Bookbag: A journalist rediscovers the pleasure of writing with a new book for middle school students

Daddy’s Girlfriend and Other Anxieties

“Since arriving in Colorado, it seemed like Ava had forgotten how to tell the truth.

Or even what was the truth.

If she didn’t stop, what kind of person would she become?

Kellye Crocker’s middle-grade debut novel, “Dad’s Girlfriend and Other Anxieties,” (outcoming Sept. 1, Albert Whitman & Co., ages 9-12, $17.99) introduces readers to Ava, a daughter of 12 year old from Iowa celebrating the last day of her sixth grade with her two best friends. It’s not exactly a carefree party, because the next day, her father takes her – kidnaps her against her will, rather – for a two-week trip.

Kellye Crocker’s first mid-level novel, “Dad’s Girlfriend and Other Anxieties,” will be published September 1. Crocker grew up in Ames and worked at the Des Moines Register before moving to Colorado. (Laura Carson Photography)

A month prior, Ava had been diagnosed with an anxiety disorder after suffering a panic attack at Field Day. As if the normal dangers of the world weren’t enough, now Ava must not only meet her father and daughter’s “girlfriend”, Z (Mackenzie), but she must do so in one of the most dangerous states in the world. union: Colorado! Mountains to slide over, falling rocks to crash into, bears and mountain lions attacking, and rabid plague-bringing ground squirrels! So many worries! But Ava’s biggest worry is how serious her dad and The Girlfriend are. And, the even more painful worry… Does her daddy love The Girlfriend even more than he loves her?

It’s not long after arriving in Colorado that Ava learns from Z that Ava’s father planned events without telling Ava, things he would know will heighten her fears and anxiety. Things he should have told her. It’s so different from his father. Ava decides to do everything she can to foil his plans, no matter how badly it causes her father, The Girlfriend, and Z. Yet all of her plots and manipulations come at a cost. She lost her footing to be the kind soul that she is, learning that fear can do terrible things to change you. Will she find her way back to herself and her father, or will Colorado and The Girlfriend ruin them and their special relationship?

Novelist Kellye Crocker was a lifelong Iowan herself. Raised in Ames, she left to study journalism elsewhere, but returned to Des Moines for 26 years, working at the Register and publishing in various media, while raising her family. A move to Denver, Colorado a few years ago was not on her radar at a time when she was struggling with health issues as well as her writing, which sent her own anxieties. Without realizing it, she had lost the joy she once found in writing. A friend encouraged her to find him by taking a playful approach. Crocker took her friend’s advice to heart and started a story about a girl from Iowa who doesn’t want to visit Colorado.

“I had a lot of fun exploring the state with Ava, and I fell in love with Colorado, like everyone else, and it tickled me to write Ava’s contrary point of view,” Crocker said.

Ava’s contrary view also tickled this reviewer. Although Ava and Z expose their own very real and difficult growing pains, Crocker deftly shows us the heart and mind of a middle schooler using humor in a way that will connect and attach readers to intermediate level to these characters, as well as helping adult readers remember the not-so-fun parts of growing up themselves.

Crocker is very passionate about young people and is a faculty member of the Young Writers Program at Denver’s Lighthouse Writers Workshop, a program that nurtures the next generation of writers. His advice to young writers is:

  • Adopt a playful attitude with writing, especially in early drafts.
  • Don’t write what you think you should write (unless it’s a school assignment, of course).
  • Write down what sounds fun.
  • Experience. See what happens.

Crocker believers, our freshest and most original writing comes when we bring ourselves fully – in all our quirkiness – to our stories. Whatever your dream, don’t give up, she says, offering this secret: It’s easier to persevere when your goal is challenging, but also fun.

Two more tips: read, read, read and write, write, write! Time spent doing both is never wasted, she says.

Watch for the upcoming release of “Dad’s Girlfriend and Other Anxieties” on September 1, as well as future Crocker event dates for readings and signings in and around Iowa. More information about Kellye Crocker can be found on her website, kellyecrocker.com.

Wendy Henrichs is a children’s author living in Iowa City.

Angela C. Hale