Barbara O'Connor interviews Monika Schröder, author of BE LIGHT LIKE A BIRD (Capstone)

Barbara O'Connor & Monika SchroederChildren’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

Barbara: You grew up in Germany and have lived all over the world. Your previous books have been set in Germany and India.  What made you want to write a book set in the United States?

Be LIght Like a BirdMonika: I often start a book with setting. The 'seed idea' for Be Light Like a Bird came to me the first time I saw a landfill. My husband and I had cleaned out the cabin my husband inherited from his father in Michigan's Upper Peninsula. I couldn't believe it when he drove all the stuff to a landfill nearby, a big hole where people bury unwanted items. In Germany we recycle or incinerate most of our garbage, so it left an impression on me when I saw a guy dropping a vacuum cleaner, a book shelf and an entire carpet into the landfill...a cemetery for junk.

I learned more about this landfill and read about the people in the community who had fought its expansion. Then I asked myself a "What if...?" question: What if there were a girl who loved birds and whose bird watching was threatened by the expansion of the landfill? Once I had that girl in my mind, I found myself asking more and more about her life. How did she get to Michigan's Upper Peninsula? And why was birding so important to her? I learned that her father had recently died and that her mother had more or less dragged her up north. She was grieving and lonely and once she arrived in Upper Michigan she came up with a plan to make her mother stay. From there the story of Wren developed.

Barbara: The characters in Be light Like a Bird grieve in many different ways - tears, anger, detachment, moving on, not moving on - and it is hard for Wren to know how to deal with her loss. What do you want readers to understand about grief and mourning?

Monika: Grief and mourning are difficult and hard emotions to go through and, while there may be similarities in the ways people deal with the loss of a loved one, I don’t think there is “one right way” to process those emotions. That’s why I wanted to create characters who show a variety of reactions to their pain.

Barbara: There are several references to burial in your book. Wren's father is lost at sea without the chance for the family to conduct a proper burial. Wren, feeling the need for such closure, buries road kill instead. 'Burying' unwanted items in the landfill. The un-burying of Native American sacred objects originally intended to accompany the dead on their journey to the afterlife. And one could even say Wren's mother is trying to 'bury', to hide and forget her feelings for her dead husband. Could you talk a little about this aspect of the book?

Monika: That's an interesting question. Perhaps it wasn't a coincidence that the first title, the working title of my novel was 'Buried'. In a way your question already may provide the key to what was going through my mind as I was working on the book. I can't say that I intended to illustrate some grand theme but perhaps my subconscious tied these instances of burial together in the different subplots of the story.

Barbara: Tweens and teens can have complicated relationships with their parents, even when a major life-changing event (such as a death in the family) doesn't occur.  What can readers learn from Wren's changing relationship with her mother?

Monika: It takes a long time for Wren to finally learn what causes her mother to act the way she does. It was only in my twenties that I realized the reason for my longstanding conflict with my mother. That understanding enabled me to see her with more empathy, and be less judgmental. It may not be possible for a 12-year old to see past her own emotions when judging a parent, but I hope that reading about Wren and her mother helps young readers to realize that adults have their own struggles to deal with, and this might cause them to act in a way children might find inexplicable.

Barbara: Theo is a great friend and the developing friendship between Theo and Wren helps her to get through the conflict with her mother. Did you have a model for their friendship?

Monika: Kids that age may have to go through some mocking or bullying since at that age girls like to stay with girls and boys with boys. But I used to teach fourth grade for many years and I remember a few of these boy-girl relationships among my students and they helped me to create the relationship between Wren and Theo.

Barbara: What are you working on next?

Monika: I am working on two projects, a middle-grade mystery novel set in Calcutta 1832, and I have recently submitted a manuscript for a picture book about my dog, Frank, whom we adopted from the streets of India. In it Frank exchanges a series of letters with a dog-friend back in Delhi, describing his new, spoiled life in the US.