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Young novelist is drawn to obsessive rituals

By Laura Isensee

McClatchy Newspapers MIAMI| The world that Crissa-Jean Chappell experiences is far from ordinary. We hear Cuban tree frogs. She hears puppies barking. We see a classroom with circular windows. She sees a ship. We smell an orchid. She smells maple syrup, eggs and bacon.

Chappell, 33, a novelist and professor at Miami International University of Art and Design, has an imagination that spins almost out of control as it invents. ``She sees the absurdities of life,'' said Bill Rothman, a University of Miami professor who taught her as an undergraduate and doctorate student.

Some of Chappell's true-life stories seem like fiction. Riding on an elephant borrowed from her neighbor's party, for example, in Palmetto Bay.

But some of her young adult fiction is painfully close to reality. Chappell has struggled with obsessive compulsive disorder since childhood, similar to the protagonist in her debut novel, ``Total Constant Order'' ($16.99, HarperTeen).

Both Chappell and her teenage character channel their nervous energy into art. Yet writing about her rituals was difficult. ``It actually made me more self-conscious because I had to focus on some dark places in my head,'' she said.

Growing up was a mix of fancy and rituals for Chappell. Her childhood home _ a 1930s pine clapboard house that was trucked from Coconut Grove to Palmetto Bay _ nurtured her imagination. As the baby of the family, and 15 years younger than her closest sibling, Chappell explored her jungle-like backyard.

She threw potions down a well dug by Tequesta Indians and climbed up trees, pulling books up by the bucket with pulleys.

Yet she started having rituals as a child, like touching the pillars in the living room.

``I felt like something bad would happen to my family and I had to protect them. Which is ridiculous because turning a light switch on and off, how does that protect your family?'' she said.

At home, the novelist seems like a cross between Amelie and the model Agyness Dean. Her skinny black jeans and worn black Chuck Taylors testify to her claims that she still feels like a teenager inside.

``I never got over that super high, super low feeling that everything is a big deal. I'm always feeling like I'm on the outside, looking in, scratching my head and saying, 'what is that?''' Chappell said. Her self-proclaimed teenage outlook makes her genre, young adult fiction, a natural. ``Total Constant Order,'' published last fall by Harper-Teen, tells the story of Fin, whose parents' divorce and move to Miami disrupt her world. She starts to put her life in order through obsessive rituals. A new friend with a strong independent streak and a psychologist help her.

``It's almost biblio-therapy,'' said Gina Moon, a youth librarian and juror on the panel that awarded the novel a medal in the 2007 Florida Book Awards. Moon said many teenagers feel they are the only ones who experience something, like OCD.

``But when you read the book, you realize other people go through it _ it gives them hope,'' Moon said. Chappell knows the seesaw emotions of hope. She never gave up despite being the ``weird kid'' in high school. Two major events further catapulted her anxious energy into high gear: senior year at Westminster Christian School and Hurricane Andrew.

She rode out the 1992 storm with her parents in their home just a football field's distance from Biscayne Bay. Until dawn she coped by counting and naming students she went to school with since kindergarten.

``That's when it kicked in again and it was like, this again, this is back,'' she said. During her national book tour, Chappell met and talked with families and students who struggled with OCD, attention deficit disorder or other issues. She answered their questions and encouraged them to do what she, and her character Fin, did: Channel the nervous energy into something positive.

``You're not broken, you don't need to be fixed,'' she said.