Gloria Whelan has published over fifty books for young readers. Her young adult novel, HOMELESS BIRD, received a National Book Award. Her books have appeared on the ALA Notable Children’s Books, ALA Best Books for Young Adults, and IRA Children’s Choices lists. Although she has written about countries all over the world many of her books take place in northern Michigan where she lived with her husband for thirty years in a cabin in the woods. She currently lives in the Detroit area. Last summer saw the release of MEGAN’S YEAR, a picture book that explores the life of a young girl who is a part of the Irish Travelers. What drew you to this partially nomadic group of people?
So many of my favorite writers come from Ireland. We have friends and family there and have visited Ireland a number of times. I’ve heard about the Irish Travelers for years and roaming the roads and the byways of that green country always seemed to me a magical way of life. It was only in reading about the Travelers that I realized that in spite of all the government can do, Travelers are still the victims of discrimination. This is especially difficult for the children of the Travelers who have to move every year from the freedom of the open road to the confined life of the city. Over the course of the book, Megan learns that reading is a type of traveling, and you’ve mentioned that you share Megan’s desire to roam (mentally and physically). What part has this wanderlust played in your career as a writer?
I have traveled to many of the countries I have written about, from Russia to Africa, but some of my most interesting and exciting travels have gone on right here in my office. As I research my books I learn amazing things: how you have to tickle silkworm cocoons to hurry their spinning, how snakes are everywhere during the monsoon season in India, that the Russian Samoyed enjoy eating mouse nests!
I’ve learned about religions and customs, but perhaps most importantly I have learned how much people all over the world are alike. You often cite your life in the Michigan woods as a strong influence on your writing. Can you tell us about your house and how the locale finds its way into your many published books?
Right now I’m back where I started from: Detroit. But for thirty years I lived in northern Michigan the middle of the woods on a small lake. The nearest house was over a mile away. There wasn’t a day when I wasn’t out on the trails, walking or cross-country skiing. Those woods and the lake, and especially a nearby river where I fished, are present in all my books. When I wrote about kingfishers and herons in India; though their coloring was a little different, they were the herons and kingfishers I saw from my cabin window. The descriptions of French food in THE BOY WHO WANTED TO COOK are vivid enough to induce hunger! What kind of research did you do to make sure that the descriptions would live up to the amazing food your characters are preparing?
I love food and I love preparing it, so all the things I describe in THE BOY WHO WANTED TO COOK are recipes I have prepared myself. On my travels to France food was always one of the high points. Eating at renowned restaurants is very costly in France, but there are many small family establishments like La Bonne Vache that serve memorable meals.
But even just a dish of fresh raspberries is memorable if you are lucky enough to be sitting at a café table on a busy Paris avenue. Your National Book Award winning young adult novel, HOMELESS BIRD, is set in India, and you’ve written a handful of titles for the Tales of the World series. Based on your experience writing about foreign settings, what advice would you give to a young writer trying to craft a story about a distant land?
I would tell that writer that accuracy is the most important thing in writing about a distant land. When I am writing about a country I read ten to twenty books about the country and I talk with people who are from that country. Details are crucial. They make the country real.
When I was writing HOMELESS BIRD I read about hundreds of bats that spent the day hanging from the ceiling of a temple. When I wrote YUKI AND THE ONE THOUSAND CARRIERS about ancient Japan, I learned that officials traveled with from one to five thousand carriers to transport their luggage and I longed to turn up at airport security with my one thousand carriers.
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