One of the joys of writing this column is I never know where I’ll encounter an author who snags my reader’s attention like a bear trap. In this case, it was only ten miles from my house.
For most travelers, Forreston, IL, is a town they passed through on their way to somewhere else. For educator, equine enthusiast, animal shelter volunteer, author, illustrator, wife, mother, and grandmother Sheila Kelly Welch, the rolling hills of rural Forreston is home, the place she conjures stories for young adults of all ages. Sheila truly is an artist, both in literature and on canvas. Her visual interpretations of other authors’ work have appeared in children’s magazines such as Highlights for Children
and books, including “Something in the Air” by Molly Jones and Leone Castell Anderson’s widely read historical novels “Sean’s War” and “Sean’s Quest.”
Her visual interpretations of other authors’ work have appeared in children’s books such as “Something in the Air” by Molly Jones and Leone Castell Anderson’s widely read historical novels “Sean’s War” and “Sean’s Quest.” She has also illustrated her own stories for Cricket, Spider, Ladybug, and Cicada
But it is Sheila’s young adult stories that have captivated imaginations around the world. "The Holding-On Night," published in Cricket
, won the International Reading Association's Short Story Award. “Little Prince Know-It-All” and “A Horse for All Seasons” have become treasured additions to many home libraries. Now Sheila has released “Waiting to Forget.”
Though written for young adults, this tale of a brother and sister seeking release from the painful memories of a foster care system that raised them, and the clouds of uncertainty that veil their future, will have many an adult reaching for the tissue box. Sometimes two sentences can sum up an entire story. For me, those sentences are: “He was told to wait. That’s what he’s been doing.” The story is told through TJ’s viewpoint as he tries to protect his sister who makes origami cranes and then throws them out windows. TJ has been waiting his entire life, both for freedom from the past and for his sister to heal. “We live in a pretend house” 12year-old TJ says as he tries in his own way to explain how he has constructed a world in which he and his sister can safely exist from the life neither asked for, deserves, or will ever fully comprehend. “Waiting to Forget” ends with an understanding of how some things just can’t be understood, but that a seed of hope and promise can always be found if you know where to look.http://www.scbwi-illinois.org/Welch
Q) What or who was the inspiration behind “Waiting to Forget”?
A) Although I write fiction, all my books and stories contain bits of truth, which are extracted from reality and reshaped by my imagination. I wrote my first book, “Don’t Call Me Marda,” shortly after we’d adopted two children, bringing the head count to seven. My mother-in-law did not react well to the news. I found myself thinking about other children whom she would have been even less pleased to have join our family. My imagination created a little girl named Wendy, inspired by a child I’d taught in one of my special education classes. While our pre-existing family was in the midst of the struggle to accept the newcomers, it seemed logical for me to write a story from the perspective of a child whose parents decided to adopt a little sister who was developmentally delayed. To her credit, my mother-in-law loved the book.
After that first novel, I revisited the subject of adoption in several short stories, but most of my writing concerned other topics. As the years went by, I learned how some of our kids had lived before we ever met them. They had existed in a world that was fragmented, chaotic, even frightening. My husband and I sometimes wondered if we could help these kids. Sometimes we felt as though we were failing as parents.
One of the hardest parts for us was realizing that several of our children resented us and did not appreciate that we were trying to give them a better life. But then I thought about how traumatic adoption must have been from their perspective. Imagine moving to a new home, school, and neighborhood when you were eight or nine or eleven years old. Then add onto that a new set of parents who expected you to act like their son or daughter when you had only met them a few months before.
No matter how difficult a child’s former life had been, leaving it behind could feel like waking up to a bad dream. I decided I needed to tell another adoption story. This one would explore the conflicting emotions of an older child who had been adopted. So I imagined T.J., and he was waiting to tell me the truth.
Q) For you, what is it about storytelling that fuels your passion?
A) My mother hated to write, but she told stories about her childhood that I loved and still remember. When I had rheumatic fever in second grade, my doctor prescribed nearly six months of convalescence. Listening to my mother’s tales, drawing, and reading were my means of escaping the confinement of my bedroom. When I was about nine, my older sister (now a poet and a psychologist) wrote a whole book for me. Stories, I realized, could entertain, inform, and illicit powerful emotions.
