This is a reminder that the Spooky Middle Grade Authors continue with our classroom visits into the summer. Book early so you can get the spot you want.
THE COVID CHRISTMAS MIRACLE
by Cynthia Reeg
I pressed my face against the living room’s cold window pane. This winter my chin rested three inches higher above the cross piece than last year, when I was only ten. A frosty circle appeared as I sighed. Behind me, Mom and Dad stood huddled in the kitchen. They spoke low. I edged into the hallway and peeked around the door.
“It won’t be much of a Christmas this year, Sonia.” Dad’s heavy words said more. Somehow, he blamed himself for losing his job—even though COVID had shut so many things down already.
He jammed his hands deep into his pockets, as though he expected to find forgotten treasure there. Like money, or jewels, or a Christmas miracle maybe. That’s the way the silly TV shows that my little sister Mia watched always solved their problems. With a Christmas miracle.
“Don’t worry,” said Mom, pressing her hand to her heart. “We’ll make this Christmas special. You’ll see.”
I saw Dad shake his head. He pulled on his stocking cap and strode out the door.
I felt a tug on my jeans.
“Come on, Tony. Play Christmas with me.” Mia stood with her hands on her hips, white paper wings masking-taped to her back. She always pretended to be the angel.
“We’ve already played Christmas,” I said, squatting to her level. “Can’t you find something else to play—without me?”
“You can be all three of the wise men,” said Mia. “And you won’t be lost anymore because I’ll show you the way to the manager.”
“The angel doesn’t do that,” I said. “The star leads the wise men to Bethlehem.”
“I bet the angel could if they asked her to.” Mia hopped in place, trying to flap her droopy paper wings.
“Tony!” Mom’s call from the kitchen came just in time.
“Sorry, Mia. Got to go.” I flicked one of her floppy wings as I scooted past.
The warm kitchen smelled of chicken and spices. My stomach growled.
“What do you need, Mom?”
“Here’s some soup I want you to take to Mrs. Hosea.” Mom snapped the plastic lid in place. “She’s still moving pretty slow after her fall. Wear your mask and keep your distance.”
“Oh, man! I’d rather play with Mia.”
A visit with our neighbor, Mrs. Hosea, was like torture—in slow motion. But I tugged on my jacket and face mask and cradled the warm soup in my gloved hands.
I knocked on Mrs. Hosea’s door. Her scratchy voice commanded me to come in.
Once inside, I tried not to breathe the musty smell or spread any germs. “Here’s some soup, Mrs. Hosea. Hope you get to feeling better.” I put it on the old-fashioned table by the door and started sliding out.
“Set it down. Here. Beside me.” She motioned to an end table stained with water rings. Her floppy hands reminded me of Mia’s droopy wings.
As soon as I set the bowl down next to her, Mrs. Hosea’s hands flapped again.
“I need you to help with one more thing.” She pointed toward the hallway closet. “Look in there for a red box.”
A red box. What could Mrs. Hosea hide away in a red box? Would it a big or little box? Would I even be able to find it? Old people horded stuff like crazy. I’d watched shows on the Discovery Channel about that.
Slowly, I pulled open the creaky closet door, expecting mountains of stuff to fall. But the closet was mostly bare. I pushed aside a cobweb and spotted a few boxes behind a winter coat. I pulled out a dusty red box.
“That’s it,” said Mrs. Hosea, sitting up straighter in the worn brown leather chair. Next, she pointed to the scuffed-up coffee table before her. “Put it here. Yes, gently. Gently. It’s breakable.”
Without a bit of a smile or a thank you, Mrs. Hosea waved me out the door.
I couldn’t believe it! She wasn’t going to let me see what was inside.
Fine. I shouldn’t stick around this maybe germy place anyway. I slammed the door behind me.
The next day was Sunday. Dad still looked sad as we walked to church. But he tried to sing angel songs with Mia—who had finally taken off her wings. At church, we sat spaced far apart from the few others there. We all wore our masks, making our prayer responses sound muffled and sad somehow.
After we returned home, Mom called me to the kitchen once more. “Mrs. Hosea asked if you could bring her lunch again today. I told her I’d be happy to come by instead.” Mom squeezed my shoulder. “But she wanted you.”
Mom only smiled and pressed the brown sandwich bag into my hands.
I slumped across the street. The bag seemed to weigh a ton. I knocked with a clunk on her paint-chipped front door. My mask hid a major frown.
