Hastings, the longtime head of Summers-Knoll School, entered a new phase of her life after her mother died in 2015. “I realized how quickly time was passing and that I needed to make my life count,” she says.
A native of England, Hastings taught theater and high school English before moving to Ann Arbor with her husband twenty-six years ago. While raising two children, she became involved in community theater and taught, eventually coming to Summers-Knoll. When her marriage ended and her nest emptied, she decided the time was right to follow her passion.
“I loved the kids, the work, the school, and its mission, but they consumed all my time and I had no opportunity to do the other things I love,” she says. “I’d always wanted to be an author, and I realized that if that was a goal, I’d better get started on it.”
She remembered hearing her mother tell friends, “Joanna was born writing.” But she’d never had anything published–“life got in the way,” she says.
She gave Summers-Knoll a year’s notice. When she left in July 2016, “suddenly I had the time to write,” she says. While she considered various ways to do so professionally, she became Ann Arbor’s “Sonnet Bomber.”
“I talked to merchants on Main Street and realized how hard they work and how precarious running a small business can be,” she says. “They get so little recognition for what they do. Early in the morning, I began posting sonnets on merchants’ doors, so they knew someone was thinking of them.”
She still pens an occasional poetic tribute, “but I haven’t done anything consistently since December 2016,” she says, “It’s cold at 5 a.m. in the winter!” But a seed planted while she was sonnet-bombing has since grown into Flying Trunk Stories. For the last year, she’s been mailing stories and related artifacts to children whose parents place orders through her website, flyingtrunkstories.com. She borrowed the name from a Hans Christian Andersen fairy tale about a hapless young man whisked in a flying trunk to an exotic land, where he discovers the magic of a good story.
“Essentially, I’m writing dramatic monologues with themes like courage, honor, and integrity,” she says. “Then I choose clues to help readers solve the mystery or challenge.” These artifacts could be anything from a beautiful but broken watch (“the gateway to another time”) to silk flower petals (“put them under your pillow to give you courage.”)
The child’s parents or caretakers suggest themes and characters. Hastings then adopts a persona–perhaps a genie, fairy, or storytelling rabbit–and writes out an interactive story by hand. She chooses appropriate artifacts, seals each packet with an old-fashioned wax seal or a ribbon–“whatever’s right for the story”–and sends them on their way.
At last count, she has eighteen “story experiences” to customize, including “The Quest of the Rascal Queen” (a pirate story), “The Genie of the Pepper Pot” (introducing a genie found in a junk shop), and “On the Hill” (about a spirit wolf in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula). Prices range from $50 for one with a single episode to $210 for seven. A new program, “Nominate a Child,” is a sort of scholarship: it offers adults a chance to suggest children they think will benefit. Periodically, Hastings draws out a name and sends the child a free story.
She treasures the handwritten letters (often accompanied by pictures) she receives in return. “Children who love writing are inspired to write more,” she says. “Kids who are insecure about writing are motivated to try.”
“I love what I do,” Hastings says, sipping on a cup of good English tea. “Wonder fuels inspiration, inspiration drives creation, creation pushes the boundaries of thinking and provides a sandbox where children can play with skills–writing, storytelling, deep reading, and the sheer joy of language.”