There’s a slip of paper, pulled from a fortune cookie, taped to Cynthia Lord’s computer monitor. It says, “Someday your talents will be recognized and suitably rewarded.”
Happily, those encouraging words turned out to be prescient ones. “I put the fortune on my computer monitor as a joke,” Lord says in an interview from her home in Maine. “But I sold my first novel, Rules, two weeks later.”
That fortune was still around when Rules was named a 2007 Newbery Honor Book, and it remains with the author today. When it’s time to discard a computer monitor, “I peel [the fortune] off and apply it to the new one!”
The seeming magic of superstition doesn’t just figure into Lord’s life; it’s a central element of her heartwarming second novel, Touch Blue. The layered story is narrated by 11-year-old Tess Brooks, a smart, earnest girl who loves her island home and is determined to keep things they way they’ve always been, whether through wishing, working or some combination thereof.
Tess’ beloved island is off the coast of Maine, a place where lobster fishing is a common occupation and kids of all ages learn together in a single schoolhouse. Tess’ mother is in danger of losing her teaching job, and the community, its school: The state is threatening to close it down because of low enrollment. If the island doesn’t get more students, its residents will have to move to the mainland and leave behind their homes, livelihoods and special way of life.
Their solution? Take in foster children in an effort to save the school and do good at the same time. Although it might seem like a wild idea, “a little school in Maine in the 1960s did that to save their school,” Lord says. And she knows what it’s like to worry about such things, having taught at a Maine island school in her pre-author days. “My books always have personal experiences in them,” she says, adding that her commute from the mainland “was very romantic . . . except for December through March.”
In Touch Blue, Tess’ new foster brother arrives on a boat (in nice weather, fortunately), and she’s very excited to meet him, not least because she’s read books about foster children, like The Great Gilly Hopkins and Bud, Not Buddy. At first, she’s disappointed by 13-year-old Aaron’s reticence, not to mention his skepticism of her neighbors’ interest in knowing everyone’s business. But over time, despite run-ins with a bully and somewhat stressful preparations for a talent show, Tess learns she can’t control everything, and Aaron grows to like being around people who care enough to meddle.
Under Lord’s writerly hand, those realizations bring their own kind of comfort, the sort that even age-old superstitions cannot provide. “As a kid, you think you’re not in control of the things you care about. Superstitions are one way that people deal with that,” Lord says.
To that end, there are superstitious sayings at the start of every chapter in Touch Blue (finding them all, Lord said, “took a lot of research!”). The book’s title is drawn from one such saying—“Touch blue and your wish will come true”—and, in keeping with the book’s real-life feel, Lord notes that “lobster fishermen are often very superstitious.”
Like the fishermen—and the characters in Touch Blue—Lord loves the ocean. “I can even smell it from my front yard. It’s always so different. . . . Sometimes it’s blue, or gray or green. You never know what you’ll see.”
Her love for the water began in her childhood in New Hampshire, when she lived near a lake. It was part of everyday life, whether swimming or ice skating. “I was a voracious reader,” she adds. “I loved to lay down on the wharf and read all afternoon.”
Her next book will be set in New Hampshire, in “those beautiful mountains” around her childhood home. But first, she’ll be spending more time on the islands of Maine: Lord says she does some 40 school visits a year, and for Touch Blue she’ll go to schools like the one in the book.
Surely, thanks to what she learned writing Touch Blue—not to mention the fortune she has taped to her computer—Lord will keep in mind the superstition from chapter three: “Start your journey with your right foot and good luck will walk with you.”