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 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).
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.
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.)