Sibling Stories, a conversation between Erin Soderberg Downing and Jacqueline West
Jacqueline West: Hello, Erin! I was so happy to get an early peek at THE GREAT PEACH EXPERIMENT. I loved the book, and I adored all three of the Peach kids: Lucy, Freddy, and Herb (who I wanted to hug every time he appeared on the page). Also, a family road trip in a food truck crammed with kids and books and pie and some pet mice was a lovely imaginary escape right now.
Erin Soderberg Downing: Hi to you, Jacqueline! I’m super-excited to write this post with you, since I’ve always been a big fan of your stories (remember when my parent-kid book club read The Books of Elsewhere and got to meet with you to discuss the novel? That was a huge hit!). I’m so glad you loved Peaches – and from what you’ve told me, it sounds like it brought back some good memories from your childhood with your brothers. I also loved LONG LOST, and got totally sucked into the unique mystery and fascinating setting of your newest novel.
JW: It was funny—as I read, I found more and more ways that our newest books overlap. Obviously, they’re very different in tone and story, but they’ve both got sibling relationships at their core. Was that the seed of this story for you? Did it all begin with the Peach kids?
ESD: Yes! This book—like all of my stories—started with an idea that was very character-based. Characters are the first thing I develop when I have a new idea, and then the plot comes later (sometimes much later). I almost always let my characters build each story for me, through their actions and personalities. When I set out to write GREAT PEACH EXPERIMENT, I knew I wanted to write a story about a family who suddenly become millionaires and spend their windfall on an epic and fun road trip—but it took me a while to dig out the emotional core and make it a book with humor and heart. Ultimately, WHEN LIFE GIVES YOU LEMONS, MAKE PEACH PIE morphed into a story about a broken family who find their way back to wholeness during a challenging time, through forced togetherness and a shared family goal. When the book opens, the Peaches’ concept of “normal life” and the longstanding meaning of “home” have been shattered by the death of their mother, so it’s very much a story about searching for a new definition of what both “normal” and “home” really mean.
LONG LOST has a lot of similar themes—a family uprooted, figuring out how to live (reluctantly) in an uncomfortable new normal. Where did you first get the idea for this story? And I’m curious to know if you develop your ideas and plot first, or if—like me—you let your characters build things for you?
JW: I’m a bit of an oddball in that my books often sprout from a setting. (It worked that way with The Books of Elsewhere—the whole thing started with that strange, sprawling old house!) The seed of LONG LOST came from a crooked green street sign on a leafy rural road, which I glimpsed as my car streaked past. I don’t know what it was about that sign, but the big idea came to me in a flash: a small, insular New England town with a unique library, where a girl finds an unfinished mystery novel that she gradually figures out is set in the very same small town. The Crane sisters—clever, curious historian Fiona and her big sister Arden, the future Olympic figure skater—fell into place immediately afterward. And then I got to let my imagination roam while I created the library where so much of the story takes place. It’s a former mansion that has been bequeathed to the town by a deceased heiress, full of parquet floors and shadowy nooks and room after room crammed with books, and it’s basically the library of my dreams.
Speaking of book love—THE GREAT PEACH EXPERIMENT mentions lots of other great kids’ books. The Penderwicks is an important thread throughout the story, and the Peaches made me think of several other famous book families: the Vanderbeekers, the March sisters, Coyote Sunrise and her dad, the Darling children from PETER PAN. Are there certain family/sibling-focused books that had a big impact on you as a young reader—or as a grown-up writer?
ESD: I love that the Peaches make you think of Vanderbeekers, Coyote Sunrise, and the March sisters—those are three of my very favorites! Both Vanderbeekers and Coyote Sunrise had a huge impact on me while writing this novel, because both are great at getting readers to both laugh and cry—sometimes within the very same chapter. That’s the mark of a great book for me…one that can pull out all the feelings. I was a huge reader as a kid (and I still am as an adult!), so one of my favorite parts of writing this book was creating Lucy’s 7th Grade Summer Reading List. I loved building a list highlighting some of my favorite middle-grade books of all time.
As you mentioned, LONG LOST is (mostly) set in an amazing old library in an incredible small town and is obviously a love-letter to librarians and readers who love to get lost in a good book. So I’m curious to know what some of your favorite middle-grade books are, and if any had a particular impact on you when writing this story?
