MUF Contributor Books
I’m so thrilled to interview MUF contributor Michele Weber Hurwitz about her newest middle grade book, Hello from Renn Lake (Wendy Lamb Books/Random House Children’s, May 26 2020). The book centers on 12-year old Annalise Oliver whose family owns and runs a lakeside cabins in Renn Lake, Wisconsin. As a young child Annalise discovered she could communicate with the lake. However, when an algal bloom threatens the lake, she can no longer hear Renn. Annalise and her friends desperately search for a way to save their beloved lake and their community.
Michele, I just love how you alternate between 12-year-old Annalise Oliver, and centuries old Renn, the lake. And then Renn’s cousin, Tru, the river, also has a voice. How did you come up with making the lake and river actual characters in the book? (Also, I was so happy you included Violet, a small quiet lake.)
In my first draft, I didn’t have the lake and river narrating. In fact, it was a quite different story early on, but there still was a main character who had been abandoned as an infant. I had such a strong visual scene in my mind. One moonless night, a baby girl was left near the back garden of a store in a small Wisconsin town, and across the street, an ancient lake that had been part of people’s lives for eons, was the only witness. Because of the unique and mystical bond that develops between the girl and the lake, I realized at some point the only way to fully tell this story was to include the lake’s perspective. I loved that Ivan narrated his own story in The One and Only Ivan, but I wasn’t sure if an element of nature could do the same. But the idea took hold and wouldn’t let go, so I took a leap of faith. Once I gave Renn a voice, the story flowed (pun intended) from there. Tru’s point of view and Violet’s experience are vital pieces of the narrative as well. Also, I decided that all of the nature elements would not have a gender.
When did you discover that Annalise can communicate with the lake?
I always knew there would be a magical realism aspect where Annalise is able to sense what Renn is thinking and feeling, partially due to events that occurred the night she was abandoned. There’s a poignant backstory scene when she’s three years old and first discovers her connection with the lake. To her, it’s the most natural thing, and she’s surprised to later learn that not everyone can “hear” a lake. When I was writing, I kept thinking about the phrase “body of water” – that lakes, rivers, and oceans are living beings as much as plants and animals. Throughout history, people have lived near water – it’s an essential ingredient of life. Even our bodies are made up of mostly water – more than sixty percent.
A crisis with the lake was going to be a cornerstone of the plot, I just wasn’t sure what the problem would be. But around the same time I was drafting, I read about harmful algal blooms (HABs) and how they’ve been increasing in all bodies of water in recent years. It’s another effect of climate change, and also polluted stormwater runoff that causes algae to grow out of control. HABs steal precious oxygen and also produce toxins that can kill fish, mammals, birds, and even dogs. Three dogs died last summer after swimming in a lake with a toxic bloom. This unsettled me so much that I knew I had to write about this issue. I did a ton of research online and also worked with amazingly helpful people at the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources and the Wisconsin Division of Public Health to make sure the info was accurate, even though this is fiction.
In your book, you have a Thought Wall, where anyone can write anything with sharpies. I truly appreciate the idea of encouraging free expression. Is something you have done yourself?
One of my favorite pizza places growing up allowed and encouraged patrons to scribble on the wood tables. I also heard about a coffee shop where people could put Post-it notes on a bulletin board. I think that’s such a fun idea. Of course, because I love words, but also that it’s so random – you can read someone’s silly, humorous, or thought-provoking message, and they can read yours. I also love that it’s not online but something more tangible and present. That the office for the cabins along Renn Lake would have a Thought Wall for guests just delighted me, and this goes along with the plot because the messages change when the lake is in trouble.
I love that Annalise’s friend Maya is trying to bring back Yiddish. Is Yiddish a language that you know?
My grandparents, two of whom were immigrants from Poland and Lithuania, spoke Yiddish. It’s interesting to me that the language was spoken by Jews in many linked geographical areas, unlike a language that’s a country’s official dialect. I fondly remember my grandparents uttering words like “chutzpah” and “mishegas” that didn’t have an exact English translation. As I’m getting older, I find myself using several Yiddish words, and now my kids are too! Maya starts saying some Yiddish words because her aunt is trying to bring back the language. The phrases aptly describe several situations in the story and might encourage readers to look up their meanings!
