"Debbie’s always living her life, and always thinking about her life, too," says Tina Ulrich, a former librarian in Suttons Bay who has known Perkins for years. "She’s always stepping back and thinking "Is this the way it is?’ She’s an observer in the same way Lynne is."
Perkins readily identifies Debbie as her alter ego, a combination of who she was as a teenager and who she is now. "Debbie is quicker on the draw than I was," Perkins smiles. In real life, Perkins stumbled all the way through high school in a similar friendship triangle, she says. In All Alone in the Universe, Debbie figures things out in a year.
In Criss Cross, Debbie is a little older and pondering different issues. Do you have to go away to find yourself? To find romance? How do you connect with the right person? And what if you don’t?
"Those things happen a lot in life — we have a lot of missed connections, and it doesn’t hurt for kids to know that everyone’s making mistakes, and that it’s okay to make mistakes; it’s not the end of the world," Perkins says. "I think we tend to see happy endings as the only acceptable outcome. As adults, I think we give kids such bad clues."
Perkins, however, seems particularly clued in about how it feels to be a kid. As a volunteer adjudicator for Exposures, Leelanau County’s student literary magazine, she is the most sympathetic of critics, says Ulrich, a fellow judge.
"Sometimes when I look at a piece of writing and think, Ho-hum, same snow flakes, same hot, salty tears, Lynne will see something that this child is trying to convey in a new way. She’ll point that out, and then I’ll look at the piece differently."
As Mom, Perkins is particularly mindful of how she communicates with Lucy, 14, and Frank, 12. Her books are an indirect way of letting them know that she understands some things about growing up — more effective, perhaps, than the "when I was your age" lectures that they don’t seem too interested in hearing, she laughs.
The irony, of course, is that Perkins gives vivid descriptions of what it was like when she was their age, a dead-on portrait of the 1970’s, right down to instructions on how to create a candleholder from an empty Matteus wine bottle and illustrations of the "advanced" style of dragging bell-bottoms. She also re-creates — and renames as Seldem — her hometown of Cheswick, Pennsylvania, one of a string of little towns along the Allegheny River not far from Pittsburgh. She grew up there with her one sister, her mom, a reading teacher, and her dad, a lab technician for Gulf Oil.
Perkins’s parents were not artistic themselves, but encouraged and supported their daughters’ endeavors, says her sister Cathie Wagner, a kindergarten teacher in Ohio. Perkins took piano lessons for many years, even as an undergraduate at Penn State. Her art came naturally.