SOUTH ORANGE / MAPLEWOOD, NJ — Time is elusive. We have more time than anything else in our lives, and yet we never truly have enough. We lack the time to do the things we want to do, the things we plan to do and the things we ought to do. The difficulty of time is a unifying factor in South Orange resident Melanie Conklin’s first novel, “Counting Thyme.”
Released by Penguin Young Readers last week, “Counting Thyme” focuses on middle-schooler Thyme Owens, whose whole life is uprooted as her family tries to cope with her younger brother’s recent cancer diagnosis, moving from California to New York City to participate in a drug trial. Thyme is forced to leave behind her home and her best friend to begin anew in a strange city.
The family and family friends deal with the thought of having too little time with people they love, not having the time to be the people they hope to be and, most importantly, realizing that time is segmented into past, present and future, with the present being the only thing that can be controlled.
“I was drawn to writing about that phase of life in middle school when the world is opening up to you,” Conklin told the News-Record in an April 15 phone interview.
Conklin, a mother of two children herself, wanted to focus on family dynamics following a personal disaster in a book accessible to young readers. But, rather than focus Val, Thyme’s sick little brother, Conklin wanted to bring the reader adjacent to the illness, showing its effects on the whole family, especially siblings who may feel overshadowed and ignored in the face of great catastrophe.
“What if you were not that child (with cancer), but the sibling of a child facing that difficult situation?” Conklin asked. “It’s a really different position.”
For Conklin, writing about the struggles of a family dealing with a child with neuroblastoma was a no-brainer.
According to Conklin, she first learned about neuroblastoma approximately eight years ago when she was living in Park Slope in New York and the son of a neighborhood family was diagnosed with the cancer. She followed their trials and learned more about this insidious pediatric cancer.
Neuroblastoma is a cancer of the nervous system, the most common cancer to afflict children under age 2; the illness has a five-year survival rate of just 30 percent.
Conklin knew she needed to do something, so she became involved with Cookies for Kids Cancer, a nonprofit that uses bake sales to raise money for pediatric cancer research.
Conklin, who had worked at bakery in Chicago, began to participate in and host bake sales. In fact, at each stop of her book tour, there will be a bake sale benefiting Cookies for Kids Cancer. At Conklin’s stop at Words Bookstore tonight, April 21, at 6 p.m., Jefferson Elementary School fifth-graders will be hosting a bake sale. Be sure to come to Words at 179 Maplewood Ave. to support Conklin and hear her speak, as well as buy some tasty treats.
Gretchen Witt, trustee and vice president of Cookies for Kids Cancer, stressed to the News-Record how vital it is to support childhood cancer research financially.
“Pediatric cancer is the No. 1 disease killer of kids in the United States,” Witt told the News-Record in an April 18 phone interview. “That is unacceptable.”
According to Witt, all 12 major groups of pediatric cancers combined recently received less than 4 percent of the National Cancer Institutes $4.2 billion donation budget.
“Kids are our future; kids are the future leaders of our world,” Witt said. “Why wouldn’t we invest in the future?”
This is why Witt is excited to partner with Conklin, in whom she has found a kindred spirit, simply describing herself and Conklin as “two moms who care.”
This is Cookies for Kids Cancer’s first time partnering with an author, but Witt is excited about what this could mean for the future.
“What Melanie has does is come up with new ways to get people involved,” Witt said, branding Conklin as a “good cookie.”
As for “Counting Thyme,” Witt finds the book insightful, beautiful and, most importantly, accessible.
“She finds a way to connect with people and bridge the gap in a way that wouldn’t frighten people,” Witt said, explaining that often just saying the word “cancer” can cause people to close themselves off.
Part of that accessibility is due to Conklin’s writing style, which is rich yet approachable. And, for South Orange and Maplewood readers, her writing style will likely feel like home. Although the novel is set in New York City, Conklin, a six-year resident of South Orange, admitted that the village has certainly affected her writing style.
“The school and the way kids interact and their diversity reflects the community I’m in now,” Conklin said.
She added that a lot of her “research” for the novel came from listening to children play on local playgrounds. “Kids are interested in big issues of the world,” she said. “They know what is going on and they talk about it.”
Many other elements of Conklin’s novel, which is marketed for audiences ages 10 and older — though adults will certainly be captivated by Thyme’s journey as well, came to the author piecemeal.
For instance, the characters’ names were decided after Conklin had already written the first few chapters. Thyme’s older sister is named Coriander and her younger brother Valerian, while their mother is Rosemary. Once Conklin decided to name her protagonist Thyme, the title came easily.
“The title is a play on words and helped me structure the book,” she said. “Often the title changes a lot during the writing process, but ‘Counting Thyme’ was something that never changed. The title was set early.”
Aside from the obvious connotations of the title, there is another level. Rather than do chores for a cash allowance or for praise, Thyme is a busy bee throughout the book doing laundry and washing dishes to acquire time slips; to reward Thyme for helping out and being a good sport, her parents give her “time.” She will receive, say, a half hour of time for helping with dinner, which she can later redeem as a free half hour to herself for either “me time” or to go out with friends.
Throughout much of the novel, Thyme is obsessively collecting time slips, hoping that if she is able to collect enough time, her parents will allow her to return home to California to see her best friend.
Although Conklin never used time slips with her own children, the idea was extrapolated from her own life.
“During summer vacation my kids would want to use electronic devices when they were not at the Baird camp, so I made them earn it,” Conklin said. “We used fake $1 from some game.
“My older son wanted an old phone and had to save $70 of pretend money,” Conklin added, saying that after two and a half months, her son did indeed collect enough chits to get that phone.
Although the main focus of the book is on the Owens children, elderly neighbor Mr. Lipinsky is one of the most compelling — and Conklin’s favorite.
“For me, while of course I love every character, I laugh every time I read Mr. Lipinsky’s parts,” she said.
Mr. Lipinsky, the codger living downstairs, is rude and aggravating, yet can also be kind and helpful. As the Owens face their own familial struggles, Mr. Lipinsky is facing his own trials — the trials of growing older and feeling lonely.
“Mr. Lipinsky reminds me of my grandfather,” Conklin said. “He could be gruff, but he was also very kind.
“Mr. Lipinsky is a side character that gives you a lot in the end.”
While the book is intended to help pre-teens and teenagers navigating a difficult time in their lives, its message certainly applies to everyone, including the Mr. Lipinskys of the world.
“Thyme is struggling to find her place and how she counts in the greater picture and in her family,” Conklin said. “But everyone counts and everyone brings something unique to the world. Everyone contributes something.”
When not promoting her first novel or spending time with her family, Conklin is working on her second novel, which also stars middle-schoolers dealing with issues of friends and families. She will be at Words Bookstore tonight — along with a bake sale — so be sure to stop by.
“It’s going to be a fun event at Words,” Conklin said. “I’m really happy to support my local bookstore.”