On the ‘mitochondria’ of children’s literature: An interview with UC Berkeley professor and writer Anne Nesbet

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Anne Nesbet/Courtesy

As a woman who embodies a children’s book with her sharp spirit and warm nature, Anne Nesbet is perfectly suited for her career as an author.

In addition to being a professor here at UC Berkeley, Nesbet has written four published books for middle-grade readers, with two more in the works. The first three books weave together magic and adventure. More recently she has taken to placing that adventure in historical settings. Her fourth book, “Cloud and Wallfish,” explores a boy’s quest to be true to himself in East Berlin in 1989 — an era of espionage and deception. It was inspired by her time spent there as a graduate student. Her fifth book, “The Orphan Band of Springdale,” comes out on April 10th.

Nesbet writes the ideas for her stories in colorful, patterned notebooks, which she carries around with her everywhere she goes. She carefully builds her fictional worlds from these notebooks—for “The Orphan Band of Springdale,” she conducted research in the small town of Springvale, Maine (the real-life counterpart to fictional Springdale). This gave her a list of ideas including pigeon photography, rivalries between dairies and a canceled county fair.

Even though her own stories tend towards outsider or otherworldly motifs, Nesbet is a prolific reader of all kinds of books. She reads while walking to work every morning, but she makes sure to close the books when she crosses the street.

The Daily Californian: Have you always known you wanted to be a children’s book author?

Anne Nesbet: Well, I’ve always loved children’s books. I’ve always been writing. The first two things I wrote fictionwise, skipping youthful efforts, were science fiction novels that I thought would be for adults. And although some people were sort of interested, nobody ever snapped them up. Then I had another adult novel that I wrote that I never really showed to anyone because I was also writing the first kids’ book at that time. That was what people were interested in. Then I realized, this age group (the middle grade, 8-14 reader), is a good fit for me.

DC: What do you like about that age group?

AN: If you think about it, it’s an age where you’re really open to adventures, and finding out new things about the world. If you think back on books you read when you were younger, some of the books you read in that group are the ones that sink in and change you. … I love family stories. … There are a number of really good ones right now. There’s “The Misadventures of the Family Fletcher” — has that large family chaos. And then a new one is “The Vanderbeekers of 141st Street.”

DC: Would you say middle-grade books feel timeless?

AN: Well, they sort of feel that way to me. Maybe it’s because the kinds of adventures people write about in middle-grade books are adventures that you can read about in any phase of life. … For a book to maintain its power for you forever … you want to keep coming back, even when that first discovery of “Oh, my gosh” is gone.

DC: When you’re writing for a younger audience, do you feel like you have to tailor your language a certain way?

AN: Not that much. … I think we should never underestimate kids. I also really strongly believe kids enjoy discovering new ideas in books. … I think that some references to things that are at a pretty high level are more than just fine — I think they’re good. I remember reading … “The Wind in the Door,” (which) has a reference to mitochondria. It’s used in a fantastic way in the book. I remember looking up “mitochondria.” It was a real thing! It was a thrill to figure out that the book was gesturing to this whole other world.

DC: What do you think makes children’s books so powerful and impactful?

AN: They’re all really complicated. … They are complicated even in the narrative techniques they use. We tend to think of children’s literature as being simple — none of (them) are simple. They’re all really complex and deep and interesting.

DC: What was the inspiration for your upcoming novel, “The Orphan Band of Springdale”?

Anne Nesbet: It’s set in Maine in 1941. It’s actually loosely based on my mom’s childhood. She was sent (there) to live in the orphan home run by her grandmother when things got tough. … I went back to the small town in Maine. It’s a rural, inland, farming town. They happen to have a really good historical society, and I read through the 1941 run of the local paper, the Sanford Tribune, which turned out to be an excellent, excellent paper. …

My mom somehow picked up — even though she was in this incredibly poor family that had to move every single school year — playing the French horn. … We didn’t have very many pictures of her. … I think I’d seen two. …When I was doing the research, I found another picture of her in the school orchestra with her French horn. …

She died pretty young. … I was thinking more and more about her, and had all these questions I kept wanting to ask her about her childhood and couldn’t, obviously. And at some point, I thought, “I’m just going to have to make it up. I’m going to have to write a story about it based on the stories she told.” … She was supportive of my writing, and she herself always had this desire to write mystery novels. … I think she would have been tickled.

DC: So while writing this, you were using the memories of the stories your mom told you along with your own imagination for this fictional story. How did you balance the two?

