Eleanor McCallie Cooper
Eleanor McCallie Cooper has enjoyed a somewhat adventurous life after growing up in the Chattanooga of the mid-20th century and graduating from Girls Preparatory School in 1964.
As a young adult, she lived in Japan and worked at the Expo ’70 world’s fair, traveled extensively in other parts of Asia, and spent time on the East and West coasts of the U.S. And after some advanced degree work, she was employed by the non-profit Chattanooga Venture in the 1980s when it began boldly reimagining what downtown Chattanooga could be culturally.
Such a life of stepping out and living new experiences naturally drew her to her father’s cousin, Grace Divine Liu.
Ms. Liu had married a man from China while they were in New York and later went to live with him in the Asian country from the 1930s through the first decades of communist rule.
Although Ms. Cooper did not know of her cousin and kindred spirit until she became older, she ended up writing two non-fiction books about her, including “Grace: An American Woman in China, 1934-74,” co-written with Grace Liu’s son, William Liu.
Now, Ms. Cooper has become adventurous again in a way by attempting to enter the genre of fiction writing in the form of a young readers’ novel based loosely on Ms. Liu’s family.
Titled, “Dragonfly Dreams,” the book – which is designed for readers ages 10-14 as well as others – follows the life of a young girl as Japan invades China. It tells of her effort to protect her family and American-born mother during World War II, and a storyline also develops with the child’s best friend.
Ms. Cooper said that while the book features a mother like Grace and two daughters and a son like Grace had, the book’s story told through the perspective of one of the daughters is largely fictional, other than a few details.
“There were certain things that did happen, and there was a historical timeline and events that I had to honor,” she said, adding that some letters also gave hints of what happened to Grace’s family.
Ms. Cooper said she wanted to make the book as readable as possible, though, and wanted to focus strongly on such topics as conflict and friendship, themes that might be appealing to young readers. So, she took some literary license, she said.
The book, the title of which came from the belief that a dragonfly landing on someone means change is coming, also tells of perseverance, and that can be used to describe Ms. Cooper’s efforts at getting the book finished and published.
The writer, who is also a community engagement strategist, took a couple of courses on how to write for young readers, joined a writer’s group that offered writing and editing suggestions, and then went about trying to get it published.
“I spent about four years trying to get an agent or publisher,” she said, adding that she eventually realized she needed her own platform in the form of a personal website to aid her efforts.
But the timing after months of trying turned out right, as getting it published during the pandemic was ideal.
“When COVID hit I realized this was the time to get the book published because there was such a parallel,” she said, pointing out that the family members in the book have to spend more time together in hiding, just as families did when schools were shut down beginning in 2020 and parents worked more from home.
She also hopes the book will be of interest because it takes place in another part of the world at the same time as the Holocaust, when Jews suffered atrocities at the hands of the Nazis during the 1930s and early 1940s. She added that the Holocaust period is popular with young readers through various books, and she hopes they will like this story of Eastern life during that era, too.
Despite this partial theme related to the poor treatment of humans, though, Ms. Cooper shows a skill for treating the English language quite well, with a creative turn of phrase or figure of speech found about every page or two in the book.
Now that the book has been published, Ms. Cooper hopes schools and school systems become interested in using it as part of a curriculum.
Ms. Cooper, a direct descendant of McCallie School co-founder Spencer McCallie Sr., said she thinks Ms. Liu, on whom the mother of the novel’s young protagonist is based, would be pleased with the book.
“I think she would be amazed that anyone is interested in her life,” she said.
Ms. Cooper is also quite pleased with the Koehler Books-published novel.
“I feel great. I feel very satisfied, fulfilled and happy, like I can just stop now,” she said with a laugh.
She also feels happy at the story of Eleanor Cooper McCallie, too, saying she has had a blessed life that included coming back to Chattanooga and marrying former McCallie School staff member Mel Cooper and raising a family.
“I have done a lot of different things both in Chattanooga and outside,” she said with content reflection. “I left Chattanooga after high school, and I was gone for 17 years. I lived in New York and San Francisco for around 10 years.
“I did graduate work at the University of Alabama,” she continued, adding that the legendary Paul “Bear” Bryant was finishing his football coaching there at the time. “And then I came back to Chattanooga, and everything was beginning to change, and I stayed.
“I feel very lucky being able to be involved in the early steps of Chattanooga’s renaissance.”
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Ms. Cooper said that anyone wanting to know more about the book or her other work can go to her website at www.eleanormccalliecooper.com
Her social media links are: www.facebook.com/eleanormccalliecooper
Cover of "Dragonfly Dreams"