I spoke with Ms. O’Dell about The Aviary, her upcoming book with Knopf, to be released on September 13, 2011, as well as her other works while at the Flintridge Mother-Daughter Book party on January 30th. Below, Ms. O’Dell offers insights on being a romantic nine-year-old; deriving Mrs. Parker’s character and why writing picturebooks is like inscribing scripture on the head of a pin.
In the Agnes Parker books, the character uses humor as a coping tool, in an attempt to deal with difficult life events. In the CaliforniaReaders.com (CR) interview you say that humor, “has served me well. It's actually kept me alive, I think.” What was the situation in your own life that you developed this lesson from? How do you think humor allows kids to cope with realities that they may not completely understand?
I was born with an exceedingly romantic temperament and an ability to throw myself completely into fantasy. I was self-dramatizing and could be extraordinarily earnest and a bit of a dweeb. (While all the normal kids in Catholic school were playing kickball, I’d spend recess inside the church praying for the statues to come alive. I felt I might have more in common with St. Therese and St. Joseph than with the sports-loving kids outside. This kind of grandiosity did not make me popular.) Somewhere around the age of ten, I began to see myself from the outside. Instead of always being swamped by my emotions, I could recognize glimmers of my own absurdity. I had one friend in particular who was a terrific mimic, and I sort of learned at her feet. My new sense of humor gave me some much-needed emotional distance. I wasn’t stumbling about with the weight of destiny on my shoulders the way I did at, say, age nine.
I’ve since learned that kids make a cognitive leap around eleven (Agnes’s age), and their humor becomes more sophisticated. They are able to appreciate irony—and thank goodness for that. A sense of irony is what helps many of us survive adolescence (otherwise known as “the eye-rolling years”).
Agnes’ mother, Mrs. Parker, is the “every mother” that girls fantasize about. She is compassionate, wise, non-judgmental and a good listener. How much of Mrs. Parker’s character is drawn from your real-life mom, how much from your own experience as a mom and how much is she your idealized vision of a mom?
My mom is one-of-a-kind (nothing “every” about her), and we are quite close now that I’m an adult. Mrs. Parker, though, is the mom I wish I could be. I have boys, but I know women friends who get along swimmingly with their young daughters. And I adore my boys’ girlfriends. They’re in tune with their environment in subtle ways that my boys aren’t. They’re “other-oriented” and parse social situations differently. For me, being a mother in an all-male family has been sometimes lonely—not because my own kids aren’t thoughtful or perceptive or interesting conversationalists. (They are. They’re just not girls!) Fortunately, a friend ours is kind enough to lend me her ten-year-old daughter on occasional weekends, and we have a blast together. I suppose I do idealize the mother/daughter relationship, but I’m glad to have cobbled together some facsimiles for myself.
In the AGNES PARKER books, I derived a lot of satisfaction out of creating an intact, reasonably harmonious household. They do exist in real life, but they’ve fallen out of fashion in contemporary children’s literature, perhaps as a counterweight to the past where almost all fictional families were breezy and full of mild charm. The pendulum swings.
You say in the CR interview that as a kid, “I never confined myself to just stories, however, I wrote poems and plays and lots of songs.” Now that you have publishing success with your novels, what ideas would you attempt in other formats? If you were to attempt picture books again, do you know now what was holding them back from publisher acceptance?
I don’t think I understood what made a picture book work. Looking back, I’d say I never left enough empty space for the illustrator’s interpretation and was over-explicit. I’d also say that I never mastered that full-circle, satisfying ending that the best picture books have. When it comes to PB’s, a writer has a whole lot to do in a short space. For me, it’s as difficult as engraving scripture on the head of a pin. And as headachy.
Pen & Ink staffer, Kris Kahrs would like to thank Ms. O'Dell for granting this interview.
Edited by Pen & Ink staffer - L. Fernandez