Can I call you Mom?

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While it is rare to have all three of my boys home at the same time, every once in a while a miracle occurs. I’m proud and humbled they call me Mom.

So I had to go to foster mom school. I mention it because Adan, one of the main characters in my upcoming novel, The Scent of Rain, is a 17-year-old boy on the run from a group foster care facility in Arizona.

Growing up in a middle-class suburb of New Jersey, the only thing I’d heard about parentless children came from the Broadway musical Oliver, where overly cute ragamuffins danced and sang about wanting more food. And while there were certainly sad points in the Dickensian tale, little Oliver did end up happily ever after with his long-lost grandpa.

Today, in the US, over 400,000 children are  wards of the state. On average, 20,000 of them age out of foster care annually with no happy ending in sight; kids who are much more likely than their peers to drop out of high school, be unemployed, or end up homeless.

The inner-city school where I teach is in the heart of Phoenix and has perhaps hundreds of foster children at any given time. Most of our students live in poverty, so our Title I designation provides many of them with free meals for breakfast and lunch. When summer break rolls around, I find myself anxious. I worry about what might happen to them without the structure the school day provides and the meals many of them depend on to survive. On the last day of classes, I always put my phone number on the board. I tell my students that, if they find themselves in a difficult situation with nowhere else to turn, they should call me and I will do what I can to help.

Early one summer I got a call from a student who’d been in my class just one semester: a diminutive, dark-haired child with crooked teeth.We spoke a number of times, chatting about nothing in particular. I sensed there was something specific he wanted me to do. But when I asked if I could help him in some way and he always said no. Before hanging up, he often reminded me that he would be in my class again in the fall.

When the school year got underway, his name was on my roster, but he did not appear for class. I called his number. The phone had been disconnected.

Several weeks went by.

Finally, he called. He was in a new high school, near the group foster care facility in which he now lived, the result of a harrowing family story, the particulars of which are not important here.

“I’m hungry,” he said.

“Hungry? Surely they feed you.”

“The refrigerator and cupboards are locked. And the school won’t let me eat there.” His voice was small. “They said the paperwork would take two weeks.”

“Two weeks!” I was horrified.

Later, I complained bitterly to a woman I work with. “How can they do this?” I said stomping around the hallway like an angry mother bear. “How can they let a child go hungry?”

“Then do something about it,” she said.

“Do what?”

“Call the foster care people and tell them you’d like him to live with you.”

I stopped, frozen in place. “Me?”

I’d never had any children, though I’d tried over the years. Sometimes, I’d felt badly about my inability to conceive, especially when faced with baby showers and children’s birthday parties. I still don’t hold babies. However, I was no longer tormented by the fact that I wasn’t a mom and had long ago given up on the idea.

Still, I made the call to the foster care folks. Then, I spoke with the boy on the phone and asked if he’d like to come live with me. After a brief pause, he said yes. I also called a judge I know to expedite the process. Since I was a teacher, my fingerprints and background check were already on file with the state.

Two weeks later the child was placed in my home. Then came foster mom school: ten Saturdays of parenting classes, followed by braces and homework and house rules and laundry – teenage-boy socks were a shocking revelation – and conversations about curfews and girlfriends and part-time jobs and life after high school.

Three years flew by at a manic pace, making me marvel at the incredible stamina parents must maintain while rearing their children. Strangely, at almost the exact moment boy-child number one headed off to college, boy-child number two appeared. Once he’d been safely launched, a third boy arrived.

My only problem with my parenting turn is how to explain it.“Do you have any children?” well-meaning strangers sometimes ask.

I used to answer by saying, “Yes, well, sort of…” and I’d mumble my way through the details.

Then, I remembered that first day in my truck, when I sat silently with a small, frightened boy-child, as we drove together to school. Wanting to fill the empty space between us, I said, “You know, you can’t keep calling me Ms. Montgomery. The kids in the neighborhood call me Annie.”

He didn’t speak for a long time. Then, staring out the windshield at the road before us, he said, “You know, I’ve never had a mom. Can I call you Mom?”

Even though they’re now in their twenties, all three of my boys still call me Mom. And today, when anyone asks if I have any children, I simply say, “Yes, I have three sons.”

