Jacquie Renear wrote “My Sister and I,” a charming story of two sisters, 8 and 10 years old, who grew up on Martha’s Vineyard in the 1960s. And were it not for a little serendipity, the manuscript would still be sitting in a drawer where it had been for the past 50 years.
Renear, now 92 years old, summered on the Vineyard at her grandparents’ house for as long as she could remember. After teaching school in Connecticut for a few years, she moved to Martha’s VIneyard, married “a true Islander,” Dixon Renear, and they raised two daughters, Beth and Meg.
Renear taught elementary school at most every school on the Island — she started the West Tisbury kindergarten in what is now the West Tisbury Town Hall. Renear not only had a love of education, she also had a passion for nature, and served on the board of Felix Neck Wildlife Sanctuary, where she helped start the Fern and Feather Nature Day Camp. And that passion for nature rubbed off on her little girls. “The kids were curious about everything,” Renear told the Times, “they loved the beaches, loved birds, and loved quahogging and sailing.” So much so that it inspired Renear to write her book.
While “My Sister and I: A Story of Two Sisters Growing Up on Martha’s Vineyard” is an endearing story of two Island kids in the ’60s, it’s also an idyllic portrait of what it was like growing up in the pre-computer age. Kids were unencumbered by playdates and organized activities, and were free to while away the time going to the beach, collecting conch shells, building drip castles, exploring tern rookeries, and watching sailboat races with no pressure and no agenda other than to just have fun.
“I had never written a book,” Renear said, “It was something that just came to me. I read it to people and they thought it was lovely, and things just evolved.” Renear decided to send the manuscript off to publishers. “I have the nicest collection of rejections for one reason or another,” she said. “Some of the publishers said that I should get an illustrator, and I actually did talk to several people about it, but it was a pretty long book, so it never really happened. That’s when I ended up putting it in a drawer and sort of forgot about it.”
About 10 years ago, Renear found herself in a memoir-writing class conducted by storytelling coach Susan Klein. “She invited me back,” Renear joked, “because I always brought cookies.” But on a serious note, she told Klein about the children’s book she wrote back in the ’60s, and Klein encouraged her to do something with it. She was getting pressure to publish her book on another front as well.
“Beth said to me that she would really like her children and grandchildren to be able to read and have this book,” Renear said. Beth Larsen, née Renear, is married to Louie Larsen, and they have three children and two grandchildren and own the Net Result fish market in Vineyard Haven. “And then,” Renear said, “we met Emily.”
In the summer of 2017, Renear and a friend went to the Black Dog Tavern and struck up a conversation with their waitress, Emily Keith. “Jacquie came in like so many people and asked me about where I was going to college and what I was studying,” Keith said. “I told her I was going to Providence College and I was an art major, and she told me about the book she had written and asked me if I could take a look at it.”
Keith went to Renear’s house and looked at the manuscript. She, like Beth and Meg, had spent her summers on the Island, and thought, “I’ve been to those places, this is very relatable.”
Keith and Renear stayed in touch by phone over the next year. “We really ended up becoming quite good friends,” Keith said. Then last summer, when Keith and Renear got together, Keith had done some illustrations for the book. “Emily had done all but about two or three illustrations,” Renear said. “I loved them!”
Suddenly everything was falling into place, and it was Beth’s idea to self-publish the book, so she could have it for the next generations and to honor the death of Meg, who died in her 20s. The book was published by the Tisbury Printer, and it was ready just in time for last Christmas. “We had a little book party at my mom’s house,” Larsen said, “and I thought it would be a great idea to have Jacquie’s great-granddaughter Violette read the book to her.” Violette is 8 years old, the daughter of Beth and Louie’s son Travis and his wife, Melissa Hardig Larsen.
Violette is a delightful and precocious little girl who has actually written some highly imaginative stories of her own. “I knew [Violette] would be able to read it since she reads very well, and I thought Mother would love it,” Larsen wrote in an email. “I didn’t expect the emotional feeling we would all have in hearing her do it, and watching the most beautiful reaction from my mother. I think at that moment it had come full circle for her. The book she had written when her own girls were Violette’s age was now a finished book, published and being read 50 years later by her great-granddaughter. Most of the family was there, and there was not a dry eye. My mother was so happy.”
There will be a book signing of “My Sister and I: A Story of Two Sisters Growing Up on Martha’s Vineyard,” at the West Tisbury library with author Jacquie Renear and illustrator Emily Keith on Sunday, March 24, 3:30 pm.