Monika Schröder interviews Barbara O’Connor, author of WISH (Farrar, Straus & Giroux)
Children’s authors Monika Schröder and Barbara O’Connor have been friends for years, brought together when they shared the same editor, Frances Foster at FSG. After communicating by email for a year or so, they finally met in person at a librarians’ conference in Washington, DC. But their bond grew closer when Barbara moved from Boston to Asheville, North Carolina, a short distance from Monika. Now they enjoy chatting all things book related while walking their dogs once a week in the beautiful Blue Ridge Mountains. Making the bond even more special is the fact that they each have new children’s novels being published just days apart.
Barbara is the author of award-winning novels for children, including How to Steal a Dog, The Small Adventure of Popeye and Elvis, and The Fantastic Secret of Owen Jester. Her latest novel, Wish, is published this fall by Farrar, Straus & Giroux. Visit her at: www.barbaraoconnor.com
Monika is the author of Saraswati's Way, The Dog in the Wood and My Brother's Shadow. Her latest novel for middle-grade readers, Be Light Like a Bird, will be published by Capstone on September 1st. Visit her at: www.monikaschroeder.com
Monika: You’re known for your novels with Southern settings. Why did you decide to exclusively write books with Southern settings and tone?
Barbara: As a new and inexperienced writer, I was struggling to find my writing voice. Then I read Missing May by Cynthia Rylant and had a light bulb moment. I adored her voice in that book and I realized how much voice and setting were intertwined in her work. That’s when I began to write books set in the South, where I grew up. My childhood memories are closely connected with the South: the kudzu, the steamy summer weather, the boiled peanuts and collard greens, the great Southern folks with their accents and phrases like “I’m fixin’ to go” and “I like to died.” By drawing on those memories, I found my writing voice.
Monika: I have a feeling that your recent move to the Blue Ridge Mountains had an impact on the setting of Wish. Am I right?
Barbara: Absolutely! I grew up at the bottom of those beautiful mountains and have many happy memories of day trips up the winding roads. The woods were lush with ferns and cool, damp moss. The creeks were icy cold with giant boulders warm from the sun, perfect for a barefoot little girl to jump on. After 26 years in snowy Boston, I headed back to the Blue Ridge Mountains. I felt so at home again that I knew I had to set my next book there.
Monika: I know that often stories start with the seed of an idea. What was the seed for Wish?
Barbara: I was teaching a writing workshop to a class of fifth graders at an elementary school in Massachusetts. The students were given a set of questions to use to interview a relative. The next day, they brought those interview questions back to class and I would work with them on writing a short biography of that person. (Many people don’t know this, but I actually started my career writing biographies for children.)
I asked the students to share with the class one of their favorite questions from the interview. One young boy had interviewed his grandmother and he chose to share the question, “What were some of your favorite activities as a child?” His grandmother had answered, “Soccer, ballet and fighting.”
I now had a character to plunk down into those mountains. Her name is Charlie Reese, a feisty, troubled child with a bad temper.
Monika: I love the character of Howard, who tries so hard to befriend hot-headed Charlie. Can you shed any light on the creation of Howard?
Barbara: Howard was actually a character in a manuscript that I abandoned (something I almost never do). The story wasn’t working, but I liked Howard so much that I snatched him out of that story and knew he’d be a perfect friend for Charlie. He is very much the yin to her yang.
Monika: Wish tells the story of a child displaced from her home due to dysfunctional parents. You’ve also written about a homeless child in your novel, How to Steal a Dog. Your books are geared toward readers aged 9 to 12. How do you handle such tough issues for young readers?
Barbara: I’m a strong believer in not sugar-coating the world for children. Some families are dysfunctional. Some children are homeless. To never write about those things doesn’t make them go away. And by writing about them, some children will see themselves and relate, while others will learn more about the world around them and perhaps gain more empathy.
On the subject of protecting children from the harsh realities of life, I like to quote Phyllis Fogelman, the editor of Mildred Taylor’s Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry. She says, “It is generally knowledge, not a lack of it, that arms children and helps to prepare them for the world as it is rather than what we would like it to be.” To which I reply, “Amen.”
Monika: What do you see as the main difference between writing for children and writing for adults? For instance, do you ever write in order to teach a moral or a lesson? Do you make a point of keeping vocabulary more simplistic?
Barbara: I never write to teach a moral or a lesson. My main goal in writing for children is simply to entertain them. If they learn a bit along the way, that’s a good thing, too.