JW: I grew up in a house filled with a lot of classic children’s literature. I loved Little Women, Anne of Green Gables, Emily of New Moon, A Tree Grows in Brooklyn—all the historical novels featuring independent girls who wanted to become writers. The Hobbit, A.A. Milne’s books, Sherlock Holmes collections,and Alice in Wonderland were also formative works for me. I read so much Victorian British literature as a kid, I thought you had to be Victorian and British to write a book (and my earliest writing attempts show it). So the book-within-a-book parts of LONG LOST, where I get to write in the style of an old-fashioned novel, were deliriously fun to create. It was like stepping back into my ten-year-old self.
Of course, later, I discovered that there was a whole world outside of British children’s fiction, thank goodness. Some newer middle grade novels I’ve adored are Hanna Alkaf’s The Girl and the Ghost, Kaela Noel’s Coo, Ronald Smith’s Hoodoo, Kelly Yang’s Front Desk, and Jonathan Auxier’s Sweep—but these are all wildly different from LONG LOST, or from anything else I’ve done. If those books have had a particular impact on me, it’s just to make me strive to be a better writer.
And while we’re talking about influences: Your kid characters are so well drawn. With just a few details, you make each one distinct and believable (and loveable!). Are any of them inspired by your own family, or by your childhood? Do you have any special practices that help you get inside of younger characters?
ESD: I’m an only child, and I’ve begun to realize that most of the books I write tend to be about larger families, in part because it’s something fun and different for me to explore in fiction. I never knew what it was like to grow up surrounded by chaos and sibling-arguments and empty cereal boxes (before I even got a single bowl). BUT now I have three kids of my own, so I’m surrounded by many of those things on a day-to-day basis. The three Peach kids were very much inspired by life with my own kids, a 15-year-old and 13-year-old twins. Lucy is a whole lot like my oldest daughter, who often points out that she’s much more mature than her 40-something-year-old oddball mom. Freddy was 100% inspired by my son Henry, who is totally a random fact guy, and actually got to draw all of Freddy’s sketchbook art that’s included in the book! And Herb reminds me a lot of my Ruby, who is super snuggly and caring and fun and loves to try to make other people smile and laugh when they’re feeling sad or stressed or worried.
But there’s also an element of me in each of these kids. Like Lucy, I love getting lost in a good book. Like Freddy, I get a big kick out of random facts and stopping to check out roadside attractions that can change the course of a whole road trip with one little detour off the main road. And like Herb, I love caring for—and holding close—all kinds of wonderful treasures (my two dogs and three kids, especially!).
Now I have a similar question for you, but it’s about all those great settings in your stories (it makes sense to me that this is the part of your novels that comes first for you…your sense of place is amazing!)—all of your settings are so detailed and easy to fall into while reading your books. Do you use real places to ground your settings in reality, or are all of your spooky houses, libraries, and strange and captivating small towns built primarily in your imagination?
JW: Oh, thank you so much. Like I mentioned, settings are hugely important to me. I love houses—I often even dream about houses—because each one feels like a box for potential lives, potential mysteries, potential stories, and in my fiction, I get to live in hundreds of them. The settings that I use in my books are sometimes inspired by specific places I’ve been or specific things I’ve seen, but then they grow and change drastically until they take on a life of their own. The small Massachusetts town in LONG LOST is fictional, but the ingredients for it came from my visits to places like Concord, Salem, and Rye, NH. And the library is one hundred percent my own concoction. I’ve heard about a few libraries here in the Midwest that are former private homes, but I’ve never gotten to visit any of them. Maybe someday… Hey, that could even be part of a family road trip!
ESD: I love it! Maybe that should be the Peach family’s next adventure. Actually, I should tell you that the second book in this series is all about the Peach family turning their Great Aunt Lucinda’s old, falling-apart mansion into a working B&B…but perhaps I should rethink that and have them turn it into a library instead. (As you know, the sky’s the limit during revisions!)
Well, this has been so much fun. When we first started talking about writing this post, I know we were both worried about finding enough commonalities in our stories to create a shared post about two very different novels. But I think we’ve done it! It’s been great learning more about your process, and diving into your writing space to learn about some of your influences and inspiration for your novels. I can’t wait to see what sparks your next literary adventure.
JW: Likewise! And I love imagining the Peaches making themselves at home in a grand old mansion. I’ll be wishing them—and you!—all the best.
