Tuesday, May 11, 2010
Holy Mole' ! It's the Knees and Paws exclusive interview and book giveaway with author Caroline McAlister
Holy Mole'! It's the Knees and Paws exclusive interview and book giveaway with children's author Caroline McAlister!
One recurrent theme of the Knees and Paws blog is that of "making things." I'm delighted to share the words and creations of my friend and college professor, Caroline McAlister, as she discusses the process of making her books Holy Mole' and Brave Donatella and the Jasmine Thief. Caroline holds a PhD in English Literature from Emory University and teaches at Guilford College in Greensboro, North Carolina. She is the mother of two beautiful daughters and has a passion for quilting, peace, great books and, of course, children.
Holy Mole' is a fresh look at an ancient Mexican folk tale, illustrated by Stefan Czernecke.
At first glance, Holy Mole' catches my interest with a unique choice of characters. One doesn't often see stories about monks or Mexican folklore in American children's literature. The story opens with a picture of Carlos, scrubbing a floor.
On the next page, and urgent problem is presented to create tension and move the action right along: an important visitor is coming to the monastery, in two hours! Every mom reading this story would understand what it feels like to have to prepare a spectacular meal at the last minute for an important guest. PANIC ensues!
Here's where Caroline maneuvers the tricky writing dilemma of capturing the child's interest and the adult's attention span: she puts action in the kitchen and challenges her audience with new words. Never "talking down" to her young but intelligent readers, she gives them an unfamiliar word. For a five year old listening, the first question that pops out is "what's a viceroy?"
Which is exactly what the character Carlos asks when he's told to help prepare the meal. Then, true to the inquisitiveness in children, Carlos bluntly asks "but what if we don't impress him?"
This story's dialogue is lively and fun to read aloud. I especially appreciated seeing the monks create chaos in the kitchen preparing the food.
Then, disaster. Carlos bumps into a monk carrying a tray of ingredients, which sends them into the pot with the chicken.
The only thing left to do is pray. Which they do. But behind this miracle, the work of a child exists. Mole' is created! It's a new kind of food that becomes a national treasure.
Thank you for taking the time to share your thoughts on writing for children with us. I love Holy Mole' and will read this to the children in my life because it entertains while sending the positive message that children are a part of history too, and that sometimes accidents can become something truly wonderful. Parents will appreciate hearing that message as well. When you begin writing a book like Holy Mole', how do you work through the challenges of creating suspense and interesting characters?
I sent a lot of stories out that were really bad. I took a class at UNC with Ruth Moose, who teaches children's writing. This was a non credit class offered to the community. Hole Mole' was for that class.
I always work with legends and folklore, so in some ways the structures of the narratives are already in place. Ruth helped by showing me how to write from a child's perspective. The character Carlos did not exist in the historical legend. By including an Indian child in the monastery, a metaphor of two cultures colliding was created. I never know how the story is going to work until I start working with it. It's like working with clay.
Why is writing for children a different challenge than writing for adults?
With picture books, you have a double audience--that's tricky. Parents and editors buy the books. They are the gatekeepers. Then, one has to grab the child's attention right away. You have to think about including a child's experiences. The ideas and the language do not have to be simple or stupid. It takes cleverness. Picture books are like poetry.
Caroline, I was wondering how the study and teaching of literature informs your work?
Well, one thing that carries over from my academic work that I enjoy is research. I also enjoy reading in other languages, French and Spanish. But the thing that is wonderful about writing for children is that it's grounded in reality. The topics are things that one can see, touch, taste, smell and hear. This genre is not heavily focused on rhetoric and theory that one finds in academic writing.
Having your books published must have been an extraordinary experience. Did you celebrate the event in a special way?
Yes. It was so fun. When I set up my first reading, my husband emailed everyone I ever knew, even people I hadn't seen in eight years. They all showed up, they all bought books, and we sold out. Then we had a nice dinner out.
What is the most delightful part of writing children's books?
It's just really fun. I like trying them out on my daughters. I still do that. The first time reading to a public audience was wonderful. I love to visit schools. For Cinco de Mayo I read at a school with a large Latino population. Afterwards the children wanted to tell me their stories about their grandmother's mole'. At a recent reading I did at our local Barnes and Noble, one boy came up to me and asked, "so you're the writer of this book? I just want to give you a hug."
Please share your thought on your latest book, Brave Donatella and the Jasmine Thief.
I'm really excited about this book. I can't wait to see what happens when it officially comes out. It received the 2010 Junior Library Guild Selection Award. It contains more history than Holy Mole', in that it's based on a real person in history, Duke Cosimo of Medici, and a real location, the Volterra Prison. Later I discovered that portions of Twilight were filmed at the Volterra Prison. Besides the historical aspect, I wanted write a legend about a flower because I thought the illustrations would be beautiful.
They are fantastic! How did you create the title of this story?
There's a funny story behind that name. When I was in seventh grade, my father took a sabbatical and for a year, we lived in Europe. I knew a girl named Donatella. Later it was discovered that Donatella's father was an international art thief.
Caroline, will you share some of the process that goes into the making of a book?
Well, the first thing is getting an editor to buy a manuscript. I've recently sent 10 manuscripts with no results. Rejections happen a lot. But with both books that were accepted, I didn't hear from the editors for two years. Then, at the final stages of editing, they wanted me to do a lot of things all at once. One exciting stage in this process is receiving the first draft with illustrations.
An illustration that is historically correct would be a problem for today's readers who remember Madonna's pointy bras. See the edited version with color below.
notes sent to Caroline from the editor
an unbound copy before publication, color added to illustrations
Winner of the Junior Library Guild Selection Award, 2010
I celebrated this book being published by purchasing a jasmine plant.
Thank You Caroline, for sharing this wonderful glimpse of your work. We all wish you continued success!
Both books are available at www.amazon.com or www.barnesandnoble.com or directly through the publishers August House (Holy Mole') and Charlesbridge (Brave Donatella and the Jasmine Theif). Brave Donatella is available on July 1, 2010 but can be pre-ordered today.
For your free copy, join us in participating in the Knees and Paws Holy Mole' giveaway!
To win a signed copy of Holy Mole'
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