Hi Caroline! Thanks for agreeing to chat with me on the blog. I so appreciate all the authors that take time out of very busy lives for me, and you were so quick to jump on board. I love it.
To start out, I typically ask for the 2-minute intro, which includes the normal basics, and I love asking for something that not many people know about you (what you love to eat when you’re sick, which song gets you dancing, what smell you can’t get enough of… or can’t get away from!). Tell us a bit about you!
Hey there, Kaytee. Thank you for the invitation. I’m a former teacher turned children’s author, a pastor’s wife, and a mom to two teenage boys. I love to run (though rather slowly), and love to cook when I have the time and inspiration. If I ever got in trouble in school it was for giggling, and as a grown up I sometimes still have a hard time controlling my laughter. (Let’s just say I once taught a sixth-grade class where I laughed for thirty minutes straight. My students, rather than go nuts themselves, helped me through the lesson. It was a memorable day.) My comfort food is avgolemono soup (my dad’s parents immigrated to the US from Greece). In the fall I drive around Albuquerque with the windows rolled down just to get a whiff of green chile roasting, perhaps the best smell in the world. I get goofy about words and phrases that bug me. Current ones are content creator, across the pond, all the things, and rinse and repeat. I’m a sucker for the Ramona Quimby Apples to Apples Jr. card. For years my family knew to save it for my turn, because I’d pick it, no matter what.
Oh. I’m also a Line, not Lynn, as far as my name goes.
I saw that May B. was chosen for the Powell’s Books list of Girls Who Rescue Themselves. What an exciting acknowledgement! You mention loving the Little House series in the note at the end of the novel, but also talk about a previous book (unpublished) that covered the journey of the Oregon Trail. Has Prairie/settler life always been a big draw for you? What attracts you to that time in our history?
Absolutely. I’m fascinated with the everyday lives of frontier women. In a collection of first-hand accounts I read years ago, I remember a story that focused on a family without a well. Throughout the day the wife had to cover a huge distance carrying buckets to and from a creek. At the end of the story, almost in passing, the reader learns she is eight-months pregnant. That just blew me away in comparison to my own life — the things I consider difficult and the conveniences I rarely think about.
I think part of the attraction is the knowledge that I am not made of the same stuff these women were (though perhaps I would have risen to the occasion if I were born in a different era?). Their regular lives required extraordinary grit, which inspires me.
May has to overcome all kinds of challenges in this verse novel, not the least of which is her inability to conquer reading, because of her dyslexia. As an avid reader myself, that seems like the worst of the challenges (even when she is all alone, she finds MORE challenges instead of comfort in the words of her book). You mention in another interview that you didn’t know much about dyslexia before writing this novel. How did you put yourself, first person, into the mind of someone with such a huge challenge, without having lived through it? It must have been incredibly difficult! I feel like it’s so much easier to draw on what we know through life experience.
For me as an author, I find I don’t have to experience what a character has (or even agree with their choices and actions), but I do need to understand their feelings. This may sound like a stretch, but I called on my experience feeling like an outsider in my own country as a way to relate to May Betterly and Alis Harvie (from Blue Birds). My family spent three years in Saudi Arabia when I was a girl. I moved back to the US not knowing American money, slang, or even animals (when I saw a deer crossing sign I thought it was a picture of a goat!). May feels like an outsider at school. She is misunderstood. Apart from Miss Simpson, she’s really alone in this aspect of her life.
What was most challenging was putting May in situations that were uncomfortable. On one hand, I knew she was strong and trusted she could overcome the physical challenges. The school challenges were more difficult. The hardest section (emotionally) for me to write was the flashback sequence, where May remembers school and the humiliation she felt there. My editor encouraged me to really dig deep and not hold back. I had to single her out and make her hurt. It was painful. But like all characters, she had to hit rock bottom to come out changed on the other side.
My gosh, May is brave. She’s taught me oodles about what it means to be a person (which sounds strange, since I made her up and she’s not a real person at all. I’m so proud she now lives beyond me in the minds of my readers).
Now, moving on to Blue Birds, the verse novel you wrote about an unlikely friendship between a Roanoke girl and an English settler in 1587: I honestly didn’t expect to love this book like I did. I thought that the story of Alis and Kimi might be too far removed from my own experience to make any identifying connections, but I absolutely adored it. I can easily say (despite my very limited experience on the matter) that this is my favorite verse novel that I have ever read. 🙂
With all that established, let’s talk about how you traveled down this road: you taught Social Studies as a public school teacher for a while and drew on your own experiences as a young girl growing up in Saudi Arabia. What kind of research (or soul-searching) did have to do to connect with the Native American perspective in the novel? I found the montoac concept especially interesting and was wondering if you feel like you have montoac of your own? Something that you feel like you rely on to help give you power to make it through a trying time, perhaps?
I’m glad to hear you enjoyed Blue Birds. It’s funny how many times I’ve heard your very honest response to my writing — I didn’t expect to enjoy the verse or subject matter but was pleasantly surprised. Hats off to readers who try something out of their comfort zones and walk away with a new appreciation!
