Looking at Childhood in an Unfiltered Light: Aaron Starmer and Laurel Snyder Interview Each Other About Loneliness, Magic, and The Outsiders

I think I first met Laurel Snyder on Twitter about three years ago. We both had books on the publishing horizon (mine: The Only Ones, hers: Bigger Than a Breadbox) and we seemed to share a passion for creating stories that explored some of knottier emotions of childhood. In the time since, we’ve chatted online about children’s books and their readers and we’ve put together a SCBWI workshop (along with Kate Milford and Kurtis Scaletta) on the blurry space between middle grade and young adult fiction. Laurel’s Seven Stories Up, a companion novel to Bigger than a Breadbox, came out this January, and my latest, The Riverman, arrives in March. In some ways, they’re very different. But they definitely share that spirit of exploration, of looking at childhood in an unfiltered light. We took some time to talk about it.

AS: You’ve written a book about isolation and loneliness, a children’s novel about how you can be an orphan without losing your parents. Your main characters are 12 years old. Is there something about that age that makes loneliness particularly difficult?

LS: Funny question, coming from a man who has now written two novels about isolated children!

But honestly, I’m not sure how much I think this topic is age-specific for me.  I think loneliness is a big theme in lots of my books.  

There were several especially hard ages and transitions in my childhood, and they were always accompanied by a sense of enforced solitude.  I’m insanely extroverted, but that doesn’t always mean it’s easy to make friends. I remember being a kid and watching the other kids play so easily, and thinking, “How do they just know what to do? Why don’t I know how to do that?”

It’s funny, for all the isolation in The Riverman, your characters have chosen that state for themselves, haven’t they?  Fiona walls herself off on purpose, and Alistair has the upper hand in his social relationships too. It’s almost the opposite. They’re tough.  Did you intend that?  I kept thinking about The Outsiders as I was reading, and then you called it out in the text and I laughed out loud.

AS: Three books about isolated children, actually (with a fourth on the way)! You’re right, isolation in The Riverman is self-chosen, but not, in my mind, because of the characters’ toughness. They’re all trying to avoid something: confrontation, growing up, difficult feelings, etc. Being alone helps (magic helps), for the time being at least. In Seven Stories Up, Molly and Annie are at the same moment in life as Alistair and Fiona, and when you talk about transitions in childhood, I think it’s a particularly hard one. Molly is a sweet kid, but she’s skirting the edge. She’s understandably full of anger. And I don’t think it’s just because she doesn’t get to play and explore with friends. It’s also because she’s not getting a chance to grow up and confront the knotty corners of the world she lives in (i.e. the Depression, the Holocaust, etc.). If she was 8 or 18, I don’t think that dichotomy would work.

I’m glad you caught The Outsiders influence in The Riverman before I hit you over the head with it (I considered cutting the blatant reference). You can see it in the character of Kyle mostly, but also in the fact that The Riverman is a period piece. When I first read The Outsiders, I was reading about a place 25 years in the past. Kids reading The Riverman will be doing the same thing. I think it gives the realism an edge of fantasy. The past is truly another dimension. Your book does that in double. It gives us 1987 and 1937. The magic in your book serves as a device to make time travel possible. Everything else is presented as realism. The details of the past are meticulously researched. And yet, the past also felt like a fantasy realm. Was this intentional, or do you think I’m subjecting my own view of the past on the book?

LS:  Before I answer that, let me say something else about The Outsiders.  The reason it feels like that book is because you’ve done something here that’s so so rare in a book for kids. You’ve alluded to the dangers of the teen world without making them your subject.  These kids are REAL. They know about sex, violence, abuse, poverty, drugs, etc.  It’s a landscape, not a subject, because they simultaneously dwell in this younger state.  This is a kind of honesty I think we need more of.  I think of it as the “Doin it” age.  Those years of calling sex “It’ in a knowing way, because it’s still a bewildering mystery, really, though you’ve already peeked at porn.  Knowing your parents are drunks, but going about your day. There’s a toughness to that that is SO nostalgic for me.

