Hope. What a sweet and delicious concept. Frankly in the past two years, I’ve needed more than a drop of it. So when I was invited to read Keith Calabrese’s manuscript, upon hearing the title, I immediately accepted that invitation. One of the drawbacks of being a writer (sadly, Dear Reader, there are one or two negatives) is that it is sometimes difficult to approach a book with a reader’s open heart and mind; it is sometimes difficult to turn off that analytical and sometimes overly critical writer’s disposition. From the opening words of A Drop of Hope (Scholastic), I became a true reader once again. I fell completely in love with this middle grade novel and I’m confident you will, too.
I was raised Catholic, which means that when I was growing up, if something went wrong, I figured it was probably my fault. A religious propensity for guilt is especially difficult when you have an active imagination; it’s kind of like combining acid reflux with spicy food, but for the soul.
For instance, growing up I could walk down the street and if there was a rock on the sidewalk, I couldn’t just walk on by. Because if I did that, then sometime later someone else wouldn’t see the rock. Maybe they’d step on it, or trip over it. Either way they’ll inevitably lose their balance, stumble into the street and get clobbered by a bus, leaving behind a wife, kids, probably a dog. So much carnage and tragedy, and it would all be my fault. Because I hadn’t removed the rock.
I’d try to resist the stubborn pull of hypothetical culpability and pass the rock on the sidewalk. But I always went back. When I did, I’d kick the rock off the sidewalk, in my mind not so much saving a life as avoiding a murder, and only then would I feel safe to continue on my way. Unless, of course, I accidentally kicked the rock into the nearby yard, where a new, nightmare scenario then took over. That rock would now lie in wait, hiding in the tall grass, until the weekend, when the owner of the house would come out to mow the lawn. The rock would then get caught in the mower blades, achieving a harrowing centrifugal force before shooting out the back of the mower, ricocheting off several nearby objects, including the hapless homeowner, before taking out that junction box at the top of a nearby utility pole, which would then explode and crash on top of a bus full of orphans driving by on the street.
And so on, and so on, until I finally picked up the rock and threw it away.
When I first started writing A Drop of Hope (Scholastic Press), I wanted to keep it simple. Kids discover the bottom of an old wishing well, kids hear wishes, kids make wishes come true. It was my first novel, after all, best to play it safe. But my early efforts felt pat, and a bit condescending. My characters weren’t buying it, either. Especially Ryan, a no-nonsense sixth grader who broke the fourth wall of my mind on more than one occasion to say, “Dude, this really isn’t working.”
Basically, I was playing it too safe, trying to make it easy on myself. It was too neat. I realized that for the story to really work, the kids couldn’t have everything go according to any plan. That was not only boring, but inaccurate as well; because life doesn’t usually go according to plan. What I needed was to find a way where the kids wouldn’t grant the wishes, but maybe they could set things in motion that make the wishes come true.
But how was I going to do that?
Yeah, that one stumped me for a while.
Then I remembered the rock on the sidewalk. I remembered all the times I’d imagined catastrophes born of the most mundane circumstances. And I thought, but couldn’t it work the other way? If the simplest thing could cause a catastrophe, couldn’t the simplest thing also cause a miracle? So, instead of a rock on the sidewalk, I left an old art set in the middle of a school hallway, a fire extinguisher in the thick of the woods, a diamond in a sock monkey’s butt, and I followed my imagination towards a happier kind of chaos.
Any writer will tell you it’s a singular thrill to put a past neuroses to some unexpected, productive use. I’m sure the Germans have some super-long word for it. Old habits die hard, though. So, if we’re talking later, and my eyes drift down towards the ground behind your feet, please don’t be offended. I’m just trying to save your life.
Keith Calabrese is an author and screenwriter who holds a degree in creative writing from Northwestern University. A former script reader, he lives in Los Angeles with his wife, kids, and a dog who thinks he’s a mountain goat.