Laurel Snyder is the author of six children's novels including our March book club pick, Orphan Island. She has also written many picture books, including Charlie & Mouse, a book inspired by the antics of her two sons. It was a pleasure Skypeing with her and learning more about her background and writing process.
You grew up writing poetry. Was it tough making the leap from poetry to novels?
I think of my writing in two categories: 1) storytelling and novels, and 2) poetry. The picture books tend to be where the poetry goes. To this day I have never taken a fiction class, which is funny because now I teach fiction writing. I learned through reading and trial and error, but the terminology is new for me. When I'm at the other faculty members' lectures, I’m writing notes alongside the students. So it was a tough leap in that I had this interesting story to tell, but I didn't know anything about narrative arc or point of view or psychic distance. I rewrote my first book probably five times. So that was the challenge for me in switching from poetry to fiction is that there were all these craft lessons I needed to learn. It's like having kids; if I'd known how hard it was going to be, I don't know if I would have done it. But I’m so glad I did.
An example of the almost rhyming nature of picture books is seen in one of your more recent books, Charlie & Mouse. It is a great book for early readers because the four distinct stories are all fun and some of the words are repetitive. What was your inspiration for this book?
Those books are literally what happens to my kids. They started out as Facebook posts and people would say, "That's so cute you should write a picture book about that." But they weren't enough. Calling your brother a lump in bed is not enough to make a story. Eating a banana before bedtime is not enough. So I couldn't figure out what to do with those moments. Then my friend Susannah was taking a walk with me around my neighborhood. I live in a really unusual neighborhood in Atlanta that feels like you fell into a time portal back to 1985. It's very free rangey. She said, "Most people don't live in neighborhoods like this anymore. You should write about the neighborhood." I think that is when it happened. I knew I wanted to write about the kids. I knew I wanted to work on a transitional reader. And I had these moments I wanted to use. After Susannah said that about the neighborhood, I woke up in the middle of the night and pounded it out.
You also released a follow up book, Charlie & Mouse & Grumpy about a visit from their grandpa. And books three and four have been picked up?
The third book is about mom's birthday and the fourth is about when they go camping.
You were inspired to write Orphan Island after reading The Little Prince and My Side of the Mountain with your children. What inspiration did you take from those two books?
My process is that I work very slowly in building the idea for a book and then the book itself can happen very quickly. In the sense that it looks like it took me a year to write a book when it actually took me five years to process and scribble and make notes. With Orphan Island, I went with my kids to visit my grandfather about a decade ago. He was a medic in Okinawa during World War II. He took care of orphans that had been harmed in the war in these makeshift hospitals on the beach. He showed me pictures and was telling me this story and what popped into my head was the phrase "Orphan Island." I thought that would be an interesting setting for a book, but it wasn't my story to tell. I'm not from Okinawa. I've never experienced war. I'm not really a historical writer. It felt like someone else's story. So I set that story aside, but I still loved that title.
Years later, I was reading The Little Prince to my kids and it was very different from any book they had ever read. And it caused them to ask these really big, philosophical questions. Days later they were still talking about it. Wondering what really happened at the end. I thought I would like to write a book where kids are still thinking about it in that way when they were done. Then the next book we read was My Side of the Mountain. It was again very different from anything we had read. What they were struck by was the parentlessness of it. This boy didn't have grown ups doing anything for him and he had to figure out how to do everything for himself. That also struck me. I wanted to write a book that models for kids that they can take care of themselves. They can feed themselves, put themselves to sleep and calm their own fears. So I had this title, a desire to write an allegorical/philosophical book that leaves them asking questions, and a parentless book. Ultimately, that boiled down and became Orphan Island.
That reminds me of something I read about how authors often write children as orphans because that is the only way for the children to be independent and allowed to take risks. For example, the kids in Lemony Snicket or The Boxcar Children wouldn't be doing those things if there were parents monitoring them.
With my first book, Up and Down the Scratchy Mountains, the editor emailed me and said, "You have a great story, a great world, a wonderful character, but there is nothing driving this story." What I ultimately did was kill off her mother. This does two things: It removes supervision so the kids can wander into a field or travel to Narnia, and it creates a kind of longing and need in the child to find identity or figure out what happened to her parents. That drama ends up being an engine that powers the book and the character. For that to happen you have to have a large, missing chunk from their heart, but it needs to have happened far enough in the past that they aren't in the immediate crisis.
Most of your books have a magical sense to them. The same is true of Orphan Island where an island run by children gives that sense of magic and wonder. There is also magic all around the island. For example, in your vivid descriptions of the sunsets and sunrises as almost visual productions for the children. Do you intentionally incorporate magic into your novels?
I’m actually just finishing the first draft of a book that does not have magic. The original draft did and my agent said to take it out. This has to be a non-magic book for a number of reasons. But even there I can’t let go entirely of the idea of magic. So there are a few little things that happen that feel inexplicable. It’s not outside of the realm of possibility and it’s not important to the story, but I couldn't totally close the door on magic. I think it's because I basically believe in magic. It's not like I believe there are fairies in my house, but I want to believe in the possibility of things we don't know about yet. You can call that faith or religion or you can call that magic, but I want there to be more than our human world. I love that children are fully engaged in that idea and believe it because there is so much they don't know yet. They expect there are things they haven't figured out. That might be electricity or it might be unicorns, but it’s the same to them. So as an adult I try really hard to hold on to that wonder and it works its way into my books.
Was there a specific island you used as a reference for Orphan Island?
