I am very honored to share with you my conversation with middle grade (books for 8-12 year olds) author, Dawn Lairamore. Dawn’s debut novel, Ivy’s Ever After, was released in 2010, and named A Bank Street Best Children’s Book of the Year in 2011.
Her follow-up book, Ivy and the Meanstalk, was just released October 2, 2011. She describes her books as fractured fairytales. (I just love the imagery in that expression.) They are fun, spirited stories that whisk you away with Ivy, a fourteen-year-old princess whose love of books and the outdoors inspire high adventure with the most unlikely of friends, Elridge, a rather un-ferocious and smaller than average dragon. Together, they find their fire to help save their kingdom (and themselves from conventions that just don’t fit.)
Isabella, my 8 year old, liked Ivy’s Ever After so much we read it twice. We had recently started reading the Harry Potter series, but she insisted on taking a break from it when I brought home Ivy and the Meanstalk.
Also, to give you a little background on this latest tangent, i.e. how a food blog comes to interview a children’s author whose books are completely unrelated to food: I met Dawn through SCWBI, a wonderful organization for children’s book authors and illustrators. They organize fantastic conferences and networking opportunities locally, on up to the international level.
I joined SCBWI because I’m developing a kid’s cookbook that encourages picky eaters to explore fruits and vegetables. My obsession with produce stems from my own pickiness. At 18 months old, my daughter started refusing to eat anything green. I challenged myself to find ways to prepare a greater variety of vegetables so that I actually like them as a way to provide a better example for her. It has been quite effective! She gets just as excited when I make artichokes as she does when I make cookies.
To celebrate Meanstalk’s release, I thought it would be fun to create a recipe inspired by Ivy. “Oh, fairy cakes!” is a charming little expression used throughout both books (in the same way as one would say, “Oh, darn it!”). My kid-friendly recipe for “Chocolate Fairy Cakes,” made in a magical, most unconventional way (in the microwave), will follow the interview.
Dawn’s books are not about food, but in true kitchentangents style, I couldn’t help but ask her about my favorite subjects: writing, food, and the little things that make life sweet.
kitchentangents: In both of your books, you’ve taken a familiar fairytale and turned it on its ear. In Meanstalk, (a riff on Jack and the Beanstalk) rather than Jack being a lucky boy who gets his hands on some magic beans and treasure from a kingdom in the clouds, you tell the story with more sympathy towards the giant whose treasure was stolen.
What inspired you to write this kind of story?
Dawn Lairamore: I love fairy tales, but I also love stories that do the unexpected or have some sort of twist, which is why I’m often drawn to retellings of traditional tales. A very common fairy tale motif features a princess being saved from a dragon or other monster by a handsome prince or courageous knight. I thought, what if the princess wasn’t so helpless and was perfectly capable of rescuing herself? What if the dragon wasn’t a ferocious beast but a timid creature with a heart? What if the handsome prince wasn’t a hero but a villain?
And what if the princess and the dragon actually teamed up against him? And so, Ivy’s Ever Afterwas born—a fairy tale about a princess seeking out her own “ever after,” rather than having one thrust upon her. Ivy and the Meanstalk continues that idea of twisting a traditional fairy tale. Jack and the Beanstalk has always been my least favorite fairy tale, because Jack never seemed like much of a hero to me. He seemed a lazy, thoughtless boy who stole and did some other not-so-nice things. So Meanstalk is my revisitation of the Jack and the Beanstalk tale with a rather dim view of Jack.
kt: I was so excited when I found out we share a common profession (paralegal by day, creative writer by night). It’s reassuring to know that not all artists are starving, and that it is possible to have a creative life even if you have a not-so-imaginative day job. Do you have any advice for balancing work demands with creativity?
DL: Make writing a priority! So many people would like to write but find that life gets in the way. It’s so easy to let other demands pull you from a little time to yourself to work on a chapter or a few paragraphs. But if writing is close to your heart, you have to make time for it the way you would any other important task or job, even if that means putting off doing the laundry for another afternoon or turning down the odd lunch invitation so you can park in front of your computer and write.
kt: How often do you write creatively? Do you have a scheduled time, or are you more of a go-when-the-creative-juices-flow style of writer?
DL: Schedule, schedule, schedule! I think it’s the best way to absolutely make sure you have time to dedicate to writing. I try to schedule at least several hours every week where I have no other demands on my time and I can focus solely on writing. Of course, sometimes inspiration strikes at random and odd moments, and you just *have* to sit down and write!
kt: Writing is very much about painting a picture in your reader’s mind with specific, meaningful details.
“They sailed over the broad windowsill and into a vast hallway that stretched as far as a hay field in either direction. Suits of armor as tall as ships’ masts stood at attention against the walls, along with iron candelabras the size of tress.”
Your stories are very easy to visualize, and yet move along at a nice clip (as a good adventure story should). Are there any editing secrets you can share that you use to strike a nice balance between action and detail?