As far as vocabulary, I never think about it. Maybe that means my brain is stuck in fourth grade. I definitely don’t “dumb down” the vocabulary.
Monika: Any advise for aspiring children’s writers?
Barbara: The obvious: read. Read as many books as you can, particularly book written in the genre and style of your own writing. It’s important to read new books to stay abreast of the market and to see which publishers are publishing which types of books.
Also, I always recommend that aspiring children’s writers join the Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators (scbwi.org). That organization provides a wealth of information and support. If possible, attend one of their regional conferences. You’ll come away informed and inspired.
Lastly, your writing process will very likely be different from others. Some writers write every day. (I don’t.) Some writers keep journals. (I don’t.) Some writers outline. (I don’t.) Do what works for you.
- Published: 28 August 2016
When I try to explain to people outside the South that Mississippi has some of the best bookshops in America, if not the world, I usually hear a “huh” noise that reminds me of a puzzled dog tilting its head. As a bookhound who moved to Mississippi from New York City, and grew up in London, England, it was a surprise to me too.
Oxford was my gateway drug to the rest of Mississippi, and Oxford is unimaginable without Square Books at its geographical and cultural heart. I linger there for the atmosphere and conversation as much as anything, but the store also pries my wallet open with remarkable ease. Enthusiasm for books spreads like a gentle contagion among the staff and the customers, and I invariably buy more books than I was intending, and feel refreshed for doing so.
When I bought an old house in the Mississippi Delta, near the tiny farm settlement of Pluto, my cultural lifeline was Turnrow Books in Greenwood. I would make the 50-mile drive there at least twice a week. It’s a marvel that such a first-rate bookstore can exist in such a modest-sized town. Turnrow has become a hub for the community, a lunch spot and meeting place, a venue for musical and literary events, a bastion of civilization in the old crumbling cotton town.
Now I live in Jackson, within walking distance of the Lemuria Book Store, yet another Mississippi independent that rivals anything in London and New York, and outmatches it for charm, hospitality and comfort. Down on the Gulf Coast in Pass Christian, Pass Books is another state treasure, and chooses its coffee beans with the same care and good taste as its books. All these independent bookstores add so much to the pleasure of living here. They do what the big chain bookstores were never able to do, and that is to make you fall in love with them.
WHAT I’M READING NOW
The Transformation of the World, by Jurgen Ostenhammel. Lately I start my days at 5am and read this massive, dense, intellectually dazzling history of the 19th century for an hour. In this way, I strike a small blow against the internet, and the damage it’s doing to my powers of concentration. 9780691169804
The Bloody Shirt, by Stephen Budiansky. A blistering indictment of Southern racial violence and terrorism after the Civil War, and a necessary corrective to Southern mythology about Reconstruction. 9780452290167
Barkskins, by Annie Proulx. I’ve just finished this epic saga about the ransacking of the world’s forests. Exhaustively researched and brilliantly told, it requires Proulx to kill off dozens of characters over the centuries, which she does with perverse glee. At 80 years old, she seems at the height of her powers. 9780743288781
Life Is Meals, by James and Kay Salter. This delicious collection of bite-sized vignettes about food and drink is best enjoyed in bed at night, and preferably read out loud by your bedmate. 9780375711398
- Published: 08 July 2016
The best in southern literature, from the people who would know . . . Southern Independent (and independently minded!) Booksellers
(Columbia, SC) Southern indie booksellers once again demonstrate their independence of mind by choosing an excitingly eclectic collection of books for the 2016 Pat Conroy Southern Book Prize.
"What a delicious gumbo of literary works--salty, spicy, bittersweet, and sour. I loved all of these books for the sole reason that they tell the world in colorful, rich and diverse language just what it so special and, yes, crazy about the American South." – Hub City Bookshop, Spartanburg, SC
Formerly the “SIBA Book Award,” the newly reborn Pat Conroy Southern Book Prize features an expanded list of categories, inspired by the tastes and inclinations of Southern readers. Nominated by booksellers and their customers, vetted by bookstores and selected by a jury of Southern booksellers, these are the Southern books that Southern bookstores were most passionate about, and inspired the most “you’ve got to read this” moments and “hand sell” moments in stores across the South. The nine winners chosen from a field of nearly forty finalists. Together, they represent the best of Southern literature, from the people who would know—Southern indie booksellers.
