Brightwood, by Tania Unsworth (Author interview)

Brightwood, by Tania Unsworth
Read this wonderful book!

A couple years ago, when my daughter chose an advance reading copy of Tania Unsworth’s Brightwood at the library (a prize for the reading program), I had no idea we were in for such a treat. The cover looked a bit scary, so I decided to read it to her. (You can read the Kirkus review here.) It is a little scary. It’s also a lot beautiful and interestingly complicated: a tribute to Ms. Unsworth’s belief in the capacity and imagination of the child.

My daughter and I both fell in love with the book. I wrote a fan letter to Ms. Unsworth, and she replied, which began an imaginative and generous correspondence with me as writer-mother, and my daughter as reader.

As the paperback release was approaching, I asked Ms. Unsworth if she would mind my daughter asking some interview questions, and she graciously agreed to be interviewed for the blog.

Merida and I hope you enjoy the interview. And of course we recommend you buy the book!



Describe Frank’s background.


Frank is not the main character in BRIGHTWOOD, although she probably thinks she is. She arrives at Brightwood Hall when Daisy (who is the main character), is in desperate need of help. Frank isn’t a ghost, although she does appear in black and white. She’s more like an imaginary friend – a very bossy and delusional one. She’s an explorer from a different time and place, and for the whole of the book (set in an English stately home) she believes she’s actually in the Amazonian jungle, pitting her wits against a rival explorer. But she has an odd way of getting to the truth, and her advice is not quite as ridiculous as it seems. She was my favorite character to write, and even though I finished the book some time ago, I’m not certain she got the memo. It’s possible she’s still out there, having all kinds of adventures without me.


What was your inspiration for writing Brightwood?


I loved the idea of writing about someone who has never once been outside their home. Daisy doesn’t know what lies beyond the gates of Brightwood Hall, and so she’s made the beautiful old house into a whole world. A kind of magical kingdom. When Daisy’s world – and her life – is threatened, she’s forced to confront reality. I felt that situation had the potential for a powerful story.


How did you get the idea for the non-human characters?


My best ideas come out of problems. The biggest problem I had when I sat down to write the book, was how to tell the story with only two characters. There was Daisy, all alone in the house, and there was James Gritting, the mysterious relative who turns up a little way into the story. Daisy’s mother is mostly not in the action at all. It is very hard to make things happen in a story without interaction between characters, dialogue, the exchange of information, and all that good stuff. Simply describing the thoughts in one person’s head makes for very dull reading! So I knew that Daisy had to have people (or a rat!) to talk to, even if they weren’t – strictly speaking – real. She would need to have an extraordinary imagination to do that. By creating non-human characters, I solved my problem of how to move the action along, and I also gained an insight into the character of Daisy herself. Two birds with one stone!


How long have you been a writer?


I’ve always been writing, even when I was quite a little child. I got my first book published when I was about 35.


When did you know you wanted to be a writer?


My dad was a novelist, and my mum wrote poetry, and I grew up thinking that writing was the best way to spend your life. I always knew I wanted to be a writer, although for a long time I told myself the opposite. I was frightened of failing at it. I thought because I found it hard, that meant I was no good at it. It took me a while to realize that writing is hard whether you’re good at it or not. And being frightened of failure doesn’t mean you’re going to fail. It just means you’re frightened. And you can write while frightened. You can write while frightened, and while finding it hard. So that’s what I do!


What were your favorite books when you were a child?


I liked fairy stories, and Greek and Norse mythology, and historical novels about Vikings, and the Narnia books, and stories about animals like The Call of the Wild, and anything to do with adventure. Or ponies. Also, school stories, and comics, and poetry…I guess the answer is I liked everything!


To read more about Tania Unsworth, please visit her website.

A great book for parents & teachers

talk to me first

Time for another episode of Rebecca Recommends!

I recently read Talk To Me First: Everything You Need to Know to Become Your Kids’ “”Go-To”” Person about Sex by Deborah Roffman. Alongside books like the Robie Harris sexuality books (It’s Not The Stork for ages 4 and up, It’s So Amazing for ages 7 and up, and It’s Perfectly Normal for ages 10 and up), and Peggy Orenstein’s Girls & Sex, Roffman’s book is an excellent, excellent resource for parents who want to encourage healthy sexuality in their kids.

Roffman’s book is about much more than sexuality. Really, it’s about how we talk to children, and what children need from the adult nurturers around them so that they know how to make smart, thoughtful decisions. She talks about what children need, and based on those needs, she describes communication as a five piece suit, composed of 1) affirmation, 2) information, 3) clarity about values, 4) setting limits, and 5) anticipatory guidance.