To answer your question: I think so, that the past is fantasy to me. Part of this is because it’s a fantasy to Annie, who has hungered for this story, for family, for connection, and now she’s finally getting it. For her it’s wish-fulfillment, you know? And for Molly the whole world is fantasy, because she’s never seen it before. Like a blind person waking up one day with sight.  Fantasy is the world you haven’t seen proved, can only believe in.  Eventually, a kid lost in a magic world comes to see it as reality (like Aquavania!)  But in the beginning, all new things are magical.

The other thing that makes it fantasy is nostalgia.  For me, Baltimore is a magical place. It’s home, but I haven’t lived there in a long time.  Going back to Baltimore for me is like when the Pevensies go BACK to Narnia. They’ve been waiting for that return, even though if they hung out there long enough it would become normal again, as it was at the end of The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe.

I wonder– can I ask you about the end of the book? It made me CRAZY.  Not in a bad way, but it’s a cliffhanger.  Why did you do that? Will there be another book?

AS: You can ask, but I’m not going to say much! Actually, the not-so-big secret is that this is the first book in a trilogy. But, since I want each book to stand alone, and I want readers to go in without expectations, we haven’t been spreading the word. The end is already driving people crazy, but I hope if they don’t read the next books, it will still seem like a singular story to them.

I love how you put it: “It’s a landscape, not a subject.” That’s exactly how I look at it. Lots of kids have parents with alcohol problems, older siblings who get into trouble. They’ve seen, as we used to say, “naked ladies.” To pretend that at 12 (or even 6) you’re too innocent to notice, or if you do notice, that these things will completely dominate your life, is just silly. I grew up solidly middle class with great parents, but I was never blind to what was going on around me. And I don’t think authors of children’s books have to automatically vilify behavior they don’t condone. But you’re right: more books for kids should show these things in organic ways. I don’t think it will steer kids down a dangerous path. If anything, it will give them a firmer connection to themselves and this confusing world.

I see a parallel with Molly. She’s the ultimate “sheltered child” and in one version of the future that is ultimately her undoing. In the beginning, she lacks empathy for her nanny. And I don’t think that’s just because she’s a spoiled rich girl. It’s because she hasn’t been given the chance to make mistakes, to make bad decisions. I know you once told me you had to cut some content from this book that was deemed too mature. Was it more mischief? Mistakes? Was it more, as you said, landscape?

LS: Booze and brothels!  Seriously. There was a scene where the girls drank wine they found in the room service dumbwaiter. And then there was a hooker-with-a-heart-of-gold character to help them at the end.  In the case of the hooker, it just didn’t work. I cut a lot of the end in the last draft.  The wine was definitely a choice about “mature” content.  It didn’t add a lot to the story, so it felt a little gratuitous, and not worth the chance of losing readers over.

More meaningfully, Molly’s character changed. In the first draft she was very very mean.  Like, in a twisted up way.  She was very manipulative.  I struggled a lot with how to handle that.  It was hard to get her to change so much so fast.  But also, it made her unlikeable, and I wasn’t sure the reader would be able to overcome that, sympathize with her in that state.

Okay, before this is all over, I want to ask you a general question. Why magic? Why do you think so many of us are so interested in magic?  Why are so many adult authors not interested?

AS: Good question. I remember reading Midnight’s Children about 10 years ago and it’s an incredible book, but what originally drew me to it, besides its reputation, was the hook that it was about a group of children born at the moment of India’s independence and how they possessed magical powers and could communicate with each other telepathically. If you’ve read the book, you know that this is actually a very small part of the narrative. But tell that hook to a young reader, and they will demand a book exclusively about magical, telepathic kids. That’s partly because that sounds like pulpy fun, but there’s more to it than that. Magic is part of a child’s language.

For example, when you’re a kid, it’s hard to see deep into the future. If you have a problem, adults will often tell you to “Be patient, it’ll work out eventually.” Screw eventually. Eventually is torture for a kid. I remember wishing that all of my problems could just be solved by magic. Wave a wand and that bully gets turned into a toad. Your last book, Bigger Than a Breadbox, depicted this notion beautifully.

