Monday, November 17, 2014

4-H Inspires Rebecca Petruck's 'Steering Toward Normal'

Rebecca Petruck's Steering Toward Normal (Abrams, 2014) is a must-read. Not only has it been an American Booksellers Association Indies Introduce New Voices selection, a Spring Kids Indie Next List title, and an ABC Best Books for Children, Vanity Fair's Hollywood dubbed it a "book we'd like to see made into a film," made the L.A. Times' Summer Books Preview, but the Christian Science Monitor named it one of 25 Best New Middle Grade Novels. Phew! Not bad for a debut effort!

And she has one of the best covers ever!

Steering Toward Normal tells the story of Diggy, who has big plans for his eighth-grade year. He's ready to compete in the Minnesota State Fair, has a 4-H girl in his sights, and has conspired with Pop for April Fool's Day. But when his classmate's mother dies, a secret is revealed: Pop is this boy's father, too. Now Diggy has to figure out what family really means.

So what does this Minnesota girl (currently living in North Carolina) as well as former 4-H'er have to say about the writing life?

Question: What inspired you to write your book?

Rebecca Petruck: Steering Toward Normal began as a very different short story inspired by a photograph of two boys posed as if they were tough, but whose adolescent bodies betrayed their innocence. Though they were about the same age, I came to think of them as brothers and started wondering how that might have happened and what that would mean for them.

That story was only meant to be a writing exercise for a class during my MFA program. My planned thesis was about a teen girl in Idaho figuring out how to respect a mom who had always been passive in her marriage. (Also, there were potatoes.) But those two boys kept niggling at me, and I had set the story in a place I knew (Minnesota). The book kept growing around me without me trying!

It took me a while to find my way to the steers, though. I started with dairy cows (all that milk to deal with!) then fancy chickens (fun but too frou-frou for Diggy and Wayne), and finally stumbled on show steers. I fell for the competitors I interviewed. They all were very sincere in saying it’s better not to get too attached to the steers, while being very clearly attached to their steers. It was like meeting Diggy and Wayne in real life.

Q: What do you hope to accomplish with your writing?

RP: I want to write stories for all those decent, ordinary kids out there trying to cope with a crazy world, so they know it’s okay to not understand what’s going on and to make mistakes even when they’re doing their best. I remember being perplexed by decisions my parents made, partly because many were bad decisions, yet I had to live with the consequences.

In Steering Toward Normal, several bad decisions made by adults lead to a total shakeup of Diggy’s world, so he clings even harder to a decision he had made for himself: to win Grand Champion Steer at the Minnesota State Fair. It saves him, though not in the way he expected.

Steers are only and ever beef cattle, so the thing about raising them is there is always an end date—they are sold to the packer for slaughter. Approaching a situation like this, year after year, and learning how to cope with the heartbreak is what has prepared Diggy to cope with his current difficult situation. He doesn’t realize it, of course, and there are times when he wants to give up. But raising steers has taught him how to keep his heart open, despite the inevitable pain, and that ends up being the gift he shares and that saves his family.

I think that’s part of what growing up is: learning to keep our hearts open in an imperfect world.

Q: What are you working on next?

RP: Will Nolan Eats Bugs is inspired by a National Geographic article about the nutritional value of eating insects. Since then, entomophagy has been spotlighted in other media outlets and become something of a niche foodie trend.

The idea of insects as an everyday part of our regular foodstuffs fascinates me. I was well into work on the project before I realized I was again writing a novel with a major element centered on food production! Steering Toward Normal features beef cattle. Bugs features a class presentation gone wrong when Will “serves” insects for snacks. The problem for me of course is that I’ll have to eat insects to ensure veracity in the WIP. I hope my next book involves chocolate!

Monday, November 3, 2014

Gayle Rosengren Taps Family Lore for 'What the Moon Said'

Gayle Rosengren knows her way around books. A former children's and young adult librarian, a reference librarian, as well as copyeditor – for the American Girl books, no less – she's got storytelling down. 

Her lovely debut middle-grade novel What the Moon Said (Putnam, February 2014) tells the story of 10-year-old Esther, who knows how to avoid bad luck: toss salt over your left shoulder, never button your shirt crooked, and avoid black cats. But none of those tricks can stave off the hardships that come with the Great Depression. Esther's father is out of work, and her family is forced to leave their home in Chicago and resettle to a Wisconsin farm. Think outhouses, no electricity, hard-scrabble living. But as Booklist writes, "Esther’s positive attitude offers a fine model for readers of this engaging historical fiction."

Question: What inspired you to write your book? 

Gayle Rosengren: I was inspired by stories my mother told me about her childhood, especially because many of them took place on a farm. I was a horse-crazy city kid who always dreamed of living in the country with my own horse, dogs, cats, cows, etc., not to mention babbling brooks, woods, and big green spaces to run wild in. This made my mom's stories especially wonderful to me, even though many of them included things like outhouses and extreme temperatures and lo-o-o-ng walks to school. But even more inspirational was the fact that my mom and I were very close, and my grandmother lived with us for most of my childhood, so it often felt like I had two mothers – one very soft, and the other rather prickly but both very protective of me. What the Moon Said was my way of celebrating both of them for teaching me most – if not all – of what I know about love.

Q: What do you hope to accomplish with your writing?  

GR: We didn't have much in the way of money when I was a girl, so school and public libraries were godsends. I could check out a stack of novels – reading material for a week or 
two – and not pay a penny. I read horse books and dog books, mysteries and survival stories, historical and contemporary fiction, never realizing that I wasn't just being entertained, I was being informed. I learned about families and places much different from my own. I learned things I probably never would have learned otherwise (I still know what to do for a poisonous snake bite, thanks to a Trixie Belden mystery). And identifying with the characters in fiction helped to make me a more empathetic person.
Books made me more aware of the differences between people but even more importantly of the things we all have in common, no matter where we live or what our circumstances. We all have people and things in our lives that are dear to us, and we all are confronted with problems large and small on a regular basis. We have to make choices. And we have to live with the results of those choices.

Reading fiction gave me vicarious life experience to add to my far more limited personal experience. And I loved reading so much – having all those great adventures, making all those fictional friends – that it seemed the most natural thing in the world to want to create stories for future young readers.   Finally, by turning new readers into book lovers at this age, they will almost certainly be life-long readers. What book-lover can resist the temptation to be a part of this chain?  Not I.

Q: What are you working on next? 

GR: My next book is coming out in August of 2015, also from G.P. Putnam's Sons/Penguin Young Readers. It's called Cold War on Maplewood Street, and it takes place during the week of the Cuban Missile Crisis in 1962. While my first book grew out of my mother's experiences, this one came purely from my own.

The Cuban Missile Crisis was a terrifying week for people all around the world. Yet many people under the age of 50 know little if anything about it. They have no idea how close the world came to nuclear war in that showdown between Russia and the United States. But this was an important time in our history, and I think it needs to be remembered. My book tells the story through the eyes of a young girl whose beloved brother Sam has recently joined the Navy, and she is afraid that his battleship is among those standing between Cuba and the Russian ships. It's a story about family and fear and friendship, but most of all about one girl's coming of age while confronting an uncertain future.