The Great Santini Fiction Prize Winner:
My Sunshine Away by M. O. Walsh (G.P. Putnam’s Sons)
“This debut author spins a tale that will grab you from the first page and keep you turning pages until the last.”– Fiction Addiction, Greenville, SC
The Prince of Tides Literary Prize Winner:
Above the Waterfall by Ron Rash (Ecco Press)
“Beautiful language, I could not put this book down. Read it in one day.” – Garden District Bookshop, New Orleans, LA
The Beach Music Mystery Prize Winner:
Bull Mountain by Brian Panowich (G.P. Putnam’s Sons)
“ Reads like a twisty, dark TV series you can't help but binge-watch.” – Avid Bookshop, Athens, GA
The Lords of Discipline Thriller Prize Winner:
The Bone Tree by Greg Isles (William Morrow & Company)
“Iles has written an intense, tightly plotted narrative with more than one shocking turn of events that will have readers racing to finish, but then pining away for the third installment of this massive and electrifying trilogy.” – Square Books, Oxford, MS
The Pat Conroy Cookbook Prize Winner:
Soul Food Love by Alice Randall (Clarkson Potter Publishers)
“ I really appreciate the goal of this cookbook - to make Soul food quick, inexpensive, tasty and healthy! The family history part of the cookbook was very interesting and I appreciated the honesty of the authors. I loved the pictures of the family & the finished product of the recipes.” – Joe’s Place, Greenville, SC
The Death of Santini NonFiction Prize Winner:
Dispatches from Pluto by Richard Grant (Simon & Schuster)
"In Dispatches From Pluto, Richard Grant brings clarity, insight, and wit through his outsider's observations of a small and forgotten community in the Mississippi Delta. The situations he writes of and the people he comes to know as friends are brought warmly and enrichingly to life as he settles his family in a rotting and dilapidated plantation home in Pluto, Mississippi." – Pass Books, Pass Christian, MS
The Water is Wide History & Life Stories Prize Winner:
Jacksonland by Steve Inskeep (Penguin Press
“Great history! Loved the book, very well written” – Books Unlimited, Franklin, NC
Poppy's Pants Young Adult Prize Winner:
Mosquitoland by David Arnold (Viking Books for Young Readers)
“Mim's voice in this amazing amalgam of a love story, a road trip novel, and a coming-of-age story, will stay with you long after you finish .” – Fiction Addiction, Greenville, SC
Poppy's Pants Youngster's Prize Winner:
Serafina and the Black Cloak by Robert Beatty (Disney-Hyperion)
“A wonderfully thrilling mystery for young readers that is as much a celebration of being "different" as it is pitch-perfect creepiness.” – Avid Bookshop, Athens, GA
Nine great books for your Southern reading list. But remember that they come from a "gumbo of literary works--salty, spicy, bittersweet, and sour" to quote one Southern bookseller. To round out your literary diet, be sure to look at the full list of Pat Conroy Southern Book Prize Finalists.
For more information on the SIBA Book Awards please visit SIBA’s website for Southern literature, http://www.authorsroundthesouth.com/read-this/siba-book-awards
- Published: 04 July 2016
(Columbia, SC) – The heat is on and Southern Indie booksellers are cooking up a sizzling plate of summer Okra Picks! The 2016 Summer Okra Picks have just been selected–a hearty helping of great summer reading that will make your beach book bag look a little more nutritious. They're a baker’s dozen of great books representing the best in forthcoming southern lit, according to the people who would know–Southern independent booksellers.
All the picks have a strong Southern focus and are publishing between July and September 2016, and all have fans among Southern booksellers: the people always on the lookout for the next great writer who belongs in your to-be-read stack. So on your next Southern Indie bookstore visit, expect to hear “You’ve got to read this!” and find one of these titles in your hands. Great books are always good for you!
The 2016 Summer Okra Picks
The Cantaloupe Thief
by Deb Richardson-Moore
Lion Fiction, July 2016
The Promise of Jesse Woods
by Chris Fabry
Tyndale House Publishers, July 2016
by Ben Winters
Mulholland Books, July 2016
Let the Devil Out: A Maureen Coughlin Novel
by Bill Loehfelm
Sarah Crichton Books, July 2016
Lowcountry Book Club
by Susan M. Boyer
Henery Press, July 2016
Ninety-Nine Stories of God
by Joy Williams
Tin House Books, July 2016
The Heavenly Table
by Donald Ray Pollock
Doubleday Books, July 2016
by Paul Heald
Yucca Publishing, July 2016
The Fire This Time: A New Generation Speaks about Race
by Jesmyn Ward
Scribner Book Company, August 2016
by Ron Rash
Ecco Press, September 2016
by Robert Olen Butler
Atlantic Monthly Press, September 2016
by Jane Alison
Catapult, September 2016
by Thomas Mullen
Atria, September 2016
Okra Picks are chosen every season by Southern Independent Bookstores. For more information visit authorsroundthesouth.com/okra.
