Happy Earth Day! In Barbara Newman’s YA novel, THE DREAMCATCHER CODES (Green Writers Press, 2021), four teenage girls are entrusted with saving the planet from environmental destruction. Along the way, they share and learn about their diverse backgrounds, gleaning insights that help them on their journey. Integrating fantasy, adventure, and cultural details, THE DREAMCATCHER CODES emphasizes the importance of treating the earth with kindness– a great pick for today, April 22nd, which is Earth Day! I am excited to learn more about Barbara’s writing process for this layered story.
While writing THE DREAMCATCHER CODES, how did you approach the fantasy element in your world-building?
So much of the worldbuilding came straight from nature–the cosmos, the oceans, the desert, the forests, the landscape of the west. I was writing about Mother Earth, so I had to know her intimately. I traveled to the places I wrote about: hiked solo in the high desert, slept under the stars without a tent. I listened and observed. I wanted to create a fantasy that was rooted in the real. What could be more real than the earth?!
For inspiration, I had a huge vision board that took up an entire wall in my office; images of ravens, cloud formations, pyramids, caves, petroglyphs, crystals, mythic horses—historical sites that are considered sacred. My worldbuilding was expansive. Some of those images made it into the book, some didn’t. I gathered pieces from the things I’ve learned over the years and followed the breadcrumbs. I’ve always been curious about how the world works. I’m fascinated by ancient cultures, folklore, and “magical” things that can’t be explained.
I also drew upon symbols and letters. I used The Flower of Life as the pattern for the dreamcatcher’s web. I mention the Star of David. When describing 18 birds flying in formation over the Grand Canyon, one of the characters talks about “chai.”
The book is about the saving the natural world, so of course, I included animals and the messages they bring, borrowed from in indigenous lore. For example, Fox is strategic. Coyote is a trickster. Grasshopper encourages us to move forward and take that leap of faith. A turtle’s shell has 28 markings which symbolize time and the 13 moon cycles. Ava, the girl from the South, dreams about riding a whale, who is said to be “a swimming library that carries the history of the world.” In the dream, Whale gives Ava an important message which informs the mission. Sara, who is nicknamed Falcon, dreams about going on a migration journey with the Monarchs.
Somehow, it all came together.
Although the book is a fantasy, there is a significant focus on environmental issues and saving the earth, real-world problems. How were you able to find a balance in your storytelling?
I wanted this story to be hopeful, not dystopian. So, while I mention the bees dying from pesticides, I counter it with ‘bee wisdom,’ the hexagon shape of the hive, the beauty of nature, how fantastical it is and ultimately what it teaches us. And that we can make a difference in the health of our planet.
We are faced with real life problems–fracking, pipelines, man-made pollution, corporate greed. Our farms are producing food that isn’t “real.” The earth is suffering from wildfires and drought, there’s plastic in oceans, the coral is being bleached. The younger generation knows this. The antidote lies within our diverse human family, and in this story, the Crystal Horseshoe. This is really a love story, an epic and magical story with flying horses, and giant ravens, and mystical messages from dreamcatchers. But ultimately, it’s about the power of connection and love.
The characters come from different backgrounds and all bring experiences and wisdom from their own culture and history. Can you tell me a bit about your research process?
I didn’t know when I began writing The Dreamcatcher Codes that two themes would rise so prominently— the Jewish value of Tikkun Olam and diversity in my characters. In the story, repairing the world is the calling; the urgent task for four fierce girls as they come together to restore Mother Earth. One of the girls is Jewish, from New York, based on my daughter, Sara. She opens her heart and builds a bridge between herself and Maia, her Lakota “sister.” Their threads of connection are strengthened when they talk about the genocides of Jewish and indigenous tribes, their ancestors, the Trail of Tears, and the Holocaust. I only touch upon this in the book, but it’s enough to spark a conversation between a reader and a parent, or a book group with mothers and daughters.
The research was comprehensive. An indigenous character was central to the story. Native Americans have great reverence for Mother Earth. They understand the balance of nature and how it relates to all life. They believe we are not separate from the earth, put a part of it, which is one of the ‘lessons’ of the story.
I have deep ties to the indigenous community, who were generous with their knowledge and time. They knew I wanted to honor and respect the values of their culture and get it right. Their guidance was invaluable. I also had sensitivity readers. I was thrilled when I got their blessing, and they were thrilled for me to tell this adventure of unity and hope.
My other characters were drawn from people I know and love. My daughter-in-law was adopted from Columbia and raised Jewish. So, my grandchild will be bi-racial. I felt compelled to write a story where all kinds of readers can see themselves.
What inspired you to write this layered story?
The Dreamcatcher Codes is a blend of two of the things I deeply care about; the environment and girls finding their voices and vital place in the world.
But the origin of inspiration came to me in a dream.
I was standing in the desert, animal skin on my back, purple mountains in the distance, outlined by a sunset sky. My feet were placed inside a mandala, a sand painting of the circular logo for a passion project that had just lost its funding. A strong wind came and lifted the logo up into a spiral, (detachment) and it came down in another form, in the shape of a book. It was a clear message.
Then images came. Four girls from the four directions, horses, crystals, it was the vision board in a dream. I knew I had to get to work!
What do you hope readers come away with after reading THE DREAMCATCHER CODES?
My hope is that readers will see the natural world through new and wondrous eyes, fall so in love, they’re inspired to protect the precious planet we call home.
I also wish for readers to see how powerful the bond of sisterhood can be, how working together with a shared purpose can create great things.
Thank you, Barbara!
Barbara Newman always wanted to be a cowgirl. Growing up in New York didn’t stop her. She took that can-do spirit and became an award-winning global creative director, leaving an indelible mark on brand culture. After hearing an NPR story about the American cowgirl, she was so inspired, she left the ad world and found herself in Montana, Wyoming, and Texas filming a documentary about their lives. An advocate for empowering girls, Barbara facilitates girls’ leadership programs, and was part of the think tank that inspired the Fred Rogers Center for Children’s Media/Education. This is her first novel. Her website is https://www.barbaranewmanauthor.com.