Soon after I started reading it, I had a conversation about something else difficult (I can’t even recall what it was, but I know it didn’t have to do with sexuality) using Roffman’s ideas, and was able to navigate the awkwardness with grace and honesty. In terms of discussing sexuality, I have my own baggage and tricky spots—and Roffman’s book helped me approach some of those things that previously felt too scary or uncomfortable.

I recommend this book to anyone who wants to help guide children toward strong, healthy adulthood.

Long live the book (and long live the conversation)

from Peter and Wendy, by J.M. Barrie (illustration by Lucie May Atwell)
from Peter and Wendy, by J.M. Barrie (illustration by Lucie May Atwell)

Here’s a NY Times article that brings up some more questions about where and how we should read to children, and whether any reading (on an e-reader, for instance) is better than nothing.  (The brief answer:

“What we’re really after in reading to our children is behavior that sparks a conversation,” said Kathy Hirsh-Pasek, a professor of psychology at Temple and co-author of the 2013 study. “But if that book has things that disrupt the conversation, like a game plopped right in the middle of the story, then it’s not offering you the same advantages as an old-fashioned book.”)

Again and again, what seems central to so much about how we live: being active (rather than passive) is almost always best.

Read, talk, sing…

According to an article on the NY Times, pediatricians are poised to become advocates for reading to babies. This movement aligns with what I’m reading in Nicholas Carr’s book, The Shallows. Specifically, from the NYT article:

With parents of all income levels increasingly handing smartphones and tablets to babies, who learn how to swipe before they can turn a page, reading aloud may be fading into the background.

“The reality of today’s world is that we’re competing with portable digital media,” said Dr. Alanna Levine, a pediatrician in Orangeburg, N.Y. “So you really want to arm parents with tools and rationale behind it about why it’s important to stick to the basics of things like books.”

Right on, Dr. Alanna Levine. Right on. This is also why we need to keep supporting libraries, by the way!


“One of the savers”

Wilbur, Charlotte, and some of her work

I am reading my four-year-old daughter Charlotte’s Web, by E.B. White.  I had forgotten how great the book is–easily one of the best novels I’ve ever read.

The first line: “‘Where’s Papa going with that axe?’ said Fern to her mother as they were setting the table for breakfast.”   Seriously, I can’t think of a better hook.  When I took it from the shelf last week, my daughter was hesitant to read what, a year or so ago, she had with odd prescience named “the bacon book.”  I said, “I’m just going to read the first line.”  I did.

E.B. White’s hook worked.

I love reading this book aloud because it’s so easy to read aloud.  E.B. White did his work well.

Today, after reading her the chapter where Wilbur et al prepare to go to the Fair, my daughter acted out part of the story.  She needed a spider, and I remembered my husband’s wonderful Steiff spider, now known as “Charlotte.”

My daughter (“Fern”) quickly made a tent for Wilbur and Templeton (because, she informed me, they were going to kill Templeton, too).  She said that Charlotte was “one of the savers.”  Fern and Charlotte were saving Wilbur and Templeton.

So another reason to love this book: from it spins the truth that it’s not only males who do the saving around the farm.  Females do, too.  Children who hear animals talking are taken seriously by most adults, even the medical establishment, in the form of Dr. Dorian: “Children pay better attention than grownups.  If Fern says that the animals in Zuckerman’s barn talk, I’m quite ready to believe her.  Perhaps if people talked less, animals would talk more.  People are incessant talkers–I can give you my word on that.”

I can’t wait until bedtime, so I can remember what happens next.

Stories help make us more human!

One of many fantastic books by Vivian Gussin Paley

And yes, I grant myself that exclamation point!

Here’s an interesting piece by Annie Murphy Paul about the neroscience of reading fiction.  It validates things that many know intuitively: among other things, reading fiction makes more empathetic humans.  (And it slashes through those conversations–conversations which, frankly, piss me off–about how nonfiction is somehow more important than fiction in helping people deal with “the real world.”  I love that the study corrects for things like whether people who are more naturally empathetic read more fiction.  Take that!)

Described in the piece is how we register sensations as we read descriptive language: how the evocative qualities of words like “cinnamon” work our sense of smell.  This aligns with something I heard the poet Cathy Smith Bowers discuss: when we read a word aloud, its sound affects us emotionally, but even when we read a word silently on the page, our bodies experience similar sensations.  As a writer of fiction, all this helps me understand why I care about what I do.  Why it’s important to make stories.  As a reader, it all sounds very true.

