What do runaway slaves and the Erie Canal have to do with mournful ghosts and annoyed adolescents? To find out, you’d have to read There’s a Dead Person Following My Sister Around by Vivian Vande Velde, who attends St. John the Evangelist Church in Greece.
Dead Person is written as a first-person narrative told by an 11-year-old boy whose sister is being haunted in their Rochester home by the ghosts of a runaway slave and her daughter. The book details how the boy and his siblings and cousin deal with the haunting, all the while learning a little history about the abolitionist movement as well as the role of the Erie Canal in the Underground Railroad. The story makes several references to Rochester people and places, both past and present, and even weaves in a bit of Catholicism as the characters use Lourdes holy water to fend off the ghosts.
Vande Velde is an award-winning author of more than 20 books, primarily for middle-school students and teens, mostly science fiction and fantasy, including Never Trust a Dead Man and Troll Teacher. She recently donated several copies of Dead Person to Corpus Christi School at Blessed Sacrament Parish in Rochester. Sixth-graders at the school read the book and discussed it with her in early May. Vande Velde also spoke with students about the art of writing. Corpus Christi teacher Chris Lynch helped to arrange Vande Velde’s visit.
One of the students, Micheal Katayi, said he enjoyed Dead Person, noting that he liked one passage in which the ghost of a 5-year-old runaway slave takes possession of a girl the same age. Another student, Brittany Mincey, said the book “was fun and interesting because of how the characters were acting.”
When asked about her writing career, Vande Velde told the children that as a girl she developed a love for creating stories because she didn’t like playing games with rules. Instead, she said, she preferred to make up stories about her dolls doing things like going to dances. She also explained how her editors have helped her shape her stories; how her cover illustrations are created through consultations with artists; and how writing for publication takes steady work.
“What I’ve found, then, is by writing every day, I can usually write a book in six months,” she told the students.
She also noted that it was important for the students to not give up on their dreams. To illustrate her point, she related that J. K. Rowling, author of the Harry Potter series, was once told by someone in the book business, “Who in the world is going to be interested in a kid going off to wizard school?”
Michael said Vande Velde’s presentation was “excellent.”
“It was interesting the way she described herself,” he said.
Indeed, Vande Velde noted that no one looking at her as a young girl would have necessarily pegged her to become a successful writer. To buttress her point, she showed the students a photograph of herself as a young girl wearing horn-rimmed glasses.
“If this child can grow up to be a productive member of society, there’s hope for everybody,” she said with a smile.