Storytellers and authors of fiction are a bit like magicians, conjuring tales rather than rabbits. They toss their stories out into the world, and hope an audience will catch them and love them.
When my mother was getting quite senile with Alzheimer’s, I visited her and read aloud a fantasy novel, “Land of Another Sun,” that I had written. She listened intently, laughing and nodding at appropriate places as I read. When I finished the last chapter, and the children in my story – along with an ornery cat – were returned to Earth via a magic bubble, my mother smiled and said sincerely, “I remember. That really happened.”
My first impulse was to correct her. But then I thought about the little girl character like my daughter who loved gum, the cat who said exactly what our cranky cat would have said if she could have talked, and the tan-skinned boy who loved to read just like our son. Yet I knew my mother was actually talking about a magic bubble. It was a bubble I’d created, but to her it was real, and that made her happy. So I said, “Maybe it did happen.” And I felt as if we’d shared a moment of magic. It’s those moments that keep me writing.
Q) My curious side: How did you and your family end up living outside of Forreston?
A) I grew up in the rolling hills near Boyertown, Pennsylvania, with my brother and sister plus cats, dogs, goats, and horses. So living here is not that different from living there. But in between my husband and I had quite a few homes: an historical house in Germantown, Pennsylvania (we were caretakers); three country places in Minnesota (we bought and sold a farm and my husband worked as a dairy herdsman); graduate student housing at University of Wisconsin (my husband was getting his Master’s in Library Science); an apartment and a house in Rockford, IL.
In the fall of 1986, we moved to this old farmhouse surrounded by cornfields. The house we owned in Rockford would have been too small for our five children with the addition of the two boys who joined our family a few months later. At the time, we also had three dogs, five cats, and five horses. Needless to say, we needed more room.
Q) While in your thirties you had to have a heart valve replaced. How did that change your outlook on life?
A) After the surgery, I could actually hear the artificial valve ticking and still can, fortunately. I’d always intended to write stories for children but had been so busy that I’d relegated that goal to a distant “someday.” Listening to the tick, tick of my heart made me quite aware of the passage of time, and I realized that I needed to get to work. My first short story was published two years after the operation.
Having such an amazing, lifesaving procedure has made me very grateful to be alive. My outlook has remained focused on what I feel are the most important aspects of my life, including my family, pets, volunteer work, as well as writing and illustrating. Several years ago, I was diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease. This neurological condition has forced me to cut back on many activities so that I have the energy to pursue creative work. I’m fortunate to have a very supportive husband who’s taken over most of the household tasks.
Q) You and your husband adopted school aged children. What led you down that loving path?
A) Shortly after getting married, we talked about having six children. But I knew that my heart had been damaged by rheumatic fever, and I probably wouldn’t be able to have that many. We agreed that adoption would be a good way to form a large family. At the time, I was teaching special education classes at an inner city school. One day, my students asked me if I planned to have children, and I replied, “Yes, six.”
The class of all girls was shocked. “Six? Why you want six kids? That just crazy!” But when I mentioned that my husband and I planned to adopt, they were all for it.
One girl raised her hand. It was Leila, a difficult thirteen-year-old, who caused more than her share of trouble at school. “Would you adopt me?” she asked. I didn’t think she meant it literally, so I told her that we weren’t ready to have a child yet and when we were, we’d get a baby.
Many years later, after we’d adopted two infants and had one biological child, I saw a picture of a brother and sister in a book that listed waiting children. I could almost hear Leila’s voice asking if I was willing to adopt her. When I showed the photo to my husband and asked if we should get them, he answered, “Sure. Why not?” And the adventure began . . .
Q) Any parting comments for your readers?
A) First I want to thank you, David, for asking very good questions that made me dig into my memories. I also want to mention how much I appreciate my family, friends, SCBWI-IL, and ABC Writers who’ve been so supportive and kind over many years. I extend a special thanks to Carole Dickerson, library director, and her staff at Freeport Public Library, and to Stephen Roxburgh, publisher and editor at namelos.
Many readers would like to be authors themselves. My advice is to write about what has meaning and importance to you. Toss your stories out to the audience and hope some people will love and appreciate what you write. And keep reading! Thanks!