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Family Tree book cover

Eleven-year-old Tyler Stoudt starts sixth grade off on the wrong foot. Not only does she have Miss Custer, the toughest teacher in school, but now Tyler is sure to flunk. Miss Custer has announced that the schoolwork for the year will revolve around one project: a family tree. Tyler doesn’t have a family tree—she has only Papa. As Papa said, her family tree was “chop down and burnt up.”

Tyler decides to do her best on the family tree project. But whenever she asks questions about the family, Papa acts cold, angry, and hurt. Does she have grandparents, cousins, aunts, and uncles? Tyler wants to know, but she is afraid of what she might find out.

“A poignant first novel about a young girl’s discover of her father’s Amish upbringing and her own family’s past . . . As the world of Tyler’s family opens to her, the writing is consistently graceful; the unfolding story will enthrall readers.” —Kirkus Reviews


Family Tree is currently out of print. Please look for it in used book outlets or at your local library.

You may also find copies of Family Tree in audio tape format through Recorded Books
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Teacher Guide for Family Tree

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The Story Behind Family Tree

I’d been writing for years, waiting and hoping to sell my first book, but instead of sales and wonderful phone calls from editors, I collected rejection letters and drawerfuls of flawed manuscripts. Then Family Tree happened.

My mother needed surgery, and because of her health history, my father and I worried. I planned to drive from Pittsburgh to Columbus, Ohio and stay for several days to be with my mother and see my father through the most trying days of her recovery. To ready myself for the trip, I collected a tall stack of rock and roll tapes, so I could play loud music. Without the music, I was sure my eyes would fill with tears and I’d hit a truck on I-70, not especially helpful to my parents.

I started the trip with the radio, but after a few miles, the Allegheny Mountains interfered and I reached for The Rolling Stones Greatest Hits. I pushed the power button, stuck the tape into the slot. No music. I hit the eject button but the tape wouldn’t come out. I turned off the power, but still nothing. No matter what I tried, I couldn’t get the tape to play, or to come out of the machine. I stopped at a rest area, fiddled with it again, pounded, and still no luck. I had more than three hours of solo driving ahead and nothing to distract me from my worry. Surely, I would hit a truck.

Armed with a soft drink, I restarted the car and pulled back onto the highway. Within five minutes, I heard a girl’s voice, talking to me, right there in the car. “. . . for the first half of my life I didn’t know I was a girl. I didn’t think I was a boy or anything, Papa was a big person, I was a little person, that’s what I knew. Boy did I have some catching up to do when I hit school . . .”

And so I met Tyler Stoudt. By the time I reached Columbus, she’d told me about two-thirds of her story, an amazing gift. When I arrived at my parent’s house, it soon became clear that it was a gift to them as well, for as I told the tale, the three of us had a strange and wonderful happening to discuss that night. It distracted us from the next day’s surgery. Fortunately, my mother came through the operation beautifully and as she recovered, my father’s equilibrium slowly returned. And I had a story to tell.

As soon as I returned to Pittsburgh, I spent long hours at the computer, transcribing Tyler’s words. And for the first time, I had a book with a character who lived and breathed and came alive on the page. Previously, I’d written well-plotted books, with plenty of tension and good pacing. But without a lively central character, those skills did little good.

So what caused the change in my writing? Vulnerability, most likely. My logical self wasn’t in very good shape during that trip so I was open to something different. Fortunately for me, once Tyler kicked open a door in my mind, I’ve been able to prop the door open and other great characters have begun to visit and tell stories. I’ve listened and let their personalities and histories lead me through plots and as a result, I’ve sold books and stories.

Amish countrysideBut where did Tyler come from? Are there no similarities between my life and hers? Of course there are. While I’ve never felt that Tyler was me, she and I have history in common. My father is not Amish, nor is my husband. But I spent my four college years in Amish Country in northern Ohio, where I observed and learned about their culture. I’m an only child like Tyler, and particularly close to my father who is an antiques lover and woodworker in his spare time. So I grew up loving the smells of wood and wax and varnish.

I often tell the story of how Family Tree came to me when I speak with groups of teachers or children. The children always want to know if my mother is okay, and I’m pleased to assure them that she’s better than ever. But a woman once asked a harder question. “Did you put that in your book? The part about your mother being sick?”

“No,” I said. “I didn’t.” But of course I did, without knowing it. Tyler lost her mother at birth. What was I afraid of as I traveled the lonely miles between my home and Ohio? That I’d lose my mother. And what’s my mother like? She’s a warm, loving woman who never meets a person without liking and accepting them—a lot like Tyler’s mom. So of course I put it all in the book. Or it sneaked in by itself.

That’s what I think happens when we write books. If we writers open our minds and our hearts as our fingers travel the keyboard, people and situations, fears and triumphs sneak into the pages. Our histories, our wishes, our faults, our memories transform into stories. And if we’re honest and careful in our craft, sometimes those stories will catch hold and carry our truths to others.



© 2009 Katherine Ayres All Rights Reserved