Today, we are delighted to feature an exclusive Q&A with Barry Wolverton, the author of Neversink, a great new Middle Grade book hitting stores March 27th — and that we’re featuring for our Middle Grade March feature. Thanks to Barry for chatting with us today!
Having a puffin protagonist, I hope! I will say this. Neversink’s illustrator, Sam Nielson, told me his 8-year-old son had been reading a bunch of middle-grade books, and Sam asked him which hypothetical sequel he would spend his own money on. His son said Neversink because “he wanted to know more about the story of those characters.” I can relate to that. I don’t care if a book is high concept or has a great hook or lots of action, as long as I want to keep spending time with the characters.
Middle grade can be such a murky moniker, lurking somewhere between children’s lit and YA. What do you think defines middle grade?
I more or less tried to write a book that anyone with a sense of humor and an appreciation for good writing could enjoy. Pixar movies are some of the best movies made, period. But you’re not going to be able to market an animal fantasy to older teenagers, right? So other than the hurdle of where to put a book on shelves and how to market it (a big deal, I realize), I’m not overly worried about the definition. If you look at the variety published for this age group it seems MG can be almost anything as long as it doesn’t venture into a certain level of intimacy as far as relationships.
Why write middle grade?
It’s just a great audience. The variety of stories I mentioned before speaks to the readers’ receptiveness to almost everything, from naturalism to nonsense, as long as it works. In some ways this is a double-edged sword — MG doesn’t seem to be as prone to trends as YA, maybe, but that also keeps MG from seeming “hot” at any point in time.
Described by the NY Times as “the greatest book ever written,” this epic saga of a plucky puffin will make you say, “Penguins who?”
(You didn’t say my pitch had to be factual, did you?)
Why write about animals? Don’t you like people?
People lack that built-in adorability I look for in a character. There’s almost no way to screw up making a puffin likable.
What kind of research went into writing Neversink? How did your experience writing non-fiction for kids help?
My experience writing non-fiction for kids helped in a couple of big ways. First of all, I learned so much about research and writing in general from these great editors at Time-Life Books. And then, when I got to work on the Time-Life Student Library (an illustrated reference series for kids) it brought back this real sense of wonder I had when I read those little Golden Guides to science and nature. I loved the idea of creating something like that. Neversink is a fantasy, of course. But I based all the animals’ core traits and habitats on field guide research. I do want kids to appreciate why the puffin is so well-adapted to sea life, or why owls can’t just catch fish like puffins when their own food supply is jeopardized.
Any reading suggestions for kids who want to learn more about the Arctic Circle and the animals featured in Neversink?
I have this great book called The Owl Papers by Jonathan Evan Maslow, where I first learned the collective noun “parliament” of owls. But I think it may be out of print. There’s also a moving account of the Great Auk’s extinction in Hope Is the Thing With Feathers by Christopher Cokinos, which is a wonderful book about some of our lost species.
For Arctic wildlife, I referred this question to my naturalist uncle. He offered a guide book called The Arctic: A Guide to Coastal Wildlife by Tony Soper. It covers puffins, black guillemots, great auks, thick-billed murres, and also discusses egg shapes, etc.
And then a gorgeous book that would be great for a classroom or library is Arctic Wings: Birds of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, which comes with a CD and an introduction is by David Allen Sibley.
Are there any animals in your life that inspire your writing?
I have an truly awesome cat named Charlie. I’m not sure he inspires my writing, unless you count my motivation to put food in the bowl, so to speak. Seriously, you should see this cat eat.
Puffins vs. Penguins … who wins?
In a fight? I don’t know, but it would be hilarious to watch.
Private concert: who’s playing
Pepperoni and mushroom.
Book you can’t stop re-reading?
I almost never re-read books.
Living or dead, who would you like to have dinner with?
Myrna Loy, in one of those great 1930s/40s jazz supper clubs.
A bike tour of Europe.
Look at your desk right now. Name five things within reach.
Macbook Air. Notepad. Pen. Iced Coffee. Pig-light (a miniature flashlight shaped like a pig that oinks when you illuminate its snout).
Thanks again to Barry! Here’s more about Neversink, in stores March 27th:
Along the Arctic Circle lies a small island called Neversink, whose jagged cliffs and ice-gouged rocks are home to a colony of odd-looking seabirds called auks, including one Lockley J. Puffin. With their oceanfront views and plentiful supply of fish, the auks have few concerns – few, save for Lockley’s two best friends, Egbert and Ruby, a know-it-all walrus and a sharp-tongued hummingbird.
But all of this is about to change. Rozbell, the newly crowned king of Owl Parliament, is dealing with a famine on the mainland of Tytonia – and he has long had his scheming eyes on the small colony to the north. Now, Neversink’s independence hangs in the balance. An insurgence of owls will inevitably destroy life as the auks know it – unless Lockley can do something about it.