DL: This is a tough one because some readers–like me–love detail, but some find a lot of detail distracting and would rather a story focus on more “urgent” components like action or dialogue. I think, as a writer, you have to do what feels right for the story. I felt that the Ivy books, being fantasy/fairy tales with some rather fantastical and magical settings, warranted special attention to setting and detail. But, yes, you have to be careful not to overdo it. Description and detail shouldn’t overpower other elements of the story.
As far as action, young readers often have a shorter attention span than adult readers, so I think stories for young readers especially need to move at a good pace. When writing for this age range, I think it does help to focus on the external (actions and events) over the internal (thoughts and emotions). Don’t get me wrong–the internal *has* to be there, emotions and conflict have to be part of the story, but perhaps not at same level as you’d expect in an adult book. Long internal monologues or scenes where characters reflect upon their feelings probably isn’t going to fly too well with a middle-grade audience.
kt: How was writing Meanstalk different from Ivy Ever After? Was it any easier the second time around?
DL: It did feel a little easier, actually. I had already spent a good deal of time with these characters, so I didn’t have to get to know them the way I did when I was writing the first book. We were already great friends!
kt: I would love to ask what you are working on now, but I don’t want to spill the (magic) beans!
kt: There seem to be a fair number of pies, cakes, and giant gooseberry tarts in your stories. What was your inspiration for the food you describe?
DL: The Ivy stories are fairy tales at their core, so they’re not meant to take place in any real-world, historical time period. That being said, Ivy’s world felt very medieval to me, what with the castles and swords and suits of armor, so I researched medieval recipes and used a lot of what I found for inspiration. And, of course, I think food in a fairy tale should have an appropriately fantastical and feast-like quality to it.
kt: If you could try any of the food in your books, which would it be?
DL: I’ve never tried a gooseberry tart–or a gooseberry anything–so I’d go with that. I love experiencing new tastes! Elderberry is a flavor mentioned in the book as well, and I had never tried anything elderberry until recently, when a friend of mine brought me a bottle of English elderberry cordial back from her vacation. Delicious!
kt: Are your food preferences similar to any of your characters’?
DL: Well, I certainly don’t want to catch and eat wild goats like the dragons!! The food served in the castle is probably more along the lines of my tastes. I’m pretty adventurous when it comes to trying new foods (within reason), so I might even go for the roast pigeon that was served at the feast at the beginning of Ivy and the Meanstalk. (I had read that roast pigeon was often served in medieval times while researching foods of that period.)
kt: This is a very important question. If you had to choose, which is your absolute favorite: Dark, milk, or white chocolate?
DL: Milk chocolate. Not as bitter as dark chocolate or as sweet as white. Just right.
kt: On a similar note: If you had to choose between savory and sweet, which would you prefer? In other words, if you had to choose between your favorite dinner, say lasagna, and your favorite dessert, say chocolate cake, and you could only have one, which would you pick?
DL: Probably the dinner. My sweet tooth kind of comes and goes.
kt: What is your comfort food?
DL: French onion soup with toasted sourdough bread when the weather is cold; a big bowl of chilled, juicy, sweet ripe watermelon when the weather is hot.
kt: If we could sneak a peek, what would we find in your refrigerator as we speak?
DL: Lot and lots of microwavable dinners. I appreciate good food, but chef I am not!
On The Little Things:
kt: What were your favorite stories or authors while you were growing up?
DL: The Little House on the Prairie books by Laura Ingalls Wilder, The Secret Garden and The Little Princess by Frances Hodgson Burnett, The Chronicles of Prydain by Lloyd Alexander, The Dark is Rising series by Susan Cooper, Misty of Chincoteague by Marguerite Henry.
kt: What kinds of things do you like to collect?
kt: What smells or tastes remind you of childhood?
DL: My dad was in the military when I was growing up, so my family moved a lot and lived in a lot of different places. We moved to the Philippines when I was a year old, so my earliest memories are of our time there. I associate many tastes of that region with my childhood. I remember getting my face and fingers all sticky with mango and guava, and sucking on fresh, raw sugar cane.
kt: When you like to treat yourself, what do you do?
DL: So many things–sleep in or take a nap in the middle of the day (I don’t get to do either very often), have a lazy day where I do nothing but read a good book, visit someplace beautiful where I can take a long walk in gorgeous scenery. Shopping is always good, too, or treating myself to dinner at one of my favorite restaurants.
kt: Thank you so much for sharing with us Dawn! Where else can we find you (links, bookstores, etc.)?
DL: I hope your readers will visit my website: www.dawnbooks.com. Here you can read chapters from both Ivy books, watch the book trailer, and see all sorts of fun stuff, including some “behind the scenes” info about the books. You can also visit my author page at Amazon.com.
And for our final course, Dessert!:
Fortunately for us topsiders, this dessert fit for the fairy realm is almost as easy to make as waving a magic wand. This bit of domestic magic is performed entirely in a microwave. It properly serves two princesses or princes. If a dragon guest comes to call, it may do to conjure up at least twenty.
2 Tablespoons semisweet chocolate chips
1 Tablespoon butter
1 Tablespoon milk
3 Tablespoons flour
2 teaspoons cocoa powder
¼ teaspoon baking soda
3 Tablespoons sugar
¼ teaspoon vanilla