Kara LaReau is the author of many beloved middle grade, chapter book and picture books. After receiving her Master of Fine Arts degree in Writing, Literature, and Publishing from Emerson College in Boston, Massachusetts, she worked as an editor at Candlewick Press and at Scholastic Press, and via her own creative consulting firm, Bluebird Works. Among other celebrated titles, she edited Kate DiCamillo’s Because of Winn-Dixie (winner of a Newbery Honor), The Tiger Rising (finalist for the National Book Award), The Tale of Despereaux (winner of the Newbery Medal), The Miraculous Journey of Edward Tulane (winner of the Boston Globe Horn Book Award), and the Mercy Watson series. She’s the author of The Infamous Ratsos, a chapter book series illustrated by Matt Myers, and The Unintentional Adventures of the Bland Sisters, a middle grade trilogy illustrated by Jen Hill. Rise of ZomBert, the first in her new illustrated middle grade series, will publish in spring 2020. For more information, visit Karalareau.com
I had the good fortune to get to know Kara when she was the author-in-residence at Hollins University Summer Graduate Program in Children’s Writing, Literature & Illustration
We were roomies in the alumni cottage, where we enjoyed porch sits, her blueberry crumble and many good talks. The students were all wowed by her insightful lectures, one-on-one mentoring, wit, and wisdom about craft.
My interviews for The Mixed Up Files have always been conducted over email. However, this interview was miraculously conducted in person while Kara and I drank coffee and listened to the rumble of the dehumidifier. After all, we were in the Roanoke Valley, where you can swim in the air. But it’s so beautiful–with lush green pastures all hugged by the Blue Ridge Mountains– that you don’t care. Plus, there are bunnies everywhere on campus. It’s easy to see where Alumna Margaret Wise Brown got her idea for The Runaway Bunny. Anyway, I had much to ask Kara. Gosh, it was hard to whittle down my questions since I had admired her for so long.
Why do you write Middle Grade?
I don’t set out to say I’m going to write a chapter book or middle grade. The story comes to me, and that’s when I figure out what it is. That age range was a formative time in my life. When we talk about what is your internal age–that is one of my default ages. And that’s why I enjoyed editing middle grade so much too. It’s kind of like I’m creating the library that I wish that I had had when I was that age.
Do you come up with characters or conceit first?
With the Bland Sisters (Kara’s first middle grade series, The Unintentional Adventures of the Bland Sisters), the characters came first. I wasn’t necessarily intending to write a novel about them. I was just writing a short scene about these two very boring girls. Just for fun. I wrote a little more. They kept speaking to me. In the first book, there’s a moment when there’s a knock at the door. I established they never go outside. This created a moment of extreme tension and curiosity. I wanted to know what could be on the other side of the door to motivate them to open the door. For me, the answer was pirates. And of course, they would have to be lady pirates.
I love it. Why Lady Pirates?
It’s my own feminist sensibility, and I tried to imbue the series with that spirit. I’ve tried to create stories that feature women in roles that are most often attributed to men. In the second the book, The Uncanny Express, they encounter a female magician who has encountered a lot of sexism. In the third book (Flight of the Bluebird), I wanted to parody an Indiana Jones style mystery. I thought it would be a fun to have a female action hero in the vein of Indiana Jones. I’m really interested in subverting gender norms.
Once again, I love it! Why is subverting gender norms important to you?
I’m hoping to portray for boys and girls who are reading these books unsung female heroes. For example, the character of Beatrix in book three is based on Amelia Earhart, Bessie Coleman and Nellie Bly–female pilots, journalists and explorers.
Tell us about your research process.
Each (of the Bland Sister books) was different, and each required more and more research. The first one takes place on pirate ship, and to find out what a ship looked like back then, I looked at books. I also looked at the different roles of pirates, and how they talked to each other. I read Robert Lewis Stevenson, as well as Herman Melville Billy Budd and brushed up on Moby Dick. There are lots of Melville references in the book.
While the first book was a parody of pirate stories and Melville, the second was set on a train and I knew it just had to be a parody of Agathe Christie, particularly Murder on the Oriental Express. I decided to re-read Murder on the Orient Express. While I didn’t have time to re-read all of Christie’s work, I actually watched the entire Poirot BBC series. I watched it over the summer and took notes on all the tropes that I noticed and that I could use. I also researched poisons and disguises. In doing that, I immersed myself in her world and that gave me the confidence to start writing the book.
