Creating ‘Noni’s Little Problem’

The first glimmer of an idea for my book came from Diane Dorney, the founder of what was then called “The Kentlands Town Crier.” The early articles I submitted seemed awkward; I wasn’t comfortable about my writing.

I hadn’t yet found what the author Willa Cather called her “home pasture.” In her case it was her girlhood in Nebraska. My home pasture turned out to be my childhood in southwestern Missouri. When I turned in a story about my great aunts and the Sunday-after-church and dinner visits to our relatives in Greene County, Dorney told me, “Now this is what you should be writing about.” She also named my column, “Nora’s Corner.”

After a series of “Half-A-Hill” stories, set in the restaurant/nightclub my parents owned, had run in the “Crier/Courier,” I discovered that “Nora’s Corner” had a following. When a clerk at a local supermarket learned that I was the author of this column, she warmly confided to me, “I always read your stories. They’re just like ‘The Waltons,’” (a former TV series). The comparison was a bit far out, but I was gratified and encouraged.

Seemingly irrelevant at first to my ideas for a book, Michele Obama’s concern about childhood obesity and her planting a vegetable garden on the White House grounds began to resonate with me. I had suffered bullying as an overweight child. About three years ago I began to imagine two stories as one novel. The setting would be my Missouri home pasture during the mid-1930s, and the tale about a child who shared the same hurt feelings I had experienced.

Before I began writing “Noni’s Little Problem,” I did some research on the literary market for children’s books, targeted for middle grades readers, about childhood obesity and bullying. I also checked a number of bookstores in this area and in other states. I couldn’t find any juvenile novels for young readers with the theme of bullying because a child is deemed “fat.” These two issues are still hot topics in schools and today’s society. The need was immediate, so I got to work.

The old adage, “You write best about the people and places you know best,” again proved itself. Frequently I make up excuses not to sit down at my computer to write, but it was deeply satisfying to begin creating Noni, her best friend Martha, and her cousins, who were actually my nephew, who was almost two years older than I, and my two younger nieces. (My complicated familial relationships might have been too confusing to young readers.)

With literary license I could also use real names for fictitious people and vice versa. I could pull dramatic episodes from my memory and turn them into only partly true, embellished incidents that almost magically turned into chapters. I could give personality traits to family members who never possessed them. I created a fictitious character named Marvin, who represented all those children in my childhood who had called me names. I needed Marvin for dramatic tension. The real and the imaginary intertwined in Noni’s world the way they do in most authors’ novels.

I had no ending in mind when I began. I wasn’t sure I could sustain enough drama to maintain the interest of today’s social media-surrounded third or fourth grade reader. For purposes of marketability, I switched one later chapter to become the second chapter. At a certain point I realized I had reached the climax and needed to figure out the resolution to Noni’s problem in a believable way, and then end the book in only a few more chapters. Timing was a new factor for me because I’d previously only been used to the pace of a short story or a newspaper article.

Choosing an artist for the cover and interior line drawing illustrations was an exciting experience. Because my book was set in 1935, it helped the artist for me to send her examples of children’s period winter and summer clothes, a family portrait of the four of us “cousins,” a photograph of Half-A-Hill restaurant; pictures of boys’ hairstyles of the 1930s, and such obsolete articles of clothing as galoshes, the leather aviator caps that were popular with boys at that time, and wool ski pants. After much patience on the artist’s part her completed illustrations, especially the cover, were just what I’d hoped they would be.

“Noni’s Little Problem” could never have been completed without the invaluable help of my editor. Her wise suggestions greatly improved my original manuscript. Her computer expertise kept the communication with my publisher moving smoothly through the production process.

I hope readers will enjoy Noni’s story and its pre-World War II, Missouri setting. More importantly, I hope my book will speak to all children who share Noni’s problem and offer them sympathy, understanding and encouragement.

“Noni’s Little Problem” is published by CreateSpace, a subsidiary of Amazon, and is available on Amazon.

Town Courier Columnist Publishes Book

By Betty Hafner

Longtime Town Courier columnist Nora Caplan recently published a book titled, ”Noni’s Little Problem.” Caplan’s middle-grades book is a delightful story of a spunky, 9-year-old girl who finds that kindness is the best revenge against her nemesis, a classmate who cruelly taunts her about her weight. Caplan’s story is richly set in small-town Missouri during the Depression. The details she includes — movie star scrapbooks, sleeping porches, homemade dresses, penny candy — will bring that period of history alive for young readers as they eagerly read to see how Noni deals with her problem.

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