Monday, October 21, 2013

Karen Day, Author of No Cream Puffs

Today I’d like to welcome Karen Day, author of acclaimed fiction for middle grade readers.

Karen wanted to be a writer since she was in fourth grade. She wrote her first (highly melodramatic) novel when she was sixteen and took journalism in college. When she graduated, she wrote for newspapers and magazines, doing the last interview with tennis great, Arthur Ashe, before he died. 

But she yearned to write fiction. Finally she left journalism to write full time.
We’re glad she did! Her titles include the A Million Miles from Boston and Tall Tales. Today we’ll be talking about her sports novel for girls, No Cream Puffs.

It’s the story of 12-year-old Madison Mitchell, the first girl in Michigan to play baseball on an all-boys' little league team. Madison must deal with all the pressures of being a trailblazer. What will her friends think? Will the boy she likes still be interested if she strikes him out? How will she deal with the unwelcome publicity?

Karen, could you describe how the book evolved? What came first, the plot or the characters? Did you work from a detailed outline or were you a “pantser”?

The writing of every book is always different for me (although it’s always hard!). But one thing is true about every book I write: I always come up with the internal arch first. As a writer, mom and reader, I’m most interested in the inner life of kids. How they deal with trauma. How they feel about the inevitable changes that adolescence will bring. In No Cream Puffs, I knew I wanted to write about a girl who was “searching” for a father who didn’t want her. I also knew that I wanted to write about the drama of how it feels to “lose” your best friend, if only temporarily. That my main character would play little league came later. And yes, I am a pantser. No outlines for me!

You capture Madison’s conflicting feelings about playing ball with the boys so well. Were you an athlete as a child? Did you play baseball or another sport?

I loved sports and played everything I could. Like Madison, I was the first girl in my part of the state to play little league with the boys. A lot of what happens to Madison is fictional; however, a lot I took from my life, too. Like Madison, I was a pitcher, played short stop and batted cleanup. And like Madison, I struck out the star of little league in the championship game. I was a natural athlete, but unfortunately I didn’t have the head for it. I was filled with a lot of doubt and conflict. A headcase! I don’t think that people who knew me back then realized this about me. And so this is one of the themes that I wanted to write about in No Cream Puffs – what it’s like to be good at something, a trendsetter, and yet have ambivalence about it. I quit baseball after just one season and turned to competitive tennis, which I played until I was 18. I was a headcase in tennis, too!

I wasn’t athletic as a child. In fact, I was the last one picked for any team. I always envied girls like Madison, but this book gave me a glimpse of what an athletic girl’s struggles might be. How do young readers react to Madison? What do you hope a young reader might take away from your book?

I get more emails about Madison and No Cream Puffs than any of my other books. Madison is at an age when girls aren’t always comfortable with the opposite sex, so I think that many of my young readers like reading about a girl who has so much direct contact with boys! Others like her spunkiness, sympathize with her and her fight with her best friend, and cheer for her against Billy. Underneath all of this, I want girls to know what it was like before there was such a plethora of sporting opportunities in our country. Today’s girls don’t have to worry how to be athletes. Nor do they have to worry that their sporting teams might go away. It wasn’t always like this.

I love Madison’s mom. She blazed trails in her own legal career, and she struggles to give Madison the room she needs to make her own choices about baseball. Was Madison’s mom drawn from anyone you know?

In early drafts I really struggled with mom and what I wanted her character to be. I knew that Madison would have a push-pull relationship with her. I’d been reading a lot of female adolescent development books and was fascinated by the idea that a girl’s primary struggle in adolescence is learning to separate from her mother. Still, my own mom and other mothers I knew kept getting in the way. Then one day, Mitali Perkins, who was in my critique group, suggested that mom should have part of me in her. And something about this helped free me, and I saw her character more clearly.

Huey, the has-been rock star next door, is a unique figure in middle grade literature. He becomes a sort of father figure to Madison, even though he isn’t a very responsible adult. Can you tell us more about this character?

I was very conscious in this book of not doing the expected. For example, I could have written a story where the main character is a star, everyone is against her and she “fights the establishment” to get what she wants. In stead, I made the primary struggle an internal one. Likewise, it seems natural that Madison’s father figure would be the baseball coach or someone who was a good athlete. In stead, I introduce Huey. And I did this because I wanted to show that Madison wasn’t struggling with baseball as much as she was struggling with expectations and fame, something Huey knew a lot about. Also, he was a screw up. So, he was a good alternative to her mother who Madison thought always did everything right.

