Isabelle Nelson is just a college senior, but she’s already published her first novel, with the help of her father.
A Bettendorf native, the St. Ambrose student grew up in Oregon, Ill., and she’s an English and secondary education major (with a minor in English as a Second Language), hoping to teach middle school starting in fall 2023. In May 2022, Isabelle and Michael Nelson released their first novel, “Annie Abbott and the Druid Stones,” published by Indies United.
Michael Nelson is a retired chiropractor, living in southwestern Wisconsin. In his first three novels (a trilogy through Indies United), he detailed his life from the projects of inner-city Chicago, the Vietnam War, and struggle to rise above the emotional and psychological burdens of those experiences. Drawing upon their adventures together, in “Annie Abbott,” he and his daughter, Isabelle have taken a lighter approach to exciting adventure and magic.
After her dad finished his trilogy, Isabelle suggested writing something different, like a children’s picture book and he asked her to help.
Mirroring real life
The new novel is aimed at kids age 10-15. The story mirrors Isabelle’s real relationship with her father, as Annie and her dad are best buddies.
“When I was a kid, my dad would take me out of school or in the summer, usually for a week or two on some kind of adventure,” she said. They have traveled the country and he made the trips educational on purpose.
One favorite trip for little Isabelle was Wisconsin’s Apostle Islands (off its north coast), and in spring 2021, they drove from San Diego to San Francisco for a week.
“That was amazing,” she recalled of California, during a three-month road trip for her dad, driving from northern Illinois. “We did Big Sur, the Redwoods, Santa Cruz.”
Her parents got divorced when Isabelle was 10. Her brothers are 12 and 15 years older than her.
The Annie Abbott book is set in present day, and she’s 12 when it starts. “They go to all the places we went to when I was a kid,” Isabelle said. “On the way, she discovers she’s magical.”
“That’s not what we were planning; we originally just wanted to write about all the places we visited,” she said. “My dad was like, let’s add some magic to it, because we used to read fantasy books when you were a kid. So we did and now we have this.”
Isabelle was a big fan of the Brendan Mull Fablehaven series (there are six long books), starting when she was in 4th grade, and she read them repeatedly when she was older.
Combining different styles
The new book is a conglomeration of a lot of different books, like “Lord of the Rings” and “Aragon,” she said, noting she was inspired by the Fablehaven books.
In the book, they travel all over the country, including Wisconsin, Wyoming and Nashville, and she goes into an afterlife at one point. They’re in a fairy realm, too.
“She transfigures into anything that she wants to be,” Isabelle said. “She also has some darkness inside of her that she has to fight, so she changes into that person. She resurrects someone at some point.”
Her father really wrote Annie as Isabelle, since he invented the character.
“The way he writes her and especially, the affection he has for her, my dad very much capitalized on his own feelings for me,” she said.
The book reflects the young adult struggling with who you want to be in life, Isabelle said.
“I think I felt that in my life – at 12, you don’t know what you’re doing,” she said. “You’re scared, but she pulls through it and she becomes awesome. I wish I had been better at doing that when I was 12.”
Challenges of fiction, collaborating
The hardest part of writing the book, was literally making things up and collaborating on the content with her dad.
“My dad has always told me stories – sometimes they’re partially true, and I think that helped with this,” Isabelle said. “We’re basing it off places we had already been. We did a lot of research for this, like on Druids and different figures. It’;s based on real things, with the fantasy mixed in.”
Michael would write something and send it to Isabelle to revise it, and he would edit it and send it back, and she would do the same thing from her end.
“He and I would have weekly Zoom meetings,” she said. “We would talk about what we needed to get done, who would write what; what the deadlines were, and we didn’t have a complete plan of where the book was going to go.”
They worked on it from late July 2021 until the end of December, and released the book this past May.
“It was very fast, and thankfully for the second one, we’re not doing that,” Isabelle said.
They ended the book on a cliffhanger, which was one reason to turn it into a series. “We had fun together doing it, so why not?” she said, noting they hope to do three in the series.
“It’s really surreal; sometimes I forget about it,” Isabelle said. She works about 20 hours a week for WaterMark Corners in Moline.
In the novel, Annie is a good junior-high student and her father is a professor at the local university, until a set of mysterious boxes appear out of nowhere hidden in their attic. After they open them, and discover clues within, their lives will never be the same as they embark on an adventure that challenges them to the limits of their abilities, both physically and mentally, according to a synopsis.