I’ll be brutally honest and say I was terrified to write from a Native perspective. I questioned whether I had a right to the story. There are some who feel I didn’t, and I understand and respect their opinions, but for me to finish my work (and not despair), I had to close my mind to that perspective. As for connecting with Kimi, I called on the things we shared in common. I’ve been a girl. I know the transforming power friendship can bring. I had to believe this was enough to begin the creative process and that these connections would carry me through.
Montoac, for readers who aren’t familiar with the story, can be defined as great spiritual power or mysterious power. An object could contain montoac and would benefit and strengthen its owner. When I was working on edits for Blue Birds I had some difficulty developing Alis and Kimi’s friendship as fully as I needed to. This is going to sound goofy, but in order to connect with them, I ended up wearing a strand of pearls. (In the story, Kimi bestows her treasured pearls, her montoac, on Alis in an effort to protect her). I wore them with sweats and with jeans and with dresses. Unless I was showering, exercising, or asleep, I had them on. Yes, I probably looked ridiculous, but it allowed me to carry the girls with me while I wrote, walked the dog, or ran errands. And eventually things came together. Do I believe the pearls contained mysterious, spiritual power? No. But did I connect with my characters more deeply because they constantly were near? Absolutely.
I think that the two viewpoints are especially compelling in this verse novel, especially when both girls are part of the same “poem”. How did you decide to write it this way? Any insights on how you chose the font for each person’s speech, because I found even that contrast so interesting!
I sometimes curse these ideas I have once the execution comes around! With May B. I essentially wrote a book about a girl who’s all alone. How in the world do you create a story without dialogue or even a lot of action? I had to figure that out. With Blue Birds, one huge challenge was the intimate bond between girls who were meant to be enemies and didn’t share a language. How were they supposed to understand each other?
Thankfully, verse allows an author to communicate with her reader beyond mere words. What I mean is line breaks, stanza breaks, and word placement can be used to “show” a story in a way prose can’t. I wanted those dual-voice poems to visually represent these girls in the moment, interacting with and responding to one another, sometimes in confusion, sometimes in fear or anger, but ultimately as any young friends would.
The font was something my publisher chose. I think I had three font choices for each girl and settled on the two you see. What I was very much against (and appreciate my editor’s support in this) was having Alis’s words in standard font and Kimi in italics. Often in stories the character who is seen as “other” is represented this way. I didn’t want that. I asked for all the Algonquian words not to be italicized. They were not foreign or other to Kimi, and ultimately they were not foreign or other to Alis. I wanted there to be a sense of unity and equality with these girls, which the cover illustrators (Anna and Elena Balbusso) understood and portrayed so beautifully in their art.
I mentioned in my email to you that I felt like I had intersected with your opinions in quite a few places before I actually read your books and then reached out: The What Should I Read Next podcast, and the Read Aloud Revival Podcast, on both of which I learned that we are co-inhabitants of New Mexico. I listened to The Crossover on audiobook based on your recommendation, and THEN found out we have a mutual friend. Finally, I decided this was a sign and I really needed to pick up a book or two of yours, despite the fact that middle-grade and verse novels are both WAY outside my typical genre. Do you find that people find you in a roundabout way? Or that there is a niche of readers of poetry that flock to you? Or that maybe I’m just ignorant of this whole way of writing that everyone else already knows and loves? (That’s okay too!)
I’d hardly say anyone is flocking to me, but I’ve been pleasantly surprised at how many readers have connected to my books. I knew going in that verse, historical fiction, and literary writing are all hard sells for middle grade books to begin with, and that’s when you take them individually. Throw all three together, and I’d created a really niche-y niche, one that risked being so narrow only a few people would respond.
But. The school and library market has championed my books. I know many schools in an attempt to have kids read a variety of forms and genres now include verse novels as required reading, and lots of kids have discovered my books that way. Verse is no longer an unheard of oddity for kids as it often is for adults. Thank you, teachers, for making that so! I’ve also been fortunate both novels have been nominated for almost two dozen state reading lists between them (these librarian-created lists require students to read a minimum of three titles before voting for their favorite).
It’s the adult readers that find me in a round about way. I am always SO pleased there are grown ups who are willing to not only try children’s literature but a form that isn’t familiar at all.
As a final note, I want to point out that what you said in the acknowledgements of Blue Birds spoke so powerfully to me this week. Our mutual friend actually told me to make sure I read all the way to the last line, because our world has been full of frightful news, and when I finished this on Tuesday night (the 14th of June), I was still completely undone and reeling from the news of the Orlando mass shooting. This quote from you seemed to pull everything back to center: “Our world is a broken place, but I take great comfort in this promise: Someday God will redeem all things.” And I wanted to take a moment to thank you for that. Even though you wrote it about a different circumstance and even what had happened in a different century, it spoke straight to the heart of that moment in time for this one person. Even now, I’m brought to tears reading it over again. So, this isn’t really a question, but more of a statement. Thanks for that. And thanks for being here with us on my blog. I appreciate you.
Thank you, Kaytee. Your response brought tears to my eyes. The promise of a future redemption applies then and now. I think of it almost daily in trying to understand this broken world.
All best to you and your readers. This conversation was a lot of fun.
Thank you so much, Caroline! I’m so glad to know you better, and I can’t wait to see what else you come up with. You’ve truly opened my eyes to a new section of the bookstore, and I’m very appreciative of you taking time out of your schedule to chat with me. ❤