Gayle Rosengren Author Interview
I’m so pleased that middle-grade author Gayle Rosengren has stopped by to talk about her writing adventure with us. Gayle is the author of two novels, Cold War on Maplewood Street and What the Moon Said. She’s recently won the 2016 Tofte/Wright Children’s Literature Award for Cold War on Maplewood Street. Additionally, What the Moon Said was a Jr. Library Guild selection and an Illinois Reads title for 2014. Yay!!
Gayle, can you tell us a little bit about yourself and how you came to publish your first novel?
Hi Valerie. Thanks so much for having me on your blog!
My writing journey has been quite an adventure. In fact, when I visit schools, the first image of my power point is a path zig-zagging up a mountain. I ask the students if they can guess why I chose this particular picture as the cover for my presentation about my writing journey, and we start right off with them realizing it wasn’t fast and it wasn’t easy. But it does show a figure celebrating at the top of the mountain (and I’m there with my book in hand!) so they know my story has a happy ending.
I tell them I knew I wanted to be a writer from the time I was nine years old. I try to make the point to them that dreams don’t come true just by wishing; they require hard work and patience. I tell them that sometimes no matter how hard you try—whether you strive to be a great athlete, artist, actor, teacher, musician, chef, or anything else--you can’t seem to make it happen. Sometimes trying can lead to a new, even more satisfying goal. But if you are passionate about your dream and you get frustrated and give up, you’ll never know if working a little longer might have made the difference. You’ll never know if you could have made your dream come true if you just kept trying. I am living proof of that.
I’d been writing for a long time. I’d published short stories in Cricket, Ladybug, Jack & Jill. I’d even had editors want to publish my novel manuscripts, but somehow the contract never quite materialized. My heart was broken many times. I sometimes considered quitting. But I’m stubborn, and to get so close and not achieve my dream just made me determined to work harder. In the meantime I joined SCBWI (Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators) and I joined a critique group that meets monthly. The support of these like-minded people was invaluable to taking me the rest of the way to my goal.
My first published book grew out of a small children’s writers retreat with editor, Susan Kochan of G.P.Putnam’s Sons I had submitted a middle grade historical fiction manuscript, and the main character, Esther, captured Susan’s heart. I did some tiny revisions and the long-awaited offer finally came, resulting in the book that came to be titled What the Moon Said. I floated several inches above the ground for months!
I just loved both of your novels, in part because I am a big fan of stories set in different time periods. You’ve done a great job describing these eras for young (and older) readers who wouldn’t be familiar with them. Can you tell us what made you interested in writing a story set during the 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis?
Several years ago, I was astonished to realize how few adults had heard of the Cuban Missile Crisis. And those who had seemed to think—if they thought about it at all—that since World War III didn’t happen, it was a non-story and could be forgotten. I lived through that week, and I strongly believed it should never be forgotten. So I felt compelled to write Cold War on Maplewood Street.
My main character Joanna experiences the fear that I and my friends had felt, living each day of that week knowing that at any moment a nuclear war might break out; that any day might be their last, the world’s last. The fact that nuclear war didn’t happen is the triumph to be remembered and celebrated, not the “non-story” to be forgotten. It proved that words could be more powerful than weapons and that it’s never too late to negotiate, to compromise, and to avoid war.
Check out the book trailer below:
What the Moon Said is also a delightful story that takes the reader from Chicago to rural Wisconsin and back again during the Great Depression. (This definitely resonated with me as my great-grandfather had a bakery on the south side of Chicago and decided to try his hand at farming in Wisconsin. The story goes that he was not a very good farmer and went back to Chicago to continue baking.) You carefully address the poverty during the Great Depression in both an urban and rural setting. Did you spend a lot of time researching this era?
Yes, I did a lot of research. The idea for the book came from stories my mother told me when I was growing up. But I wrote the book when she was quite elderly and many of her memories about details were a bit fuzzy. I wanted to be sure everything I wrote was accurate, so that meant a lot of digging for details both during and even after the writing. New questions would come to mind with each reading and send me back to researching over and over again on even very tiny details because I was determined that my story would be as historically correct as I could possibly make it.
I was intrigued by the many superstitions of the mother in What the Moon Said. She sees omens in so many things—so much so much so that it governs what they do and don’t do as family. I am curious if these superstitions are really a part of certain cultures or if you put your creative energy to work and made some of them up.
Superstitions are a major part of many cultures even today, and they were especially prevalent during the time period of the story. Certain cultures, and Russia was (and still is) one, were especially driven by them. I believe superstitions go hand in hand with uncertainty. People who feel they have no control over their lives seek to believe they have some through superstitions. My grandmother (Ma in the story) really did come from Russia and she was very superstitious. She came to live with my family when I was just 8 years old, so I was, to a certain extent, ruled by superstitions as much as Esther was. And even though I know intellectually that superstitions have no real power, having grown up with them I would still never think of carrying an open umbrella into the house or spilling salt without tossing some over my shoulder!
What the Moon Said also has a fabulous book trailer!
Your books are written for the middle-grade audience, but I have to make sure that everyone understands how lovely these stories are for adults as well. Your eloquent descriptions sure bring me back to my childhood and the feelings and worries that I remember. Do you have a vivid memory of your childhood years that helps you craft your stories?
I do have many vivid memories of my growing-up years, and these were especially helpful in writing Cold War on Maplewood Street. But in listening to my mother’s stories over those same years—describing events which were so vividly remembered by her—I think that in a way they became my memories. I was always able to visualize her moving to the farm, living in the old ramshackle house, riding in the jingle-bell sleigh in winter, running from the nasty goose, attending the two-room school house, and most of all, her delight in finally being able to have a dog. These memories all seemed as natural as my own when I began to write.
In addition to the actual content of your stories, I was entertained by the chapter art in both of the books as well as their lovely covers (above). I’m including a snapshot of the sweet chapter art here as well.) Were you consulted on these artistic decisions or were they a complete surprise?
The art director, in conjunction with my editor, made the decisions on all of the artwork. One artist (Zdenko Basic) created the beautiful cover of What the Moon Said, while the chapter heading artwork was by the amazing Jonathan Bean. My editor sent me samples of everything and asked if I liked them, and I was very enthusiastic, which made her very happy. I never offered any criticism or suggestions, so it’s impossible to say whether it would have made any difference, but honestly I doubt it. These decisions are the result of much experience and keen artistic judgment. As for Cold War on Maplewood Street, the artwork was all actually done in-house. So many books are held back by unattractive covers that I felt enormously grateful mine turned out so beautifully. The old adage may say, “Don’t judge a book by its cover,” but people do ALL the time!
Will you continue to write historical fiction for the middle-grade reader or should we look for something different from you next?
I do have another historical fiction story taking shape, but the manuscript I just completed is an upper middle grade contemporary survival story that I’m very excited about. I hope that will be the next thing you see from me. *Fingers crossed!*
Can you share with us some of your favorite middle-grade books?
I’d love to! To name just a few in no particular order: Because of Winn Dixie, the Ramona books, Anne of Green Gables, Little Women, Emma Jean Lazarus Fell out of a Tree, The One and Only Ivan, Wonder, The Evolution of Calpurnia Tate, The Wanderer (and everything else by Sharon Creech), Lily’s Crossing, and Catherine Called Birdy.
How can readers discover more about you and you work?
Facebook Page: Gayle Rosgengren Author
Amazon Author Page: amazon.com/author/gaylerosengren
Thanks so much for visiting us! It was a pleasure to get to know you better!!
Truly, the pleasure was all mine, Valerie. It’s always a delight to chat with my readers, and this was a marvelous opportunity to do that. Thank you!