The story takes Annie on a path of enlightenment, where she discovers the sisterhood of witches to which she always belonged, who teach her to see magic in even the simplest of things in life all around her. We learn the deep and carefully guarded secret that her father holds as he watches her powers begin to grow. Together they face the challenges as true magic enters into their lives.
The father’s perspective
A 1984 Palmer College alum, Michael Nelson worked as assistant director of alumni and development from 1998 to 2002, and retired as a chiropractor in 2019.
After his trilogy, “Isabelle wanted me to write more, and I wasn’t feeling it. But she persisted,” he said this week by e-mail. “It was her suggestion that I begin writing using our special trips together as a backdrop. It turned out to be a really fun project.
“Isabelle is one of the most engaging people that I have ever met,” Nelson said. “I would say that even if she wasn’t related to me. To be able to have her all to myself, while we were learning about places, people and things. She brought a special wonder to it all, and it was just always great fun. We learned so many things.”
There are two main themes in the book, he said. The first is the relationship of the father and daughter, and the depth of emotion that it kindles is the foundation for the narrative. The second focuses “on how there are interesting things to see, and to learn about everywhere you look,” Nelson said. “Learning is a magical thing, as long as you are interested enough to notice it.
“In the book, as Annie begins to realize that there are things all around her that she had never noticed, she begins to recognize the magic in all things and subsequently, herself,” he said. “Learning is power, and also quite magical. The trips — each one specific in location but broad in scope — provided us a canvas to paint on.
“There is one kind of magic that is easily available to everyone; learning,” Nelson added. “Learning is a magical experience. It is fuel that drives the meaning in our lives and makes our journey interesting and exciting. All the places mentioned in the book are real and can be visited if one would wish to. We never stop learning, we only stop being interested.
“Any father who has a daughter sees what magical creatures they are,” he said. “The privilege of watching them learn and grow, how much more fun to be able to create a fictional character and model her beauty and intelligence after your own daughter. Isabelle is a life-long learner like Annie. Also like Annie, Isabelle is smart and beautiful.
Both father and daughter were overwhelmed to see the book in print; Isabelle said she nearly cried with joy.
“When the actual book arrives, it is almost surreal to see it,” Michael said. “A certain unreality. I’ve done it a few times now and it affected me the same way each time.
“Working on the sequel is great fun because the story is so good already, and Annie has so much to learn as she becomes the magical ‘witch’ she was meant to be,” he added. “It also gives me an excuse to talk to Isabelle as much as I want to. That is never a bad thing.”
Inspiration for teaching
Isabelle has an aunt who’s a math teacher (middle school) in suburban Chicago, and her mother has been a preschool teacher all her life.
“More so, the teachers I had in high school, and here, my professors are amazing and they inspire me too,” she said of becoming a teacher herself.
Her SAU creative writing teachers have helped her tremendously, she said.
Isabelle’s longest prior creative writing assignment was like five pages, compared to the novel’s 336 pages (over 80,000 words).
“My specialty is more poetry,” she said. “I got published in our literary journal on campus last year and I plan on doing that again this year.”
Isabelle has gotten a lot of great feedback on the book so far. “I’ve had lots of adults say they enjoy reading it with their children, seeing the mirror of child-parent relationships,” she said. “That’s really gratifying to hear because that’s important to us.”
A friend of hers who teaches high school, who wants to be a writer, asked Isabelle about the process. “It was really cool to talk to someone interested in that field, even though I’m a writer but that’s not my career path yet.”
Isabelle does not like the cover art by Raina Hopkins of Cornwall, England, which her dad chose.
“The art is amazing and the artist is amazing, too,” she said. “My dad found her at a writers conference. She was recommended to him. Her work is great; the only reason I don’t like it is people think it’s me, and it’s not.”
“He found this artwork and fell in love with it,” Isabelle said of her dad, noting the same artist will provide the cover for the second Annie book.
“It’s gorgeous and she did an amazing job,” she said, noting she likes the second one better.
That book is about half finished and is expected to be published in fall 2023. Isabelle will do a book signing at Barnes & Noble in Davenport on Nov. 5 from 11 a.m. to 2 p.m. You can buy the book on Amazon HERE.