Meet the authors
Erin Soderberg Downing has written more than fifty books for kids, tweens, and young adults. Some of her most popular titles include the middle-grade novel Moon Shadow and two fun chapter book series: Puppy Pirates and The Quirks. The first book in her new series—The Great Peach Experiment: When Life Gives You Lemons, Make Peach Pie—was chosen as a Junior Library Guild Gold Standard Selection. Before becoming an author, Erin was a children’s book editor, a cookie inventor, and also worked for Nickelodeon. She lives in Minneapolis with her husband, kids, and two fluffy dogs. More information can be found at www.erinsoderberg.com. Instagram: ErinSoderbergDowning; Facebook: ErinDowningBooks; Twitter: @ErinDowning
Jacqueline West is the author of the NYT-bestselling middle grade series The Books of Elsewhere, the Schneider Family Honor Book The Collectors,the MG mystery Digging Up Danger, and the MG novel Long Lost, coming from Greenwillow/HarperCollins in May 2021, as well asthe YA novels Dreamers Often Lie and Last Things. An award-winning poet and occasional actress, Jacqueline lives with her family in Red Wing, Minnesota.
Twitter: @JacquelineMWestInstagram: jacqueline.west.writes
About The Great Peach Experiment 1: When Life Gives You Lemons, Make Peach Pie by Erin Soderberg Downing
Mix together a used food truck, a road trip that doesn’t exactly go as planned, and a lot of pie, and you have the recipe for this sweet middle grade series starter brimming with humor, heart, and a family you’ll fall in love with. Perfect for readers who gobbled down The Penderwicks and The Vanderbeeks of 141st Street.
Sweet summer has taken a rotten turn . . .
After a tough year, Lucy, Freddy, and Herb Peach are ready for vacation. Lucy wants to read all of the books on the summer reading list. Freddy wants to work on his art projects (when he isn’t stuck in summer school). Herb wants to swim every day.
Then their dad makes a big announcement: one of the inventions their mom came up with before she passed away has sold, and now they’re millionaires!
But Dad has bigger plans than blowing the cash on fun stuff or investing it. He’s bought a used food truck. The Peaches are going to spend the summer traveling the country selling pies. It will be the Great Peach Experiment—a summer of bonding while living out one of Mom’s dreams. Summer plans, sunk. And there’s one more issue Dad’s neglected: none of them knows how to bake. . . .
A perfect blend of humor, heart, and family antics, When Life Gives You Lemons, Make Peach Pie is a delectable treat to be gobbled down or savored slowly. (Slice of pie on the side, optional, but highly recommended.)
Publisher: Holiday House
Publication date: 04/06/2021
Series: The Great Peach Experiment
Age Range: 8 – 12 Years
About Long Lost by Jacqueline West
Once there were two sisters who did everything together. But only one of them disappeared.
New York Times–bestselling author Jacqueline West’s Long Lost is an atmospheric, eerie mystery brimming with suspense. Fans of Katherine Arden’s Small Spaces and Victoria Schwab’s City of Ghosts series will lose themselves in this mesmerizing and century-spanning tale.
Eleven-year-old Fiona has just read a book that doesn’t exist.
When Fiona’s family moves to a new town to be closer to her older sister’s figure skating club—and far from Fiona’s close-knit group of friends—nobody seems to notice Fiona’s unhappiness. Alone and out of place, Fiona ventures to the town’s library, a rambling mansion donated by a long-dead heiress. And there she finds a gripping mystery novel about a small town, family secrets, and a tragic disappearance.
Soon Fiona begins to notice strange similarities that blur the lines between the novel and her new town. With a little help from a few odd Lost Lake locals, Fiona uncovers the book’s strange history. Lost Lake is a town of restless spirits, and Fiona will learn that both help and danger come from unexpected places—maybe even from the sister she thinks doesn’t care about her anymore.
New York Times–bestselling and acclaimed author Jacqueline West weaves a heart-pounding, intense, and imaginative mystery that builds anticipation on every page, while centering on the strong and often tumultuous bond between sisters. Laced with suspense, Long Lost will fascinate readers of Trenton Lee Stewart’s The Secret Keepers and fans of ghost stories.
Publisher: HarperCollins Publishers
Publication date: 05/11/2021
Age Range: 8 – 12 Years
Filed under: Uncategorized
About Amanda MacGregor
Amanda MacGregor works in an elementary library, loves dogs, and can be found on Twitter @CiteSomething.
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