By Cheryl Kingston
Meet sisters Melissa Clark and Jennifer Clark-Caloyeras. They grew up in the Brentwood foothills almost a decade apart. How serendipitous that each released a novel last month. It’s no surprise that both weave a fictional tale with a strong ethical component. Their mutual target audience is the Young Adult genre, also known as teens and tweens coming-of-age stories.
Both women were predisposed to the literary talents and artistry of their prolific parents. Ron, a comedy writer is also an established playwright recognized for his work with Mel Brooks. His TV credits range from The Smother’s Brothers Comedy Hour to the Danny Kay Show. And the popular Norman, Is That You was a smash hit. Meanwhile, Sheila, the consummate read-aholic and former teacher, guided her daughters with the wisdom that they could achieve their goals.
Words. Words. Words. The banter and comedic spirit percolated in the Clark household. Pre electronic media, the girls imagined themselves DJ hosts; they also wrote plays, songs, fortunes for cookies, and played the piano. And the whole family enjoyed showcasing their collective talents or “family vocation” – entertaining.
Each author has a unique style and method. Jennifer’s Strays incubated her love of animals, especially dogs and specifically rescue animals like those she depicts at the novel’s Ruff Rehabilitation. Currently Jennifer writes a dog column for The Los Feliz Ledger.
She’s published a first novel, Urban Falcon and contributed to poetry journals and anthologies. As a child she spent summers at a farm camp where she developed an abiding interest in preserving our environment and promoting a healthy lifestyle.
Other relevant themes explored include dialog about secrecy, privacy, independence, forgiveness, and trust. Jennifer remarks that we can be more compassionate to one another if we know something about our history. Education, she believes is not knowledge to memorize, but rather an opportunity to experience the fluidity of life, an adventure.
Protagonist Iris (eye) Moody – yes, take it literally, is having a terrible day. An ogre of a teacher sets the saga in motion by confiscating her personal journal. As penance, Iris is assigned community service for the summer quarter. Her job is to train rescue dogs so they can be reintegrated in a loving home. Here she’s assigned to Roman, the three legged menacing pit bull. How their story unfolds restores hope for the human condition.
Other characters are vehicles that enable Iris to stop the aggressive hammering, an attempt to chisel away at her pain. Melissa likens her prose to an unfolding and layered musical composition. Her craft is deliberate and her fine strokes precise. The interplay with fairytales Little Red Riding Hood and Cinderella, adds dimension to her characters, and depth to her story.
In contrast, Melissa’s Bear Witness threads though the psyche at laser like speed. Haunting images, nightmares, and generalized fears consume Paige whose best friend Robin was found dead two weeks after an intruder abducted her at the teen’s slumber party. The storyline is based on an actual event and recollects that despicable crime, the brutal slaying of Polly Klass.
Clark acknowledges that kidnapping element was also a personal catharsis that rid her of an “an obsessive and unsubstantiated fear.” The relationship between the fictional Paige and Erin Bellen, explores sisterhood, its rivalries, jealousies, and ultimately its uniqueness and bond.
And here Clark applies Joni Mitchell’s “Circle Game”: “We can’t return, we can only look behind from where we came, and go round and round in the circle game.” Perhaps the girls’ stories are told backwards to understand and give perspective to their bickering and loving moments.
How does one deal with trauma and manage stress in the face of the unthinkable? Factor in the uncertainty, puzzlement and awkwardness of adolescence….the first kiss, dance, boy/girl friend, period, sleepover? Mini bears may be the security blanket and the restored faith that rekindles “innocence and hope,” hence the title.
Melissa Clark authored two previous novels Swimming Upstream, Slowly and Imperfect. Her Braceface, an animated television program, aired on the ABC Family Series. And her essay “Rachael Ray Saved My Life” published in an anthology The Cassoulet Saved Our Marriage. Additionally, Melissa teaches college level creative writing. She also considers herself “an unabashed karaoke freak” and sings old school hip-hop and keeps a dream log.