A coffee with Shelley Peterson

As it turns out, when Tim asked me to take a look at Shelley Peterson’s books for my next blog, it wasn’t the first time I had seen them. In fact, when I was living in the United States as a child I received Shelley’s second book, Abby Malone, in the mail from my grandfather as a birthday gift. For years all my grandfather would get me for birthdays and Christmases were “horse books.” I was a girl, and I rode horses, so why wouldn’t I like horse books? Well, I did like them, and I liked Abby Malone especially. When I met up with Shelley Peterson just before Valentine’s Day last month we had a lovely chat all about her books and just why young women find them so appealing.

I had made plans to meet up with Shelley Peterson at a cafe near her midtown home on the morning of February 13th. Working from home—and in a basement office—it is rare that I experience the bright morning sunlight. So when I stepped off the subway at Rosedale and felt the warm winter sun on my face I was quite pleased. I made my way to the little cafe at the corner of Yonge and Roxborough with a smile on my face.

I found a seat in the cafe and by the time Shelley arrived I had already set up my pens and notebooks and laid Dancer and Abby Malone on the table in front of me. This had been our arranged signal—having never met Shelley before, it was the only way I could think of that we would recognize each other.

The books worked and when Shelley walked in she recognized her novels right away.

“Well that was easy!” she joked as we introduced ourselves.

She sat down and ordered a latte and we began a pleasant conversation about eBooks and the future of publishing. But when we started to veer into the topic of her own writing, I quickly picked up my pen, poised, ready to start recording her insights. Noticing my stance she indulged me, politely asking what questions I had for her.

“All right,” I began, glancing at my notes. “Why did you write Dancer and Abby Malone? What about these stories appealed to you?”

Shelley jumped right in. She started to explain her familiarity with the business of telling stories from her many years of acting. “I was trained as an actress,” she said. “I did film and television and lots of theatre.” So before Shelley even started writing she already knew all about character development, dialogue, and story arc. But more than that, Shelley knew that the best stories are the ones you let your readers discover on their own.

“It’s called the art of concealing art,” she said, smiling.

And there’s a lot in her first novel Dancer for readers to discover. There’s a storyline there for someone who has recently lost a father, a storyline for someone who has been bullied at school, a storyline for someone who’s not, as Shelley put it, “the popular rich kid.” So from the beginning Shelley’s objective hadn’t been to write one particular story, but rather to create a wealth of stories within a story that young readers could relate to.

Writing for young adults seemed the obvious choice for Shelley. At the time, her children were all around that age, so teenage crises were on her mind. But more than that, Shelley said that she loved writing for kids.

“It’s my favourite age,” she said, explaining that at this age children have a refreshing sincerity and an eagerness to learn about life. “They’re like sponges! The books I read at that age made a greater impression on me than any I’ve read since.”

Though, Dancer is a rather special novel in that it began as a project intended for one young adult in particular: Shelley’s daughter.

When Shelley’s daughter was in grade seven she was having a very hard time at school. Unlike all the other girls, she wasn’t interested in lipstick or shopping. She preferred to spend her time at the barn or going on rides with her mother.

“She was a barn rat,” Shelley said. In one year, she went from being one of the most popular girls in school to having almost no friends at all.

Shelley started writing Dancer for her daughter. She told me that she hadn’t known what else she could do to help. In the end, writing Dancer didn’t solve any problems, Shelley said, but it did create a strong connection between the two women.

“It was the story of a girl who was an outsider at school,” Shelley said, and her daughter loved it. She started wanting to read what her mother had written every day as soon as she got home from school.

Shelley laughed, saying that her daughter’s appetite for Mousie’s new adventures kept her writing pretty actively. It taught her discipline, and motivated her to write a little bit every day.

When Shelley was finished the story, it was over five hundred pages long. And it was all over the place, she said. It took her six months of dedicated editing to get it pared down to something with a proper arc. Shelley explained that she had to get rid of parts, add bits, and resurrect bad guys so they could be dealt with in proper fashion at the end of the story, rather than dying anticlimactically somewhere in the middle.

But Shelley acknowledged that it was really her mother who encouraged her to get the book published. Without her mother, she admitted, it would likely have stayed hidden in her desk drawer.

“So you wrote the story for your daughter, and your mother made sure you got it published?” I asked, enjoying the symmetry.

Shelley smiled. “Yes.”

But Shelley’s story about her daughter had got me thinking. Both Shelley’s protagonists have it pretty tough. When Dancer begins Hilary James (“Mousie” to those close to her) has recently become uncool in the eyes of her classmates. The most popular girl in school has signalled Mousie out as a loser, and her confidence takes a pretty serious hit. Shelley’s second heroine has it even worse. Abby Malone is subject to scandalous gossip in the community once her father is wrongfully imprisoned for embezzlement. At school her classmates and teachers all start to push her around. I was beginning to notice a trend.

