Clare lives in an alley shack in Chicago's poorest ward in 1894. She sews buttons and hems for Mr. Jones, the sweat boss, and only has a few pennies left to buy bread. Her mother has gone away. Clare doesn't know where or when she's coming back, but she is about to stumble upon a mystery that could change her life forever. It all begins with Simmie, her ragged doll, and a taffy tin full of secrets.
On January 27, 2012—the day of my first meeting with my faculty advisor for this ebook project—Hull House closed its doors. After 123 years of continuously serving the poor in Chicago, one of the country’s oldest and most revered social services organization went bankrupt. As I listened to the news on the car radio, I was shocked.
The announcement was sudden. In less than a week, 300 employees and 60,000 recipients of child care, job training, housing assistance, and other services fell victim to huge government budget cuts that are happening all across this country. Private sources could not be found to make up the difference. In a blink, Chicago and the nation lost an esteemed institution that was founded in 1889 in one of Chicago’s poorest wards by the first American woman to win the Nobel Peace Prize, Jane Addams, and her friend, Ellen Gates Starr.
The timing stunned me. This was the day I had been so eager for—the beginning of my independent study project to get this book out into the world. If my ebook had been ready before this unfortunate disaster struck, I could have sold it for the benefit of Hull House, but the book was not done. It was only a vision in my mind.
The manuscript had been ready since 2006. It had been circulating through publishing houses with no success, despite a stint with an editor at one publisher who took a record 3 years to decide to turn it down. I felt defeated. This was a special book, completely outside the genre I usually write (fantasy). It was special because its story sprung from the efforts of Sherrie Schulke, someone who was no longer here to finish her work. I never had the opportunity to meet Sherrie, but after her death from cancer, her family offered me her research on Jane Addams in hopes I could use it in some way to finish what Sherrie had to leave undone. I did my best to honor her gentle and compassionate spirit in the only way I could—by writing a children’s book. When I couldn’t get it published, I felt I let down not only Sherrie, but my dear friends, Dale and Marianne. Sadly, I put the project aside.
In August 2009, I made a year-long commitment to national service as an AmeriCorps VISTA (Volunteers In Service to America). The VISTA program was envisioned by President John F. Kennedy as a national service corps “to help provide urgently needed services in urban and rural poverty areas.” President Lyndon Johnson realized Kennedy’s dream by launching VISTA in 1964 as part of his War on Poverty. The VISTA slogan is to “Fight Poverty with Passion,” but though I loved my VISTA year and definitely served with passion, I did not directly fight poverty.
Instead, I became the guardian of a nonprofit website that promoted volunteering in my state. I addressed poverty indirectly by doing my best to inspire others to serve their neighbors who need assistance. I didn’t come to the mission with all the skills required to be successful. My technology and graphic design skills were rudimentary. I had never been on Facebook or set up a blog. I didn’t even know how to text on my cell phone, and my grasp of the Adobe software that could be used to enhance the website and the blog was nonexistent.
So I taught myself what I could and took a few summer week-long intensive classes in Photoshop and Flash that were paid for by my nonprofit. When my service year was over in August 2010, I signed up for more classes using the AmeriCorps VISTA education award given to those who finish their volunteer commitment. I was soon tackling digital graphic projects—from video to computer illustration to animation—that I would have never imagined doing before. And with these newfound skills, the dream of publishing this ebook was born. I hoped it would allow me to finally fulfill my VISTA commitment to alleviate poverty by sharing this story about the poor in America in 1894.
So this is why I can’t charge for this ebook. How could I with my commitment to VISTA and to Sherrie Shulke’s family? And now with the collapse of Hull House, how could I try to profit from it? Instead, I hope that the extraordinary vision of Jane Addams won’t be lost and will carry on partly through this simple story as it is shared digitally.
These are all strong reasons for distributing this book for free, but there is also one more person to mention. When I was eleven, the same age as Clare (the heroine of the story), I sat on the Arlington Bridge across the Potomac River with my father and my sister, watching President Kennedy’s horse-drawn casket roll by. I was fascinated by Black Jack, the riderless horse that followed the casket, and took in the impressive somberness of the motorcade. I paid attention because my Dad felt it was important for me to be there even if I couldn’t understand the complete scope of the national situation.
My Dad understood that part of growing up was grappling with experiences like the assassination of a President that might be challenging for a child to comprehend but were important. He believed that children have always been far more up to the task than many adults think. Because of him, I was a child who had an interest in the world around me and had begun to think critically about the complex issues life would bring my way. In my own way, I am trying to pass my father’s wisdom on. I believe children need to come into contact with important stories—by sitting on a bridge to watch a funeral procession or reading a book—and that this story is one of the important ones.
I never had to face the extreme poverty that Clare or the other alley children in this book face, but my father did. He grew up fatherless and poor during the Great Depression, and at 12 was out on the streets selling newspapers to help stave off hunger just like the character Tim in this book. Despite such difficult circumstances, my father grew up to be a good man and a great dad, because along the way he learned what Jane Addams knew and passes on to Clare in this book: how to see the best in people.
At the very least, my dad saw the best in me, even when I drove him crazy, which I often did. He could be angry with me without shaming me. With him, I never had to doubt my self-worth. Plenty of others taught me the opposite lesson, and I’ve spent a lifetime unraveling the tangle, but my father’s gift always stayed with me, a solid anchor amidst my confusion. If I can plant that idea in just one child’s mind, how to see the best in themselves and others, the effort to create this book will be worth it.
And so this book is pure gift. It has to be. Whatever good this book does in the world, and I think it can do some good, it will happen faster, more completely because it can be easily shared.