In the Spotlight: Jenna Gavigan & a GIVEAWAY!

October 9th, 2018

There are few things I enjoy more than shining a spotlight on authors and books that I love. And today it truly is a spotlight, in every sense of the word! Here to celebrate her very first book birthday and introduce us to her leading lady — er, mouse — is Broadway, TV, and screen actor Jenna Gavigan!

Jenna Gavigan

Doesn’t she look feisty and fun? Like someone you’d want to hang out with? You’d be right on both counts — she is! And so is her fabulous new character, Lulu, the star of Jenna’s very first book, Lulu the Broadway Mouse.

I absolutely adored this book, which Jenna and Lulu’s publisher has billed  as “Ratatouille meets Broadway.” I think you’ll love it, too, whether or not you’ve ever dreamed of being onstage and in the spotlight, as Lulu does!

Shall we help Jenna celebrate her book birthday? Pull up a chair and grab a cup of tea and we’ll settle in for a chat before we all throw confetti and cut the cake…

How did this book come about, Jenna? Can you tell us a bit about that?

Years ago, while making my Broadway debut at the Shubert Theatre, I spotted a mouse running along a water pipe in the wardrobe room. To keep myself from freaking out — I was not a city dweller at the time, so not used to seeing the occasional mouse — I told myself that the tiny mouse was just helping out with the costumes. Perhaps she wanted to be on Broadway, too! That idea has been marinating in my mind for years, and I first started writing drafts as a picture book. One of those drafts happened while I was at Columbia University. That teacher encouraged me to apply to a conference at Rutgers that paired prospective authors with mentors. Eventually, my mentor at the conference became my agent, and she encouraged me to write the story as a middle-grade novel. The rest is history. (Note: I worked at the Shubert from March 2003 – May 2004, and my book sold in June 2017. So… that was a long story very short.)

Did you have to do any research for your book? Or had that all been done during your years onstage?

Yes, most of the “research” for this book is thanks to years in the theatre! But, I did go back to visit the Shubert when I was putting the finishing touches on my already-sold manuscript, to make sure I got all the real-life details right, like what color the seats in the audience are and how many chandeliers are on the ceiling. Roaming around, especially below the stage in the basement, I spotted other details that helped me add even more color and detail to Lulu’s world.

How did you come up with the character of Lulu? A MOUSE! There has to be an interesting story behind that!

Well, we’ve already addressed the mouse part of things! But, Lulu herself is loosely based on me as a kid. All I wanted was to be on Broadway. And I just kept working and hoping and dreaming. Lulu has an enviable optimism, but she also has moments of worrying that things won’t work out. I certainly had those moments. (Still do.) Moments of wondering if all the wishing and hoping and dreaming would pay off. My dream came true. You’ll have to read the book to see if Lulu’s does too!


Young Jenna as Dorothy in “The Wizard of Oz”

Any tips to share for aspiring writers — or actors?

Just do it. There’s no magic potion. No right or wrong. Practice, focus, but don’t forget to have fun! Acting and writing have “make believe” in common. Sure, there’s work and training and business involved. But at the end of the day, we’re playing make believe. (On that note, be incredibly thankful when someone pays you to make believe. Be kind to the people you work with. Be humble. Be thankful.) Also, know that “success” (you’ll need to define for yourself what success means, BTW), doesn’t happen overnight. There are a lot of variables at play and a lot of people playing the game. All you can control is your work.  Your words. Your audition. How you sing the song. I’m sure you’ve heard it over and over again, but it really is true: “Be you. It’s the only thing that makes you different from everyone else.”

What’s up your sleeve? What will you be writing next? 

Well, I’m hoping for a sequel to Lulu!! I also love the idea of writing origin stories for some of the characters we meet in Lulu the Broadway Mouse—how those characters got started in the theatre. Guess we’d call those books spin-offs.  I’m also working on a novel set in the 1930s about a girl whose family runs a boarding house in Brooklyn. It involves a lot more research than Lulu did, that’s for sure!!

And how about acting? What’s next in that arena?