My grandmother had a house on the eastern shore of Maryland that sat on the Chester River. There was a sandbar and she had a little pontoon boat we would take out there. I'd take a snack and fantasize about what it would be like to be stranded there without grown ups. So it's not a real island, but that imaginary place of my grandmother's was in my heart as I was writing.
This book is about growing up. Jinny must leave the childhood of the island and take the boat to transition to adulthood. She struggles and fights against it. Was it important for you to convey to your 8-12 year old readers that being wary of growing up is a normal experience?
I don't think I was trying to say something as much as I was trying to explore the emotions of that moment. We do this weird categorization with books where it is either a middle grade book or a young adult book. Middle grade books stay below a certain point and YA books get pushed up. I feel there is this gap in the middle. Kids hit it at different times. For me it was between 10 and 13 and I was kind of a disaster. That prolonged moment of hating your parents, but loving them. Wanting to get older, but not wanting to get older. Wanting to be left alone, but wanting attention. That confluence of feelings is so hard, but it is also so rich. We are doing so much growing in those years. Even though that is such an important moment, it gets left out of this literature because it is maybe too mature for the 8 year old reader, but the YA readers have gone passed it. So I didn't have a position as much as I wanted to hold someone's hand through that moment.
That's a really nice sentiment. Most books, especially those written for children, tie the story up with a bow at the end. Orphan Island doesn’t provide a lot of details as to the background of the island. It also doesn’t provide closure. I was left with many questions. What was going to happen to Jinny? What was going to happen to the children on the island after she left? Was it important for you to leave the reader to ponder these questions?
At different points in the story, I had both a prologue and an epilogue. There was originally an origin story built into the book that I cut off. And there was an arrival scene at the end of the book that I cut off. I know lots of people don't like that, but it felt important to me at the time. It has felt increasingly important since then for a couple of reasons. First of all, the reason people are still thinking about the book weeks later is because of the questions. If I had answered them, it would be done. I have put a lot of thoughts and feelings and ideas into the book that I want kids to continue to engage with and wrestle with. That question at the end is a device that keeps them in it. Another reason I feel it is important is because it opened up the door to a conversation about the idea that books can do lots of different things. They are not just to entertain us. With adult books the expectation is there are books of poetry that do one set of things and non-fiction books that do another. There are all different kinds of books. In the children's book world, though there are books that do all different kinds of things, the expectation is entertainment. If you read book reviews for children's books, the question being asked is, "Do we think this book will entertain children?" It may also enlighten them, inform them, function as sort of a biblio-therapy, but, whether it’s a book about insects or presidential history or a graphic novel about a fairy, the expectation is first you have to entertain them. That is really limiting. It is condescending or disrespectful to children to think we have to give them candy along with whatever else it is. They are capable of more than that. As a kid reader myself, I wanted books that made me cry, or get angry, or ask questions.
That is interesting. That may be because books are trying to compete with iPad time. The idea being books need to be entertaining or kids will choose the iPad.
I would argue the exact opposite. Trying to compete with the iPad by doing what the iPad does better is sure failure. I think about this in terms of school visits. I used to use a PowerPoint presentation because the conventional wisdom was kids are used to screens so if they don't have something to look at, they will get distracted and bored. I think the opposite is true. There is no way my PowerPoint is going to compete with the movie they watched at home last night. By shutting off the PowerPoint and making them pay attention to me, I'm giving them a live performance. A different thing entirely. Don't compare me to Minecraft or I'm going to fail. So if there is a kid who only wants to read Black Panther comic books, I would love to think they’ll engage with my book and encounter it in a totally different way. If they compare my book to Black Panther comic books, my book will be boring.
I read you were considering different ways of writing a sequel. You couldn't continue Jinny’s story, who has crossed over into adulthood, and still keep in the middle grade category. You were considering writing a journal from another child on the island’s perspective. Have you made any progress with that?
I have it in my head to write Abigail's story. The origin story of the Island. I have begun that. I have it outlined. I know my voice. I have the first chapter. I will write that book. And then we will decide whether to publish it or not. The issue is, if I think it closes off the conversation or if I think writing Abigail's story diminishes the way people see Orphan Island, then I won't publish it. If it is a completely separate book that asks a different set of questions and, while maybe answering some of the questions from Orphan Island, engages kids in a new way, then I will publish it. But having the questions of Orphan Island answered for you shouldn’t be the point of the book.
We've talked about how you are writing your first non-magical book and how you have written the first chapter of Abigail's story. Do you have any other books you are currently working on?
I'm finishing two picture books. One of them is a choose your own adventure picture book. It’s a collection of fairy tales that are connected. You start out as a character whose mother sends her to her grandmother’s house to take a basket of cakes and then she has to decide which coat to put on. If she puts on the red coat she is little red riding hood, but if she puts on the fur coat she ends up being mistaken for the wolf. It takes you in and out of a bunch of different fairy tales. I'm also writing this graphic memoir that is the story of my third through sixth grade years. My parents divorced and I made my best friend for life. I was grappling with what I believed and what I didn't believe magically and faith-wise. It's called Fairy Hunter. It's about a girl who is trying really hard not to let go of magic.
Lastly, you have written many picture books and novels. Do your children have a favorite book of yours?
My children don't read my novels for the most part. My older son read Orphan Island because so many of his friends at school had. They definitely feel ownership for Charlie & Mouse. When we go to a book store they sign it. And the editor did a really wonderful thing with that. Originally it was called Mose and Lew, but the editor decided that by the time they were 16 they may not want to be the center of a children's book. She suggested they should choose their own names. Mose became Charlie and Lew became Mouse. So they definitely feel that is their book.
Look for our review of Orphan Island on our blog on April 12.