A Page from Real Life
Sara Hoagland Hunter has worked as a journalist and a teacher in her career as well as a documentary film producer and a writer of both songs and children’s books. Her varied professional background reflects a deep and genuine interest in humanity, a sentiment that permeates her fiction.
“I think the common thread is a desire to share good ideas with people,” Hunter says. Since 1995, Hunter, who has summered on the Cape all her life, has published 10 children’s books. For these efforts she has received multiple awards, including the Smithsonian Notable Children’s Book of the Year and the National Council of Teachers of English Award. Her latest book, Every Turtle Counts, is about a 7-year-old girl named Mimi who discovers a stranded Kemp’s ridley turtle on a Cape Cod beach. Of the eight sea turtle species, Kemp’s ridleys are the most endangered, hatching on only one or two beaches in the Gulf of Mexico. Although a colorful cast of adult characters pronounces that the turtle is dead in the story, Mimi refuses to give up hope. Her path intersects with Bob Prescott, director of Mass Audubon’s Wellfleet Bay Wildlife Sanctuary, and she embarks on a heart-warming mission to save the turtle.
Susan Spellman, a New England artist, drew the book’s illustrations. Although this was the duo’s first collaboration, Hunter says Spellman’s drawings complement her prose perfectly. “She is a frequent visitor to Cape Cod and has a real sensitivity to what the beaches are like during the off-season,” says Hunter, who has a home in Centerville by Craigville Beach. “They have a special air and mood, which I think she did a beautiful job of capturing.”
Hunter says she based Every Turtle Counts on two real-life people. Bob Prescott is the actual director of the Wellfleet Bay Wildlife Sanctuary and he gave Hunter permission to use his name in the story. “Bob is the person who discovered this whole phenomenon,” says Hunter. She relays in great detail the peculiar migratory pattern of young Kemp’s ridleys as they leave the gulf and swim east, then northeast to the fertile waters of Cape Cod Bay.
“When the water temperature drops, the turtles don’t realize they need to go around Provincetown to migrate,” Hunter says. “They get stuck in the hook of Cape Cod, 200 of them at a time, washing ashore between Thanksgiving and New Year’s.” Hunter credits Prescott’s efforts, which over the past 15 years have grown into a state-wide rescue operation, with saving thousands of turtles.
Hunter says the story’s protagonist, Mimi, is also rooted in reality. The character is named after Hunter’s 23-year-old niece, who loves animals and the Cape. And just like the real Mimi—the daughter of Hunter’s younger sister—the fictional one is autistic. “In 1980, one in 10,000 kids were on the autism spectrum,” Hunter says. “Today, the number is one in 88.” Given this prevalence, Hunter believes that teachers and students are well acquainted with kids like Mimi. “It’s okay to do a book where the heroine happens to be on the spectrum,” she says.
A recent review by Kirkus Reviews described Hunter’s portrayal of Mimi’s special needs as “child-friendly and honest,” precisely what the author hoped to achieve. She depicts different aspects of Mimi’s behavior, like her habit of repeating phrases she overhears, without dwelling on her condition. That’s because Every Turtle Counts is first and foremost a rescue-adventure tale about overcoming insurmountable odds. “[Autistic children] have dreams and things they love,” Hunter says. “They can also be the heroes of a story that other kids can love, rather than just being in a story about autism.”
Through promoting Every Turtle Counts, Hunter also hopes to raise awareness for a pressing issue facing autistic individuals and their families. Local governments do an excellent job of funding educational programs for these individuals through age 21, Hunter says. But once they turn 22, the funding stops and families are at a loss for how to help loved ones lead independent and fulfilling lives, while also receiving needed supervision.
To illustrate her point, Hunter describes her niece’s experience. Mimi spent three years at the Riverview School in Sandwich, an international day and boarding school that Hunter praises as a pioneer in the field of special education. After completing her senior year of high school at Riverview, Mimi began the school’s innovative three-year vocational training program. She turned 22 after her first year in the program and, unfortunately, had to withdraw because funding for her education stopped.
Mimi has since moved back home and participates in a state-run day program. “She gets picked up in the van every morning,” Hunter says, “and different corporations in the state will farm out jobs that let
developmentally-challenged adults do mostly manual projects.” On one hand, Hunter says the program is edifying for Mimi because she earns a paycheck and has made friends, but it also leaves a lot to be desired. “It just tugs at your heartstrings that a child who loves doing projects and working with little kids is on an assembly line,” Hunter says. “But the answers are few right now.”