“Both of your protagonists aren’t cool,” I reflected. “Why did you do that?”

Shelley confessed that when she was a kid she never really felt cool, either. “Even though I might have been considered one of the cool kids,” she said, “I never felt cool. I don’t think anyone feels cool,” she added.

So it’s a position that people can relate to, she explained. What’s more, the position allowed Shelley to explore important issues. Growing up is tough, but it’s even tougher if you have to do it on your own. Removing their external support systems forced Mousie and Abby to develop confidence in themselves, rather than simply relying on the safety of their peers.

Detecting a lesson I asked, “So what do you want readers to take away from your books?”

“I hope they come out of it with a little more confidence in themselves, a little more backbone, and a little more willingness to take things on,” Shelley said. Then she added, “And a greater understanding of animals.”

This seemed a little incongruous to me. What do animals have to do with self-confidence?

“We are all animals,” she explained. “Humans are animals.”

Often people forget that. Dealing with animals requires the same patience and understanding as dealing with people—and in some cases even more.

Mousie and Abby get that. They both have an intuition when it comes to animals, and they treat all creatures with respect. When animals act out they try to detect the root of the problem, rather than just blaming the animals for bad behaviour.

“People almost always misunderstand animals, they mis-communicate, and then they punish the animal,” Shelley said.

At this I was reminded of the passage in Abby Malone when the mischievous Lucy decides to take her horse Moonie out for a ride, even though she has been warned not to. Lucy isn’t a good rider and she hasn’t yet learned how to communicate with Moonie with her legs and reins. Once Lucy mounts the little quarter horse, Moonie gets scared and takes off, galloping at full tilt with the little girl hanging on for dear life.

When Abby comes upon the little girl and her horse, Lucy is screaming and Moonie is beside herself with fear.

“I hate this stupid horse!” the little girl yells. “It’s all her fault!” (Abby Malone 91)

“Mousie and Abby see the world differently than other people,” I reflected, remembering how Abby tries to explain the horse’s behaviour to Lucy. Moonie is just as scared as her rider, and that’s why she runs off the way she does. But Lucy doesn’t listen, and neither does the horse’s owner when he finds out the next day. The horse is dangerous, they decide.

“While others only see what’s on the surface, Mousie and Abby are able to see through bad behaviour to the root of the problem. And they have the patience and understanding to help.” I said.

Shelley agreed. “They’re not operating on only the human level. They’re able to see the more important qualities in people through their understanding of animals.”

In fact, the human world can be very hurtful for the girls, Shelley explains. With so much judgement, the human world often leaves Mousie and Abby misunderstood and cast aside. The animal world, a place of patience and understanding, plays a big part in the development of their self esteem.

After all, it’s an amazing thing to ride a horse.

“Horses allow us to use our brains,” Shelley said, “but they let us use their bodies. They give us their strength.”

Even though I rode for years as a child, I had never thought of it that way before. When you ride a horse the horse gives itself over to you. You gain their grace, their elegance, and their formidable power. For a young girl, friendless and alone, I could see why riding a horse would be such an incredible confidence boost.

It seemed to me as we spoke that a connection was being drawn between the heroines and their horses. Dancer is a problem horse that no one can ride until Mousie comes along. Moonie, similarly, won’t let anyone on her back until Abby starts training her. Dancer and Moonie are misunderstood by humans, much in the same way that Mousie and Abby are misunderstood by their teachers and peers. The girls are willing to spend time with the horses to find the source of the problem, and it occurred to me that Mousie and Abby deserved the same chance.

Shelley and I both agreed that communication is key to all interactions, both horsey and human. The worst fights are always the ones in which a misunderstanding has taken place. So there is perhaps something we can all learn from Hilary James and Abby Malone.

Many thanks to Shelley for being so kind as to speak with me. Keep your eyes peeled for the next instalment of my review series. Until then … Porcupette out!

Shelley Peterson, Dancer, Abby Malone

Shelley Peterson divides her time between writing in the city and caring for her horses up in Caledon. Photo courtesy of Shelley Peterson.

Peterson, Shelley. Abby Malone. Erin, Ontario: The Porcupine’s Quill, 1999.

Peterson, Shelley. Dancer. Erin, Ontario: The Porcupine’s Quill, 1996.

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The Porcupine's Quill would like to acknowledge the support of the Ontario Arts Council and the Canada Council for the Arts for our publishing program. The financial support of the Government of Canada through the Canada Book Fund (CBF) is also gratefully acknowledged.