Madison’s brother David is such a wonderful mentor for her. And she has a marvelous relationship with fellow teammate, Brett. Did you have any strong male mentors in your life? Do you see any parallels between them and these characters?

My dad was a terrific sports buddy when I was growing up. He taught me to play ping pong, basketball, football and baseball. He was a serious, competitive man who valued sportsmanship and winning. He never seemed to tire of playing with me, especially after I started beating him at everything! Because of him, I was very comfortable around men and boys. I realized, at an early age, that what they valued most was winning. The boys on my baseball team liked me because I was good and helped the team. The tennis coaches liked me because I was coachable and won. There were no mind games and no drama. And so, yes, I carried over these experiences when I crafted Brett and David’s characters. They both like Madison and they respect her because she’s good.

A Million Miles from Boston is about Lucy, who’s had a difficult school year, and whose Dad has a new girlfriend. Tall Tales is about Meg, who struggles to keep her father’s alcoholism secret. Where do your book ideas come from? Do you see any recurrent themes or strands that run through your books?

All of my novels seem to deal with girls who feel alone. Lucy misses her mom who died six years earlier. Madison is the only girl playing baseball with the boys and Meg has just moved to a new town and desperately wants a friend. I think that this feeling of being alone is something with which I’m quite familiar and so it feels natural to write about this. Over and over and over! Many of my story ideas come from personal experience. But I also have kids in middle school and high school and so I’m constantly listening to them and their friends and trying to pick up ideas. Ian, the annoying boy in A Million Miles from Boston, came to me after listening to my middle child talk about an annoying boy at school. Meg’s story is based on my husband’s childhood. One of the things I love about writing is taking what I know and experienced and setting it in a different place, with a made-up plot, and seeing what happens.

You work with an editor I greatly admire, Wendy Lamb. What is it like to work with her? Can you tell us a little about the editorial process?

Wendy is an incredible editor. She has a way of strengthening my strengths and building up my weaknesses. My first editorial letter from her, about Tall Tales, was 14 pages long, single spaced! I usually do anywhere from four to eight revisions for her. It’s worth it. She has made all of my books so much better. Typically she’ll break my novel down into individual threads, and she’ll make suggestions on how to change or deepen a particular thread. This is a very comfortable process for me since it’s the way I’ve always approached revision.

Are you working on something new? Can you tell us a little about it?

I’m fascinated by how competitive sports change and disrupt family dynamics. I’m just rewriting a novel about two sisters, one who is a star diver who wants to quit but her family won’t let her. I’m interested in how the younger sister, who narrates the novel, is affected by the attention and drama given to the older sister. I’m also working on a new project, about a 12-year-old girl with psychic abilities. It’s a fun story, something new for me, but also with a serious side. And I’m teaching a lot more now. In the winter, I’ll be running a writing-for-kids adult workshop at Grub Street in Boston.

Is there anything else you’d like to share with our readers?

Thanks for having me, Linda!

Thank you so much for being my guest today. For any readers looking for a great book about girls and sports, I highly recommend No Cream Puffs by Karen Day. You can find out more about Karen and her work at 

Wednesday, October 9, 2013

When Rivers Burned Award Winner and KidsFaithGarden Post

After a summer break, I'm back with some wonderful news. 
When Rivers Burned: The Earth Day Story won two awards, a Green Book Festival award in history 
and a Moonbeam Children’s Book Award gold medal. 

KidsFaithGarden Guest Blog
Today is a busy day for me. I'm also appearing as a guest blogger on Nicole Lataif's delightful KidsFaithGarden website with a post on using imagination to promote kindness. I invite you to come join the discussion! 

Finally, I'd like to leave you with this musing on fall: 

Late September
I eat lunch under the glowering skies of late September.
Silence surrounds me until
I bite the succulent flesh of a peach,
Sweet remainder of summer, releasing 
The warble of goldfinches. 
Out of the corner of my eye I catch
The flit of a wing,
But it is only a yellowed leaf twisting in the wind.
Overhead, a winter jay calls. 