 Anne Montgomery’s new YA novel, The Scent of Rain, tells the story of two Arizona teenagers whose fates become intertwined. Rose flees into the mountains to escape from her abusive polygamous community where her only future is marriage to a man older than her father. Adan, whose only wish is to be reunited with his mother, is on the run from the cruelties of the foster care system. Are there any adults they can trust? Can they even trust each other?  The Scent of Rain will be released on March 28, 2017. The book’s launch will take place at the Poisoned Pen Bookstore at 4014 N Goldwater Blvd #101, Scottsdale, Arizona on April 2, 2017 at 2:00 PM. 

Fictional characters can teach us to empathize with real people

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The soon to be released YA novel The Scent of Rain follows two teens running from abuse.  The plight of fictional characters can help readers relate to those who have vastly different lives than their own.

“What do you write about?” people often ask when they discover you’re an author.

I write about real situations that I often take directly from current events. As far as subject matter is concerned, I’ve penned novels dealing with sabotage, murder, post traumatic stress, religion, mental illness, archaeology, and the black market sale of antiquities, all topics I enjoyed researching and writing about.

But my soon-to-be-released Young Adult novel, The Scent of Rain, was different. While the information that led to the creation of the plot and characters came to me in vastly different ways, the subject matter was equally disturbing and difficult to compose.

The story in this case centers around two Arizona teenagers living in their own personal versions of hell. While the children are fictionalized, their stories are real. How do I know? First, I’m a foster mom to three sons and a teacher in a Title I school where hundreds of our students have passed through the troubled doors of the euphemistically named Arizona Department of Child Safety.  Seventeen-year-old Adan is the face of all the children I’ve come to know who have dealt with the abuses one can confront when the state becomes a parent.

Then there is Rose, who is living under the oppressive strictures of the Fundamentalist Mormon community in Colorado, City, Arizona. I knew little about the reclusive FLDS cult other than the occasional news clips or photos showing women and young girls in their long pastel-colored prairie dresses with athletic shoes peeking out incongruously beneath their hems, hair coiled in odd bunches, often clutching babies. I felt compelled to learn more about the group, reading everything I could find concerning the people who reside in the northwest corner of the state where I’ve lived for 27 years.

I invited Flora Jessop to my home, to discover what being raised in Colorado City was like. Jessop escaped twice from the FLDS and has spent her life rescuing girls and women from the cult. I listened as she calmly explained that females are subjected to all kinds of abuse, surprisingly, often at the hands of other women. Forced marriages are the norm. Later I would learn that some child brides were as young as 12. Children are uneducated and cut off from the outside world, with no access to phones, TV, radio, or the Internet.

As a former reporter, I am a seasoned interviewer, but I was not prepared for the stories Jessop told me. I barely remember speaking. I took a raft of notes on a legal pad. My recorder rolled for three hours. But I was never able to bring myself to listen to that recording. I didn’t have to. The stories stayed with me. Rose is the result.

Donna Essner is the acquisitions editor for the Amphorae Publishing Group, which will launch The Scent of Rain on March 28. While other publishers shied away from the story, Essner believes the themes in the book need to be addressed.

“Not only does this story show child abuse—in this particular case, a mother’s misguided sense of religious beliefs, based on what she’s been taught—it’s about forced marriage,” she said. “It’s about how one individual—a charismatic—manipulates, controls, and terrorizes a community of people based on their religious beliefs, to do his will, not God’s. Along with this, the story broaches what often happens to a good kid, taken away from a good parent, and put into the hands of the foster-care system, only to become a victim of abuse within the system meant to protect him. It’s about the heartlessness of law.”

While I did not write The Scent of Rain specifically for young readers, Essner convinced me that, despite the subject matter, publishing the book as a YA novel made perfect sense.

“Books are marketed according to the age of the protagonist and the projected audience,” she said. “Even so, a younger reader may want to read the book. Readers of YA, too, are not always within that projected age range. Many, like me, enjoy reading about our younger generations and what affects their lives.”

When I went to Colorado City, playing the part of an average traveler passing through, purchasing groceries at the Mercantile and filling my tank at the only gas station in town, I felt the overt tension, as my companion and I were scrutinized. We talked at length afterward about the fear we saw in people’s eyes, before they turned away, and the fact that, as we wandered through the town, stopping at the fenced-in former public school, the cemetery, and the palatial walled-off estate of the Prophet, Warren Jeffs – who by all accounts still controls the community from prison – we sensed we were being followed.

