By Wendy Greenberg
When Deanie Yasner was growing up she felt alone, left out, and out of place. Now a retired Princeton resident, Yasner’s childhood in a small town in Mississippi has inspired her middle grade novel, the story of a young girl who challenges the rules of segregation in the summer of 1953.
The book is Essie Rose’s Revelation Summer, published by Golden Alley Press in Emmaus, Pa. As Yasner puts it in her note to readers: “I was an Old Soul child growing up in the deep South in the 1950s, a member of the only Jewish family in a town where there were so many things I did not understand; for instance, the Jim Crow laws that keep people separated by their skin tone.”
She hopes the book will help youths to discover “the power of courage, that they too, can make a difference,” she said, “One can overcome many obstacles in life with courage, perseverance, and love.”
The story is narrated by 10-year-old Essie Rose Ginsberg, “writer, loner and all-time worrier,” according to the book jacket. She “is hoping for a carefree summer,” but when the family’s beloved housekeeper is suddenly called away, Essie Rose must figure out how to navigate on her own.
The character of Essie Rose is comforted by the book Charlotte’s Web, E.B. White’s tale which is also about loss and friendship. Yasner’s fictionalized story is “based on memories that I have from growing up,” she said. “My childhood, as how I experienced it. I always felt set apart, there was very little to confirm my identity.”
On a page at the beginning of the book she quotes e.e. cummings: “It takes courage to grow up and become who you really are.”
The story and its lessons transcend grades and ages. Online reviews show that many adults are moved by the story. “It takes them back, and brings back childhood memories,” said Yasner. “Educators like it because children can learn from and be inspired by the struggles, whether they are Jewish or not. These are universal themes.” Yasner noted that “the book has been read by readers 8 to 80 with positive feedback from all ages.”
Yasner’s own childhood was spent in a town on which she based the fictional Tipton, Miss. Her father owned a store, and she spent most of high school there. “I was so unhappy and out of place I went to summer school to get enough credits to graduate early,” she said.
She ended up far from home, on Long Island, at Adelphi University, where she earned an undergraduate degree in English literature. “I’ve always loved words,” she said. “I’ve always been an observer, and always enjoyed writing.”
She has also loved children. Yasner’s professional career was as a Bucks County, Pa., behavioral specialist working with families and children experiencing developmental and behavioral issues including autism and attention deficit disorders. Previously she had been a special education teacher in upstate New York.
She saw, serendipitously, in a New York newspaper box, an ad for the New York Writer’s Workshop and took an online course, where she was encouraged by a mentor who told her that “people who take leaps of faith have angels at the other end.” That was what she needed to hear. Yasner studied the craft of writing and penned articles and short stories, publishing in Highlights for Children and other magazines geared to youths.
“I had never written for children until in my 60s,” she said. “I felt like this book was always inside me. I always knew that my childhood made me so sensitive — I wanted to find a way to find a meaning out of my childhood.”
Essie Rose’s Revelation Summer was a six-year process. Writing for middle grades is different than writing young adult novels. Protagonists are typically between the ages of 10 and 13 and deal with characters’ relationships to their family and friends, she explained. The biggest challenge, she said, was staying in the voice of the lead character. “I had to become a 10-year-old again, with 10-year-old language and 10-year-old feelings, and I had to keep that voice from start to finish.”
Yasner dove deep into historical research, even calling the library in the town where she grew up to confirm library policies of the time, and was touched that the librarian remembered her mother. “Writing takes you on a journey you can’t predict when you start,” she said.
She researched clothing, brands, and even how much a stamp cost and who was on it, for a scene during which Essie Rose mails an envelope and licks “the stamp with George Washington’s face on it.”
While some readers have requested a sequel, Yasner is now writing text for a picture book for younger ages. In this book the main character is the imaginary friend who has to say goodbye to the real friend. “It is how we can remember someone when there is a loss,” she said.
The story of Essie Rose “will be in my heart forever,” she said. It has been used in public schools and in synagogues as a basis for discussing the issues children are facing today.
Yasner hopes it provides comfort to youths who are bullied, who are different, and who feel out of place. “Kids have a lot to cope with,” she said. “There is so much hate and divisiveness in the world. My hope is, they will be inspired.”
Essie Rose’s Revelation Summer is available on Amazon.com.