Here’s the thing about being an actor: you very rarely know what’s coming next. It’s exciting, in a way, but it’s also stressful and scary. I very much hope I’ll be on Broadway again soon. If you twisted my arm and made me choose my next gig, I’d honestly want to play Anna in Frozen. Or Dawn in Waitress. I said it when I was little and I’m saying it now that I’m a grown up: “I want to be on Broadway!”

And now — cue the confetti! Happy book birthday, Jenna! Thanks so much for stepping into the spotlight and visiting with us today. And thank you, too, for providing a giveaway: there’s a copy of hot-off-the-press Lulu the Broadway Mouse awaiting one of you — and I’ve heard rumors of a tote bag as well…

Just leave a comment below, sharing one of your favorite theatre memories with us. Maybe it’s a play you saw, maybe it’s a play you were in, or maybe it’s a play you wrote, who knows? Winners will be chosen at random on October 17th. Share this giveaway on your blog or Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, or other social media for additional entries. (If you share on social media, please leave a link in the comments so that I can assign you an extra entry.)  U.S. and Canada only, please. Have fun!

 

In the Spotlight: Leila Howland

May 6th, 2015

There are few things I enjoy more than shining a spotlight on authors and books that I love. I have a treat for you all today — Leila Howland is stopping by my blog to dish about her delightful new book The Forget-Me-Not Summer.

LeilaHowlandsmallLeila Howland

Isn’t she gorgeous? Talented, too. Leila is best known for her YA novels Nantucket Blue and Nantucket Red, but she’s got something new up her sleeve for readers this Spring, with the release of her first middle-grade novel.

For anyone who has sisters (that would be me, the eldest and bossiest of three), for anyone who’s ever dreamed of a summer on Cape Cod, I guarantee you’ll fall head-over-heels in love with The Forget-Me-Not Summer. I did, right from the moment I first met Marigold and Zinnia and Lily. How could I resist a trio of sisters with names like these?

FMNSummerHC(1)

 

Q:  So Leila, tell us a bit about how this book came about.

A:  Several years ago I rescued a puppy. He needed two long walks a day around my Los Angeles neighborhood. On one of our walks I saw a girl I recognized from a TV show, hanging out with her friends from school. She was so poised and stylish, and I wondered what it would be like to be her. Then I thought, even more interesting, what would it be like to be her quirky little sister? Even though I’d lived in L.A. for years, for the first time I was really noticing the flowers in my neighbors’ beautiful gardens. I started looking up the names of the flowers and before I knew it Marigold, Zinnia and Lily had started to come to life in my imagination. 

 Q:  Your previous books – Nantucket Blue and Nantucket Red – were young adult novels. What drew you to middle grade? Were there any particular surprises/challenges in writing for this audience?

 A:  I absolutely love writing for teenagers. However, teenagers tend be more inwardly focused than tweens. After reading a lot of YA, I rediscovered a love for the more outwardly focused middle grade fiction. I loved connecting to a character’s search for meaning in the wider world. I started with Walk Two Moons [by Sharon Creech], moved on to When You Reach Me [by Rebecca Stead], and then I was hooked! Although I wouldn’t say it surprises me, I am continually in awe of how deep and profound middle grade fiction often is.   

 Q:  Your books (at least so far) are all set in New England – Nantucket and now Cape Cod, to be exact. Is this setting particularly meaningful for you?

 A:  I grew up in Providence, Rhode Island, and spent many summer days in small coastal towns in New England. There is something so unique and idyllic about New England in the summertime. Now I live so far from there. The Los Angeles summers are brutally hot and dry and I long for those small town New England moments. Writing about them is a way for me to be there in spirit.

 Q:  Let’s talk about family dynamics. The Forget-Me-Not Summer features three sisters (I was the eldest of three sisters, by the way!). Where were you in the sibling lineup? What prompted you to write about three sisters?