Later, I sometimes struggled when distilling what I’d learned into words, and periodically wondered whether anyone would want to read about the lives of the people imprisoned by the FLDS. In the end, I believed it was important to expose the suffering these people, especially the children, endure. Essner agreed.

“In order to understand human behavior and grow spiritually and intellectually, we all, as individuals, a world community, and society as a whole, must study the lives of others—their beliefs, their daily lives and habits, thoughts and actions,” she said. “Sometimes, the only way we are able to do this, is in reading fictional accounts of peoples’ lives and choices, as in The Scent of Rain. For those who may not have ever experienced physical and mental abuse, reading about it through the eyes of a fictional character enables any reader to understand, form an opinion, and hopefully, empathize with the characters. More importantly, in reading about abuse, we, to some degree, live it alongside the characters, and thus learn to recognize how it manifests itself, and most importantly, to take action against it.”

 The Scent of Rain will be released on March 28, 2017. The book’s launch will take place at the Poisoned Pen Bookstore at 4014 N Goldwater Blvd #101, Scottsdale, Arizona on April 2, 2017 at 2:00 PM. 

 

Want to be an author? You’ve gotta have grit!

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Would F. Scott Fitzgerald be successful in today’s publishing world?

Being an author is a tough job. OK, maybe not as daunting as the career track those Deadliest Catch folks are onadmittedly, I found myself reaching for the Dramamine more than once watching those crabbing boats being tossed like toys – or Mike Rowe’s gig when he does things like testing shark suits or mucking out sewers on Dirty Jobs.

Still, converting thoughts to printed words in order to tell a coherent story that’s of interest to readers, and then convincing others your efforts are important and well-written enough to publish and promote, well, there are all kinds of adversities mixed up in that endeavor.

I’ve had a number of difficult jobs over the years. I used to be a maid, on my hands and knees cleaning other people’s bathrooms. I was a baseball umpire for 25 years where I was, without question, the most disliked person on the field pretty much every time I stepped on the diamond. As a sportscaster, I was on live television about 2000 times, where, when you make a mistake, there are myriad people who delight in pointing out your errors.

Despite my labors with jobs that didn’t do much toward promoting positive self-esteem, I was definitely not prepared for the rigors of being an author. I’ve written six books: two rest in a drawer, two are published, one will be shortly, and one is a work in progress. Since I began writing 25 years ago, I have been rejected by agents, publishers, editors, and reviewers too many times to count. I’m pretty sure my no-thanks numbers have edged up over the one thousand mark. In fact, I’ve been snubbed so often that I sometimes find myself strangely delighted when I receive a rejection letter that’s, well, kind. A positive comment contained therein might tempt me to tears. (I know I’m not the only one.)

Today, aspiring authors face a different reality than those of the past. The advent of the personal computer and the Internet have paved the way for a huge release of creativity, that, depending on your point of view, is either fabulous or horrifying. On the positive end, anyone can write, self-publish, and post their book on Amazon. It’s estimated that somewhere between 600,000 and one million books are published in the U.S. alone each year, probably half of which are self-published. The other side of the equation is that without the gatekeepers – agents, editors, publishers – finding your gem in that the massive pile of prose is problematic: the proverbial needle in a haystack.

Feeling down yet? All I can say is don’t give into despair. Here’s what I’ve learned from the authors I’ve become acquainted with, my fellow travelers on this detour-filled journey. We are a tough bunch. I have not yet met an author who’s said, “I quit! I can’t take it anymore!” Perhaps that’s why I found a bit of unintended humor at the expense of one of America’s most famous writers: F. Scott Fitzgerald. I recently began watching Z: The Beginning of Everything, a biographical Amazon series based on the life of Zelda Fitzgerald, the writer’s wife and muse. In one of the early scenes, F. Scott opens a letter from a publisher. His book is rejected. And F. Scott, who up until that point was dashing and strong and optimistic, disintegrates into a despondent pile of mush and goes completely off the rails, drunk, depressed, needing Zelda to give him strength. While I know my reaction was not what the show’s writers intended, I couldn’t help it. I felt like laughing. I wanted to yell at F. Scott to pick himself up. Get over it! Move on! Try again!

And then, I wondered whether the famed writer of The Great Gatsby would have survived the complexities of today’s publishing world. And what about Hemingway? Twain? Faulkner? Steinbeck? How might these giants of the industry have navigated the choppy waters we face today?

