Reviewed by Melissa Arnold

Virginia McCaffrey, an 11th-grade special education teacher at Ward Melville High School in Setauket, has brought her childhood memories to life with an imaginative new book for kids. “Chased by a Bear,” McCaffrey’s first book, honors the memory of her late grandmother, Jean Scollon, who loved telling her grandchildren vivid bedtime stories. I recently reached out to McCaffrey to ask her about her newest venture.

Tell me a little bit about yourself.

Ward Melville High School special education teacher Virginia McCaffrey is pictured with the children’s book “Chased by a Bear” she authored. Photo courtesy of Three Village school district

I am one of five children, one girl with four brothers. I was born in Lake Ronkonkoma and our family moved to Setauket when I was in ninth grade. I loved growing up in a big family as there was never a dull moment. As a child, I never really dreamed of becoming a writer, although I did think of it occasionally, not sure what direction I should take. The answer only came to me at the passing of my grandmother, Jean Scollon, three years ago.

Why did you decide to write a children’s book specifically?

My grandmother was such a large part of our lives. My own children knew her well and have always loved hearing stories of the terrific times my brothers, cousins and I had with her as we were growing up.

One night I was telling them about our many sleepovers at Nany and Grandad’s house. The four of us would climb onto the bed in the guest room at the end of the hall, then Nany would squeeze in with us to tell us a story before going to sleep. As I grow older, I fondly remember taking turns adding to the story, but specifically remember thinking that Nany had an incredible imagination. She always seemed to be coming up with great scenes, characters and situations, as well as games for us to play.

After sharing these stories with my own children and sending them off to bed, I decided to sit down and write a “Nany-type” story for them. At first, it was meant to simply be for them, but the more I worked on it, I began to dream of sharing the story of this wonderful grandmother with other children and turning it into a book; I found a way to honor my grandmother and share her with others.

How did your family respond when you told them you had an idea for a book?

I didn’t tell the family about my project until it was complete and I could present it to my grandfather, Bob Scollon, at a family dinner.  The only exception was my mother, who was sworn to secrecy. It was probably the hardest secret I have ever had to keep.

To say my family was surprised is an understatement. They appeared to be completely shocked. All four of my brothers told me how proud they were, my nieces and nephews all asked if they could share it with their classes, and my grandfather was speechless. He immediately sat down and read the book cover to cover while the rest of the family chatted about how surprised they were. Their reactions made keeping it a secret for so long all worth it.   

What is the book about?

The cover of Virginia McCaffrey’s first book.

“Chased by a Bear” is the story of four young children and the magical adventure their grandmother is able to make them a part of through her bedtime stories. No one but the five of them know where Nany’s stories take them each week during their sleepovers, making the adventure so much more special for them. They find themselves in a dangerous situation but use teamwork to resolve the problem.

Why did you choose a story about a bear for your first book?

I chose to use a bear story for the book because so many of Nany’s stories involved a bear in the woods. It was her favorite theme to her stories. Looking back I think those were always my favorite ones to hear.

Are the children in the story based on real-life people?

My younger brother (Brian Ehlers), two cousins (Allyson and William Konczynin) and I are the youngest of seven grandchildren and the characters in the book.

What was the publication process like?

Once I decided to write the children’s book, the process took about 18 months to complete. I decided to self-publish, and ultimately took the advice of my illustrator as to which company to use. The result was a very smooth process.

How did you find an illustrator?

I found the most challenging effort was to find an illustrator to capture the characters in the book: my grandparents, cousins, brother and myself. After a great deal of research online, I found an illustrator whose artwork not only connected with the personalities and descriptions of all of us but was exactly what I would hope for in a children’s book. Robin Bayer’s style is so uplifting and colorful. She made my story come to life. I sent her pictures of the four of us as children, as well as pictures of Nany and Grandad. She totally captured the look I wanted.

What was it like seeing the illustrations and receiving the first copy of the book?

When the first sketches were sent to me, I found it incredible how someone who didn’t know us as children and never had the opportunity to meet Nany was able to read a story I wrote and look at pictures I sent and completely capture my childhood and my vision of how my book should look. The story seemed to come to life more and more as additional illustrations were created and color was added to the pages.

When I received the first copy of the completed book to proof, I was in love with it. Once the book went public, friends sent me pictures of their children reading my book. I’ve saved every picture they’ve sent. I love hearing what their children and grandchildren think of the story.

What is the target age for the book?

The book was written on a second- or third-grade reading level. However, it was intended to appeal to many ages as it can be read aloud. 

What do your students think?

My students have expressed excitement at the idea of their teacher writing and publishing a book. They make me feel proud when they mention it. Recently, I was invited to read to the class of one of my daughters. The students had many questions about the writing process and becoming an author. It was wonderful to see the awe and excitement on their faces.

Do you plan to write any more books?

I would love to see this turn into a series of Nany Bedtime Stories … and maybe even let the rest of my family have some input.

“Chased by a Bear” is available for purchase on Amazon.com.

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