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A Boy's Life : Ruth Kelley found a penchant for a young male point of view as she wrote 'Jake's Journal,' about a youngster in a rural canyon.

August 26, 1994|REBECCA HOWARD | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES; Rebecca Howard writes regularly for The Times

CANYON COUNTRY — Writer Ruth Kelley welcomes the quiet at night within her home's thick walls, built with railroad ties from the 1920s. This is the time when ideas come to her.

"I do a good bit of my noodling in bed," she said. "I'm in bed, and I become the boy, sort of, and I get phrases that I'm going to use, then the other things fit around it."

One of those boys is Jake, the main character of Kelley's recently published novel for children 8 to 12, "Jake's Journal." It is the story of the adventures of Jake and his little brother, who come to live for the summer with their father and stepmother.

The book, set in the rural canyon in Canyon Country where Kelley lives, depicts not only today's mixed families, but is full of an appreciation of nature's lessons, from snake bites to mountain lions to an earthquake, even, which Kelley based on the San Fernando Valley's 1971 temblor. All this is told through the entries in a journal that Jake keeps. Many of Jake's and the other characters' experiences come from Kelley's observations of her children and their friends.

Those who know Kelley and her environment have recognized them in the book. "When my sister read it, she said, 'I felt like I was visiting you,' " Kelley said.

When Kelley was raising her son and daughter in the rustic canyon 30 years ago, she never thought the experience would someday be material for children's literature.

In fact, Kelley never considered herself a writer at all, until she felt compelled to write a novel about the ills of the unemployment office where she worked for 14 years. Although it was never published, "it got me started writing," she said. "I had a big urge to get it out of my system, all the kinds of things that go on in an unemployment office or welfare office or a Social Security office."

While trying to learn how to market her novel in a class conducted through a local adult school, Kelley began working on a children's story. Encouraged by her classmates, she submitted the story to Ranger Rick children's magazine. The story, "Cleopatra's Revenge," about the effects of flood on a canyon, was not only published in the magazine, but was named best short story for children published in 1985 by the International Reading Assn.

"It's about this canyon, the natural things that happen to it, and the things that seem bad have a good side to them," she said.

"When you grow up in the country, you have to learn to take the bad with the good," Kelley began the story. "Things happen, natural things, that you don't like at all. Usually, though, something good happens that helps balance things out."

Despite recognition for her children's story, it took more than 30 submissions, beginning in 1986, before "Jake's Journal" found a publisher and went to print this year. In the editing process, Kelley found herself revising and revising the book, at the request of editors, from its original form of letters written by the main character.

"By the time I got through with it, I just didn't like it at all," Kelley said. "So I went back to the letters and just made it a journal."

The idea of having the book written in letter or journal form was to give authenticity to Jake's voice, Kelley said. Many boys go on to nonfiction or science fiction by the time they become good readers because many fiction stories are not realistic from a boy's point of view, she added.

"That's really what I was aiming at. I remember asking my husband if he thought it would be all right if I wrote this in the form of letters because I want this to seem like a real kid," she said. "I want boys to read it. A woman who does my copying sent the book to her grandson in Ojai. He told her it was the best book he'd read in a long time. Something like that just pleases me no end. I got to him."

Another reason for writing the book in journal style was Kelley's way of inspiring children to keep journals of their own.

"Many elementary schools are encouraging journals," she said. "It's a great catharsis for kids. To get it written down, you get it out of your system."

"Jake's Journal," published by Worthington Press, is available through schoolbook ordering programs and in area bookstores, such as One for the Books in Newhall. The book was used in class sessions at Castaic Elementary, where Kelley spoke to fourth-graders. She has received correspondence from students as far away as Rochester, N.Y., thanking Kelley for a great book.

Kelley said she was pleased at the publisher's price for the book--$2.99--which makes it affordable, thus more accessible.

"How many kids--or parents--can go in a store and spend $15 or $20 on a book for a kid that a kid night not like?" she said. "No matter what happens, the kid is going to outgrow it. It's not like an adult who is going to buy a novel and pass it around to all the friends and even read it again. I'm very happy to take a small advance if they'll sell it inexpensively."

Kelley has many other writing projects. She has written poetry and adult short stories and is working on historical novels about her canyon, as well as one about World War II. Every two weeks, she meets with a writers group, as she has for the last eight years.

"I strongly suggest writers participating in a critique group," she said. "It's been nice because we can see the progress we've all made."

Kelley's next children's book will be an extension of her first. "Boomer's Journal" will focus on another boy character and deal with alcoholism and abuse.

"It has a message that there is help," Kelley said. "If I can get that across without being preachy, it'll be worth it."

Boomer is a character composite of children Kelley has known, and she hopes to reach her audience by speaking through him.

"I know I have a strong boy's voice. I don't know where it came from," Kelley said. "I guess I just have an empathy with the kids who are around here."

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