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Stories by Flashlight
(and other ways to find out who you are)
It's bed time.Their father was a metallurgical engineer. He followed the work, so when Kathleen was 11, the family packed up and made the more than 500-mile move to the Mountain State.
That familiar refrain sets the end to the day for most kids. Protests are answered with a sterner version. Teeth get brushed. Lights go out. Those youngsters who were so awake ten minutes earlier are already dreaming of the next day’s adventures. It’s been that way forever.
For three little girls in the sixties, that nightly call from the hallway didn’t meet with protest. Teeth got brushed. Lights went out. Ten minutes later, when the house grew dark, a new light clicked on. And in that glowing canopy of bed covers, those St. Louis girls read their way through adventures most kids could never dream of. One of those girls was Charleston-based young adult author Kathleen M. Jacobs. When she and her sisters would dig into their books, they were transported to faraway places to meet characters you’d never find in real life, let alone in Missouri. They brought their own characters to life, too. And when her little sister wrote a story called “Joey, the Grape,” Kathleen knew it was all over from there.
She knew she just had to write.
It wasn’t the easiest transition, but it allowed the young Kathleen to discover the power of place. She also got in touch with the natural world around her.
“My mother missed her family and the Midwest so very much. And while she tried so very hard to hide that from her children, we were aware of it,” Kathleen remembers. “And yet, the hills and the valleys and the creeks and the wooded area outside our home beckoned. And most times it waited patiently for us to embrace its treasures.”
And they did. Kathleen grew to love the mountains and valleys of her new home. The girls attended local schools and spent their free time exploring the world around them and the world of literature. Kathleen learned how to collect stories, whether from the pages of books or from the tales folks tell on the front porch after dinner.
When it came time to go to college, Kathleen enrolled at WVU in Morgantown. After a few semesters, the homesick young woman transferred to then West Virginia Tech in Montgomery.
“I received an A.S.degree in legal secretarial science and began a very fruitful career working in Charleston and in Montgomery for some well-respected and highly esteemed attorneys who opened doors for me to not only assist them in the office but accompany them to trial,” she said.
Her roots continued to grow.
“As time moved on and my family moved along with it with my father’s transfers, I remained. And time gifted so very much that I hadn’t yet enjoyed in a place that has so very much defined me – and continues to do so,” she said.
After years in the legal field, she was ready to expand her horizons. She enrolled in the History and Government program at Tech and studied under the guidance of the late Dr. Otis K. Rice, one of West Virginia’s leading historians, and Ron Alexander, who wrote the literal book on the institution’s history.
“The program was so incredibly, intellectually stimulating. I perhaps remember most the sense of community. Everyone was involved,” she said. “Excellence was always impressed upon each of us – to succeed, to exceed even our own very high expectations.”
During that period, Kathleen landed a Frasure-Singleton Internship and the prestigious Judith A. Herndon Fellowship, where she was assigned to a legislator for the entire legislative session.
She kept up the momentum of her education and earned her master’s degree in humanistic studies at WVU, then went into teaching at the high school level.
The levee breaks
Kathleen told herself it was just an envelope.
It was just an envelope, but it set her heart to beating and she swore she could hear it echo in that high post office lobby. Inside was a letter – a letter to her, no less – written by the same hand that penned one of the nation’s most cherished works. It was a note to Kathleen from Harper Lee.
On that September day in Charleston in 1995, Kathleen carefully opened the letter and read words of encouragement that would linger in her mind for decades: “If you want to write, WRITE.”
As a new teacher at Charleston Catholic High School, Kathleen had written the To Kill a Mockingbird author a few months back when she found out she’d be teaching a senior creative writing course. She asked Lee for advice to share with her students.
“If you want to write, WRITE,” she read again. “Writing is a craft you can only master by doing. Don’t ‘fall in love’ with what you write to the extent that you cannot edit it. You must be to a great degree objective about your work.”
Nearly a quarter-century later, that note rests framed in Kathleen’s office, and she’s used that advice every day since. She spent her days putting her students to work capturing their thoughts in the written word. She taught them to get their stories out into the world and then build them up. She taught them that the practice is in the doing and they shouldn’t agonize over putting out a masterpiece in one sitting. In short, she taught them how to be writers, even if they didn’t plan to make a career of it.
She spent her evenings practicing the same, putting her ideas and stories down in journals, short stories and op-eds for newspapers like The Charleston Gazette.
“It was and still remains my way of attempting to make sense of the world around me. I can’t imagine not writing. It’s what I do. It’s what I’ve always done,” she said. “And I suppose that it will be something that I’ll always turn to, in order to bring some order to not only my world but to the world around me.”
Then, after 50 years of places and people and unforgettable moments churning in her mind and memory, it happened.
In 2016 she made the leap. Kathleen’s first novel, Honeysuckle Holiday, was published.
The novel centers on Lucy, a twelve year-old growing up in the south in the 1960s. When Lucy’s parents go through a divorce, the women in the family must come to terms with leaving their previous life of privilege. To help out with the children, Lucy’s mother hires Lila, a black caretaker.
Lucy and her sister Caroline discover that their father is involved with the Ku Klux Klan and that he has committed something atrocious. As the story unfolds, the young girls are forced to take a hard look at the world around them – seeing things for what they are; at racism, both conscious and otherwise; and at the true nature of acceptance.
