In Memory: Gail Shepherd

By Stephani Martinell Eaton

Gail Shepherd, award-winning journalist, poet, and author of middle grade novel The True History of Lyndie B. Hawkins (Kathy Dawson, 2019) died of complications from a brain tumor on Feb. 24 in Lake Worth, Florida. She was 62.

Obituary: Gail Shepherd from Publishers Weekly. Peek: “Shepherd’s editor, Kathy Dawson, shared this remembrance: ‘Gail was always learning, always fighting the good fight, and was so caring and smart. She worked harder on her novel than almost anyone I’ve ever worked with, and it resulted in an amazing book.’”

Born on July 19, 1957, Shepherd grew up in Philadelphia. She attended the University of Florida and received both an MA and an MFA in poetry. For two years running, Shepherd was named runner up to the Yale Younger Poets Prize.

As a journalist, Shepherd was a restaurant columnist as well as an investigative journalist and was honored by the James Beard Foundation, the Society of Professional Journalists, and the Association of Food Journalists.

Her debut novel for children, The True History of Lyndie B. Hawkins, received starred reviews from Kirkus Reviews, Publishers Weekly, Booklist, and School Library Connection. In her New Voices interview with Cynsations, she shared her inspiration for the book:

“I grew up with the Vietnam war in the background—it was always on TV. That war influenced my sensibility and my world view. I knew a lot of older brothers who went away and either didn’t come back, or they came back damaged.

So I was thinking about what it would be like to be the kid of a very disturbed veteran, but in a family where nobody ever openly addressed the gigantic elephant in the room–that proud, stiff-upper-lip, we don’t share our difficulties with outsiders kind of culture.

My family on my mother’s side is southern, so I also wanted to represent a specific southern sensibility, their quirks, their language, their warmth….

And then, here we are in 2019, with these huge questions constantly circulating about how we know what the “truth” is.

Who can we trust to tell us what’s real? And how do we make sense of history, when our history is an ideological battleground? What’s being misrepresented or deliberately suppressed about who we really are as Americans?

I wanted to get all of that into this book—a girl grappling with how to seek the truth about herself, her family, her town, and her country. Lyndie does realize and say toward the end of the novel that the truth is only something you can move toward, like walking toward the horizon, even if you know you’ll never get all the way there.”

Writing friends of Gail share some of their memories:

From Joyce Sweeney: “I have been teaching and mentoring writers now for over twenty-five years and Gail Shepherd was one of the most special students and mentees I ever had the joy of working with.

“Back when I was teaching Next Level weekend workshops, Gail was a frequent attendee. Jamie Morris, the other teacher, and I would sometimes actually gasp and cry when it was Gail’s turn to read. Such was the power of her prose. I loved her quiet, sly humor, which disguised an iron will and a ferocious love of all that was just and true.

“I remember her sitting in a class of mine, doing yoga stretches in between note-taking sessions. I remember the first time she came to a play I was producing with her partner and whispered to me for the first time, ‘I’m gay.'”

“Gail was a dream student, dedicated to her craft and to the emotional truth of everything she wrote. Her writing had power, just like her soul.

“Our Florida writing community is devastated by her loss and the loss of all the beautiful, powerful words that were still to come. But just as she was always a person who appreciated life, I will cherish and appreciate the parts of her life I was honored to share.”

From Debra Getts: “Gail Shepherd, my MG Masterminds critique partner, my friend, and gentle, wise, puppy-loving, muse. We cherish Lyndie and all of the characters, stories, and heart you shared with us MGMs. I will miss you. Your beautiful influence is reflected in my writing, my actions and thoughts.”

As news of her death broke, friends colleagues, and organizations shared their grief: Mixed-Up Files, SCBWI Flordia, Tony Ortega, Mindy Alyse Weiss.

Cynsational Notes

Stephani Martinell Eaton holds an MFA in Writing for Children and Young Adults from Vermont College of Fine Arts where she won the Candlewick Picture Book Award and the Marion Dane Bauer Award for middle grade fiction.