WINCHESTER — Poor Ariel. What’s a middle schooler to do when her older sister gloats about being a princess for the Shenandoah Apple Blossom Festival? Overlooked by her status-seeking mother and dreamy father, Ariel devises a crazy plan to shake up the Festival’s Grand Feature Parade and steal her sister’s thunder with the help of a stray German shepherd she finds one stormy day at Sky Meadows State Park.
Ariel is the central character in “Storm Dog,” author Laura Elliott’s latest novel for young teens set in Fauquier, Loudoun, Clarke and Frederick counties.
“I spent so much time out in Ariel’s world,” said Elliott, in a phone interview from her Fairfax County home. “I’ve known and loved the area my whole life.”
As a child, Elliott’s family traveled from their Fairfax home to pick apples in the local orchards. Teenage Elliott marched several times in the Apple Blossom Festival’s Grand Feature Parade as a flute player in her high school marching band. As a mother, she spent countless hours attending her daughter’s horse shows in Upperville and Middleburg. Nowadays, Sky Meadows State Park is “where I go to find my center and my peace,” she said.
Elliott will offer an online book discussion at 6 p.m. Saturday through Winchester Book Gallery. She’ll do a reading, talk about her inspiration for “Storm Dog” and then open the discussion for questions about her body of work. To participate, link to https://www.facebook.com/events/763922994496642
Elliott has written several historical novels for children and teens including the award-winning “Under a War-Torn Sky,” the story of young American fighter pilot shot down in occupied France during World War II. More recently, she rode the wave of the Alexander Hamilton craze with “Hamilton and Peggy,” a creative retelling of the Founding Father’s friendship with his wife’s younger sister.
“Storm Dog” is Elliott’s first modern-day story — and a more personal one. Not only does the novel give her a chance to write about rescue dogs (Elliott has had several) and the beauty of springtime in the northern Shenandoah Valley, but with bookish, creative Ariel as a protagonist Elliott can include lots of references to two of her favorite pastimes.
“It is written for kids who love to read and who love music,” said Elliott, who worked for 20 years as a senior reporter for Washingtonian magazine, where she specialized in articles on mental health and family issues.
Elliott said she got the idea for “Storm Dog” several years ago while flipping through National Geographic magazines as she recovered from cancer treatment.
“I stumbled onto this amazing essay on the power of dance,” Elliott said. “And there was one photograph of a person dancing — pirouetting — with a gorgeous golden retriever.”
Dog dancing, or canine musical freestyle as its called by those serious about the sport, made an interesting premise for a book, but Elliott knew she needed to breathe life into the idea with vivid characters facing big problems.
“Storm Dog” touches on such topics as the war in Afghanistan, post-traumatic stress disorder and the special needs of military service dogs. It also explores prejudice, tolerance and the friction created by the various socioeconomic standings of those of us who live along the corridor that stretches from the Washington, D.C., suburbs to the West Virginia border.
“I so enjoy writing for young people. They are still wonderfully idealistic,” said Elliott, the mother of two adult children. “They don’t want to be talked down to or coddled. They know if they try hard enough — and keep their moral compass — they can make a difference.”
To write her historical novels, Elliott must do exhaustive research. But for “Storm Dog” she needed to go beyond reading primary sources and interviewing experts; she needed to get her Bloom on. A few years ago, Elliott attended several Shenandoah Apple Blossom Festival events before she started to write “Storm Dog.”
“I had also taken my kids to the Festival when they were little,” she said.
For Apple Blossom fans mourning the cancellation of the Grand Feature Parade for the second year, scenes in “Storm Dog” will bring back the energy of the crowd, the smell of the popcorn and the flood of pink and green on absolutely everything.
Elliott said her time spent marching in the Grand Feature Parade was a real highlight of her high school years — a sentiment articulated by Ariel in “Storm Dog”: “If you’ve never seen a parade live — felt the street throb and your heart pulse in rhythm with a passing band’s drum cadence, been swept up in all the colors and confetti and celebration — promise yourself to do it before you die. Better yet, march in one.”