“Honeysuckle Holiday, I believe, was always resting under the surface and then moving about above it. It was a story that I carried with me in my pocket for years,” she said. “Growing up in the south in the ’60s became the basis for this story. The racial tensions were so very real and so very frightening. I had never forgotten certain instances that I had witnessed, and I knew that I wanted to include them in the story.”
Honeysuckle Holiday was the start of a prolific writing career. In the three years since, Kathleen has published a middle grade novel, a children’s book, a chapbook and another young adult novel. She also served as a writer in-residence at Lafayette Flats in Fayetteville, West Virginia.
In her work Marble Town, a young boy named Cole loses his mother to a devastating car accident. As Cole winds his way through life after tragedy, he grapples with friendships, heartache and grief. Then he finds a mysterious clue in the historic cemetery his mother tended, setting him on a journey of discovery and healing.
Kathleen followed up Marble Town with Collected Curiosities: Poems, Essays, & Opinions. The work included a selection of Kathleen’s past writings and her experiences in Appalachia.
She moved into children’s literature next, publishing her award-winning book Please Close It! The story follows young Timmy Timberjamb, who refuses to close drawers and doors. That is, until mom comes up with a clever plan. Please Close It! was met with acclaim in the category. It landed Kathleen a Gold Mom’s Choice Award, a Literary Classics Award and honorable mention at the Paris, New York and San Francisco Book Festivals.
She credits the success of PleaseClose It! to her husband John.
“For as long as I can remember, my husband – consciously or not – refuses to close drawers or doors,” she said. “One day, I sat down to write a snippet about this annoyance and found myself very quickly and very surprisingly writing a story.”
After the success of her dive into early reader books, Kathleen branched out again with her piece The Puppeteer of Objects: A Lyrical Poem. The work includes poetic examinations of how everyday objects – a train, for instance– see us.
Kathleen’s latest work, Betsy Blossom Brown, is a young adult novel that follows the story of the titular character as she explores Appalachia. Betsy and her mother move from the Carolinas to Fayetteville, West Virginia. The young girl grapples with her father’s criminal activities in a story that Kathleen says, “brings the family to an understanding of the part of human frailty that is part of each of us.”
As with all her work, there are kernels of real life in her story. It was a skill she had picked up listening to those stories of the adults around her. It was a skill she had also learned from her professors at Tech who taught her how to pay attention to the history around us.
When asked if she uses real people, she laughs. “I’m sure you’ve heard the saying by A. D. Posey: ‘Be careful what you say and do around a writer; your words and actions may become material,” she said.
“I, indeed, knew these characters and yet I knew that I had to fictionalize them – I wanted to fictionalize them. I had too much respect for each one not to fictionalize them. And so, over time, these characters changed as much as I did.”
That change occurred with Betsy, too. The main character is diagnosed with autism spectrum disorder, which for Kathleen, was a fact about Betsy she didn’t realize until she was already fleshing the character out.
“The young son of a very dear friend of mine was diagnosed on the spectrum early on in my writing of Betsy Blossom Brown. I knew she looked at the world in a very different way. And as I learned more, I began to see Betsy as someone with that challenge,” she said.
“She doesn't want it to define her; instead, she wants to learn how to live with it,” Kathleen added. “I think that each of us wants to be aware of our weaknesses, without letting them define us.”
This is what drives Kathleen’s work. It’s a look at the struggles young people face as they find themselves in a turbulent world. And it’s the unflinching search for truth and a desire for honest introspection that young people can foster.
“I had always been drawn to coming-of-age stories. The young adult market is one that today isn’t afraid to explore the challenges that invite themselves into their lives. My generation, on the other hand, was not like that. We kept most of what challenged us to ourselves. I am attracted to the idea that it is ok –even more than ok – to talk about what bothers us, and today’s young readers almost demand that we face it and try to figure it out the best we can.”
To know who you are
As with those young people in her stories who have uncovered deep and inarguable aspects of who they are, so too has Kathleen. She’s a writer. And it’s in her at the very core to capture these stories and share them with the world.
At the time of this writing, she’s in the process of having published her seventh book, Sophie & the Bookmobile. Geared towards early chapter readers, the book tells the story of a young girl who moves from New York City to a small town in West Virginia. Sophie is a figure in the city’s public library. In her new home, however, there’s no such thing. Then she discovers the bookmobile.
It’s stories like these that Kathleen likes to tell – stories that in some ways mirror her own life. There’s a young person who faces a major transition in their environment. It’s a move. Or the loss of a parent. Or the fall of a once heroic figure. But there’s always a glimmer of hope. There’s the notion that by taking the time to explore our own thoughts and feelings and by putting in the effort to really, truly understand the people in our lives, we can find out who we are. We can find peace with ourselves and an understanding of others. We can find contentment.
Kathleen is content.
“It is still very surreal. I look at my bookcase and smile and shake my head at the incredulity of it all.”
After a lifetime of collecting stories and teaching young people how to do the same, she smiles as she reads that note from Lee again. How many times has she read these words? She lost count years ago. How many stories are in her yet that she will WRITE? Probably just as many. And on the bookcase she talks about, held up by acrylic dog bookends, is a row of stories for young people. These are Kathleen’s stories. And she hopes that, just maybe, under a canopy of covers in some dark house in St. Louis – or in Beckley or Pittsburgh or France – they also belong to a young person who is discovering who they are, too.
Cover art courtesy Jan-Carol Publishing, Inc.