When I stepped inside, it was the same fluttering hands and the same bossy voice, this time coming from behind a pink-polka dot mask. But what made my eyes open wider than wide was the coffee table.
A colorful ceramic nativity spread across it. A wooden stable sat in the center with Joseph, Mary, and the most joyful baby Jesus I’d ever seen. Shepherds, sheep, a donkey and a cow joined the holy family. They snuggled close like old friends. Three fancy wise men stood a foot away, but they looked eager to reach the stable.
“Oh, wow” I said, pointing to an angel more beautiful than Mia could imagine. It hung proudly above the stable doorway. An angel with an attitude just like my little sister. “Mia should see that! She’s all about angels.”
“Is she now?” Mrs. Hosea paused and tapped her masked chin. “Go,” she said, pointing down the dark hallway. “Look under my bed. For a gold box.”
I rolled my eyes, another mystery quest. But an excited quiver zipped through my belly. This detective work was sort of fun.
With the virus lockdown, I knew Mrs. Hosea was more alone than ever. And more crippled after her fall. I rarely saw her standing at her front window anymore. For a whole month at least, she hadn’t once yelled at us neighbor kids when our soccer ball kicks sailed wide into her bushes. Yep, she was probably enjoying bossing me around for a little while.
I gulped in a breath of air behind my mask and tramped down the hallway. The musty smell seemed worse back here. When I turned on the bedroom lights, I discovered walls covered with photographs. Three children, two boys and a girl. A man in a military uniform. A smiling bride and groom. Could that possibly be ancient Mrs. Hosea? But where were all these photo people now? Was it only because of the lockdowns that none of them were here with her—bringing her lunch and looking for her silly boxes?
I peeked under the metal bed. The light barely shown there, but I saw it. The gold box. Not as big as the red one. Nor as heavy. I glanced at all the photographs one last time and switched off the light.
“Here,” I said, dropping it on Mrs. Hosea’s lap. I turned to go.
“Wait.” Mrs. Hosea’s cold hand grabbed me. “Do … do you want to see?”
“Nah.” I shook my head. “I better get back.”
Mrs. Hosea’s wrinkles bunched up under her watery eyes. I could tell that beneath her mask she grinned. “Are you sure?”
Unable to resist, I nodded and stepped closer than I should. She handed me the box. I lifted the lid and pulled back the tissue paper.
“Wow!” I gasped. A brilliant golden star, studded with fake sparkling jewels. Red, green, gold, and blue.
“It’s a Christmas tree star,” said Mrs. Hosea, her voice not as scratchy this time. Ever so gently, her knobby finger traced the shining star. A soft moan escaped her mask. “I don’t have a tree to put it on this year.”
Or anyone to put it up for you. I thought of all those photos. A feathery flutter tickled my stomach again.
“Here,” she said, pushing the open box against my chest. “Take it. For your tree.”
“No.” I shook my downcast head. “No, thank you.” I blinked hard and set the box down on Mrs. Hosea’s lumpy sofa. In a huff, I rushed for the door.
Outside, I ripped off my mask and gulped in a breath of air. I couldn’t tell Mrs. Hosea we didn’t have a tree this year either—or much hope of getting one.
My dad sat glumly on our front steps, staring into space. He looked as lost as the three wise men must have. Without a star—or an angel—to guide him. His big hands lay clenched in his lap.
A huge sigh formed in my chest. It pushed hard against my heart. I tried to breathe the hardness out. But the ache stuck firm.
Until I saw it.
Right beside my dad. Hidden in plain sight. The scraggly evergreen tree that grew in front of our house. And in plain view for Mrs. Hosea to see as well. It was a Christmas miracle—or close enough.
With a yell, I waved my mask in the air. “Dad!” I cried, not waiting a second to tell him my brilliant Christmas Miracle Plan.
“Wow.” Dad’s almost forgotten laugh made me laugh too. “That’s some plan for sure. All we need now is for your Mom and Mia to help us.”
Stirring up a mini-cloud of dust, we scrounged through the battered basement boxes. Only snarled tinsel and chipped ornaments lay hidden inside.
“These can still work, right?” I said.
My dad nodded. “We’ll make them work.”
“Popcorn will pull it all together,” said Mom, with a wink. “Help me, Mia.” In a flash, they were stringing fluffy white popcorn.
I taste-tested a few kernels. “The birds will love it.”
Mia giggled. “Don’t eat all our decorations.”
