Last year, I was thrilled to interview Elana K. Arnold about her breathtaking YA book, RED HOOD. Her first early reader series, STARLA JEAN, will hit shelves tomorrow! Have a look:
Introducing Starla Jean!
She’s full of moxie, clever as a fox, and obsessed with catching a chicken she finds at the park.
When Starla first sees the scrawny bird wandering around, she just knows they’re destined for one another. Her dad says, “If you can catch it, you can keep it,” and Starla Jean is not one to back down from a challenge.
In our last interview, you said, “The letters I have received from readers who say that they see their lived experiences and emotional landscapes in my book has been deeply gratifying.” Can you describe a recent letter you received from a reader that gratified you in this way?
Most recently, I got a letter from a girl with autism who wanted me to know how excited she was to meet Bat on the pages of my book A BOY CALLED BAT. She told me about all of her pets—Cats! Dogs! Turtles!—and she very matter-of-factly told me that she also sometimes wears ear coverings when the world feels too loud. Letters like hers remind me how much I miss pre-Covid times, when I could have conversations with kids in real life—just little interactions, like asking a kid in a grocery store line how their day was going, or telling a kid at the beach that I liked their flip-flops. Man, I miss kids.
Kids are the best. And I love STARLA JEAN, especially how she chases after that poor chicken! How did she come to you as a character and in what ways did she surprise you as you wrote her?
One day, when my kid Max was younger, he saw a chicken at our local park. He asked me if we could take it home. I said, “If you can catch it, you can keep it.” Thus began our chicken years. He named that hen Opal Egg—how he came up with that, I have no idea—and she came home with us. That experience helped me learn never to underestimate my kid—or any kid.
Starla Jean isn’t really all that much like my son, except for her earnest and intense desire to catch that chicken. She surprised me by showing up with a first person voice, something I haven’t seen done very much in books for younger readers. I love her.
“Thus began our chicken years…” also sounds like a great opening to its own story! What are some of the ways writing an early reader series differs from writing books for other age groups?
For me, story is story is story. I really try not to think about who I’m writing “for,” at least in the first draft. I try to delight, or disgust, or amaze myself. Later, in revision, I start to ask questions about who the reader will be, and what their needs might be while reading. Younger, less experienced readers do well with stories with easier-to-decode words, but this isn’t something I thought about consciously; it was just that Starla Jean, who is young and telling us her story, is using the vocabulary available to her, which was naturally more narrow than, say, a teenager’s might have been.
The biggest difference was the knowledge that these books would have an illustrator as well as a writer, if I was lucky enough to find a home for them. When I began looking at A.N. Kang’s sketches, I felt bubbly with delight. Her work on this series is so fun, so joyful, and I know her work elevates the books to a whole new level. Illustrators are magic.
Indeed they are! In what ways does preparing for a virtual book launch differ from an in-person one?
One of the benefits fo a virtual launch is that the illustrator, A.N. Kang, will be there, too! And as a book like this is such a partnership between author and artist, this is an incredible boon. She’s going to show kids how to draw the chicken, Opal Egg! A sadness is that I won’t get to hug my family and friends who would normally come to a bookstore to help me launch a book. But whether I’m doing an in-person launch or a virtual launch, the real magic of a book is the days, weeks, months, and years that follow that launch date—the book traveling away from me, and into the hands of kids. And that doesn’t have to change at all.
And be sure to check out Elana K. Arnold’s other books.