The story behind an Iowa City author’s debut novel

This is the cover to Katherin Nolte of Iowa City’s book, “Back to the Bright Before.”

By Barb Arland-Fye
The Catholic Messenger

IOWA CITY — Katherin Nolte of St. Wenceslaus Parish remembers an evening when her husband was out of town and she had to take their four children with her to the emergency room because


one of them needed stitches. The distressful trip to the ER during the COVID-19 pandemic led Katherin, a storyteller by profession, to write her first children’s novel. “Back to the Bright Before,” a Random House book, debuts May 30.

While the family waited for the doctor to attend to their youngest family member, Katherin, who loves to read to her kids, discovered a rack of free books in the hallway. “I had to find something all of my kids would love.” She succeeded with “The Miraculous Journey of Edward Tulane,” a novel by Kate DiCamillo, “a famous middle-school writer,” as Katherin describes her.


The ER visit lasted until midnight, during which time the novel captivated Katherin and her kids. She finished reading the story to them within a couple of days. “I liked that book so much that it made me want to write a children’s book,” said Katherin, a fiction writer whose short stories for adults had appeared in numerous publications. She is a graduate of the prestigious Iowa Writers’ Workshop, where she was a Truman Capote Fellow and received her MFA degree in 2003. Despite her writing credentials, “I thought, ‘I don’t know how to write a novel for children.’” She plunged in anyway.

Writing by hand in a notebook during breaks from homeschooling her children, she decided not to tell anyone about her novel in progress. “We always do an independent time in the afternoon … it’s a break from each other and from me and that’s when I write,” Katherin said. She snatched other free moments to write, 30 minutes before dinner or 20 minutes in the morning before everyone else got up. “I just felt like I was supposed to write this book. When I’m writing, this feels like what I’m supposed to do.”

Her family caught on. “My children saw me with this notebook and my oldest asked, ‘Mom are you writing a book?’” Past rejection notices for adult novels influenced her decision to keep quiet. “I wanted to do it on my own with no pressure.”

Writing seven days a week, she finished “Back to the Bright Before” in a couple of months. One morning she told her husband, “Guess what, I wrote a book.” Mike has always been supportive of her writing, including their move to Iowa so she could participate in the Iowa Writers’ Workshop. He responded, “I knew it. I knew you were writing a book!” “He was excited that I was writing again,” Katherin said.

After typing her manuscript of approximately 208 pages, she had Mike read it. “He always gets to be my first reader,” she said. “He really liked it. He was sure it would be published.” Next, she contacted her literary agent, Kerry Sparks. “I asked her if she would be interested in a children’s novel that I wrote. She said, yes.”

“Katherin’s gorgeous writing is always what draws me into her books. The humor, heart, and heft here was really apparent from the first page,” Kerry told The Catholic Messenger. “We can NEVER be sure what a publisher will publish, but that’s why we have to be over the moon for things we take on and have a vision for how to help edit it before we go to publishers, position it in the market, and pitch it. … Katherin is a truly talented writer.”

Random House Books for Young Readers will publish “Back to the Bright Before” on May 30. It will be available on Amazon and at Barnes & Noble, Books A Million, Target, and Walmart among other venues. The Mustard Seed, Inc., a nonprofit Catholic organization in Iowa City, will host a book signing June 10.

The publisher describes the novel as “A magical adventure about two brave siblings determined to find a treasure that could save their family.”  The story’s opening lines describe how an 11-year-old girl’s dad falls from a ladder on their family farm — and the accident is her fault. “She’s determined to fix things —but how? Good old-fashioned grit …and maybe a bit of magic.”

Our Lady of the Mississippi Abbey in Dubuque, Iowa, which Katherin and her family visited, inspired the setting for “Back to the Bright Before.” The story’s main characters live in the country next door to the abbey. The portrayal of the nuns and people of faith, that’s obviously very Catholic,” Katherin said, but the novel is secular.

Her kids are pumped up about the book after doing a family read-aloud and have been distributing business cards that feature the book’s cover. They continue to enjoy listening to their mother read stories from other children’s novels. “Now we’re reading ‘A Series of Unfortunate Events.’ We’re on book 11.”

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