Mom hummed carols. Dad and I decorated as best we could with the ratty tinsel and shabby ornaments. Mia and Mom wrapped their popcorn strands around and around. Somehow the scraggily tree didn’t look so lost and droopy anymore.
I sprinted across the street and knocked on Mrs. Hosea’s door. “Look,” I said, all out of breath. “I found a tree for your star.”
She leaned against my arm as I helped her onto the porch. I pointed to where my family stood, surrounding the newly decorated tree. Now it was her turn for a surprise. Above the mask, her cloudy gray eyes opened wide.
“Oh my!” Mrs. Hosea’s wrinkles crinkled into a hidden smile. She motioned inside to where the star still lay on the sofa. “Go get it,” she said. “For our tree.”
I grinned from one side of my mask to the other.
But before I could move, she squeezed my shoulder, halting me in mid-step. “You should bring her over. Your little sister. To see my manger.” She held up a knobby finger. “If she promises to wear her mask and stand back. Absolutely no touching.” This time, though, her raspy command was sprinkled with a dusting of Christmas cookie sweetness.
“Okay,” I said, too surprised to remember to thank her.
With careful steps, I carried the boxed star across the street.
Mia danced in place, flapping her angel wings. “I told you. I told you. Tony’s all three of the wise men in one. See. He even brought a gift.”
Dad laughed and wrapped me up in one of his famous bear hugs. I handed him the star. Mom waved to Mrs. Hosea—now watching us at her window. I waved too. We all sang Angels We Have Heard On High, as Dad held up a winged Mia. My little sister ever-so-carefully placed the star atop our new found Christmas tree.
With a sigh, I stepped back. Amid the gray December dusk, the decorated tree suddenly stood triumphant and hopeful in our front yard.
Mom was right. Christmas was special this year. Who knew Mrs. Hosea—or especially us—had any hidden treasures? And who knew we’d end up sharing them with each other to make our own COVID Christmas Miracle.
This story is dedicated to my mom, Marjorie.
Mom died this month amid the COVID pandemic, forcing us (like so many other families) to mourn our loved one from a distance.
Even as children, Mom taught us about sharing and caring and being good neighbors.
My mom was a wise woman who knew the greatest gift of all is the gift of LOVE.
Mom will always be our family’s special treasure.
for a Merry Christmas
& a Happy and Healthy New Year
to All of You!
I hope you’ll join me for some online Halloween fun next month at Carve-Con in conjunction with FrightVision Books.
It’s Spooky! And Family-Friendly!
And it’s all VIRTUAL, in light of the pandemic.
Yes, there is a writing contest for kids 8-12. I’ll be reading one of the winning entries! Here’s your chance to create a spooky story and share it with the world–just in time for Halloween.
There are lots more fun activities. Like Spooky Puppy Parade and Spooky Sketch Night! Check them all out at CARVE-CON!
Can’t wait to see you there!!!
Don’t wait to schedule a virtual visit for your students!
3-4 Spooky Middle Grade Authors will spend thirty minutes answering all your students’ questions about characters, creation, plotting, motivation–basically all things writing. And, of course, all things SCARY!
Visit our SPOOKY MIDDLE GRADE AUTHORS website to sign up!
If you’re an upper middle grade reader with a need for mystery and magic, you’ll enjoy Josh Roberts new spooky story:
Click on the link above to read my interview with Josh for Spooky MG Authors latest blog. Josh’s story is a fresh take on the Salem witches, set in modern times. The characters are current, as are their issues dealing with middle school friendships and budding romantic relationships. Josh kept the story moving at a quick pace with the problems–and the mysteries–mounting. In fact, he’s at work right now on a sequel to the story–which means the troubles aren’t over yet.
To find more information on Josh Roberts, check out these links:
If you’d like to hear the first chapter of my book FROM THE GRAVE, click on the link. This recording was originally made for World Read Aloud Day 2019.
Perhaps during these days of quarantine, my monster adventures might appeal to a middle grade reader (ages 9-12) in your house.
Monster is as monster does in the odd world of Uggarland. However, Frank and his misfit classmates don’t fit the monster mode. They must prove they’re more than monster enough in this “fun and fast-paced” award-winning novel with just enough creepyness–and more than enough adventure–to prove a page-turning pleasure.