There are several mysteries going on this book. Annalise is a foundling and we also don’t know exactly how the bloom got started and what will happen. How did you come up with this idea of Annalise’s abandonment and tying that into the themes of the novel?
In my initial draft, Annalise focused on searching for her origins, but that direction didn’t feel fresh or original. That story had been told before. But I started thinking, what if you choose not to or can’t find the answer to your most troubling question? How do you come to terms with that and move forward? That shift led to a much stronger theme of roots. Instead of searching for where she came from, Annalise decides to put down roots in the place she was found. Roots also tie into the theme as Annalise and her friend Zach discover a possible way to help Renn. So Annalise’s abandonment and the crisis with the lake are woven together, and the river, Tru, plays an essential role in orchestrating this.
I really enjoyed Zach’s science knowledge (his magnifying glass) and the fact that his father is a novelist who isn’t always getting to his work. I have to ask you—who did you base that dad on?
Ha! The frustrated writer part is absolutely based on me! I’ve never sequestered myself in a lakeside cabin in order to write like Zach’s dad does, but I’ve definitely experienced many a time when I couldn’t concentrate and displayed hermit-like behavior – staying in pajamas all day, forgetting to brush my teeth, not leaving the house, talking to the walls. 😊
This novel does end up supplying reasons for the bloom—how it all starts on land—fertilizers, detergent, cleaning products, and pesticides that all end up in our waterways. In addition to the environmental devastation, you don’t shrink from the economic consequences of the toxicity. Is this something you have first-hand knowledge of?
While this is fiction, I referred to my research constantly during the writing process. My editor also asked me numerous questions, as we both wanted to be as factual as possible and offer accurate details that helped shape the narrative. I met with a technician who cleans up polluted lakes and when he said the problem starts on land, not the water, it really struck me how everything we do – pouring something down the sink or washing our car in the driveway – can negatively affect a nearby body of water.
In this text, you play with who has a voice and who is voiceless. Can you talk a little bit about that?
It makes me incredibly sad to see the harm people have done and are doing to nature. Our actions are tipping everything on this planet out of balance. I have this weird sense that nature is reacting, almost lashing out in a way, with the climate disruptions we’re seeing – fires and floods and hurricanes. But water, trees, land – they’re silent. I think it really deepened this story to know how a lake would feel if it was covered with a toxic algal bloom and couldn’t breathe. There are a few chilling last sentences from Zach that make me tear up every time I read them.
Annalise’s younger sister JessiKa (her creative spelling) is such an intriguing character. At times, she’s pretty annoying to her older sister, yet you can’t help but admire her determination to become an actress. At times, she reminded me of Amy in Little Women. I’d love to know a little bit about your process for creating her?
My younger daughter inspired Jess’s character. As a kid, my daughter always had something on her agenda and pursued it doggedly, like ten-year old Jess does with her desire to become an actress. At one point my daughter wanted our family to move to L.A. (we live in Chicago) so she could get on a TV show. 😊 While Jess’s relentless nagging tries her parents’ patience and certainly annoys Annalise, her tenacity proves to be worthwhile in the end, of course!
I love Jess’ line— “Just because something’s small doesn’t mean it can’t do big things.”
Definitely! Jess is small but tough as nails. I was the shortest kid in my kindergarten class. When we were doing a production of Jack and the Beanstalk, I was cast as the giant! I learned to speak up when I needed to, and so does spunky Jess.
Without giving anything away, did you know that it would be kids and specifically Annalise and her friends who would try to save the lake?
Absolutely. I knew the kids wouldn’t be satisfied when the town authorities take a “wait and see” approach with the algal bloom issue. Kids possess an urgency and passion that adults sometimes lack. I am in awe of the kids who have been marching, protesting, and speaking out on the climate crisis. There are some amazing things that happen in this story because of the kids’ determination.
