June 2010

Valerie Hobbs

A grandchild’s special bond
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Twelve-year-old Lucy, the heroine of  Valerie Hobbs’ lyrical new novel for young readers, treasures her summer visits with Grams, an artist and “a hippie before hippies were invented.”

But this summer turns out to be different. For one thing, Lucy’s longed-for, precious time at the lake with her beloved grandmother is disrupted by a surprise visitor, one who’s not altogether welcome. And then there are the disturbing incidents: Grams forgetting the day of the week, a dish towel left too close to the burner, an ill-advised canoe trip in threatening weather.

As the days pass, Lucy wants to cling to the way things have always been. She doesn’t want Grams to change. Yet she can’t forget what her mother told her as she said goodbye: “This might be the last time, you know.”

The last summer. Lucy wants it to be the best.

The Last Best Days of Summer was inspired by a film on Alz-heimer’s disease, which prompted Hobbs to think about family members, like Lucy, who get left behind. This can be extremely painful for children, especially those being raised by their grandparents, or those who have close ties to a grandparent or relative.

Now a grandmother herself, Hobbs believes her own experience has helped her appreciate in a new way the special bond that can exist between grandparents and grandchildren. “I wanted to speak to that connection,” she says in an interview from her home in Santa Barbara, California.

In writing her latest novel, Hobbs also drew on her experiences with throwing pots, a skill Grams is teaching Lucy in their time together. “I did pottery for a couple of years. I got to the point where I could center a pot. It’s a really strange and profound feeling—a feeling of being centered on the Earth, and centered within yourself.”

The author of 12 novels for young readers and one for adults (Call It a Gift), Hobbs writes for both middle grade and young adult age groups. She says it’s really the story and characters that shape whether a book is for middle grade readers or an older audience.

“It really depends on what story hits me,” she notes. Though she adds with a laugh, “I think I got stuck at about age 14 so I can go either way.”

Hobbs, who likes to visit schools and talk with students, believes that writing can help young people find themselves. She works with young writers to enable them to recognize that their own lives and stories are important.

“I start out with a banner that reads, ‘Only You Can Tell Your Story.’ I want them to know that they have the power to write from their hearts and their experiences. To get those real stories out is important,” the author says.

Hobbs practices this in her own work. Her novels have sometimes drawn from her personal experiences, including the tragic death of a boyfriend when she was a teenager. But while she has found that writing some of her books has been challenging emotionally, others have turned out to be pure fun, especially her 2006 novel Sheep, about the adventures of a border collie.

Despite its bittersweet story, The Last Best Days of Summer is never dark. Instead, it seems infused with joy and an affirmation of family. Part of the reason may be that Hobbs, who lived in New Jersey before moving to California at the age of 15, has wonderful memories of her own summers as a golden, carefree time. “We were gone all day. We ran. We made forts. We only came home when we were hungry.”

Lucy’s summer with Grams may not be what she was expecting, but by the end it has been touched by love and a kind of magic. Lucy has come to feel that sense of being centered, in spite of the changes and emotions that envelop her.

“I hope kids get that,” says Hobbs, “that feeling of knowing who you are, and knowing ‘this is right.’ ”

And really, isn’t finding out who you are exactly what summer reading is all about?

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