Wednesday, April 25, 2007

A big welcome to Barbara Kerley

I'm very happy to welcome Barbara Kerley to Big A little a.

Barbara is the author of many a picture book (see Seven Impossible Things Before Breakfast for the full rundown), including The Dinosaurs of Waterhouse Dawkins. (Barbara is dinosaur hunting here in her photo.)

Her first novel, Greetings from Planet Earth, has just been published by Scholastic. (Read the review here.) I loved Greetings from Planet Earth so much, I just had to ask Barbara Kerley a few questions. And here they are:'re a well-known Picture Book author. Why did you decide to turn to Middle Grade fiction? Was it always your plan, or did the idea of Greetings from Planet Earth just hit you?

Actually, I've been writing middle grade fiction for years; it's just never been published before. (I also have plenty of nonfiction that hasn't been published, either!) But I do think that the themes explored in Greetings are particularly well suited for fiction because part of the point of the book is that life poses a lot of questions and people have to find the answers that work for them. And I think that fiction poses lots of questions, too.

Beer, wine, or a soft drink?

A nice, pale ale.

If you had the chance, would you travel to the moon?

Well, this is going to sound dorky, but it is totally honest—only if I could figure out a way to avoid the motion sickness (or whatever version of it some astronauts get). As a kid I got carsick all the time. I remember once my sister being disgusted with me for getting carsick on (literally) a ten-minute drive, and my mom can still cruise around northern Virginia and point out all the spots where she had to pull over to the side of the road. As an adult, I am miserable on things like roller coasters and all those darn spinning contraptions at small-town amusement fairs (which may be just as well, as a lot of them appear to be held together with duct tape). I read somewhere that they call the zero-gravity machine astronauts train in "The Vomit Comet" and suspect I'd have to take so much Dramamine that I'd sleep through all my NASA assignments.

Beach, city, or forest?

Forest, preferably alpine, and wearing cross-country skis.

Why did you decide to write children's books and not, say, mystery, chick lit, or "literary fiction"?

When I first started seriously writing, I wrote short stories for adults. Then I had a daughter and started reading copiously to her, and realized that kids' books were a much better match for my sensibilities. I get sort of jumpy-excited about all sorts of stuff in a way that doesn't seem to fit adult books. I seem to say, "Oh, cool!" a lot. Writing for kids just feels like 'home' in a way that writing for adults never did.

Coffee, tea, or a triple skinny latte?

Irish Breakfast tea, brewed strong, with more milk in it than you can imagine any grownup wanting.

Greetings from Planet Earth is your first novel. How long did it take you to write? And I mean from the very beginning--from the spark in your eye to the lovely product I just read?

Start to finish, about 4 1/2 years, though there were some gaps in there when I worked on picture books.

Movie, Theater, or a Concert?


If you had an entire week and unlimited resources to do whatever you'd like, what would you do and why?

I don't have to be noble and save the world, do I? You're meaning a week of fun, yes?

A week in a great city like New York or D.C. or London or Paris, in a nice hotel, with days spent wandering around town and going to lots of museums.

Halloween, New Year's, or Valentine's Day?

Actually, my favorite is Mother's Day cause I get to choose what we do (usually, canoeing) and somebody else cooks and then there is cake.


In many ways, Greetings from Planet Earth is a political novel. Theo's father did not return from the Vietnam War, and Theo strives to understand and find out what happened to him. At the same time, the thrills and excitement of the great space race were in full swing. I'm wondering whether or not you had our contemporary situation in mind while writing this novel set in the 1970s.

The entire time I worked on the novel, we had soldiers in Afghanistan and Iraq, and so thinking about our current conflicts has certainly informed my thinking about Vietnam. I live in a small town, and the war has touched us. I know people whose son or husband or brother has gone over to fight. I've also read articles and listened to stories on NPR about the toll the war is taking on soldiers and their families. The parallels to Vietnam seem very real.

Secrecy and the dangers of keeping secrets in families play an important thematic role in Greetings from Planet Earth. Was this a theme you thought important when designing the book, or did it develop organically while you were writing?

It's something that I wanted to explore, almost from the start. To me, it fits in with the theme of communication, which is 'tapped on' in lots of ways--how various family members communicate (or not) with each other, the tape recording Theo is making throughout the book to an unnamed listener, and, of course, the Golden Record that will one day communicate with a being way out in space.

Mr. Meyer, Theo's science teacher, is an extraordinary teacher. He's unafraid to mix the "big questions" (Who are we?) with the study of science. Does Mr. Meyer have a real-life model and, if so, can I arrange for him to teach in my kids' school district? Seriously, he's one of the most amazing teachers I've found in children's fiction.

Isn't he great? Mr. Meyer isn't based on any one person, but he does have what I've seen other great teachers demonstrate—a genuine respect for his students and their view of the world.

I loved Janet--Theo's older sister--and was wondering what it would be like to see the same scenario in Greetings from Planet Earth from her point of view. Is this something you've considered?

I love Janet, too! As I was writing, I did often think how different the book would have been from Janet's perspective. And it's funny you ask, because some of my favorite adult books do tell parts of the same story from different perspectives--books such as The March: A Novel, by E.L. Doctorow; Red Water, by Judith Freeman, and Three Junes, by Julia Glass. It's a technique I really like, and one I'd like to try in a novel some day.

What can we look forward to next from Barbara Kerley?

I have a picture book coming out in May with National Geographic called A Little Peace. It shares the same format as my other two NGS titles, A Cool Drink of Water and You and Me Together--simple text, stunning photographs, and an underlying sensibility of how much people are truly alike, all over the world. The focus of the book is that we all have the power to spread a little peace. Then in Spring '08 I have another picture book biography coming out with Scholastic called What To Do About Alice? It's about Teddy Roosevelt's daughter Alice, in her younger years known as "Princess Alice" and later, in old age, as "the other Washington Monument." hah. Alice was one of America's first celebrities, which drove her father crazy. He once said, "I can be President of the United States, or I can control Alice. I cannot possibly do both." And I've just begun a new historical fiction novel, centered around another "Oh, cool!" bit of science. Fun stuff!