Wednesday, April 17, 2013

Author Leslie Connor talks about Crunch

I’d like to welcome author Leslie Connor, to my blog today to talk about her middle grade novel, Crunch. Leslie’s books have won numerous awards, and Crunch is no exception. I counted ten on her website, including Kirkus Best Books of 2010.

Since April 22 is Earth Day, and I have my own environmental book coming out this month, When Rivers Burned: The Earth Day Story, I just couldn’t pass up this title.

Crunch’s main character, Dewey Marriss, has promised to manage the family’s bike repair business just when the gas pumps run dry. Now his parents are stranded up north, and everyone in town needs a bike.

Dewey and his older sister Lil must look after their younger siblings and run the bike shop on their own. But bike parts are going missing. Is the thief someone they know?

Hi, Leslie! Crunch deals with the energy crisis and the danger of relying on fossil fuels. Yet you are never heavy-handed with that message. Could you tell us a little about why you chose to write about this topic and how you developed the story idea?

Hi, Linda. Thank you for inviting me to visit you at your blog today. I am charmed to be here.

So, I had the idea for Crunch percolating in the back of my mind basically because I am a drifty, dreamy sort who likes to drive down the highway imagining what it’d be like out there with no cars or trucks. (Oh! Smooth and easy biking!)
A few summers ago, gas prices began to rise—a lot. I was being more careful to combine my errands and I made fewer trips out. I wondered what it’d be like if gas got too expensive for most of us…or if the pumps went dry. I remember the energy crisis of the ‘70’s when we went to odd and even (by license plate numbers) at the pumps. My Mom would go and wait in line and sometimes not be back for an hour or more.
I did a lot of thinking about the inventiveness and resourcefulness of human beings. When I thought about travel, the immediate answer was BIKES.

I admire authors who can write in an authentic first person kid’s voice. Did Dewey’s voice come naturally or did you have to work at it? What was your process?

Characters seem to make their way to my ear naturally. (I’m a lucky writer in that regard.) It was interesting for me to write in first person from a male point of view. But I had two brothers growing up and I raised two sons and I am a terrific eavesdropper. Every so often I asked the males in my household, “Hey, would a guy say this?” (My family loves to take me to task.)

As a kid, I was drawn to books where kids had to manage on their own, without adults. You get Dewey’s parents out of the way, stuck in Canada without any gas to get home, and you keep other helpful adults on the periphery with Lil’s prickly pride in handling things on her own. Did you consciously try to keep the adults out of this story?

Yes, having Dewey’s parents away was always in my vision for this story. That was one more problem I could throw at poor Dewey. But I can never bear to leave my young characters completely without some adult nearby who could step in. (That is for my comfort and for the comfort of the reader.) I saw the Marriss’s as a family that had friends in the wings.

There was a lot of stuff about bike repair in this story. The Marrisses also live on a farm and sell eggs and goat’s milk. Are you a biker? Did you ever live on a farm? How much personal experience and how much research went into this book?

I do draw on personal experiences for my projects, Linda. I ride a cruiser/hybrid bike, outfitted with a nice front basket and a rear rack. I can get downtown in under twenty minutes if I pedal hard. For years my husband I rode a tandem together, and I loved that because I could sit on the back and look around while he steered. Both my sons work in a bike store, and my husband has built several bikes from parts while I…ahem…watched. (And if your chain fell off, I could most likely get that back on for you.) So once again, I had good help when it came to writing Crunch!
As for living on a farm, well I have lived in farmhouses, and very close to farms without ever really being The Farmer, though I dream of it. I garden, and I did own two little red hens for a while. I’m on a first-name basis with my neighbor’s goats and sheep, and I will confess right here that I like the smell of horse manure.

Will Dewey and his younger brother Vince be able to keep up with the demand at the bike shop? When will their parents make it home? Who’s stealing those bike parts? Who can they trust? The pace of this story never lags. How did you manage to juggle all these story strands?

Yikes! Your questions take me back to the months when I was writing the story. I worried about those threads—a lot! I’m glad it worked out, but believe me, that manuscript looked like a big crazy forsythia bush for a while and had to be pruned without feeling. When I am working on a novel there is a little bell inside of me that occasionally dings and tells me, hey, you haven’t mentioned such-and-such for six chapters!

