It starts with Rag Doll and ends with We’ve Only Just Begun.
When Amy Reece sat down to work on her novel Regarding Jeffrey, now available in paperback and e-book, she wanted to evoke an era — specifically 1964 to 1970. And there are few better ways to evoke the 1960s than through music.
“The songs triggered the chapters,” Mrs. Reece explained in a recent interview, seated in her classroom at the Martha’s Vineyard Public Charter School, where she teaches language arts to fifth and sixth graders. “My husband collects 45s, and he’s always playing them. A lot of [the book] was triggered by the songs — the memories that flood back when you hear the music.”
Regarding Jeffrey is told in the clear voice of Linda C, an elementary school girl growing up in West Hartford, Conn. Linda is a first grader at the novel’s start, a recent transplant to Bugbee Elementary School who wants nothing more than to have a friend and to fit in with her new class. Although Mrs. Reece herself attended Bugbee Elementary as a girl, Linda, like the other characters in the novel, is a composite of many people.
But one person, Mrs. Reece’s youngest daughter Lily, inspired the entire book with an offhand comment made while she and her mother were listening to a classic rock station:
“It must have been fun growing up in the sixties.”
That got Mrs. Reece’s attention.
“I think it was really hard, because it was a really intense time,” she said. “Especially if you’re young and you don’t really understand what’s happening.” She began working on the book while in a writing class taught by Cynthia Riggs. Ms. Riggs in turn encouraged the novel’s publication.
“What’s really fun is the research,” Mrs. Reece said, acknowledging that it was odd to realize that “my youth is in history books now.”
The era’s societal challenges, particularly the growth of the Civil Rights movement and the continued escalation of the Viet Nam war, appear throughout Regarding Jeffrey. Linda’s older brother receives a draft letter. Her mother works on Hubert Humphrey’s campaign and embraces feminism.
Still, this is Linda’s story and the daily dramas of the book are both those of the world and those of a young girl. We meet Peter, the teacher who plays Herman’s Hermits on the turntable, and carpets the classroom with shag rugs, and Mrs. Spencer, the ballroom dance instructor who leads the sixth graders in the foxtrot. We meet Annie, Linda’s best friend, a shy girl whose insight proves invaluable throughout the book.
How, Linda wonders, could transcriptions of George Washington’s journals written during the Revolutionary War compare with a note scrawled in your best friend’s handwriting?
Still, most of the daily dramas involve the Jeffrey of the book’s title, the class troublemaker who may or may not have a crush on Linda. The feeling may or may not be mutual. Such is life in elementary school.
Mrs. Reece said she doesn’t intricately plot her stories, instead letting the characters lead the way.
“I’m continuously surprised,” she said.
Though Jeffrey isn’t the narrator, the book is as much about his growth as Linda’s. The two classmates live near enough to each other to see their lives intersect outside of the schoolroom, giving Linda additional insight into her occasional tormenter and sometimes savior’s personality. And it’s this that allows her to make a choice at the end of the book to help a friend in need.
“I think there’s a little bit of Jeffrey in every boy in my class,” Mrs. Reece said. “And a little bit of Linda in every girl.” Mrs. Reece and her students work on novel writing together in the classroom, all sharing their work and reading aloud. The book, though not intended for a particular audience, has been well received by Mrs. Reece’s class.
“One of them is dying for me to write a sequel,” the author said, laughing.