Author blends love for classics and research in young adult novel

By: Victoria Mitchell | Royal Oak Review | Published March 23, 2015

 Gina Sultan, a former student of author Barbara J. Rebbeck, flew in from Boston to read an excerpt from the Royal Oak resident’s first novel, “NOLA Gals.” She attended Rebbeck’s March 7 book release party at the Mahany/Meininger Senior Community Center.

Gina Sultan, a former student of author Barbara J. Rebbeck, flew in from Boston to read an excerpt from the Royal Oak resident’s first novel, “NOLA Gals.” She attended Rebbeck’s March 7 book release party at the Mahany/Meininger Senior Community Center.

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ROYAL OAK — Resident Barbara J. Rebbeck’s first young adult novel involved more than placing pen to paper.

Rebbeck’s 30 years as an educator laid the foundation for her first young adult novel, “NOLA Gals,” which weaves together research, classic literary references, grammar lessons and characters she designed as relatable for today’s tweens and young adults.

The novel focuses on Essence LaFontaine and Grace Woodson, two strangers occupying the same space following Hurricane Katrina.

Utilizing historical research, Rebbeck shows how the girls begin the recovery process, including bigotry and prejudice a displaced girl from New Orleans finds when transplanted into a Houston home.

Rebbeck, 67, poses the question, “What would happen when the NOLA refugees of the storm entered the lives of the privileged?” She asks, “Would some try to help while others resort to racial discrimination similar to that of the ’40s and ’50s?”

Rebbeck melds her young characters together throughout the book while drawing parallels to the characters and racial issues found throughout Harper Lee’s “To Kill a Mockingbird.”

“That is how I see it — as a companion book to ‘To Kill a Mockingbird,’” she said, adding that she hopes the readers’ eyes will be opened to the themes of injustice and courage exemplified within both novels.

Rebbeck said the research portion of the novel was intensive.

“Really that is my favorite part,” she said. “I love doing research.”

The author said that once the research was complete, it took her about six months to write the book, taking her on many surprise journeys along the way.

“In the original concept when I started writing, I wasn’t going to have the two girls meet,” Rebbeck said. “They were going to be parallel stories, but I got about 50 pages in and I thought, ‘No, they have to meet because Essence needs help.’”

Rebbeck said that as she completed the writing process, her characters took on their own lives, telling the story for Rebbeck to write.

“I can tell a particular scene is good if I get chills while I’m writing it,” she said. “And there were several scenes in there that gave me chills.”

Rebbeck said the most daunting portion of the process was finding a publisher willing to embrace a book for young adults that wasn’t about vampires or wizards.

She eventually found a match with Neverland Publishing in Miami.

“We felt ‘NOLA Gals’ was a beautifully written novel with sentimental tones relating to the work of Harper Lee in ‘To Kill a Mockingbird.’ It was also very timely, as its release would coincide with the 10th anniversary of Hurricane Katrina,” said Donna Font, founder of Neverland Publishing. “Barbara is a very talented writer who we believed would truly connect with her readers, both young and old.” 

Reaching back to her role as an educator, Rebbeck is now promoting the book in local classrooms as a story and an English lesson. Rebbeck posted lesson plans on her website, available to all at no cost as a companion to her novel.

“She clearly knew what direction she wanted to take with her career as a novelist and with the promotion of her book,” Font said.

Rebbeck said she tried to vary the styles in the book so it would have everything from narrative to poetry to essay to speech to extended metaphors.

Rebbeck spent last week at Academy of the Sacred Heart in Bloomfield Hills reading “NOLA Gals” to a group of eighth-grade students and discussing metaphors in the book. She was scheduled to be a guest at Beverly Hills Academy this week.

“It’s great fun to be back with kids. Sacred Heart also bought copies for their high school girls who are headed for New Orleans for a service project this spring,” Rebbeck said.

Hurricane Katrina took place August 29, 2005.

Rebbeck said many in the Ninth Ward sought refuge in attics and on rooftops. Survivors of the deadly storm were stranded at the Superdome, lacking sufficient supplies, food and water. She said many lost their homes, pets and family members either through death or separation. All of the author’s research is sourced in her book.

Rebbeck lives in Royal Oak with her recently adopted cat, Gracie-Willow. She has degrees from Eastern Michigan University and Oakland University in French and English.

Rebbeck has published poetry, fiction and professional articles and is a past president of the Michigan Council of Teachers of English and a former director of the Oakland Writing Project.

Rebbeck’s father was born in London, England, and she loves to visit as much as possible, often attending the theater, which is another of her passions.

She has been passionate about theater since she was a little girl, when she would write and direct plays for the children on her block.

“NOLA Gals” is available at independent bookstores and online at amazon.com.

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