In era of angst-driven novels, the Marriss family is refreshingly different. They work together well, taking responsibility for the bike shop and each other. Dad guides Dewey but never tells him what to do. Yet each member of this family is a distinct individual. How did you come up with these marvelous characters?

Wow. Thanks so much! The answer is I’m a good spy! The Marriss’s are, at least partly, spun from some dear friends of ours. They had five kids when we met them and went up to eight. I was always impressed with how responsible the older children in that family were for the youngest members. My characters are always composites of people I know, people I’ve heard about, or people I can imagine. Serendipity becomes a wonderful tool in that regard too.

You didn’t always envision yourself as a writer. Could you tell us about your winding journey to this career? How do your past careers influence your writing?

I came to children’s books thinking of myself more as an illustrator. I fell in love with art very early and earned a Fine Arts degree in college. I felt my compass was pointed straight at picture books: art, with a narrative in mind. But then novel writing surprised me the way a friendly tap on the shoulder might. I’m not sure why it took me so long to acknowledge that there was a writer in me. The signs were there; I had always written behind closed doors. I find art and writing very similar and I guess that isn’t profound since both are creative processes. Like many authors, I think in pictures and I run mental movies and snippets of dialog. All. Day. Long.

Your first book, Miss Bridie Chose a Shovel was a picture book. Next came a YA novel in verse, Dead on Town Line. Your two more recent books Waiting for Normal and Crunch were middle grade novels. Your writing has taken you in many different directions. How do you feel about your varied career? Do you have a favorite genre or age group?

I’m surprised! And pleased! I feel not very responsible for the way these projects arrive to me. One thing I love about genre hopping is that, for me, it seems to keep the writing crisp. I like “Beginner’s Mind” and so if I’ve been away from a genre for little while, I feel new to it again when I come back. If I have a favorite genre, it is probably older middle grade, or ‘tween. Interestingly, that was a time of struggles for me as a kid. Perhaps I set some roots down.

I hear you’re currently working on a YA Contemporary novel, The Things You Kiss Goodbye. Could you give us a sneak preview of what that book will be about?

Oh, sure I will. The story is about sixteen-year-old Bettina Vasilis. A history of restrictive parenting has her dipping her toe into the social scene at her high school a bit behind the rest of the crowd. In spite of that, she finds herself beginning her junior year in a serious romantic relationship with the high school basketball star. She has even won a spot on the cheerleading squad at his urging. But it is all a bad fit. For one thing, the adorable guy bouncing the orange ball is furtively abusive. One day, while Bettina is running away from him, she runs smack into someone incredible—someone kind, enticing, and completely forbidden. So begins a tricky walk on a tightrope of deception.

Is there anything else you’d like to tell us?

Yes! I’d like to tell you how much I am looking forward to your important new title, When Rivers Burned: The Earth Day Story. I am an avid reader of powerful nonfiction, and I know your book will not disappoint.

Wow! That's high praise, especially coming from an accomplished like you. Thank you! And thanks so much for joining me today. I loved Crunch, and I’m so pleased that I had a chance to share it with my readers.

Thank you so much for your thoughtful questions and for your graciousness, Linda. Let’s make sure our paths cross again! Cheers! ~Leslie

Thursday, March 14, 2013

When Rivers Burned: The Earth Day Story

I've been busy preparing for the April launch of my latest book:
When Rivers Burned: The Earth Day Story

I wanted to let you know about a few of my upcoming events.
First, is a workshop for adults interested in writing for children:

Young at Art: Writing for a Young Audience
Date: Friday April 5 6:30-8 pm
Place: One Yoga Center
Foster Market Place
142A Danielson Pike
Foster, RI 02825
To register for this event, contact Ellen Schaeffer
Phone: 401-368-YOGA (9642)

Workshop Description:
During this 1 ½ hour session, we’ll explore a variety of avenues to writing for kids. We’ll do some writing exercises to see where you might fit best. We’ll talk about the elements of story and discuss where to find support for your writing. Participants are invited to share up to five pages of a previously written work. Please note that new writers and curious non-writers are certainly welcome.

