What writer could resist that fun little title? But further explanation is due.


Courtney Woodruff, daughter of Gary and Angela Brizendine, grew up in Huntsville with her younger sister Cassy and older brother Woody. The Brizendines enjoy calling this gorgeous area home. Both Courtney and Cassy entered the family through adoption, and this very fact plays into the story shared in this article. Courtney now lives in Lacey, Washington, where she serves as a foster parent alongside her husband Daniel and three sons Jacob, Logan, and Marshall.

LOCAL SQUIRREL: “NAMELESS” for the present

For years, Gary Brizendine built custom-made golf clubs in his backyard workshop. Due to the various components used, he kept the door open for ventilation, which allowed a squirrel to venture inside one day and discover the box of pecans Gary kept on the floor. This curious and intrepid little creature became a daily visitor to the workshop, and these traits landed our little friend the main role of the story.

THE STORY: JUNIPER SPARK and The Dagger of Mirren

The “story” is actually a new book Courtney has written, entitled Juniper Spark and The Dagger of Mirren. It has been well-received and is gaining in popularity.

Courtney, please share a few details about your childhood years and your educational achievements.

I’m grateful for my upbringing and family life in Huntsville. In the summertime, you could often find me out of the heat within the air-conditioned walls of the Huntsville Public Library. My parents gently “forced” me to participate in the summer reading program each year, and I’m so thankful they did. I also have fond memories of my art teacher Marsha Phillips, who has been an important influence in my life. I graduated from Huntsville High School in 2004 and earned a bachelor’s degree in general studies with concentrations in English, art, and hospitality management from the University of North Texas. My master’s degree is in human services counseling with a focus on military resilience. I studied Post- Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) and how it affects veterans and their families. This experience translated well and helped me to better understand and serve the foster care community.

Have you written professionally prior to writing this book?

I created a personal blog when my husband joined the military. While we were stationed in Germany, I got a job as a writer-editor for Stars and Stripes, a newspaper for the troops. Our small team — which was actually led by another Huntsville native, Genevieve Ruffin Northup (such a small world!) — launched a website for military families stationed overseas, and I wrote and posted articles online. I’m thankful for Genevieve’s friendship and mentorship. I later wrote for USAA, an insurance company that serves veterans and their families.

Share the road you traveled that brought you into your new role as the author of a children’s book.

I have had the idea for this story for at least ten years. Growing up as an adopted child, I had many questions and did not know how to ask them. I thought it might hurt my parents if I asked questions, so I kept them all inside. These types of situations are hard enough for adults; more so for kids, and issues relating to adoption and foster care are generally hard to discuss for those involved. But stories are really powerful and can bring to light these issues and provide avenues for discussion. That was my purpose for writing this book — to create an opportunity for kids to connect with and form deeper bonds with their parents.

Briefly share the storyline of Juniper Spark and The Dagger of Mirren.

The basic storyline is about a young squirrel, Juniper Spark, who is being cared for in a place called Foster Hollow. It is her fourteenth birthday, and she is experiencing the complicated emotions that tend to arise on this occasion for adoptees and children in foster care. This birthday takes an unexpected turn when she finds a mysterious gift on her pillow which sends her off on an adventure to learn more about her birth family. The story is about creating and defining family and home. I modeled Juniper’s foster mother, Sorrel, after a real-life woman in our local community. Jane Van Deventer has been fostering children for over 40 years and is presently caring for two infants. Her door is always open, and she is such an inspiration to me.

It’s time to bring your dad’s little visitor, the curious and intrepid squirrel, into the limelight. How does it figure into the story?

After pondering this story for several years, I finally decided to turn the characters into woodland creatures, making this a fun and inviting story for children. The squirrel became the main character because of its curious nature and the courage it had to journey into unknown situations with confidence. It’s a perfect match for my main character. And as I told my sister Cassy, she shares these same traits. She has always been fiercely courageous, and I admire her for this.

How have your children responded to the story, and did they play a part in its development?

They love the book! They enjoy reading stories that contain action, animals, and adventure–and Juniper Spark and The Dagger of Mirren has all three. They actually played a large part in the development of the book. I let them have a decision in selecting the illustrator for the series. I’m writing the second book now and plan to make this a series of three books and will, of course, employ the same illustrator for the entire series.

Please share information about the illustrator and why she was chosen.

Meforya (Mehnaaz Husain) is an Indian based artist and freelance illustrator who specializes in character design. We loved the vibrancy of her work and the vitality of her characters. She is currently studying at the National Institute of Design in Andhra Pradesh and wants to pursue a career in animation. We look forward to her involvement with these next two books and someday hope to meet her in person. That would be a dream come true.

How has your book been received by the public?

I have been overwhelmed by the response. I’ve received pictures from all over the country of parents with their child or children curled up next to them, reading the book together. It has been so heartwarming and humbling. Parents are telling me their kids can’t wait for the next book. Based on the kind comments I’ve received, I believe it has been accomplishing my goal, enabling young children to be able to ask bigger questions. The story also helps others understand what adoptees and foster children go through.

Do you have any last thoughts to share with our readers?

There is a quote by Fred Rogers that is very meaningful to me, “Love begins with listening.” I believe this is so true. Listening is an act of love. Our stories and experiences matter. We don’t know how someone is feeling unless we give them an opportunity to share and truly hear what they have to say. I hope these books will have a positive impact on children and youth in foster care, adoptees, their families and caregivers, friends, and anyone who knows and loves them. I am grateful for the reception this book has received, and I hope to have the second book out by Christmas.

Juniper Spark and The Dagger of Mirren is available on Amazon and at Barnes and Noble. For more information go to

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