- Published: 01 July 2016
Katherine Clark’s The Headmaster’s Darlings Wins
The 2015 Willie Morris Award for Southern Fiction
Sarah Addison Allen Given Special Recognition
The 2015 Willie Morris Award for Southern Fiction has been won by Katherine Clark for her The Headmaster’s Darlings. The novel, Clark’s first, is the initial installment of a quartet of books set in Mountain Brook, Alabama. Reba White Williams, sponsor of the award, praised The Headmaster’s Darlings for “its originality, Southerness, and uplifting message, all requisite qualities for the Willie Morris Award.”
Sarah Addison Allen was recognized for her six novels published over the past eight years, beginning with Garden Spells (2007) and more recently First Frost (2015). Allen’s novels are noted for their appealing characters, some appearing in more than one book, and the magical realism that infuses people, places and things. Allen sums up her style as “Southern-fried magic realism.” Her Special Recognition is the first-ever for the Willie Morris Award.
The Headmaster’s Darlings is the ninth Willie Morris Award for Southern Fiction, which is given annually. For more information, see https://williemorrisaward.org/.
- Published: 13 June 2016
We had three books at home when I was growing up: The Tales of Edgar Allan Poe, Betty Crocker Cookbook and The Thorn Birds. Not exactly great options for a curious kid. Luckily, Mom took my sister and me to the public library, where she allowed us to choose our own books.
I fell in love with Mr. Popper’s Penguins -- a fun story that was a desperately needed window to a fantasy world so different from my impoverished, lonely childhood.
I devoured The Hundred Dresses because I needed a mirror of my own life – a creative girl who was made fun of for wearing the same thing to school day after day.
Those two books provided me essential windows and mirrors.
As an adult, I made up for my lack of childhood books in the house by filling the bookshelves in our home to overflowing. Hubby and I plan our vacations around indie bookstores. Asheville meant a visit to Malaprops. New Orleans found us poking around Octavia’s dark wood shelves. And when we hit Nashville on our next trip, we’ll be purchasing books from Parnassus.
It pretty much takes the Jaws of Life to extract us from indie bookstores.
So, it’s no surprise that when we moved to South Florida twenty years ago, we found our way to all our indies – Classic Bookshop in Palm Beach, Vero Beach Book Center and Books and Books in Coral Gables.
As an author of books for young people, I create stories that offer both mirrors and windows, heart and humor. This is truest in my new novel, Lily and Dunkin -- a dual narrative of a big-hearted, word-nerd transgender girl and a boy who harbors a huge secret and deals with bipolar disorder. Two important topics deserving light shined on them to promote a deep understanding and prevent stigma.
It’s my hope that Lily and Dunkin creates pathways from heart to heart -- pathways of understanding, empathy and kindness. We could all use a little more of that in this world.
And Lily and Dunkin is also my love letter to the luscious landscape that is my South Florida home. So, of course, I would be remiss if I didn’t include flamingoes. Yes, there’s a pink, plastic lawn flamingo mystery throughout the book, because even the most serious of topics deserve a sprinkling of humor and fun. Every book deserves its penguin (or flamingo).
Because you never know when a young reader will desperately need them.
So, thank you wonderful indie bookseller for putting Lily and Dunkin into the hands of young readers and those young at heart and contributing to making this world a kinder, gentler, more accepting place . . . one beautiful book at a time.
Donna Gephart’s award-winning novels are packed with humor and heart. They include Death by Toilet Paper; Olivia Bean, Trivia Queen; How to Survive Middle-School; and As if Being 12-3/4 Isn’t Bad Enough, My Mother Is Running for President! Donna is a popular speaker at schools, conferences, and book festivals. For reading guides, resources, writing tips, and more, visit donnagephart.com.
- Published: 22 May 2016
History. Community. Family. Place. Memory. The thousand other fragile threads connecting us all.
Each is a strand woven throughout Lexington, Kentucky writer Crystal Wilkinson's work--both as a writer and as an independent bookstore owner. The striking cover of her latest book, The Birds of Opulence, published by the University Press of Kentucky in March 2016, features an image of the sankofa symbol.