I had the opportunity to devour an Advanced Reader’s Copy of this Viking publication. The sequel to THE CHARMED CHILDREN OF ROOKSKILL CASTLE combines historical fiction and adventure in a sure-to-please middle grade novel. Most of the original characters are back, along with a new lead character, Isaac–a Jewish boy from Prague. He’s trying to escape both the Nazis and the evil spirits chasing him. I love how the author, Janet Fox, combines elements of fantasy and history to create an intriguing, fast-paced plot for young readers. I certainly learned a few interesting facts and would gladly join the charmed crew for the next time-travel trip. And it does appear there might be more artifact hunter adventures ahead. I certainly hope so!
I was lucky to have an opportunity to read a preview copy from one of my Spooky MG author friends, Lindsay Currie. Her ghostly book, SCRITCH SCRATCH will release in September of this year. Truly, I found myself listening for strange sounds and shying away from dark closets while gobbling up this creepy read. My review is below.
In SCRITCH SCRATCH (Sept. 2020 from Sourcebooks), Lindsay Currie has created a creepy, keep-the-lights-on, MG adventure with haunted seventh grader, Claire. She’s a scientific sort—not one prone to spectral encounters. So how can she explain the unexplainable events she’s suddenly encountering? She uses her scientific principles–along with some much-appreciated help–to reach a conclusion. The story explores family and friendship, in addition to a sprinkling of Chicago’s spooky history. I kept turning the pages to uncover the ghostly mystery, while keeping an ear open for any strange bumps in the night. I rooted for Claire to discover the secrets of true friends too. The story is both entertaining and uplifting, providing a thought-provoking and satisfying read. You’ll certainly want to add this book to your personal, school, or classroom library.
Yesterday I visited another class for a Google Hangout session with two other Spooky Middle Grade Authors (Kim Ventrella and Josh Allen). As usual, the students had lots of great questions for us. The one I’d like to address is another common question we are often asked:
WHAT DO YOU DO WHEN YOU GET STUCK WRITING?
Here are my three suggestions for avoiding that dilemma.
1. Before I start writing a story, I do some initial planning. I like to get to know the characters who will be in the story, especially the main character and important supporting characters. I usually explore who they are. I’ll write notes, maybe fill out worksheets. I’ll brainstorm on not only their physical aspects but their wants, their problems, their likes and dislikes, their friends, their family. All of the things that make them unique. All of the ways the characters in my story are connected to each other as well.
2. Before I start the story, I also write a very simple outline of the plot. I break down the story into chapters, and I’ll write a one to two word sentence telling the big element that should happen in that chapter (or scene). If you’re writing a short story, you might need to only break your story into the beginning, middle, and end.
For me, this outline is an important part in avoiding “getting stuck” because I know where the story is headed. Now that doesn’t mean the story always sticks to that initial plot—very likely it will change (often dramatically) from what I originally envisioned. But I still won’t be stuck. I will simply see that I need to go in a different direction or create additional scenes to make the story stronger.
3. When I do become perplexed with where the story should go or more likely I’ve been asked to revise something, then I step back. I like to go on a walk or do something mundane, like washing the dishes, so I can let my mind wander. I ask myself questions about the characters, their motivations. I ask myself logical questions about what could or could not happen in the world I’ve created and how it impacts the characters. I simply keep asking questions and exploring possibilities until I come up with a solution. It’s much like solving a mystery.
The most important thing is DON’T GIVE UP!
Don’t give up on your story. Don’t give up on your writing. Don’t let yourself stay stuck!
Today I joined three of my Spooky Middle Grade Authors for another class Skype visit. The students asked a number of different questions, but it seems like no matter where our Skypes take place, there are always some questions asked over and over again.
I’ll answer one of the most popular questions we are asked–
Q: How long does it take you to write a book?
A: Usually, months—oftentimes years for me. I will start a book and give myself a daily schedule, which I am generally good at keeping. I’ll often have my writers’ group take a look at my progress and provide feedback, which often requires editing. This first stage can take a few months–after doing initial plotting and research (which can also take a few months). Then generally, if there isn’t a deadline involved, I’ll put the story away at least for a month or more. I give it time to simmer. I give my brain a break from that story and work on something else. So when I come back to the previous story, I can see it with much fresher eyes. I can appreciate the good parts and hopefully see where the story still struggles. Then I’ll dive back in for rewrites. And often I’ll seek further help from others as well. I want to polish it as best as I can before sending it out to editors.
While this timeline probably sounds much too long for middle grade readers–and writers, I hope it doesn’t intimidate them. My main point with this question is to show that we writers don’t get it right the first time. We write and rewrite a number of times. I hope this will empower students. They don’t have to write their story perfectly the first time.
Come back soon for another question and answer!