Last night, I finished reading Vivian Paley’s book, A Child’s Work.  Its emphasis is on the importance of fantasy play and stories in developing a young child’s ways of processing and coping with the world.  All the books by MacArthur Fellowship recipient Paley that I’ve read have moved me–she is a gifted writer, and her subject is so vital.  In her work, in addition to her observations as a wise teacher, she records and shares dialogue from real children in real classrooms, making sense of their real worlds and lives through fantasy and imagination.  In this book, Paley rightfully despairs at the push to bring academics to children too soon, leaving less and less time for preschool children to dream and do their natural thing.  Among many passages in this book that move me and are so true, Paley writes, on p. 102:

“Every day brought me new evidence of the preeminence of fantasy in children’s thinking.  It has reinforced my certainty that we perform a grave error when we remove fantasy play as the foundation of early childhood education.

We are going too far in the opposite direction.  Some school people feel that because young children engage in magical thinking we must pull them on to another track as early as possible; having added extra years of schooling to their lives, we are emboldened to counteract fantasy play with ‘reality-based’ activities.

Is this not the adult version of magical thinking?  To imagine that the purpose of early childhood education is to reorder the stages of human development is like the story of the prince who was turned into a frog.  In attempting to turn children into creatures that are unchildlike, we ignore all the messages young children give us as they play.  The frog turns back into a prince when the princess recognizes his need to be treated with kindness and respect.  In the case of our children, this would include the kindness of acknowledging that their perceptions and premises are not the same as older children’s or as our own.”

This idea of how we think we can reorder the natural stages of a child’s development haunts me.  Paley’s work speaks to me in particular now as the mother of a young child.  And pausing to read it has helped me slow down enough to more fully engage in the play my daughter is about.  So many of her sentences start with “Pretend that…” and I’m paying closer attention, and doing more active pretending with her.  (It’s good for adults, too!)  But anyone who is interested in stories and storytelling and their central importance to our humanity ought to read Paley’s books.  The Boy On The Beach is a really good one, too, and gets at why storytelling is important to building communities.

Now, back to my story in progress…

Where do hummingbirds go in a hurricane?

"...making a promise..."

Robert McCloskey’s Make Way for Ducklings was one of my daughter’s early favorite books.  Soon, my friend Maryellen recommended some of McCloskey’s other books, Blueberries for Sal and One Morning in Maine.  The Sal stories are fun, jaunty, and touching.   Sal loses a wobbly tooth while grubbing for clams with her father on the beach, feeling  for it with her muddy finger, the mud bitter in her mouth.  The stories ebb and flow with the tide as they follow Sal and her family on their bucolic adventures on the Maine coast.  (And I love how these stories depict strong, outgoing, capable girls, unafraid to roll up their pants and get dirty, carry heavy stuff, play with discarded spark plugs, and generally frolic freely through childhood.)

Then I found Time of Wonder  which continues the saga of Sal and Jane, but this time in a very different type of narrative.  My daughter just rediscovered the book, and so reading at “bed night” thrills me more than it usually does.

The book reads like a poem in places, and interestingly, rather than continuing to name Sal and Jane as the protagonists, Time of Wonder is written in second person, so it’s directed at “you.”  With beautiful illustrations of the seasons of coastal life, spring ferns uncurl and fade to make room for summer boats.  As the summer folks leave the island, there follows the uncertain skies, the time for being watchful.  The climax of the book is the hurricane, and the hypnotic rhythm of preparation builds with the repetition of characters’ lines:

“We’re going to have some weather./It’s a-coming!/She’s gonna blow./With the next shift of the tide.”

After the storm slows, the picture shows Sal and Jane creeping upstairs to bed.  The text on that page reads:

“The moon comes out,
making a rainbow in the salt spray,
a promise
that the storm will soon be over.
Now the wind is lessening,
singing loud chords in the treetops.
it hums as you go up to bed.”
The whole book is a joy to read.  McCloskey’s other books are, too, except I stumble with One Morning In Maine because it could use some editing, and has clunky dialogue tags, which cause me to cringe a little when I read it with my writer’s ear.  (And reading that book aloud is a reminder that reading aloud is crucial in catching clunkiness.) But I love reading Time of Wonder.  Maybe because of the catharsis of Storm (which is part of the natural rhythm of life there; even children know the rituals of preparation, one last trip to the island for groceries and gasoline).   Or maybe it’s simply the poetry.
Even if you’re not reading it to a child, read it.  You might like it.

The exquisite seasons of Kazuo Iwamura

A lovely book from a series by Kazuo Iwamura.

A librarian friend sent my daughter a bunch of discarded library books last year.  (I often find the best children’s books are discarded by libraries.)  Among that batch was the The 14 Forest Mice and The Summer Laundry Day, by Kazuo Iwamura.  It’s a story of a family of mice who pack up and take their laundry to the river to wash.  The mama mouse knows why her children are rushing–they’re excited for the accompanying swim.  Along the way, gorgeous illustrations walk the reader past delicately-rendered dragonflies and foliage.  Reading it feels like a hike in the woods.

