This month is a tumultuous one for me. It’s the tenth anniversary of the publication of my first novel, Drums, Girls, & Dangerous Pie, which Scholastic has commemorated by publishing amazingly nice new editions of both Drums and its sequel, After Ever After. Here they are:
The new version of Drums features a ten-page essay I wrote about the girl for whom I wrote the book. I’ve told the basics of the story to literally hundreds of thousands of people. Her name is Emily; when I met her, she was an eighth grader, and I was her English teacher. She had a younger brother named Matthew, who was in treatment for cancer. I promised Emily’s mom I would find a book that Emily could read that might help her to talk about what she was going through as a cancer sibling. However, I couldn’t find any books about middle schoolers whose siblings had cancer, so I wrote one.
But there is much, much more to the tale, because after I wrote the book — in fact, twenty-one days before it was published — Emily’s brother, Matthew, died. The tenth anniversary of his death is this Saturday, May 10, 2014. The date weighs on me every year, but never more so than right now, amid this hoopla, when I have just written the new introduction. By all accounts, Matthew was an amazing boy, and know first-hand how wonderful Emily and her parents are. I have been trying for months to find a fitting way to pay tribute to them.
In the years since the book’s publication, I have met dozens of cancer patients and hundreds of family members; that basically comes with the territory. Right after I wrote the new introduction, one of my all-time favorite readers, a teen in the Chicago suburbs named Jack, sent me a catastrophically alarming Facebook message: his brain cancer was back.
I met Jack via email when he was eleven years old. He wrote to tell me that he’d read Drums and related, because he was a bald new kid in middle school. We wrote back and forth several times, and I eventually met him and several members of his family on two separate trips to Chicago. He even interviewed me for his school newspaper. A couple of years after that, I sent him some signed books and stickers for another cancer patient and her family. Then Jack’s cancer went into remission, he entered high school, and I lost touch with him.
Well, when I learned that his tumor had returned, I knew I was going to be in Chicagoland for some school visits, so I emailed his parents and asked what I could do to help. They said a visit would be appropriate. Long story short, Jack and I went to Starbucks. I had a great time. Jack is so very much like I was at his age: intensely curious and engaged; a passionate fan of baseball and the Beatles; a serious, constant writer.
This week, Jack’s first short play was produced at his high school, but Jack wasn’t there to see the premiere. He is in the intensive care unit with a chemotherapy-related infection.
There’s another kid named Jack in my professional life. I met Jack Skowronnek via email when he was ten. He had read Drums, and decided to start an organized head-shaving event to raise money for kids with cancer. In the first four years he has been doing this, Jack has raised over $100,000 for the cause. Here is the homepage of his fifth annual shave, which will take place in Chattanooga, Tennessee ON the tenth anniversary of the pub date of Drums: http://www.jackshaves.org.
Last year, I Skyped with Jack and the crowd while Jack got his head shaved. This year, I have found what I feel is an appropriate way to honor Emily, and Matthew, and both Jacks: I will be flying down to Chattanooga and getting my own head shaved. If my writing has been a source of joy or meaning in your life, or if you would like to help in the fight against childhood cancer, please feel free to click here to donate as a member of my team.
We all know too many kids like Emily, Matthew, and Chicago Jack. I am honored to be doing something concrete and visible to support childhood cancer patients and their families. Won’t you please join me?