At one point in our careers, Sundee Frazier and I shared an editor who suggested we meet. Our coffee shop visit flew by and, even though I don’t see Sundee as often as I’d like, I am grateful to consider her a friend. And it’s her fault that I bought a rock tumbler, something I did after reading her first novel, Brendan Buckley’s Universe! Today we are celebrating her newest middle grade, Cleo Edison Oliver in Persuasion Power (Arthur Levine Books/Scholastic), which just came out on Tuesday.
With Cleo Edison Oliver, I did something writers are continually advised not to do: I saw a hole in the market (with the insight of my agent) and sought to fill it. Popular chapter book series with kids of color in the eponymous starring role have been few and far between. Two wonderful recent additions are the magnificent Mya Tibbs and the forthcoming Jasmine Toguchi.
Adding Cleo to the pool of such books has been gratifying. HOWEVER . . .
When it came down to it, I could not do what I set out to do—write to fill a hole.
We writers are not hole-fillers.
We are observers. Behavioral psychologists. Dramatists. Spiritualists. Diviners. Explorers. Plunderers of experience and emotion.
With our words, we try our best to patch together a single, specific story that will hopefully contribute to the telling of the One Big Human Story and help us and others make sense of this strange yet beautiful existence we call Life.
But hole-fillers? No.
Cleo is a kid entrepreneur. Her character was inspired by a dear friend’s daughter, who made her first sale at the age of two and is a whirling dervish of ideas—for how to have fun, make money, and it would seem at times, drive her parents mad.
She is also adopted. And I knew from the beginning that Cleo would be as well. Because herein lies the deeper, emotional story that I am always seeking to tell.
There is something about the adoptive experience that speaks deeply to my soul. Maybe it’s the sense of loss of connection to one’s source that moves me—a wound I think we all have deep within us, even if we can’t acknowledge it.
This loss of connection (between people and their source, people and each other, people and the natural world) is something that causes me great grief. And so, I’ve realized, I’m constantly reconnecting people in my stories. All of my stories are ones of reunion and reconciliation. And ultimately, Cleo would insist on being the same.
Cleo is happy in her family, and yet there’s a gnawing desire to know her birth family too. In Persuasion Power, the second (and perhaps final) book of Cleo, she has the opportunity to meet one of her birth parents and the reunion that transpires gets me every time I read it.
I dedicated this book to adoptees everywhere, adding “Your story matters.” If I could, I would rewrite that (we writers are always editing) to say, “Your stories matter,” as there is no one story that captures the adoptive experience. (For a beautiful, provocative meditation on this topic, see Chimamanda Adichie’s TED talk: The Danger of a Single Story.)
If Cleo’s story serves as a mirror, window, or sliding glass door (thank you Dr. Rudine Sims Bishop for this enduring metaphor for diverse books) for even one person, adopted or not, Black, White, or other, it will have filled the real hole that needed filling.
Sundee T. Frazier was the 2008 Coretta Scott King Award winner for New Talent for Brendan Buckley’s Universe and Everything in It. She is also the author of The Other Half of My Heart and Cleo Edison Oliver: Playground Millionaire. Her heartfelt, entertaining stories address subjects close to her heart: ethnic identity, growing up in interracial families, and multi-generational dynamics. Frazier, a graduate of the Vermont College of Fine Arts, lives in Renton, WA, with her husband and two daughters. You can learn more about her and her work at www.sundeefrazier.com.