My daughter loved this book almost as much as I did.  Quickly I looked for the other books in this series: there’s one for each season.  Finding affordable copies of the 1991 English translations by MaryLee Knowlton was a slight challenge.  I eventually found all three of the others, on eBay and   Today, the winter book came, completing our collection.

I love how this series shows the mice making sleds and indoor games to pass the time during a blizzard, or forging a platform to watch the harvest moon in autumn, or rice dumplings for a spring picnic.  The illustrations make me feel like I’ve been out in nature: colors rich and vibrant, drawings not just of “flowers” but true species.  The wood violets look like wood violets.  I also love how the series can give a child a sense of the year’s cycles, and a focus on the natural world.  The mice create things by using curiosity and invention, and the materials around them.

The stories are elegant and simple, and illustrate how to live in harmony with nature.  The large family (grandmother and grandfather on down to a toddler) works together to do the stuff of life, the maintaining of home.  Though somewhat hard to find, if you are seeking books that show kids something other than our consumer-based culture, it’s worth the search.  Let me know what you think of them.

Read any good girls lately?

My daughter is three years old, and has gotten to the point of focusing on who is a “she” and who is a “he.”  This includes people she knows, toys, and musicians playing on CDs.  It also includes characters in books.

Without being obsessive, I’ve tried to ensure a balance of genders in her literary protagonists.  Fairly early, many of her favorite characters were male, among them: Else Homelund Minnarik’s Little Bear, and Peter of the Ezra Jack Keats books.  But giving her plenty of shes to think about was more challenging than it seemed.  To minimize gender stereotypes, and give her plenty of female heroes.  Her latest hero is Katy, from Virginia Lee Burton‘s book Katy and the Big Snow.  Following is from the review:

Katy, a red crawler tractor, “could do a lot of things,” Burton explains early on. In the summer she is a bulldozer, helping to build and repair roads in the city of Geoppolis. In the winter, she turns into a snowplow, waiting and waiting for her chance to be useful. Most of the winters, though, the snowfalls are mild and the town doesn’t need Katy. But when the big one finally hits, the town is buried in page after page of powder. The power lines are down. The doctor can’t get his patient to the hospital. The fire department can’t reach a burning house! “Everyone and everything was stopped but… KATY!” Suddenly, the entire community is dependent on one little snowplow.

I found the book in a jumbled shelf at Dark Star Books last week.  My daughter now fully identifies with Katy.  This is a snowy winter, and her Grandpa Mark drives a snow plow, so the story of Katy is not only relevant but personal.  At one point in the book, the highway department says of Katy, “Nothing can stop her.”  A couple days ago, my daughter repeated it, about herself.

I want to capitalize on this moment, so I’m looking for recommendations.  I like best the books where it feels incidental that the characters are female–not necessarily overtly political or socially aware (or please, not simply politically correct!) and I want books that have good stories, well written, and with lovely art.  I love old books that have held up over a long time.  And with strong females or girls.  Female animals are okay, but I want to make sure we have some good shes around.

Read any good girls lately?

Dialogue is exhausting

I got exhausted reading a book to my daughter last night, and not just due to chronic lack of sleep, but also because the story included a whole lot of dialogue.  I think it might even be physiological, but I have no proof, it’s just a theory.

This realization (that my weariness was because I was speaking characters’ words) illustrated an excellent point that Douglas Bauer makes about dialogue in The Stuff of Fiction: Advice on Craft.

His chapter on dialogue is worth reading in full, but the particular point I’m thinking of has to do with the idea of a sort of judicious (or ill-advised, liberal) use of dialogue.  His idea is that entering (reading) a story can be like going to a party: you see a couple across the room.  The reader can see them talking, one of the characters is holding a small dog, and something seems to be happening in the interaction, and so on.  (This would be the part of the story where the writer is summarizing and setting the scene.)   Asking readers to come closer, close enough to overhear (as it were) the characters speaking, can heighten drama and make the reading experience more urgent and interesting.  It’s also wholly more strenuous reading, which brings up the next point.

I see a lot of prose that has entirely too much dialogue.  Writers of fiction (and probably creative nonfiction) have a responsibility not to exhaust the reader by putting too many words between quotation marks.  I am all for demanding a lot of my reader.  But choosing to have my characters speak directly to a reader, I should be thoughtful and give the reader a break every so often.  A moment or two of pause, a look around the room, something to let the reader take a breath–even if the reader is reading silently.

At any rate, I should be careful about how I use the power of the spoken voice, reserving it for what matters most.