As an "Author for Earth Day," I'll donate half my fee from this event to the RI Audubon Society and the Nature Conservancy

Next, my book launch: (Yay!)
Join Apprentice Shop Books as we celebrate the movement that changed the world with the release of
When Rivers Burned: The Earth Day Story

Book discussion, question and answer session, and light refreshments served throughout the afternoon.
When: Sunday, April 21, 2013
Time: 1:00 – 4:00 p.m.
Where: Audubon Society of Rhode Island
Audubon Environmental Education Center
1401 Hope Street
Bristol, RI

$1 from each book purchased on 4/21/13 will be donated to the Earth Day Network

Monday, February 4, 2013

Interview with Author Barbara O'Connor

Barbara O’Connor is the author of over a dozen books for intermediate readers, including the award-winning Moonpie and Ivy, How to Steal a Dog, and The Fantastic Secret of Owen Jester.

She’s here today to talk about her most recent novel, On the Road to Mr. Mineo’s, which was named one of the best children’s books of the year by School Library Journal and won a Parent’s Choice Silver Award.

You open your book with a description of Highway 14 in South Carolina. Then you pull off the highway, following a small green sign to Meadville. There are no characters in sight until you get to town. Stella, the young main character doesn’t show up until page 5. Isn’t this a risky way to start a novel for kids? What made you take this approach?

Yes, risky. Kids usually want to jump right into the action. But I wanted to create a mood. More importantly, I wanted a sort of panoramic view of the town so the reader gets a sense of it right away. Then when the characters are introduced, they will “fit” in their places. The first chapter is very quiet, I know. That’s why I added the last “cliffhanger” sentence so that the reader will know that the pace will pick up in the next chapter.

A one-legged pigeon launches the plot. Stella wants him. So does her brother, and a number of the town worthies. Each chapter revolves around someone’s relationship with this pigeon. How did you come up with such an unlikely plot?

I knew from the get-go that I wanted multiple viewpoints. Once I decided on the homing pigeon (originally Sherman was a racing pigeon), then I needed a thread to tie all of the characters together. Wanting to catch Sherman was the perfect thread.

It’s unusual for a children’s book to feature so many adults. How did you make that work so well?

I’m glad you think it worked well. Thanks. That, too, can be a risky move. But since I had so many points of view, I definitely didn’t want them all to be children. I needed a balance. And I used Sherman to add interest to the adults. Giving an adult a pet always helps to make them more kid-friendly, too. (For instance, in my novel Greetings from Nowhere, one of the main characters is an elderly woman. I gave her a cat named Ugly, who helped make her more kid-like and, thus, a character whom kids could connect with.)

Actually, my favorite characters in On the Road to Mr. Mineo’s are the older couple, Amos and Ethel. I gave them the little brown dog so that their story would be more appealing to kids.

Each character in this book is unique and memorable. Can you tell us a little about how you developed your characters?

Character development in multiple viewpoint stories is critical. Each one has to be identifiable and distinct from the others. I try to establish their uniqueness immediately, to reinforce that distinction periodically, and to stay consistent. For instance, Gerald is meek, nervous, and not a risk taker – the complete opposite of Stella. So his actions and dialogue needed to reflect that. Mr. Mineo is a bit cranky. I used his dog, Ernie, to help me establish that because he could talk to the dog, expressing his aggravation over Sherman to Ernie.

So, bottom line, the trick is to give each character a specific personality trait that the reader will recognize throughout the story.

Many of your books feature animals, from the dog in How to Steal a Dog, to the frog in The Fantastic Secret of Owen Jester. Do animals hold a special place in your life? What role do they play in your fiction?

I love animals! I’m a big dog lover. And as for frogs, I was one heck of a good bullfrog catcher back in the day. (I lived in Louisiana for a few years as a child and once caught a giant bullfrog using a birdcage in a drainage ditch.)
I use animals often in my work because kids love animals. And as I mentioned in an earlier answer, animals often help make an adult character more kid-friendly and attractive to young readers.

You live in New England, yet most of your books are set in the south. Why does that setting resonate with you?

I was born and raised in the South. I didn’t leave the South until several years after finishing college. My heart’s home will always be there. I love everything about it: the people, the food, the landscape. And because that’s where I spent my childhood, that’s the setting that helps me feel like a child again and helps me create stories about and for children. If I tried to write a book set in New England, I don’t think I could conjure up the feelings I need. And it would be harder for me to add the rich details that make a story special because the details of New England don’t speak to me the same as the details of the South: the dialogue, the weather, the businesses, characters, trees, food, etc. All of those things are vital to the story as a whole.

