December 1, 2003

The Yellow River Girl

By Eric Rangus

When a good title sticks in a writer’s head, it just doesn’t go away.

As Kimberly Campbell wrote her first work of fiction, she knew exactly what she wanted to call her Southern coming-of-age story: The Yellow River Girl.

The literary tone of the phrase was undeniable. Campbell loved it. And when she told some writer friends about it, they loved it, too. Then they said, "Change it."

It was actually too literary. It sounds like a Faulkner short story. Very serious. So Campbell came up with something else, and as far as her intended audience of pre-teen girls is concerned, she probably came up with an even better one for her 154-page manuscript.

Sixth Grade Is Sour Grapes.

"I’ve read that writers should pull from what they know," said Campbell, who works in the Office of the University Secretary, and whose vibrant, eager persona is anything but sour. "Middle school really sticks out in my mind. The story is half truth and half fantasy."

She first tried writing for pre-schoolers but felt constrained by some of the genre’s restrictions (such as wrapping up a story in 100 words or less). So instead Campbell focused on middle-grade fiction—literature for children ages 8–12 (roughly fifth to seventh grade).

Sour Grapes’ heroine and storyteller is 11-year-old Harriet Eugenia Pinckerton, who is struggling though an eventful summer between fifth and sixth grade. In many ways she is a spunky, defiant-but-not-yet-confident personification of an 11-year-old Kimberly Edwina Willis. Harriet is a tomboyish only child (like the author) living in Leyton, Ga. (a made-up sister city of Lawrenceville, ancestral home of the author). Harriet loves building forts, beating up boys and playing in the nearby Yellow River until her clothes are muddy, disheveled shreds. (All were activities of the young Kimberly—The Yellow River Girl long before she dreamed up Harriet.)

Kind of gawky, Harriet is taller than everyone else in her class (Kimberly, now 5-feet-10-inches, can relate), which poses a problem when she realizes that boys have uses other than as punching bags (Kimberly, married to husband Jim and mother to 3-year-old Anna Marie, has obviously improved in this area).

Cursed with, among other things, braces (Kimberly, check) and a really bad haircut that occurs midway through the story (Kimberly, check, although she has improved in this area as well), Harriet is faced with all sorts of challenges that pop up among the roller rinks and church getaways and cheerleading tryouts of adolescence, many, but not all, autobiographical.

"I wanted it to be a mix of humor and struggles for Harriet that lots of kids can relate to," Campbell said. And Campbell accomplishes this with a style that captures Harriet’s personality (her excitement, her fears, her vernacular) without going over the top or talking down to her audience.

While it is a children’s book, Sour Grapes is not just kid’s stuff. One of its main characters has to battle multiple sclerosis, and Harriet’s parents fight frequently; dealing with their deteriorating relationship is one of her most difficult challenges.

These themes, like many others in the book, are ones its author experienced first-hand. For instance, while growing up, Campbell saw a friend of a friend—a beauty pageant winner—struck down with MS. Visions of the girl using a walker to get around Gwinnett Place Mall stuck with Campbell.

"I don’t want to overwhelm a child," Campbell said. "I want the book to be child-friendly, but I want to touch their hearts. I want someone to read, have a little sadness but in the end see the triumph in how Harriet and her friends deal with things."

Campbell is busy shopping the manuscript to publishers, and while she has not yet been successful (she has received a couple of polite rejections) she has a lot more ammunition than the average first-time writer. Sour Grapes won first place in the children’s literature category at the 28th annual Sandhills Writers Conference in Augusta, and the manuscript earned an Honorable Mention in the 72nd annual Writer’s Digest writing competition (which drew more than 18,000 entrants, more than 1,600 of them in children’s literature).

Her website also won a Best Website award from Writer’s Digest.

Campbell is part of an online critique group of up-and-coming writers that meets for a Tuesday night chat every week. It’s this group, "Story Board," that helped her with the title, and its members stretch from San Diego to New York. Campbell said she is grateful for the invaluable input she receives from her peers.

"When you are reading other people’s work, you see what touches you," Campbell said. "You can take some of that and emulate it into what you’re trying to get across, whether it’s humor or sadness or dialogue. You can’t plagiarize, but you can take something and put a different spin on it.

"It’s hard to make negative comments, even in an online critique group," she continued. "But sometimes you’re not pulled toward somebody’s work. I try to gently tell how it might be improved. I hate that part because writing is so personal."

If her online activities weren’t enough evidence, Campbell is serious about improving her craft. She currently is enrolled in a creative writing class, and if she passes it along with two more, she will be admitted to Emory as a degree-seeking student.

"It’s wonderful," Campbell said about her recharged academic career, which previously had consisted of some classes at Georgia Perimeter College. "It adds a whole new layer to my life. It’s a delicate balance between my daughter, my husband traveling and trustee work. If one feather hits my pile, things go a little berserk."

Campbell came to Emory in September 2001. She had been working for several years as regional assistant of a sales company, but wanted a workplace with a more family-friendly atmosphere. She serves as the assistant to the Board of Trustees, and her primary duties range from planning the board’s meetings to managing websites to archiving the University’s minutes.

She is a jack-of-all-trades to the trustees. For instance, if one needs a parking sticker for a trip to campus, Campbell is the person who gets it done.

"When I first started, I really didn’t know what I was getting myself into," Campbell said. "I didn’t realize what bigwigs these trustees are. Sometimes it’s mind boggling to have all of them in one room."

While her work with the trustees keeps Campbell very busy, she continues to find time for writing, both in class and outside it. With her first manuscript finished (actually, Campbell continues to add minor tweaks), Campbell has already started a second one, and this work is more of a stretch. Another middle-grade novel, it’s a story of a pre-teen boy sent to live with his uncle in Coweta County. Like Sour Grapes, the story is told in first person, meaning that Campbell must write from an unfamiliar male perspective. Also like Sour Grapes, the new novel has an unmistakable Southern tone. The forementioned father figure is named Uncle Fritter.

One thing that’s not unfamiliar is that the book comes with a can’t-miss title: The Old Coot and My Jaunt to Georgia.