When I look at the wide swath of books published each and every year it’s a marvel to me that any new children’s book authors are able to claw their way out of the pack to distinguish themselves at all. Consider adult author Lauren Wolk. In 2016 her debut children’s book Wolf Hollow became one of the most discussed titles of the year. Initially written for adults, it’s one of the most compelling middle grade stories I’ve ever read in my life. As I may have mentioned in my review, that villainous blue-eyed psychopath of a little girl that makes our heroine’s life a misery was so chilling I had to skip to the end of the book for reassurance.
Today, I am pleased to reveal the cover for Ms. Wolk’s next book. But before we get to that, I had the chance to sit the woman down for a little Q&A about it. Enjoy!
Betsy Bird: We can all read the description of Beyond the Bright Sea online if we like, but I often find that when an author describes their own book you get a flavor for it that may be missing from the ad copy. How would you describe this story?
Lauren Wolk: For me, Beyond the Bright Sea is about many things—love, loneliness, family, fear and courage, greed and generosity, identity, prejudice, forgiveness, and more. But beyond what it’s “about,” the book is a love letter to the ocean, to people who accept us as we are, to a girl named Crow who finds her own way, a man who wants only to protect her, and a woman who knows a great deal about hurt and healing. The four of them (and I include the ocean here) are a true family. If you add the islands, a cat named “Mouse,” a villain, a mystery, and the legacy of the “monsters” across the water, you get Beyond the Bright Sea. It’s a cake of many layers, and the experience of writing it was beyond delicious.
BB: Wolf Hollow was remarkable in part because it started its life as a novel for adults and then ultimately came out for children. Now that you’ve started writing with children specifically in mind, do you feel that it affects your writing process at all?
LW: I love how you don’t say that I “adapted” Wolf Hollow for young readers. People often say that, and it’s not true. I wrote Wolf Hollow for adults, but I really wrote it for readers, regardless of age, and I changed very little when I learned it would be labeled as a Middle Grade book. My wonderful editor, Julie Strauss-Gabel, suggested only a few changes related to readership. A tighter opening, for instance (which all readers appreciate). We both felt the book would appeal to a wide audience, and I’m happy about how many adults are reading it, too. I approached Beyond the Bright Sea the same way. I wrote it for readers, with little attention to age. Because it’s in the first person, told by a young girl, the story is naturally perfect for young readers. But I wrote it as it deserved to be written, attending to audience only on occasion when I tried to be especially clear about things that adults might more readily understand. I believe in showing instead of telling, nuance, suggestion. And I know kids are smart and curious enough to peel back the layers of a story, add their own knowledge of the world, and immerse themselves in the lives of the characters.
BB: When you make a conscious choice to set a novel in the past you are willfully entering into an era with its own set prejudices and injustices (sadly prescient though they may be). What, to your mind, is to be gained by plunging children into distinct moments in history?
LW: We are who we were. Even generations removed, we are still connected to both the good that gilds our history and the bad that stains it. All people, including children, should understand what’s best and worst about us as a species, as a nation, as members of any group that has left its mark on the world. Santayana wrote, in The Life of Reason (1905), that “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” In 1948, Winston Churchill said that if we ignored the past, we’d exist in “the most thoughtless of ages. Every day headlines and short views.” They were both right. We’ve made a lot of progress … in medicine and technology, for instance, and in how we treat each other, but if we’re to avoid backsliding and inspire more growth, we have to face our failures, too: our dark ages (and by that I mean any time overshadowed by hate and ignorance, prejudice and violence). We have to look those dark ages square in the eye and do everything possible to move away from them. Children need to know darkness to understand the value of light. And they get that. They really do. More than many adults I know.
BB: Have any reactions by kids to your books surprised you?
LW: Surprised me? No. Being a teacher and a mother has taught me that kids are a lot smarter and wiser than many people think, so I’m not surprised when they ask intriguing questions or make insightful observations, but I am thrilled by their reactions. Touched. Honored. Happy that they love to read what I love to write.
BB: Finally, if you could describe this book in a single word, what word would it be?
Crow and Cuttyhunk cast a strong spell over me as I was writing, and I hope they cast a spell over my readers, too.
A big thank you to Lauren for agreeing to answer my questions. I do believe I’ll be whipping out that Churchill quote left and right in the near future.
And now, because you’ve been so patient with me, the cover:
Many thanks to Lauren Donovan and the folks at Penguin Young Readers for letting me show it off first.