Your books make delightful read-alouds. I love Mr. Mineo’s daily roll call of his pigeons:
Edna, Frankie, Martha, Samson, Leslie, Taylor, Amy, Joe, Christopher, and Martin.
But not Sherman.
Do you pay special attention to the sound of the words as you write? When does this happen in your process?

Definitely!! The rhythm of the writing is critical to my style and writing voice. For that reason, I use a lot of short, incomplete sentences. (I drive copy editors crazy.) I also love repetition, as in the example you cited. Kids enjoy that. It establishes a familiarity with the story for them.

As for when in the process this happens, I’d say right away. The rhythm and sound of the words set the tone for the book and that needs to be established very early on. Also, I’m a polish-as-I-go kind of writer. I never leave anything messy behind me. It’s too distracting to me.

What are you working on now?

I’m in the very early stages of a middle grade novel. I’m hoping to try something new (for me) but it’s tricky and I’m not sure I can pull it off. I’m not going to divulge what it is in case I DON’T pull it off. 

Is there anything else you’d like to share with our readers?

Just a thank you for stopping by this terrific blog and reading my interview. Thank you, Linda.

Thank you so much for talking with us today!

Monday, January 28, 2013

My Next Big Thing

Thanks to my friend, Kim Newton Fusco, award-winning author of Tending to Grace and The Wonder of Charlie Ann, for inviting me to participate in the online literary blog called MY NEXT BIG THING.

The blog is a series of questions about works-in-progress and not yet published titles. Many national and international writers have participated in this. It gives readers a glimpse into the working life of a writer. Part of the fun is tagging someone else. It is with great delight that I will be tagging two other writers at the end of this post.

is a book about the events that led up to the first Earth Day and the men who were instrumental in its development.

What is the working title of your book? When Rivers Burned: The Earth Day Story

Where did the idea come from for the book?
My publisher, Muriel Dubois of Apprentice Shop Books, was developing a series on pivotal moments in history. She invited authors to submit ideas.
I struggled all day to come up with something fresh, and at dinner asked my husband if he had any ideas. He’s a pharmacist, and at first he suggested things like the development of penicillin. That didn’t excite me. Then he mentioned a broadcast he had heard on NPR for the 40th anniversary of Earth Day. It talked about the impact Earth Day had on environmental legislation in our country.
This was a topic that combined two of my passions, history and nature. I was hooked. After dinner, I had a meeting to attend, but I turned around midway there, went home, wrote up the proposal for the Earth Day book, and fired it off. By seven the next morning, Muriel had accepted it.

What genre does your book fall under?
The book is nonfiction for ages ten and up. It touches on history, politics, and the environment.

Which actors would you choose to play your characters in a movie rendition?
There are many “characters” in the book, but the main ones are Gaylord Nelson, the senator from Wisconsin who came up with the idea for Earth Day, and Denis Hayes, the college student who organized it. I’m dating myself, but I can see Jimmy Stewart as Gaylord Nelson; and maybe Jeff Bridges as Denis Hayes.

What is a one-sentence synopsis of your book?
A series of ecological disasters leads Gaylord Nelson to organize the largest demonstration in US history, forcing a dramatic change in environmental policy.

How long did it take you to write the first draft of your manuscript?
It took me six months to write the first draft, because that’s how long my publisher allowed me. (Otherwise, I’d probably still be working on it.) We spent about three months more on revisions.

What other books would you compare this story to within your genre?
The book that comes to mind is Tanya Lee Stone’s Almost Astronauts because both books combine many people's stories to give a glimpse of a particular time and place.

Who or what inspired you to write this book?
In one sense, this book was publisher-generated. I came up with something to fit Apprentice Shop’s Once in America Series.
But in a deeper sense this book was inspired by many things: my experience living through the sixties and seventies—1970 was the date of the first Earth Day—and my concern for the natural world. I worry that our abuse of the environment will have enormous, even life-threatening, repercussions. Yet many have tuned out the folks who try to warn us of the danger.