I think they would have struggled, just like we do.

So, my fellow authors, take heart! Be strong. Be proud. The fact that you’ve even finished writing a book puts you in rarified air. You will survive, if you don’t take rejection personally – Yes, I know it’s hard – and if you have a sense of humor.

 Anne Montgomery is an author. Her new novel, The Scent of Rain, tells the story of two Arizona teenagers whose fates become intertwined. Rose flees into the mountains to escape from her abusive polygamous community where her only future is marriage to a man older than her father. Adan, whose only wish is to be reunited with his mother, is on the run from the cruelties of the foster care system. Are there any adults they can trust? Can they even trust each other? The Scent of Rain will be released on March 28, 2017. 

Young readers are drawn to dark topics which should come as no surprise

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Like many YA novels, The Scent of Rain addresses difficult issues. Studies suggest teens are drawn to emotionally charged subjects because their brains are wired that way.

When my agent was shopping The Scent of Rain to publishers, there was concern that the story was being rejected because the book contained difficult subject matter. One editor rather indignantly retorted, “We don’t do books about child abuse.” That the novel is now being marketed to young adult readers has also raised some eyebrows.

Kristina Blank Makansi, an editor and founding partner of the Amphorae Publishing Group, believes that the decision to publish a book that includes controversial subject matter can be difficult.

“For me, it comes down to two things: Is the book well written, and is the book about a topic that is relevant and important in today’s culture,” she said.

Makansi notes that there is another factor to consider when determining if a book is suitable for young readers.

“When you’re dealing with a book for teenagers or children, there is a third consideration,” she said. “And that is whether or not the book is written in an impactful and realistic but not gratuitous way.”

The Scent of Rain tells the story of 16-year-old Rose, stuck in a polygamous society where a woman’s only purpose is to marry and produce children. Rose is walled off from the outside world: no phones, TV, Internet, radio, where she is allowed to learn no more than the cult leader permits. Still, she marvels at the natural world, and senses there is more to life than her elders are sharing. The book deals with numerous difficult issues: foster care, deportation, child abuse, forced marriage, cults.

“As a woman and the mother of two daughters, I personally feel very strongly that sexual abuse, denial of educational opportunities to girls and young women, and the use of religion to oppress children and control communities are critical topics that need to be addressed,” Makansi said.

Best-selling novelist Gayle Forman, in her Time article “Teens Crave Young Adult Books on Really Dark Topics (And That’s OK)” explained that young people are wired for tough topics.

“New brain mapping research suggests that adolescence is a time when teens are capable of engaging deeply with material, on both an intellectual level as well as an emotional one,” she said. “Some research suggests that during adolescence, the parts of the brain that processes emotion are even more online with teens than with adults, (something that will come as absolutely no surprise to any parent of a teenager). So, developmentally, teens are hungry for more provocative grist while emotionally they’re thirsty for the catharsis these books offer.”

As a teacher in a Title I high school, where the vast majority of kids live below the poverty line, I can tell you that many of my students regularly face a multitude of trying issues. Certainly, children in more affluent neighborhoods also face what can be crushing problems. When teens read books where young characters confront challenging issues – drug, alcohol, or sexual abuse, divorce, death of a loved one, violence, illness –  they are presented with characters who must figure out a way to survive and thrive despite the traumas they face, providing a lesson, perhaps, in coping with their own concerns.

Makansi agrees.

“When a talented writer is able to take readers into a character’s world and make them care about the challenges the character faces, minds can be opened, empathy can be cultivated, and, ultimately, society can change for the better.”

The Hunger Games, The Perks of Being a Wallflower, Go Ask Alice, The Lovely Bones, The Book Thief, are just a few of the myriad YA novels that address difficult issues. Forman points out that the fact young people universally love these books should not be the least bit shocking.

“Of course teens are drawn to darker, meatier fare,” she said. “The only surprise about this is that it’s a surprise.”

 Anne Montgomery is an author. Her new novel, The Scent of Rain, tells the story of two Arizona teenagers whose fates become intertwined. Rose flees into the mountains to escape from her abusive polygamous community where her only future is marriage to a man older than her father. Adan, whose only wish is to be reunited with his mother, is on the run from the cruelties of the foster care system. Are there any adults they can trust? Can they even trust each other? The Scent of Rain will be released on March 28, 2017.