 A:  I grew up with an older brother, Gifford, and a younger sister, Maryhope. (And later in life I was lucky enough to acquire an amazing younger stepsister, Elizabeth.)  While Gifford and I were always relatively harmonious together, my relationship with Maryhope could be a little fraught. I wasn’t always the nicest big sister. As an adult I also know that some of that behavior stemmed from me trying to negotiate my place in the world and forge my own identity. I thought that tension would be rich material for a middle grade novel and a fun and meaningful way to honor the close bond that Maryhope and I now share.

 Q:  Is there an Aunt Sunny in your life?

 A:  I was lucky enough to grow up with my Great Aunt Dot, who lived just down the street from us in Providence. We had tea together every afternoon. Just like Aunt Sunny, she was a science teacher for many years. She was the kindest and wisest person I have ever met. A few summers ago when I was doing research for Nantucket Blue, I connected with an old friend and colleague of hers who lives on the island. She made me laugh as she told me stories about growing up on Nantucket. She also brought memories of Aunt Dot vividly to life. I knew I had to write about a smart, funny and wise great aunt.

 Q:  Favorite books when you were Zinnia and Marigold’s age?

 My favorite book hands down was Homecoming by Cynthia Voigt. I must have read it ten times.

 Q:  What are you reading now?

 A:  The Crossover by Kwame Alexander. One day I’d love to write a novel in verse. I bet it’s a lot harder than it looks.

Q:  Favorite thing about being a writer?

A:  Letters from readers!

Q:  What’s next for you, writing-wise?

A: Readers can look for a sequel to The Forget-Me-Not Summer, which will be out next year. It’s called The Brightest Stars of Summer, featuring the Silver sisters back in Pruet for another season of fun in the sun!

Q:  Anything else we haven’t covered that you’d care to share?

A:  I’m obsessed with the new ice cream store near my house. It’s called Salt & Straw and they have the craziest flavors. My favorite one so far is almond brittle with salted ganache. 

Ooo, Salt & Straw! I know it well — it actually started here in Portland, Oregon. You have to try their Honey Lavender!  Yum…

Thanks so much, Leila, for stepping into the spotlight and visiting with us today! And now, my friends, a giveaway: a copy of The Forget-Me-Not Summer awaits one of you — just leave a comment below, sharing one of your favorite summer memories with us. Winners will be chosen at random at midnight on May 17th. US and Canada only, please. Share this giveaway on your blog or Facebook or Twitter or other social media for additional entries. (And if you tweet or blog or otherwise share on social media, please leave a link in the comments below so I can assign you an extra entry.) 

 

In the Spotlight: Nancy McCabe

January 28th, 2015

As many of you know, I’ve started a new occasional feature on my blog — a series of author interviews called In the Spotlight. I have so many friends who are writing so many amazing, wonderful,  stellar books, books that you simply MUST know about and read, that I decided it’s time I got busy and shared them with all of you!

Stepping into the spotlight today is Nancy McCabe. We’re online friends, thanks to a listserv for people who love Maud Hart Lovelace’s Betsy-Tacy books! It’s amazing how books bring people together, isn’t it?

Nancy McCabe

Nancy McCabe

Nancy is a professor of writing and director of the writing program at the University of Pittsburgh at Bradford, and she also teaches in the MFA program in creative writing at Spalding University. How she manages to fit in time to write on top of her teaching responsibilities is impressive!

Another thing that Nancy and I share, in addition to a love for all things Betsy-Tacy, is a love of literary travel. Some of you may recall hearing about my trip to England in search of Jane Austen (click here to read the article I wrote about it for The Christian Science Monitor). That’s small potatoes compared to what Nancy did, though! She literally criss-crossed North America to visit the settings for a number of her favorite children’s books (many of which happen to be my favorites, too!). The result is her wonderful new book FROM LITTLE HOUSES TO LITTLE WOMEN: REVISITING A LITERARY CHILDHOOD (University of Missouri Press).

book cover

And now it’s time to pull up a chair, pour a cup of tea, and settle in for a visit with Nancy.

Q: Can you tell us a bit about the inspiration for your book and how it came about?

