Vleet will be at Fundamentals from 6:30 to 8 p.m. Friday with Abbey, who will be doing a Tae kwan do demonstration.