In a post script to the novel, I truly loved how the information about lakes, rivers and algal blooms was from Zach’s point of view!
I find that sometimes the informational back matter of a book can be dull and boring, and I didn’t want it to be! Zach, adorable science nerd that he is, was the perfect character to share info for readers who are interested in learning more about lakes, rivers, and algal blooms. All the links are also on my website.
I learned to trust my instincts more. Deep down, I knew Renn was an essential narrator but I was hesitant to try writing in the voice of a lake. I kept coming up with reasons why it wouldn’t work or readers might not get it. Finally, I just tuned out those negative thoughts and dove in.
Is there anything else you would like readers to know about the book?
I hope readers will feel inspired to do something in their community – no matter how big or small. The climate crisis is such an overwhelming and seemingly insurmountable issue. If we stop using plastic water bottles or recycle every scrap of paper, will these actions really make a difference? And I just want to answer, yes! All of my books end on a hopeful note. I believe in humanity and our inventiveness and adaptability to solve crises. We will find a way forward, and nature can help us come up with solutions.
Hillary Homzie is the author of the Ellie May chapter book series (Charlesbridge, 2018), Apple Pie Promises (Sky Pony/Swirl, 2018), Pumpkin Spice Secrets (Sky Pony/Swirl, 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’s also a contributor to the forthcoming Kate the Chemist middle grade series (Philomel Books/Penguin Random House). During the year, Hillary teaches at Sonoma State University and in the summer she teaches in the graduate program in childrens’ literature, writing and illustration at Hollins University. She also is an instructor for the Children’s Book Academy. She can be found at hillaryhomzie.com and on her Facebook page as well as on Twitter.
The holidays are upon us, and reading about diverse December customs seems a great way to celebrate the season. Here are some middle-grade books you might want to check out for your vacation reading pleasure.
An ordinary Danish Christmas turns extraordinary when a family overlooks an important folkloric tradition. Christmas has come, and with it a sparkling white winterfrost. When Bettina’s parents are called away unexpectedly, leaving her in charge of the house, the farm, and baby Pia, Bettina neglects to set out the traditional bowl of Christmas rice pudding for the tiny nisse.
No one besides her grandfather ever believed the nisse were real, so what harm could there be in forgetting this silly custom? But when baby Pia disappears, the magic of the nisse makes itself known. To find her sister and set things right, Bettina must venture into the miniature world of these usually helpful, but sometimes mischievous, folk.
In this Hanukkah story, Penina finds that a glass of cold milk and a hot potato pancake go a long way. Penina Levine is the only member of her family who isn’t looking forward to Hanukkah. Not only is it another chance for her annoying sister to steal the spotlight, but her favorite teacher is taking a mysterious leave of absence, and her best friend is deserting her to go on a dream vacation to Aruba.
Then Penina discovers why Mrs. Brown must go away and hears that a snowstorm may ruin Zozo’s trip, and Penina knows she’s the one who must bring some holiday spirit to her friends. Readers of all backgrounds will relate to Penina as she turns a pile of problems into a Hanukkah to remember.
Over the course of seven days, African Americans, families and friends, come together to light the candles that symbolize their past and future—and their unity. They gather as a community to make music and to dance; to feast on harvest foods and the good things of the earth; and to exchange simple, often homemade, gifts. Readers are introduced to the symbols of the holiday, such as the mkeka (a special placemat), kinara (candleholder), and kikombe cha umoja (unity cup). Important concepts, like the seven principles, are explained. In addition, a note from the book’s consultant, aimed at parents and teachers, puts the holiday in its full cultural and historical perspective.
Young Truman Capote thought life in New York City was going to be perfect, but things didn’t work out as planned.
In fact, Tru is downright miserable. So he decides to run away to Monroeville, Alabama, and the only friend he’s ever had, Nelle Harper Lee. But things don’t go well there, either.
Bad things seem to happen wherever he goes. The only explanation: he must be cursed. Christmas is coming, and Tru’s only wish is to be happy. But it’ll take a miracle for that to come true. Luckily, a special feast brings the miracle he’s hoping for. Tru and Nelle: A Christmas Tale is based on the real life friendship of Truman Capote and Harper Lee.
