Diana Renn

Mysteries that Matter

I’m beginning to chip away at my towering TBR pile of amazing new books that launched in the first half of 2022. Dayna Lorentz’s WAYWARD CREATURES came out in January, and while I’d started reading as soon as the book arrived – I’d been eagerly anticipating her new book after I read OF A FEATHER last year — I soon got busy with my own launch preparations and a deadline. I reluctantly had to put my reading on hold.
I had some rare stretches of uninterrupted time last week, and again WAYWARD CREATURES called out to me. I devoured it in two days. You guys. THIS BOOK. Wow. It’s about a twelve-year-old boy named Gabe who tries to impress some friends and get attention, so he sets off some stolen fireworks in a woods near his house. This sparks a forest fire! The fire impacts many people and animals, and chars acres of land. One of the impacted creatures is a coyote named Rill, whose voice we get in alternating chapters; he is badly burned and trapped in a crevice, but Gabe discovers him, brings him food, and then advocates for his release after he is captured by wildlife officials. Gabe also makes amends for his actions through his participation in a restorative justice program. The connections between Gabe and the coyote are brilliantly rendered. Both receive negative attention and judgment, especially the coyote who snapped at a small child. Both are angry. Both have disconnected from their “packs” for various reasons. But as their paths cross, and they begin to heal, we learn to view both of them with greater compassion.
As someone who grew up on the west coast, with an awareness of fires, this story stoked a lot of fears that I have. I learned new things about how destructive forest fires are, but also felt some hope about how land can heal (even soil, beneath what is burned) and eventually may regenerate – especially if humans like Gabe and his community service mentor can nudge things along. Without funding and human effort, though, the process is slow indeed. I also learned a lot about coyotes, creatures I certainly have judged negatively; I hear them at night and fear them when I walk in the woods, but I think I will view them differently now.
As the parent of a boy not much older than Gabe in the story, I also felt the family dynamics and the interior life of a seventh grader were spot-on. It’s great to find stories that deal with the inner lives of boys, and even show boys having some meaningful discussions to overcome conflicts and repair damaged friendships. The language felt real, with moments of genuine insight punctuated by awkward humor and fierce ambitions, as Gabe’s friends eventually join him in working toward a common goal.
A must read for animal lovers and budding conservationists, as well as anyone interested in restorative justice (which should be all of us) – highly recommend!
         Welcome back to my (Mostly) Weekly Reads feature!
          I took last week off in light of the tragedy in Uvalde, Texas. I don’t know about you, but I didn’t have the bandwidth or, frankly, the will to write a bookish blog post last week. I became, like so many people, consumed by news media, especially by the portraits of those who were lost, yet again, to gun violence. I couldn’t find words to articulate my deep dismay, and still struggle to.
          But I will share a couple of things I have done in the past week before we dive in to the weekly read, in the hopes that others may feel motivated to do a couple of things too:
         I joined Moms Demand Action and donated to Everytown. Moms Demand Action has an app you can put on your phone, and they make it very easy to do some actionable steps, like contacting senators or signing petitions.
                I donated copies of TROUBLE AT TURTLE POND to 600 BOOKS OF HOPE: COMPASSION THROUGH STORY. This initiative seeks to collect at least 600 new children’s books with hopeful messages to ensure that every child at Robb Elementary School would receive one new book, “one tangible thing they can take with them that might shine a ray of promise in their unbearable darkness,” according to organizer e.E. Carlton-Trujillo. The goal is also to collect 1,300 more books to gift to the town’s other schools, from K-12. You can read more about the initiative here, and if you are a children’s book author, illustrator, editor, or publisher, please consider signing up to donate new books!
            And finally, as I work on my new mystery novel (which also took about a weeklong hiatus while I processed the news), I revisited an essay I wrote for the Huffington Post back in 2014: Unarmed and Dangerous: On Writing a Thriller With No Guns.” Sadly, this essay often gets dug up and circulated on the Internet after school shootings. But if you’re writing a book for young readers and contemplating whether or how much to include guns, this might be worth reading and thinking about. It describes my attempt to avoid guns in my second YA novel, which was harder than it sounds.
         And so, on to this week’s Weekly Read, which is, fittingly in many ways, a survival narrative. I’m almost done listening to Megan Freeman’s marvelous middle grade novel in verse, ALONE. The premise immediately grabbed me, as I can well remember the feeling of being a child or even a young adult, and finding that a morning seems particularly quiet, the streets emptier, even the birds subdued, and wondering: Where is everyone? Did they evacuate and forget to tell me??
        That’s pretty much what happens in ALONE! Maddie, age 12, is scheming to have a secret sleepover with friends, capitalizing on the shuttling she does back and forth between divorced parents and the occasional times when logistics slip through the cracks. But plans change, she sleeps at her grandmother’s empty house on her own, and wakes up to find herself completely alone; her town has been evacuated and abandoned overnight, for no clear reason. Is the thread environmental? Invisible? Potentially under attack from an enemy? The messaging about “relocation” and transport, with the tone of vague threats, was eerily relatable. Maddie must learn to survive on her own in a town that seems to have every creature comfort, but in fact has no infrastructure — no cell phones, no electricity — and the isolation she feels is one of the hardest challenges to overcome. Fortunately a dog named George and a library full of books provide companionship.
       This book is Home Alone on steroids. Maddie’s plight is a scary prospect to contemplate, but also a powerful reminder of how resourceful we can be, and how impactful the written word can be, as Maddie turns to all kinds of reading material for insight, instruction, and inspiration.
     I’d love to know what you’re reading, and how words sustain you through difficult times; feel free to drop a note in the comments!