As you get older, magic gets replaced by wishing for the perfect girl or the financial windfall or whatever it is that seems like it will set your life on the right track. That’s a form of magic too, but it’s dressed up in realism and I think the same thing happens with adult books. Plenty of exceptions, of course–the great magical realists, Murakami, blockbusters like The Night Circus –but magical elements in adult books are often seen as cheap devices. And yet so many great books for adults are about yearning for change, about faith, about the fight for the impossible.

What people fail to address is that magic in children’s books is often much more than it seems. I would challenge reviewers, amateur and professional, to look at the function of magic more seriously. The magic in Kate DiCamillo is worlds away from the magic in Patrick Ness which is worlds away from the magic you use or I use. I think we’re interested in it because it’s the language of children, because it creates great hooks, AND because there’s so much meaning that can be hidden in it. The time travel in Seven Stories Up is not just about seeing the world of the past, it’s about seeing the books of the past. There’s a quality to your writing that recalls classic kidlit of the 80s and of the 30s. I can’t put my finger on it exactly but it’s a feeling that small adventures are just as important as epic ones. If I were a librarian and a kid told me he/she loved your book (as I’m sure many will), I’d be encouraged to dust off Madeline and The Boxcar Children and Little House, but also Freaky Friday and The Indian in the Cupboard and Ramona.

That’s not to say your writing looks exclusively into the past though, because it’s nowhere near as saccharine as many older books or as many books on the market today. So as we wrap up, I want to ask you about the future. Your books? Other middle grade books? What other types of stories do you want to tell? What do want to see out there, for yourself as a reader and for your kids?

LS: Ahhh, what a question. I think about this a lot.

I want to see books that surprise us. Not by being MORE of something that’s already worked (dark, quirky, funny, scatalogical) but by being truly unusual.  I think The Riverman is a genuinely surprising book, because it so clearly straddles the MG and YA markets.  It carves out its own niche.  I shudder when people talk about the “next trend.” I want books that live outside that marketing language.  I want art, books written to see what can be done with language.  Books that open up what’s possible.

And I hope to write the kind of books I want to read.   My next books (due out in 2014) are picture books. SWAN is a biography of a dead Russian ballerina, and Charlie & Mouse is basically the daily goings-on of my two kids.  Nothing really happens to them. It’s more a book about tone, the humor of childhood.  They way kids are funny without trying to be.  But I’m pleased with these books, really pleased.  They were experiments for me, and I feel lucky they’re being published.

And then my next novel, The Orphan Island, is an attempt at a utopian story, I guess.  It’s about nine kids who live alone on a very wonderful island.  It’s magical, but the magic is so slight, and the kids are so isolated, they don’t even know that…  it’s just the world as they know it.

But I can’t say too much about it, because I’m still puzzling it out.  I hope I get there.

AS: I hope you get there too. I love the range of your work. I think it’s important for authors to try new things and it sounds like you are constantly doing that. For me, the title of my next book is The Whisper. Readers of The Riverman might get what that is a reference too, and I can tell you that it’s bigger and stranger, but that’s all I’m saying. And I’m hard at work on the next installment (title TK), which promises to be a different challenge. Hopefully they will both surprise you. Thank you for talking with me and saying such kind things about The Riverman!

LS: And thank you. For this, for asking me to engage in this dialogue today, but also for the ongoing conversation.  It matters so much.

AS LSAaron Starmer is the author of novels The Riverman, The Only Ones, and DWEEB. You can find him online at http://aaronstarmer.com and on Twitter as @aaronstarmer. 

Laurel Snyder is the author of the middle grade novels Seven Stories UpBigger than a Bread BoxPenny DreadfulAny Which Wall, and Up and Down Down the Scratchy Mountains, as well as a few picture books, including Baxter, the Pig Who Wanted to Be KosherInside the Slidy Diner, and The Longest NightYou can find her online at http://laurelsnyder.com or follow her on Twitter @laurelsnyder.