In the Twi language of Ghana, "sankofa" translates to "go back and get it." The Asante Adinkra sankofa symbol of a bird with its head turned to take an egg from its back carries the same meaning, and is often associated with a proverb translated to mean "It is not wrong to go back for that which you have forgotten." Designed and created by the artist Ron Davis (also Wilkinson's life and business partner) the sankofa bird on the novel's cover is an apt symbol for Wilkinson's creative and connected work as a writer and business owner.
Crystal Wilkinson was born in Ohio, but Kentucky became home when, as an infant, she went to live with her grandparents on their seventy-acre farm in Casey County. Her grandfather, a tobacco farmer, and her grandmother, the first writer she knew, provided the freedom and encouragement to foster her artistic talent. The love and regard she carries for the people as well as the land of Appalachia is evident throughout her work. Her childhood and upbringing pervade her previous story collections, Blackberries, Blackberries, winner of the 2002 Chaffin Award for Appalachian Literature, and Water Street, a finalist for both the UK’s Orange Prize for Fiction and the Hurston/Wright Legacy Award. The Birds of Opulence is her first novel. Wilkinson has served on the faculty of several writing programs, and is on the faculty and was recently the Appalachian Writer-in-Residence at Berea College. She was the recipient of awards and fellowships from the Kentucky Foundation for Women, the Kentucky Arts Council, the Mary Anderson Center for the Arts, and the Fine Arts Work Center in Provincetown and the recipient of the 2008 Denny Plattner Award in Poetry from Appalachian Heritage, and the Sallie Bingham Award from the Kentucky Foundation for Women for the promotion of feminist artist expression.
Wilkinson has also joined with fellow regional writers and poets to adopt the term "Affrilachian." Coined by Kentucky Poet Laureate Frank X Walker in the early 1990s, the term highlights the prevalent yet under-represented presence of those of African descent throughout the mountain South. The Birds of Opulence focuses on generations of the Goode/Brown family, founders of an African-American community in the Kentucky mountains. As stories of family and community intertwine and connect over decades, Wilkinson presents deeply imagined characters and an expansive, yet intimate setting. Like the sankofa bird on the novel's cover, her characters constantly return to the past to bring meaning to the present and future.
- Published: 05 May 2016
I don’t like being channeled—which is what happens to us in the digitized age. Our past behavior channels the new information we’re exposed to. Online booksellers have got this down to a science. All those nifty algorithms that tell us “If we liked this, then we’ll like that,” are channeling us. Sometimes I imagine these rutted grooves in cyberspace, worn deeper and deeper and funneling us more and more into the paths we’ve already taken. (I’ll resist the urge to quote Robert Frost here.). And it’s not just buying books. It’s news too. If you tend to look at news sites featuring women’s issues, then your browsers and your advertisers will give you more of the same.
This is the way lots of retail works too, of course. If you’ve ever bought, say, clogs online, well guess what? Here come more advertisements for more clogs. And large bookstores work the same way. If stories about teens dying of cancer were popular last year, then let’s buy lots and lots more of them. As a purveyor of school kids’ literature, I’m constantly befuddled by the number of series books about, say, dragons, repeating the same basic story over and over again.
And of course our brains work in “channels” too. We tend to reinforce the same neuro-pathways we’ve already created. We tend to notice information that fits with what we already believe. Data that doesn’t fit easily into our neural pathways often doesn’t even register. (Again, I’m resisting the urge to quote Frost.)
But my sense—my hope—is that indie bookstores are countering this trend. They’re not using the same data analytics. Instead you have real live people reading real live books and making real live decisions about them. Walk into an indie bookstore and you’ll see shelves populated with books based upon judgment calls and personal taste. I’m lucky enough to have three in my Atlanta neighborhood. One, A Capella, is going to be stacked chest-high with glossy literary hardbacks that I’ll pick up and heft in my hand and wish I’d written. Down the street, Charis, is going to offer lots of titles that empower women. And if I want someone to recommend to me the hottest kids books, I’m going to head to the Little Shop of Stories.
None have an algorithm to tell you in advance what you will like. You have to go inside. You have to pick up the books, hold them in your hands and riffle through the pages. You might find a different road. It may not make all the difference, but it will make some.
JULIA FRANKS has roots in the Appalachian Mountains and has spent years kayaking the rivers and creeks of Tennessee, North Carolina, and West Virginia. She lives in Atlanta, where she teaches literature and runs loosecanon.com, a web service that fosters free-choice reading in the classroom. Her novel, Among the Plain Houses (Hub City Press) was released in May, 2016 and is a SIBA Spring Okra Pick.
- Published: 02 May 2016