A Story of Resilience

By Elizabeth Barnhill

Maura Jortner’s middle-grade debut inspires hope for young readers

Maura Jortner’s advise to her creative writing students at Baylor University is to keep writing and writing and to write some more. She has taken her own advice to heart; the result, her debut novel “102 Days of Lying About Lauren,” is set to release June 20. The book has received pre-publication buzz as it was recently chosen as a Junior Library Guild Gold Standard Selection.

Jortner, a senior lecturer at Baylor since 2008, teaches creative writing and American and British literature, but one of her biggest creative writing jobs was making up stories for her daughter, Felicity, when she was a little girl.

“When my oldest daughter was 5, she asked me to tell her a story,” Jortner said. “She didn’t want me to read one to her, she wanted me to tell her one. I got kind of wrapped up in it and it got complex. I knew I needed to write down the story, and I fell in love with the process.”

Jortner’s educational background was in theatre; after college, she worked as a stage management intern. Then she took a job as a puppeteer in a Sesame Street-like production. She loved this art form but needed a job that would pay the bills, so she went back to graduate school and received her Ph.D. in theatre history studies from the University of Pittsburg. This is where she met her husband, David, who is currently a theatre professor at Baylor.

“I’d been doing theatre for so long but since moving to Texas and working at Baylor, that wasn’t a part of my life anymore. So I decided that writing children’s literature was going to be my new art form,” Jortner explained

One of the creative writing classes Jortner teaches at Baylor is Writing the Young Adult Novel but she decided to focus her personal novel writing in middle-grade, the reading level her daughters enjoyed at the time she wrote her novel. (Middle-grade literature is generally for children aged 8 through 12.)

“I love middle-grade because it’s that golden time of reading when many kids discover that books are so much fun,” Jortner said. “There are so many great books that we remember from our childhood — such as “Harry Potter” and “Percy Jackson” — that are middle-grade novels.”

The challenges of writing middle-grade literature include how to talk about difficult subjects like the ones addressed in “102 Days of Lying About Lauren.”

Jortner said, “You’ve got to be honest with kids. This world is difficult and it’s unfair at times — it can be a terrible place. On the other hand, you don’t want children to lose hope. We need to show them how to be resilient and hopeful. I feel like my book does that well.”

Jortner’s novel features Lauren, a 12-year-old girl whose mother abandons her at an amusement park. Lauren doesn’t want anyone to know she is abandoned, so for three months she wears a borrowed employee uniform and sweeps the park while living in an upstairs room of a haunted mansion. Lauren, who goes by the nickname Mouse, stays under the radar until a nosey girl named Cat identifies her. Mouse must evade Cat and the threat of severe weather for her cover not to be blown and remain safe.

Avery Shelburne, the children’s book buyer at Fabled who holds a Master Reading Teacher Certification is a fan of the book.

“Maura Jortner has invited us into the gentle story of a young girl who has learned to fend for herself when the world has disappointed her,” Shelburne said. “Lauren/Mouse is resilient and strong even in the face of tremendous heartbreak. This story is both vulnerable and inspiring, challenging the reader to hold space for forgiveness, empathy and most importantly, hope.”

In November 2021, Jortner took a leap of faith by joining in the NaNoWriMo (National Novel Writing Month) challenge, in which participants commit to writing 50,000 words in one month. Halfway through the event, an editor at Holiday House liked the characters and setting of her novel so much that they made her an offer. Many months of editing later, Jortner has her debut novel in hand.

Jortner’s two daughters, Felicity, 16, and Gabrielle, 11, are very proud of their author mother.

“They’ve been watching me write for the past 10 years while having prospective agents say no and receiving other rejections. They’ve observed my resilience through this process, so they were thrilled when my book was picked up by Holiday House. It was a joy to read the book to Gabby, my middle-grade daughter,” said Jortner.

When speaking about the creative writing process, Jortner’s eyes light up.

“When I’m writing a novel, I commit to 1000 words a day,” Jortner explained. “This sounds like a lot, but it’s not too hard. At 250 words per page, it’s only about four pages. Once I get in the groove, I end up writing about a book a semester. It’s just something that I try to do to hone my craft.”

Jortner will have an author event celebrating the launch of “102 Days of Lying About Lauren” on June 25 at Fabled Bookshop & Café. She is currently working on her next novel through Holiday House, “Keepers of the Marsh,” that is slated to release in 2025.