AN: Well I had a few stories that my mom had told me. Things like (her) terrible eyesight — they couldn’t afford eyeglasses for a long time. … And the reason they had started the orphan home in her grandmother’s house was that she had an aunt who’d had a child out of wedlock. So they had to find a way to bring up the child in the family. … I’d also spent many summers camping on farmland there … so I had this love for Maine, and this area, which is not the usual area where you go for tourism in Maine. You can’t see the coast. …

I decided to set it in 1941 even though that wasn’t the actual year my mom was sent to live there. But it seemed a good year for this story, because it’s the year where there’s war already going on in Europe, and there’s a lot of interesting stuff going on here under that pressure. There was a lot of extreme patriotism … a lot of worry about foreigners. … It seems very relevant for some of the things going on today. So that was also striking to me. All these themes today, they have long roots.

DC: How do you find the voices of your characters?

AN: They usually arrive with personalities. Then you explore what they do … in their interactions with other people. You’re always thinking: What is it that they really long for? … Often something that they don’t realize is what they long for.

DC: What do you hope readers gain from your stories?

AN: Whatever they need to gain. Sometimes it’s just to have a world you can curl up with on a rainy day. Sometimes we read to escape things, to experience something new. And sometimes we read so that we can feel that someone else has looked at the world and realized it’s pretty hard. In all my books, there are tough things that happen. The kids are up against a lot. I think it can be really comforting to read a book (that) understands life isn’t easy.

DC: What was the last thing you read where you thought, “Wow, that spoke to me”?

AN: That’s a really good question. It happens a lot … partly because there are just so many, really good books being written.

I loved “Strange the Dreamer.” It’s Laini Taylor. It’s fantasy. It was just one of those things where you fall in and you go, “Ah.” I love Jonathan Stroud. He wrote the series about ghosts in an alternative London. And those were great because they kept building. … Each one just gets better. That’s rare in a series.

DC: You obviously find it pretty easy to fall into the stories you’re reading. How do you “get in the zone” for writing your own stories?

AN: It’s really something that happens as you immerse yourself in the world you’re writing about. It always takes a while to get yourself immersed. That period … before you’re really on a roll, is super painful. …Then it starts clicking; it starts taking over your thinking. You’ll be walking along, you’ll see something, and you’ll go, “Oh! That reminds me of …” And then you realize that what it reminds you of is what you were just writing about yesterday … which means nothing to the person that you’re walking with. When that happens, when it takes over and starts to have its own momentum, that is really wonderful. The story has its own life at that point, and that means that you have your own life, too. You feel very alive when you’re a part of this process of generating a story that’s alive.

DC: How do you feel about the editorial process?

AN: I love it. I am so grateful. Because you’re never going to have someone read something of yours with such attention and care — it’s an incredible thing. It’s painful, of course, to have it torn so thoroughly apart. But it’s amazing, and it’s rare. … It actually has shifted my perspective a bit, because it means I read everything as if it was a work in progress. …

There were moments here where we wanted to tweak something (on the advanced copy of “The Orphan Band of Springdale”), but it was already set on the page. So I would be counting characters, so I could tweak a paragraph but not change the layout of the lines on the page. It’s amazing. And the editor is so incredible. She likes lines to look nice. She would come back and say “Anne … there are too many spaces between the words.” … That’s very novel for me — I’ve never really thought about making something look nice as well as sound nice.

DC: What do you think adults could learn from children’s literature?

AN: The first thing that came to mind was: everything. Everything is in children’s books, just as it is in good adult books. There are deep feelings, there’s trauma, there’s the wonder of a very strange, gorgeous world. That sort of poetic view of things is not something that’s limited to adult fiction. … I think that children’s books, books for grownups — they’re all part of this human, creative drive to make sense of the world.

DC: What do you hope for the future of children’s literature?

AN: I hope that we hear from many, many different kinds of voices. … There’s a lot of work that needs to go into that. Getting people from all sorts of different backgrounds writing … I think people are beginning to realize how wonderful it is when you have all sorts of different kinds of stories. So I’m hopeful that we’ll do more of that. That’s been something that I’ve really enjoyed seeing happen. …

It’s Women’s History Month, and there’s a campaign out there, #KidLitWomen. Women (authors) are writing essays looking at issues of gender in children’s publishing. … You have people who go to do school visits, and (the school) will say, “Oh, well, you write books for girls, so I just had the girls come to the assembly.” They would never do that to someone who wrote books with boys as protagonists, because girls are assumed to read about boys. And really, the boys should be reading about girls just as much. …

When you’re reaching for a book to give to your cousins, which ones do you reach for? How can you make that difference, and give them something that isn’t following in these old, familiar paths? I find, in myself, all sorts of things left over. They feel like they’re left over. Yet here they are, still at work in me. You always have to be trying to become aware of the stereotypes and prejudices and habits that you have in your own head.

DC: Thank you so much.

AN: Oh, thank you!

Contact Alejandra Dechet at [email protected] and follow her on Twitter at @aydecks.