Since her book’s publication, Hunter says one gratifying moment came when Temple Grandin, an animal behavior doctor who is autistic, endorsed the book. In her review, Grandin—a professor of animal science at Colorado State University—did not focus her critique on autism. “She talked about how it’s a great book for kids who will discover the wonders of nature,” Hunter says. “And I thought, ‘bingo!’, that’s what this is all about. Temple and Mimi are about more than their autism.”
Hunter, who splits her time between Centerville and Boston, has a writer’s pedigree; her maternal grandfather, Harold H. Blanchard, was an English professor at Tufts University, while her father’s father, John Hoagland, was the business manager for the entire Christian Science Publishing Society. When Hunter was in the second grade, her grandmother Roberta Blanchard—an artist and writer of craft books—took her to visit writer Louisa May Alcott’s home in Concord. “I saw [Alcott’s] desk by the window and thought, ‘it would be really cool to write children’s books when I grow up’,” she recalls. Hunter says this experience, coupled with inspiration she received reading books by favorite childhood authors like E.B. White and Ruth Sawyer, fueled her desire to become a writer.
Why children’s books? “The purest, simplest childhood truth is what is the most penetrating for all of us,” Hunter says. For the author, Charlotte’s Web was one of her favorite books; she still keeps a copy of the children’s classic, first published in 1952, in her study. “The way E.B. White handles mortality, and goodbyes, and friendship is so pure,” Hunter says. “I aspire to do that in my books.”
Hunter says another influence on her writing came from a correspondence she had with Theodor Seuss Geisel—a.k.a. Dr. Seuss—when she was in middle school. “I sent him an epic nonsense poem called The Zork Saga and he wrote how much he enjoyed it and encouraged me to keep writing.” When Hunter was accepted to Dartmouth College’s first co-educational class back in 1972, she wrote Seuss—a Dartmouth alumnus—and he responded with a letter of congratulations.
Hunter also garners inspiration from her natural surroundings. Growing up in Dover, Massachusetts, the writer-to-be spent every summer on the Cape with her parents and three younger siblings. “Summers on Cape Cod were magical and open-ended,” she says. “There was an element of independence you didn’t have in structured suburbia. You just hopped on your bike and the day was yours.”
Today, Hunter maintains that the region serves as the perfect home for her profession. “There’s something about Cape Cod that is a literary landscape,” she says. “It just makes your heart sing.”
Including Every Turtle Counts, Hunter has written a total of 10 children’s books as well as articles for publications including Harvard Magazine, The Boston Globe, and Cape Cod LIFE. Early in her career, she took on assignments for major studios including Warner Brothers and Jim Henson. She published books like Beauty and the Feast and Miss Piggy’s Night Out, which she describes both as “a lot of fun,” yet limiting in terms of the creative control she was allowed on the projects.
Although friends urged her not to risk the guaranteed income these jobs provided, Hunter decided to pursue stories that had weighed on her mind for a long time. In 1996, she published The Unbreakable Code for Cooper Square Publishing. The story is about the Navajo soldiers from the southwestern United States, whose code helped save the lives of thousands of American soldiers during World War II. Her next book was The Lighthouse Santa, which was published in 2011. The story tells the tale of Edward Rowe Snow (1902-1982), a well-known American author and historian, who famously delivered individually-wrapped presents to children living in 300 lighthouses across New England by dropping the gifts from his twin-engine plane.
“I like to do books about unsung heroes,” Hunter says. For these two books, Hunter committed herself to extensive research, interviewing fascinating figures including Navajo veterans who invented the unbreakable code and women in their 80s who had lived in the lighthouses—and received ‘The Lighthouse Santa’s’ gifts from above. Hunter says she finds the research for these stories both enjoyable and enlightening. The writing, though, is a different story. “It nearly kills me,” Hunter says. “It never gets easier [because] you’re trying to be so trustworthy of the material.”
Despite the challenges inherent in her chosen profession, Hunter says she does not regret her decision to focus on stories that are more personally meaningful to her. “It’s not a risk to go with something that feels right in your gut if it’s a story that keeps nudging you,” she says. “It will come back tenfold. I mean, the Warner Brothers books are out of print and The Unbreakable Code is still going.”
When asked which of her books is her favorite, Hunter does not hesitate, listing her three classic picture books—with a slight edge to Every Turtle Counts. “I care a lot about the fact that the main character is inspired by my niece,” she says, “and it’s set on Cape Cod.”
Eliott Grover, a frequent freelance writer and contributing editor for Cape Cod LIFE Publications, began at the company as an editorial intern in the summer of 2009.