What else about your book might pique a reader’s interest?
I had the opportunity to interview Denis Hayes, who was the grad student who organized the first Earth Day. (Unfortunately, Gaylord Nelson has passed away.) Denis was incredibly generous with his time, answering my countless questions.
He gave me an inkling of what was involved in planning a political event of this magnitude. Earth Day was the largest demonstration in US history. It was estimated that a tenth of the country’s entire population took part. Denis Hayes was also instrumental in keeping attention focused on the environment afterward, when other world events threatened to eclipse the issue. We can learn much from his methods.

When and how will it be published?
When Rivers Burned: The Earth Day Story will be published by Apprentice Shop Books this spring. We’ve planned a special launch on April 21, 2013 at the RI Audubon Society.

Now it is my honor to tag and introduce you to two other marvelous authors:Joyce Ray and Leslie Bulion
Joyce Ray’s forthcoming early YA novel, Feathers and Trumpets, A Story of Hildegard of Bingen (Apprentice Shop Books, fall 2013), is an intriguing look at a dynamic woman of the Middle Ages. Hildegard became the 12th century’s foremost female writer and composer and has recently been named a saint and a Doctor of the Church. Joyce is co-author, with Andrea Murphy and other contributors, of a forthcoming title in the America’s Notable Women SeriesWomen of the Pine Tree State, 25 Maine Women You Should Know. The following series’ titles also contain short biographies written by Joyce: Women of the Golden State, Women of the Empire State and Women of the Prairie State. Her work-in-progress is a middle-grade historical novel. Joyce is a poet, contributes to Poetry Friday and reviews books on her blog Musings at

Leslie Bulion’s first two poetry books, HEY THERE, STINK BUG! (Charlesbridge 2006) and AT THE SEA FLOOR CAFÉ: ODD OCEAN CRITTER POEMS (Peachtree 2011), combine humor, science, rhythm, and rhyme in themed collections that have garnered accolades in the science and kidlit communities including NSTA, AAAS, Bank Street College, Book Sense, and ABC Best Books. Her third collection sports the favorite of her book titles: RANDOM BODY PARTS: GROSS ANATOMY RIDDLES IN VERSE (Peachtree 2013). Leslie is also the author of a picture book, titles for the education market, and three middle-grade novels, most recently THE UNIVERSE OF FAIR (Peachtree 2012), in which she explores various facets of string theory and lemon meringue pie. For more fun, explore Leslie’s website and blog at

Friday, January 11, 2013

Interview with Terry Farish, author of THE GOOD BRAIDER

Welcome, Terry! Thanks so much for agreeing to be a guest on my blog.

Terry Farish is the author of a number of acclaimed books for children and teens. She’s here today to talk about her latest, THE GOOD BRAIDER. It’s a young adult novel in verse about a South Sudanese girl’s experience of war and immigration. In a starred review, School Library Journal wrote, ” Viola’s memorable, affecting voice will go far to help students step outside of their own experience and walk a mile in another’s shoes.”

You work with refugees from Sudan, Vietnam, Cambodia and other countries. I’m assuming that Viola’s story grew out of your experience. Was it inspired by a particular individual or event?

THE GOOD BRAIDER came from a thousand places. I worked in Portland where half the novel is set. It was 2001 when many South Sudanese families had obtained refugee status. Catholic Charities in Maine worked to resettle many of the families between 1999 or so until 2005 when a Peace Accord was signed between southern Sudan and the Government of Sudan. I met many teenagers when they were first making their homes in the U.S., first attending U.S. schools, and first facing the challenges of living as Americans and, at the same time, honoring the African traditions of their elders. From the many stories I heard, research about the war in Juba, and travel to nearby Kenya, I wrote the novel.

How did you deal with the challenge of writing about another culture? How have readers and reviewers reacted to this?

I did not consider the fact that I was writing outside my culture until the book was about to be published. For the first time, then, I had space to imagine the impact on readers of writing in the voice of a young Sudanese girl. I first wrote in a more distanced 3rd person and had trouble entering the book. When I put all the research away, and began to write from inside the main character's experience and emotions, I was able to tell the story and that drove the whole process. I researched the book for so many years, was immersed in the culture, and listened to the voices of so many people from South Sudan that the voices were deep inside me as I wrote. The book has been well received as a window on experience unknown to many American young readers or adults.

You’ve said, “Writing is a way for me to try to make sense of what I care most deeply about.” Viola certainly tugs at the reader’s heart. How did you manage to instill such emotion into THE GOOD BRAIDER?

