K.A. Reynolds is the author of our September middle grade book selection. The Land of Yesterday sees Cecelia Dahl dealing with the death of her little brother, Celadon. His soul goes where all souls go: the Land of Yesterday. Everyone in the Dahl family is grief stricken. Cecilia’s mother is so sad that she follows Celadon. It’s up to Cecelia to put her family back together, even if that means venturing into the dark and forbidden Land of Yesterday on her own.
I’ve read that writing has always been a big part of your life, but it wasn’t until after the birth of your fifth child that you wrote your first book. What about that time prompted you to write a novel?
I’d been writing poetry for years and had been published in poetry journals and the university press, but it didn’t occur to me to write a book. Until one day, I was writing a poem and the poem just kept going. That turned into the very first book I ever wrote. It was sort of a young adult creative nonfiction. I wrote about childhood trauma in a fantastical way that helped me process things that have happened. It felt like a story I had to write before I could write anything else.
You have a busy household. Is there a certain time of day that you carve out to write?
I get up between 2:30 and 3:30 every morning and write until 6:00 when I have to start getting kids up for school. Those early morning hours are my favorite. I love the quiet. It’s owls and coyotes and trains and me.
The Land of Yesterday is the fifth book you’ve written, but the first one published, right? Was it a hard process getting published?
Yes, it was a very long and tumultuous path. My first book I didn’t query. It wasn’t really meant for anyone else. After I let that one go, I wrote the other ones and queried them. With each one I got better. I was in Pitch Wars twice as a mentee. I was in a lot of contests, actually. I received encouragement from agents. They said this may not be the right one for me, but don’t give up because you’ve got a good thing going and your writing is beautiful. That helped. I was rejected hundreds and hundreds of times. Then finally I got four r&rs on what would become The Land of Yesterday. Then I got my first agent offer. Then I got three more. It was five years all told of writing and learning how to write a book. I like to learn things the hard way, so I did it over and over again until I got it. Being a poet, I had to learn to balance pretty language with plot.
Grief and death are tough issues that many middle graders are facing and it’s great to see a book address them. Was it important for you to write a book on these topics?
As a kid going through the hard, dark, scary stuff, I was desperate to find any sort of book about a middle grader going through the same things and didn’t really find any. I wanted to write the book that I needed to read as a kid.
Your book is based on personal experience as you also experienced loss as a child, that being the loss of your mother. Did you find writing this book cathartic?
It was cathartic and it was hard at times because opening up those old wounds can be difficult. But it brought me closer to my past and the child that I was. In my acknowledgement, I talk about the letter I wrote to my mother when I was 7 and how that found its way into the book. It was as if it was waiting all these years to come out in this book. It was hard and beautiful at the same time.
The book deals with these issues of loss and grief, but in a very fantastical way. I love the fact that there are so many objects in this book that express themselves. For example, Cecelia’s hair expresses fear and empathy. The Dahl house, Widdendream, is a sympathetic villain in the story. What inspired you to create these objects in this way?
When I’m writing it’s like I’m taking dictation. The first draft of everything I write is not so much that I’m driving the story, but that it’s being told to me. So when I’m writing I just need to shut my brain off and type. I don’t know where a lot of things come from. With Widdendream, I have letters my mother wrote in the year before she passed away. She talks about the house we used to live in. The walls heard all our laughter and stories and she wonders if the house is sad without us. That stuck with me. A lot of subliminal and old things pour out when you are writing. And that is where Widdendream probably came from.
I know you said when you write, the story isn’t planned. But are there certain middle grade or children’s authors you look to for inspiration?
The Little Prince was a big inspiration to me. It was my favorite book of all time and that is why I included it in The Land of Yesterday. I wanted an end to that story. Roald Dahl had a great way of combining fantastic adventures with real, heartfelt stories. Again, with Cecilia’s last name of Dahl, he sort of found a way into my story too.
Your second middle grade fantasy, The Spinner of Dreams, is set to be published in 2019. Can you tell us a bit about the story?
The story revolves around Annalise Meriwether who has anxiety, panic disorder and OCD. She has been cursed by the Fate Spinner who decides everyone’s fate before birth. Annalise doesn’t know why she’s been cursed, but the moment of her birth the sky cracked. And the sun never came back. And all the crops died. And she was born with the Fate Spinner’s mark on her hand. She has wonderful parents, but the rest of the town resents her. Finally, one day, she decides if anything is going to change in her life, she’s going to have to do it. So she sets off on an epic adventure to find the Fate Spinner and change her fate.
We look forward to reviewing The Land of Yesterday on our Facebook, Instagram and Twitter pages on October 12.