Marla Feinstein, the only Jewish kid in her fourth-grade class, hates December.
While everyone else is decorating trees, she’ll be forgetting to light the candles and staring at a big plastic dreidel. The holidays couldn’t get much worse.
So Marla decides to find out what Hanukkah’s really about—and soon she and her family have made the Festival of Lights the biggest party in town!
Kiesha doesn’t understand what is happening to her family. Papa hides behind the newspaper at dinner time. Her big brother Derrick is grumpy and gets into trouble all the time. And Mama just seems unhappy. If not for her precious library books, Kiesha would be unhappy too.
When she discovers a family celebration called Kwanzaa, Kiesha thinks she has found a way to help her family. She works hard to create a special family Kwanzaa celebration, but is it too late? Young readers will learn about how some families celebrate Kwanzaa, but Kiesha’s Kwanzaa is really about family and togetherness and the power of love.
Rick Scroogeman hates Christmas. He can’t stand the carols and the pageants. He can’t stand the lights and the mistletoe.
But what he hates the most is having to watch the old movie A Christmas Carol every year at school.
Since his name is Scroogeman, all of his classmates start calling him Scrooge. And he hates being called Scrooge. But everything starts to change when three ghosts visit him. At first, he thinks it’s a dream. But then he realizes that it might be a nightmare. A nightmare that could become real.
One lousy miracle. Is that too much to ask? Evidently so for Joel, as he tries to survive Hannukah, 1971 in the suburbs of Los Angeles (or, as he calls it, “The Land of Shriveled Dreams”). That’s no small task when you’re a “seriously funny-looking” twelve-year-old magician who dreams of being his own superhero: Normalman. And Joel’s a long way from that as the only Jew at Bixby School, where his attempts to make himself disappear fail spectacularly. Home is no better, with a family that’s not just mortifyingly embarrassing but flat-out broke. That’s why Joel’s betting everything on these eight nights, to see whether it’s worth believing in God or miracles or anything at all. Armed with his favorite jokes, some choice Yiddish words, and a suitcase full of magic tricks, he’s scrambling to come to terms with the world he lives in—from hospitals to Houdini to the Holocaust—before the last of the candles burns out. No wonder his head is spinning: He’s got dreidels on the brain. And little does he know that what’s actually about to happen to him and his family this Hanukkah will be worse than he’d feared . . . And better than he could have imagined.
Charlie’s school is holding a Kwanzaa Festival, and he doesn’t want any part of it. Last year, he was chosen to stand in front of the entire class wearing a dashiki, beads, and sandals- in the middle of winter!
When the class jerk decided to crack jokes about Charlie’s outfit, he became the clown of the third grade. This year he just wants things to be normal.
But Charlie soon learns that Kwanzaa is a celebration of creativity and caring.
The winter solstice, the day the “sun stands still,” marks the longest night and the shortest day of the year, and it comes either on December 20th or 21st. Celebrations honoring the winter solstice as a moment of transition and renewal date back thousands of years and occur among many peoples on every continent. The Return of the Light makes an ideal companion for everyone who carries on this tradition, no matter what their faith. Storyteller Carolyn McVickar Edwards retells twelve traditional tales-from North America, China, Scandinavia, India, Africa, South America, Europe, and Polynesia-that honor this magical moment. These are stories that will renew our wonder of the miracle of rebirth and the power of transition from darkness into light.
Every Christmas in the small town of Pine River, a tree appears in the town square–the Angel Tree. Some people tie wishes to the tree, while others make those wishes come true. Nobody’s ever known where the tree comes from, but the mystery has always been part of the tradition’s charm.
This year, however, four kids who have been helped–Lucy, Joe, Max, and Cami–are determined to solve the mystery and find out the true identity of the town’s guardian angel, so that Pine River can finally thank the person who brought the Angel Tree to their town.
This is a heartwarming Christmas mystery, full of friendship, discovery, and loads of holiday cheer!