I met Monica at a recent writing retreat, and as soon as I heard about her latest picture book, ELBERT IN THE AIR, I couldn’t wait to feature it.
A heartwarming story about unconditional love and rising above those who stand in the way of being who you are.
Shortly after he is born, Elbert floats up into the air. Before long, his mother must stand on her tip toes to reach him and toss toys into the air at playtime. While everyone in town, from the school nurse to the mayor, is full of advice for keeping her boy down, Elbert’s mother knows her son is meant to float. And so, she lets him.
But as life becomes more and more difficult for a floating boy, and people understand him less and less, Elbert has to make a decision: Stay bound to the ground or float higher in the hopes of finding the world—and community—he’s always wished for.
What do you love most about living in Berkeley?
That’s such an intriguing question. I am originally from Berkeley, so I can say I’ve been here for a long time. Sometimes it seems odd to live a few miles from where I grew up, as if my imagination should require I go farther afield, but Berkeley is a cool place for the way in which it allows people to be themselves, even if that doesn’t fit the norm. This isn’t just a myth. I can see it now in my kids, who are so comfortable with such a range of kids and themselves in the world. I also like that I can bike and walk everywhere, rather than depend on a car. Some of my most creative moments happen when I am walking around, watching the world around me.
Me too! ELBERT IN THE AIR got a starred review in School Library Journal. Congratulations! How did the story originally come to you?
I can thank Berkeley for the inspiration for ELBERT IN THE AIR as well. I was with my family at a wonderful place, Echo Lake Family Camp, run by the city. We used to go every year with our kids. This is a place where kids can roam free in nature, and so can the parents. I was relaxing (maybe in a hammock by my tent cabin) pondering how parenthood challenges us to meet our children’s needs, sometimes in unexpected ways. I saw this situation metaphorically in my mind, as a mother giving birth to a baby who floats into the air at birth. I remember looking out from the heights of our camp, down into the valley leading to Lake Tahoe, and imagining how high this boy might go in the air. I wanted to write a story in which a child didn’t have to change their own way of being but, rather, the world around them had to learn to find ways to reach that child. So that’s what I did. As Elbert grows up, he floats higher and higher. And the beautiful thing is that floating can be read as a metaphor for any kind of difference. I’ve had readers connect to this book because they read it as a story about being trans, or gay, or on the spectrum, or having some kind of learning challenge or other difference. I’m moved to see the emotional responses of adults, and the delight of children when they read it.
I’ll bet. Your essays and short stories have appeared in many venues, including The New York Times. What do you love most about writing essays, and what is your usual process when writing a short story?
I’d say “love” isn’t the right word for my relationship with essays and short stories for adults. I find writing personal essays fairly excruciating in early drafts. How do you give shape to material from life when there is so much to write about? The “love” part comes only once I’ve finally whittled something down far enough that I can see its shape and focus. With short stories, I’d say my ideas come to me the way my children’s picture books come to me, as images and situations I’d like to explore. With all these forms, I love the compression, although the compression is the very thing that makes them so hard.
Indeed. What are some of your current projects?
I’m fairly superstitious about revealing current projects. What I can say is that I’ve got a huge stack of manila folders, each one containing another children’s picture book idea, all in different states of completion. Until I catch hold of my emotional connection to a project, it’s hard for me to keep going. Sometimes that takes many years to figure out, writing draft after draft, with long breaks in between drafts. So I just keep working on several things at once until at last something grabs me so much that I can’t let it go. Let’s just say that, looking at my past work, it will most likely have some element of being true to yourself while connecting to others.
Order ELBERT IN THE AIR
Monica Wesolowska’s Upcoming Events
(see full updates at https://monicawesolowska.com/for-children):
Bay Area Book Festival.
May 6th, at 11:45 AM in the Berkeley Public Library Children’s Room. Story Time: Imagine That! with Tiffany Golden, Mary Robinette, Nina LaCour, and Monica Wesolowska.
Children’s Fairyland Book Festival
, Saturday, June 3rd at Children’s Fairyland with with Mr. Limata, Christian Robinson, Angela Dalton, Mac Barnett, Alexandria Giardino, Monica Wesolowska, and more.