I have written about immigrants before. I wrote about a young woman from Cambodia in IF THE TIGER but viewed her from the point of view of an American character. I could not write from that distance in THE GOOD BRAIDER. It wasn’t a deliberate choice. But the first verse I wrote was the scene in which Viola and her mother are in conflict. I wrote it in first person, very intimate, and in spare lines that worked for me to attempt to capture the tension. I think it was the emotion of the situation I was trying to capture that forced the spare lines.

I love understatement. I am drawn to leave meaning between the lines for readers to explore. I tend to fault on the side of leaving too much between the lines and my challenge in THE GOOD BRAIDER was to heighten the emotion by extending a scene and speaking the impact of a situation on the main character.

In working with my editor, I considered the structure of the novel. I experimented with opening in the present and returning quickly to the past - the war in Sudan. In the second half of the book set in Portland, I reached back to the emotion of a Sudan scene to pull it forward to the Portland scene. Much of my rewriting was the process of remembering with Viola and pulling the memory forward to her present life so that the war became a more visceral part of her process of making sense of Portland.

What does hair braiding symbolize for you and for Viola?

As a child, Viola learned to braid hair by following the movements of her mother's fingers as she braided the hair of women in the compound. Along Viola's journey from Juba to Cairo to Portland, she ceases to care for or braid her hair. She has suffered great loss, the strands of her life, and the braiding to her is like the strands she can no longer bring together. In Cairo, her friend tells her, "You will braid when your are ready. Braiding is from our culture." I wanted braiding to be a metaphor for Viola's evolving skill in leaning to live in a new culture. Braiding also represents her deep bond with her mother.

Viola and her mother have a difficult relationship. Can you talk a little about that element of the book?

Viola and her mother enable each other to survive in Sudan. When they come to the U.S., American culture divides them. I found this intergenerational conflict to be one of the most heart breaking challenges that many South Sudanese and many people from other cultures face as immigrant and refugee families make their homes in the U.S.

THE GOOD BRAIDER is written in verse. You wrote a series of interviews with authors who wrote in verse. Was that in preparation for this project? Can you tell us a little of your process of writing in verse?

I interviewed a number of verse novelists after I finished THE GOOD BRAIDER. Talking to others who have worked in the form was fascinating. I was interested in cultural connections. Can culture be reflected in the form? I had not asked this of myself, but I heard a good response from a reader and reviewer. She suggested that the shape of the poems on the page resembled the shape of braids. My overt intention in writing in verse was to capture the intensity of the scene with spare language and breath. The short lines demand pauses. In writing the articles about other writers' use of verse, I also came to understand my own work better. I enjoyed the conversations I had with the writers I interviewed. So much of the marketing and public presentations I've done since THE GOOD BRAIDER came out has been in collaboration with other writers and I've loved that.

South Sudanese American rapper OD Bonny is writing a song about Viola for his new album. How marvelous! How did that come about?

I am delighted! O.D. Bonny, who is now a student at the University of Southern Maine, wrote a song called , "A Girl from Juba." He is going to produce a video for the song with footage from South Sudan and Portland that we will use as a trailer. I met O.D. through the wonderful Kirsten Cappy of Curious City in Portland. O.D. was a star of the Portland launch of the book and so was a student in the acting group, A Company of Girls, who did a reading from THE GOOD BRAIDER.

You worked with the American Red Cross in Vietnam. Your book, Flower Shadows, is set there. Many of your other books have dealt with war and displacement. Can you tell us about them and your experience in Vietnam?

Yes, I worked for the American Red Cross during the war and was stationed in Cu Chi and Qui Nhon. When I came back to the U.S. I began to meet Vietnamese families who were coming here as refugees. FLOWER SHADOWS was the first book I wrote that drew on research and experience with immigrant families. They helped me understand the culture that I had lived in and had taken me years after the war to begin to make sense of. I think we have experiences in our lives that we may tuck away. But each one shapes us and may form what will become integral to stories we are drawn to tell decades later.

What are you working on now?

I just finished a chapter book about a young boy who lives in Kakuma Refugee Camp and moves to the U.S. with his sister and grandmother. I am traveling to Kakuma in January, 2013.

Thank so much for sharing with us today. We wish you a good journey to Kakuma and look forward to reading your next book!