When I started to writing The Flight of the Blue Bird, I knew that there was going to be an airplane. I watched Casablanca and Indiana Jones films. I was setting the adventure in a real place (Egypt), and there were details about archaeology and the Egyptian culture that I needed to be sensitive to and get right. I found James Allen, a professor of Egyptology at Brown University, and discovered he lived five blocks away from me. He gave me all kinds of fascinating details that inspired me to create the backstory in this book. I also watched documentaries about Howard Carter (the British archaeologist who discovered the intact tomb of Pharaoh Tutankhamun or “King Tut”). To have confidence to move forward, I did all research beforehand so I could immerse myself in it. Jim Allen read my pages, and then gave me suggestions here and there. Then I also decided the airplane would figure prominently in the plot. I found a husband of a friend of mine who is a pilot, and he also read some of my pages to make sure the aeronautical details were correct.
How long do you do research?
About a month or so. Then it usually takes me a month to a month and half to draft and two months to revise.
I’m going to start drafting the sixth one. The first three are out in the world. The fourth one comes out next spring. Illustrator Matt Myers is due to start the fifth one next. The sixth one I’m hoping to start at the end of the summer.
Did you originally conceive of The Infamous Ratsos as a series?
After the first book, I knew I had more ideas as adventures. It turned out when my agent sent out the project, Candlewick wanted to know if I had another idea, so they signed up a two-book contract. In each book, Louie and Ralphie Ratso are learning something knew about themselves. They make mistakes just like we all do, but they’re always eager to learn from those mistakes.
Can you describe the books?
In the first book, The Infamous Ratsos, Louie and Ralphie think they need to be tough, and they equate tough with being mean. But that’s not their true nature, and they eventually realize it’s much easier to be kind than tough. The second book, The Infamous Ratsos Are Not Afraid, is about the brothers realizing they are afraid of admitting they’re afraid. They learn that everyone is afraid of something, and that there are a lot of different ways to be brave.
How did you come up with the different themes for the Ratso series?
I ended up watching a documentary about toxic masculinity, The Mask You Live In. The film showed how boys are conditioned at early age by society, by media, even by their own families to adhere to a very oppressive definition of masculinity. My books examine and subvert different characteristics of toxic masculinity: acting like you’re tough, pretending as if you’re not afraid of anything, pretending you don’t have emotions, refusing help, solving conflict through violence, and shunning feminine traits.
You have a new middle grade series. Tell us about it.
The new middle grade series I don’t want to give name since my publisher hasn’t announced it yet. The first book is called The Rise of ZomBert. It’s about a girl and her best friend, who is a boy, and a cat they find, who may or may not be a zombie.
When does it come out?
What might be familiar to your readers and what might feel different?
There is a lot of humor in it. However, it is very different as the humor is not as on the surface as it is with Bland Sisters, which is very slapstick. It’s for a slightly older audience than the Bland sisters. And it’s darker than the Bland Sisters. It’s definitely has creepy and scary moments.
How are you feeling about it?
I’m excited. I’m starting to see art come in from (Illustrator) Ryan Andrews that’s bringing in moodiness that compliments the text so well.
Can you give a snapshot of the first book?
I describe it as Bunnicula mixed with Stranger Things. It takes place in the suburbs. There is something going on this neighborhood. And the kids slowly figure out what that’s going on. And they seem to be the only ones that know that truth about what is happening.
What is something about you that most people don’t know?
In The Bland Sisters, the running joke is how much that Kale loves to clean. I actually hate cleaning! That was sort of my response to people when people assume that certain characters are based on the author, which Kale is, but only to a degree!
Anything else you want to say?
I want to thank you for taking the time to interview me, and thank my readers for reading my books. I hope they will check out Rise of ZomBert next spring!
Hillary Homzie is the author of Ellie May chapter book series (Charlesbridge, Dec 2018), as well as Apple Pie Promises (Sky Pony/Swirl, October 2018), Pumpkin Spice Secrets (Sky Pony/Swirl, October 2017), Queen of Likes (Simon & Schuster MIX 2016), The Hot List (Simon & Schuster MIX 2011) and Things Are Gonna Be Ugly (Simon & Schuster, 2009) as well as the Alien Clones From Outer Space (Simon & Schuster Aladdin 2002) chapter book series. She teaches at Hollins University Graduate Program in Children’s Literature and Illustration as well as at Sonoma State University, where she directs the Arts & Humanities internships program and teaches communications. Hillary also teaches the Middle Grade Mastery Course and the Chapter Book Alchemist Course at the Children’s Book Academy. She can be found at hillaryhomzie.com and on her Facebook page as well as on Twitter.