A: I’ve always loved children’s literature and have taught a few classes in it. In my early forties, when my daughter was young, I started rereading favorite books from my own childhood and talking about them with my friend Sara. During those years, I lost my mother and her last living sister, both of whom had been a huge influence on my childhood reading, and during those years, I started making trips to tourist sites related to my favorite authors.

At first I was just doing most of this for fun, but I kept journals on my reading and my travels and they began to evolve into a book, a travel and reading memoir with literary and cultural criticism blended in. Since I am not a scholar of children’s literature, and in fact didn’t enjoy critical writing when I was in graduate school, I felt a lot of trepidation throughout the process and wasn’t sure if I’d ever finish or publish it. But I found myself getting into many inspiring conversations with others who’d loved the same books, and those nudged me on. I learned a lot in the process, and came to some unexpected insights about the books, and am delighted to be able to share my journey with other passionate readers. And I love it when they contact me to share their own insights and experiences.

Q: Looking back at your travels, can you choose one favorite literary destination? (or maybe two, if it’s not possible to narrow it down—I know how that goes!)

A: This is such a hard question!   I was fascinated by so many places for different reasons. I’d been living on the east coast for several years when I drove across Kansas to the site of the Little House on the Prairie, and I felt a much stronger sense of connection to my native state than I expected. I loved going to the farmhouse in Mansfield, MO, the motherlode of Laura Ingalls Wilder artifacts, and a place I had been to several times during my younger years. Going to Mankato, MN was like rediscovering books I had almost forgotten about, Maud Hart Lovelace’s Betsy Tacy books. I loved Prince Edward Island and all of the evidence of the pride people in Cavendish and Charlottetown feel there about Lucy Maud Montgomery and Anne of Green Gables. In Concord, MA, I loved learning about all of the connections between writers like Alcott, Emerson, Thoreau, Fuller, and Hawthorne—it is such a rich place, and the Wayside, where several authors had once lived, including Alcott, Hawthorne, and the children’s writer who wrote under the name Margaret Sidney, was inspiring.

I realize this answer is sort of a sneaky way of not narrowing down my answer to just one place—but I have to say that my absolute favorite place was a destination I hadn’t meant to include in the book—the Emily Dickinson house in Amherst, MA. I loved that it was not just historical, but that docents really focused on talking about her work throughout the tour. Being there brought back memories of transitioning into adult literature as I discovered Dickinson when I was young, and connected powerfully to this quirky, suberversive poet. But almost all of the places I visited led to revelations about how books had had a hand in shaping me into who I became and what mattered to me.

Q: What was the hardest part of the project? The easiest?

A: Rereading so many books—more than 100—and reading criticism and doing research were unexpected joys—work, but fun, relatively easy work, bringing back memories and leading to connections and discoveries. And I loved traveling places and then spending time every night writing about them in my journal, so it felt like I got to live everything twice.

The hardest part was that I wasn’t sure for years what the project was, what shape if any it was going to take. So I’d write parts of it, then stall for long periods. I wrote many other things in between working on it, essays and memoir about things that were more in my comfort zone, like about raising an adopted child and traveling with her back to China. But I kept coming back to this project, putting it through a lot of revision and reshaping, because the fun parts kept me motivated.

Q: What was/were the biggest surprises along the way?

A: I learned lots of things I didn’t know about many authors and books, and was repeatedly startled at the way details from the books had remained in my subconscious, influencing things from decorating choices to philosophies, my identity, and even, at times, decisions I had made. I experienced some huge moments of revelation that surprised me, and even some moments that made my head spin a little.

Like when my brother found the deed to our childhood home and discovered that the Osage Indians had sold that land around the same time that the Ingalls family had left Osage territory a little more than a hundred miles away. Or in DeSmet, SD, when it became clear to me why I’d gone through a period of disillusionment with the Little House series as a teenager. Or when I was writing about Little Women, a book I came to love because my mother and aunts loved it, especially an aunt who died of lupus when I was 17.

