It's bed time.
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.
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
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
“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
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
“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
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.