Rodgers Forge students serve as muse for local author

Author Frances Schoonmaker presents her new book, "The Black Alabaster Box," to students at Rodgers Forge Elementary School students on April 9.
Author Frances Schoonmaker presents her new book, "The Black Alabaster Box," to students at Rodgers Forge Elementary School students on April 9. (Courtesy Photo/Katie Schmidt.)

Rodgers Forge can proudly claim another published author as a resident! Frances Schoonmaker's debut novel, "The Black Alabaster Box," a story of adventure, hardship, and magic on the Santa Fe Trail, was released by Auctus Publishers last month. On April 9, Schoonmaker, appeared at Rodgers Forge Elementary School to speak to students, read passages from her book and discuss the writing process.

Schoonmaker had a completed draft of "The Black Alabaster Box" a few years ago, but had yet to secure a publisher before an encounter with her granddaughter Amelia's fifth-grade teacher at RFES last year. S.T.A.T teacher Katie Schmidt was discussing Amelia's keen sense of story at a parent-teacher conference when Schoonmaker's writing came up. Schmidt inquired about reading the manuscript aloud to her fifth-grade class. She reported the students' constructive criticism to Schoonmaker (known to the kids as "Ms. Fran"), who then drew upon that feedback and revamped parts of the book, and it was soon after picked up for publication.


Initially, when they were talking about whether or not to read the manuscript, Schoonmaker recalls, one boy in the class asked, "Who'd want to read a story about a random girl going west written by somebody's grandmother?" But before long, Amelia happily reported to her grandmother that "kids were using fifth-grade extortion tactics to get her to tell what happened next!" and she knew she was on to something good.

The book is part of a trilogy geared toward readers in upper elementary to middle school grades. The idea was inspired years ago, when Schoonmaker first heard that her uncle-in-law and his younger brother took the train from Kansas City to Sacramento every summer. Her imagination created a rich vision of what those journeys would entail. The writing process really came together when retirement from Teachers College allowed her more time to focus on the details. Schoonmaker developed the third book first, with the other two emerging as she delved into the characters' back stories to complete the trilogy.

In addition to keeping the storyline intact across the three books, Schoonmaker has put a great deal of attention into historical context and scholarship about the Great Westward Migration. Plus, the books are infused with exciting magical elements that kids adore.

Schoonmaker is thrilled by how kids are responding to "The Black Alabaster Box."

"I wanted a book that deals with the difficult realities of life without glorifying violence," she says. "I believe kids can handle it, and it is a healthier alternative than the 'kill the aliens before they kill us' motif that is currently so popular."

What's next? Schoonmaker is working on chapter illustrations for the next book, "The Red Abalone Shell," which follows character James, who appeared at the end of Book One, and his extraordinary dog, Old Shep. "I'm hoping it will be ready in time for summer reading," she says.

Sounds like a perfect dose of reading magic for young brains on summer break!