It was fascinating to me how much Jo had influenced my desire to be a writer, and how much Beth’s beautiful Victorian death shaped my own ideas of death and grief when my aunt was dying. When I discovered that Louisa May Alcott was believed to have had lupus, a theory that came about 25 years after my aunt’s death, I was startled by that connection. My mother and aunts read all of Alcott’s work, and may have read biographies; I will never know if my aunt recognized something familiar in Alcott’s patterns of illness and remission, but it was an idea that intrigued me.

Q: Tell us a bit about taking your daughter along, and sharing these favorite books and destinations with her. Did the experience turn out as you imagined?

A: Some of these books were a hard sell with my Chinese-American daughter, who has been dragged all over the place visiting these sites since she was nine years old—sites where she was almost always the only person who wasn’t white. She enjoyed learning about pioneer life, even if she had to play a lot of pump organs and sit in a lot of covered wagons and admire a lot of Pa fiddle replicas. Though she sometimes complained about long hours in the car, as soon as we arrived home, she said, “Let’s do that again.” That’s part of what motivated me to go with friends to PEI and read aloud to her Anne of Green Gables, which she LOVED, although she found Anne bizarrely sadomasochistic and laughed her head off at her desire for “bosom” friends.

I couldn’t get her to read the Betsy-Tacy books, which may be my all-time favorites. She was busy making her way through Coretta Scott King award winners. She was much more interested in books about people from other cultures—books by Bette Bao Lorde, Gloria Whelan, Pam Munoz Ryan, Sharon Draper, Mildred Taylor, Jacqueline Woodsen, Andrea Cheng, Christina Gonzalez. I read many of these and loved them, too. My daughter’s reading interests reminded me of how important it is to expose children to a variety of literature and backgrounds and cultures.

Going back to an earlier question, I was a bit surprised at how homogenous the books I read really were, all published within a hundred years of each other, the first hundred or so years that children’s literature was really emerging as a category. We are now in an era of amazing and wonderful developments in children’s literature and I hope that my daughter will someday remember the books she read as a child as fondly as I do mine. And I hope that we’ll continue to influence each other’s reading just as my mother and aunts and friends have passed books back and forth throughout our lives.

Q: Do you have a favorite anecdote to share from your travels?

A: We were really hungry and almost out of gas when we reached the highway that was supposed to take us to Walnut Grove, MN—and it was closed. There was no way to backtrack without running out of gas, so I drove down the shoulder of the closed highway for at least ten miles. It was deserted and kind of apocalyptic and actually a little scary, because I was in the middle of nowhere with an empty tank, a dying cell phone, and a sleeping child in the back seat. It helped me to imagine what it was like to be a pioneer, making do with what you had, venturing into the unknown.

Sophie and I also reminisce about the pantyhose people in Burr Oak, IA—life-sized recreations of the Ingalls family made out of old hose, sitting on the furniture in the living room of the Master’s Hotel. Such a strange and creepy but loving tribute made, in the pioneer spirit, with materials at hand.

Burr OakNancy and Sophie visit Burr Oak, Iowa

Q: This isn’t really a question, but I just love this picture of you and your daughter!  It really captures the spirit of the book.

A: Thank you so much for doing this interview, Heather (and I hope you will print this part!). Through my book, I really wanted to explore how the reading we do when young becomes a part of us, lives on in many different ways. I wanted to examine classic books not as dusty, static items, but as things that remain alive and inspiring even in a changing landscape of children’s literature. I admire your Mother-Daughter Book Club series because through great characterizations and stories, it also reminds us of the continuing relevance of classic stories.

Why thank you, Nancy! You and I are kindred spirits for sure. And thanks so much for visiting with me today.

And now readers, I have a copy of FROM LITTLE HOUSES TO LITTLE WOMEN to give away! Just leave a comment below, letting us know what setting from a favorite children’s book you’d travel to if you could.

Winners will be chosen at random at midnight on February 8th. US and Canada only, please. Share this giveaway on your blog or Facebook or Twitter or other social media for additional entries. (And if you tweet or blog or otherwise share on social media, please leave a link in the comments below so I can assign you an extra entry.) 

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