This month we’re absolutely delighted to have published Always, Clementine – a funny, wise and heartwarming story, with a truly one-of-a-kind hero. And today we’re very excited to be sharing a guest post from Carlie!
Growing up, there was a rabbit living in my kitchen. Her name was Strawberry. She had sleek white fur, pinkish eyes (hence the pinkish name), and one black ear – with a small, perfectly circular hole in it.
My family adopted her under unusual circumstances. Let me explain.
When I was in elementary school – many years ago, in suburban North Carolina – my teacher brought in a rather afraid rabbit in a black, wire cage. Like Clementine, the main character in my new novel, the rabbit was recently liberated from a local science lab – and she didn’t quite belong in the classroom. We already had a hamster as a class pet. Someone needed to adopt the rabbit. And fast. The school was a little anxious about having a research bunny on the premises: who knows what chemicals she had been exposed to?
Now, my mother is an animal lover – and at that time, also had a profound inability to say no to well-meaning elementary school teachers. The rabbit came home with us. That first night, I named her Strawberry, and the next day, we took her to the vet to have the research tag removed from her ear.
“You don’t need to do that,” the vet said, glancing between me, my mother, and Strawberry. “The tag can stay in. It’s not hurting her anymore.”
But my mom was insistent. The tag was more than symbolic. This rabbit was going to feel free.
The bill would come to just over a hundred dollars with tax, which was a whole lot of money for my family in those days. I distinctly remember how the vet brought out the bolt cutters from the back; nothing else could cut the tag. I remember the quick chomp through the metal, and the way Strawberry easily twitched her ears after the tag was gone; the white plastic square with her number on it – her former number – went promptly into the bin.
I could hold Strawberry in my lap. She liked to cuddle. She’d press her nose into my palm. That trust was precious to me – and looking back, it was a real leap of faith for a rabbit like her.
Two weeks after we adopted Strawberry, my family went on a short holiday to Myrtle Beach – and asked our next-door neighbour to feed her for the weekend. Could he let her out in the kitchen so that she could stretch her legs? Sure, he said. He wasn’t worried about it. Perhaps he should’ve been. Strawberry tried her very bunny best to attack him, shrieking and biting and lunging. She meant business. Our neighbour very gently fended her off by shielding his feet with a frying pan.
Strawberry was okay with my dad, but as we discovered, had a tremendous fear of most men. Of people who were like the researchers who tested her.
I didn’t fully understand this as a kid. I knew that something sad had happened to Strawberry in the time before us. I knew that my parents were trying to give her the best life possible for however long she had left – but any more details than that were a mystery to me. My dad built her a wooden hutch in the backyard, under the shade of my favourite tree. She loved the crunchy kind of lettuce. She loved rolling around in her hay.
As an adult, I’ve been able to put together the pieces of what she endured – and when it came time to write my third middle grade book, I knew I wanted to focus on lab animals. To help give Strawberry, and other animals like her, a voice.
That’s where Clementine comes in. She’s an optimistic little mouse for an optimistic little book. Even though Always, Clementine focuses on the plight of lab animals, I wanted to highlight the absolute joy of freedom – what lab animals’ future could look like, what they deserve. The story may have sad parts, but it is by no means a “sad book.”
One of the things I love about children’s books is their boundless capacity to see the good in the world, even amongst the bad. I hope that’s what this book does, too. I hope you can glimpse how much love I’ve poured into it – for Strawberry, and for all the animals who might choose different lives than the ones they’ve been given.
Read the first few chapters below: