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.

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