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Reading Rockets' children's literature expert, Maria Salvadore, brings you into her world as she explores the best ways to use kids' books both inside — and outside — of the classroom.
Meet Kate Messner!
Kate Messner writes both nonfiction and fiction for a range of young readers. She’s explored the natural world as well as various themes in novels and picture books. I caught up with Kate while on a tour for her latest book, The Seventh Wish (Bloomsbury; 1619633760).
In it, readers meet 12-year old Charlie who catches a magical fish that grants her wishes. Serious themes combine with magic, a bit of humor, and contemporary issues including Charlie’s older sister’s addiction.
I had the chance to talk to Kate (via email, that is) and get her take on various aspects of her work.
In The Seventh Wish, you introduce Charlie and her friends as well as middle school angst. How did these characters develop? How do you develop characters and make them real for readers? (I guess I’m asking where do your characters come from…)
My characters start out as voices in my imagination and spend a lot of time growing and developing there before I ever write a word of the first chapter. Usually, I hear that voice a month or two before I’m ready to begin writing the actual story, and that’s the time I spend getting to know the character – what she wants, what she fears, what she wishes …. I also draw on my fifteen years of teaching middle school when I’m getting to know a character that age. It helps to have the voices of more than a thousand twelve-year-olds living in my brain every day.
Charlie not only ice fishes but she’s an Irish dancer. Have you actually done ice fishing and Irish dancing – and experienced middle school anguish? How do you make the characters and their activities come to life?
Well, I think we’ve all experienced middle school stress – in my case that was both as a student years ago and as a teacher more recently. I’m neither an Irish dancer nor an ice fisher-person, but I spent a good amount of time with people who are skilled at both when I was writing this book. I talked with Irish dancers, went to a feis (an Irish dance competition), walked through the room of dresses on sale, and watched the dancers perform and wait for their competition results. I read a lot about ice fishing and also talked with some ice fishermen. An older gentleman named Art LaGrange was kind enough to interrupt his fishing day on Lake Champlain to tell me all about the adventures he’s had in his 65 years of being an ice fisherman. He showed me how to use an auger, too.
Abby, Charlie’s sister, is a freshman in college and finds herself on a self-destructive path. Tell us about what Abby confronts.
Abby goes from being an A student and soccer star in high school to battling opioid addiction in her freshman year of college. It’s a scary story, and one that was inspired by my neighbor’s daughter, who also struggled with heroin addiction when she went away to school. She got help and recovered and is thriving now, and she talked with me in depth about her experiences both as an addict and as someone in recovery. It was both fascinating and terrifying to hear her talk about the experience of slipping into drug use because she’s a smart kid, yet it never felt dangerous to her until she was already in way too deep.
What do you hope the young people will gain from this book and the way you addressed the tough issues?
Charlie’s story is not just Charlie’s story – it’s the story of thousands and thousands of families in our country right now. Sometimes, I think we forget that addicts have loved ones whose lives are shattered, too – friends and children, younger brothers and sisters. I fear that the culture of silence and shame surrounding opioid addiction leaves those loved ones feeling all alone most of the time, so my first hope is that Charlie will be there to let kids know they’re not alone at all. I also hope her story opens up a larger conversation and helps to build understanding and empathy. Addiction is something that touches so many families, and refusing to talk about it just makes the stigma worse.
A bit of magic is used in All the Answers as well in The Seventh Wish. Briefly describe what issues Ava is able to deal with in your earlier novel.
Ava, the main character in All the Answers, is an anxious kid who finds a magic pencil that will answer almost any question. At first, it seems like the answer to all her worries, but as she relies on the pencil more and more, she asks it bigger and bigger questions – including some that might be better left unanswered. Ultimately, this is a story about magic, but also one about making peace with life’s questions.
Why do you think magic appeals to you — and to your readers?
I think magic is a non-threatening way to look at tougher issues. It’s a safe way to explore things that might be too scary in a real-world setting, but somehow, I think, that dash of magic allows us to open up to consider other people’s situations and feelings. And I think there’s also a universal yearning for a bit of magic in the world, so books that offer that possibility can offer hope in other ways, too.
Not only is nature an integral part of The Seventh Wish (I particularly enjoyed the notion of the ice talking!), you have found even other stories in the natural world. What inspires you about the nature? What is the role of research in your work?
I’ve always been someone who’s happiest outside. As a kid, I used to wander through the apple orchards and down a hill to explore the creek behind our house in rural Western New York, and that’s where I always did my best thinking. That’s still the case today – I understand things better when I’m looking at life from beside a lake or on a mountain summit. And research about the natural world – whether it’s learning about the science behind ice flowers for All the Answers or exploring the subnivean zone for a picture book like Over and Under the Snow – just feeds that sense of wonder.
You’ve written in a number of formats — picture book, nonfiction, and novels. How do you decide on the type of book you’re writing?
With a story like The Seventh Wish , it’s easy to identify that I’m writing a novel, but other books aren’t always like that. Sometimes, I have to noodle around with an idea for a while before deciding if it should be a picture book or a work of nonfiction for older readers or something else entirely. I just rewrote an entire project from a choose-your-own-adventure mystery into a work of quirky narrative nonfiction, and that’s not unusual. Sometimes I have to “try on” a few different formats before I figure out what a project really wants to be.
What do you learn from the young people you visit and talk to about your books and writing?
Every single time I spend time with young readers, I learn that they are kind, empathetic, and wise beyond their years. It makes me even more committed to write stories that respect their intelligence and sense of wonder.
What advice do you have for young readers about reading and writing — and for the adults in their lives?
For the kids: Read lots of what you love, and try out new kinds of books, too. You never know when you might love something else. And don’t be afraid to share your own ideas in writing. Your voice matters as much as anyone else’s, and no one else can speak for you.
For the adults: Respect the choices of young readers and writers. Read with them and guide them, but honor their choices and their curiosity by providing access to lots and lots of stories. Because stories help us learn and grow and build empathy in a way nothing else really can.
See a selected list of books by Kate Messner.