Amber J Keyser is one of the Mixed Up Files newest member and she’s got the first book birthday of the year. New Year’s Day saw the publication of her MG series Quartz Creek Ranch. It’s published by Darby Creek and all four books came out together. Here’s the description of the series:
Every summer, the gates of Quartz Creek Ranch swing open for kids in trouble. Under the watchful eyes of lifelong ranchers Willard and Etty Bridle, these ten to twelve-year-olds put their hands—and hearts—to good use, herding cattle, tending the garden, harvesting hay, and caring for animals. Aided by two teenage horse trainers, the kids must forge a bond with their therapy horses, grow beyond the mistakes that brought them to the ranch, and face unique challenges in the rugged Colorado rangeland.
I loved to ride horses when I was a kid, although it was a rare treat when I got the chance, usually in connection with Girl Scout camp. Do you have a childhood memory of horses that you drew on for these stories?
Many, actually! Hurtling through the filbert orchards bareback and dodging low hanging branches. Leading two horses, getting stuck in deep muck and losing my rubber boot. Cantering through summer meadows in the Bob Marshall Wilderness Area. A lot of specific pieces of my childhood made it into the pages of these books, but the emotional power that suffuses all of them comes from a lonely, socially-misfit kid (me, obviously) who connected on a deep level with horses. The connection that can form between a small human and a huge animal is magical.
One of my favorite venues for a book event was a thing I did with Suzanne Morgan Williams, the author of BULL RIDER at the Reno Rodeo. We sold a ton of books and I met a fabulous woman who did respite care for teens in foster care at her stable. She did not have trained therapy horses, but in the challenging experience of being a foster child, those horses where an anchor and source of great comfort to a generation of foster kids in Nevada. What drew you to write about therapy horses specifically?
I have these radiant memories of being with horses and feeling like those animals understood me better than anyone. I could be my whole, true self with them. In fact, if I wasn’t my true self, the horse wouldn’t respond well. Riding forces you to be open, to listen, and to focus. And those were “regular” horses. (As if anything as amazing as a horse could be regular!) Therapy horses take that one step further—these are animals that have been trained to be particularly responsive to a wide variety of needs. I reaped such intense benefit from my casual interactions with horses. For these books I wanted to imagine how much more could come from a relationship between a girl and her horse when the entire point of the interaction is to provide space for healing.
So about that… Why do you suppose that horse books are almost always exclusively marketed at girls?
Sigh… I am making a sad face right now. In the proposal we wrote for the series, Kiersi and I had one book with a male main character, but our European publisher requested that all of the main characters be girls. I get really frustrated with the gendering of books—as if a story should only appeal to one kind of kid. Rosanne, you wrote an amazing book about a boy and his horse. (Go read HEART OF A SHEPHERD, y’all. It’s one of my favs!) Lots of the classics, like KING OF THE WIND and WARHORSE, are about boys. I don’t know why it’s this way. Maybe because our society is hung up on boys actually having feelings like the kind I had as a young rider.
Kiersi and I did not want to write a series with stereotypical “mean girls” set in a fancy-pants barn. Neither of us grew up that way, and we wanted to write much more authentic relationships. Each book has an ensemble cast with four to five kids, both girls and boys, plus pivotal adult characters like ranch owners Mr. Bridle and Ma Etty, ranch manager Paul, and of course, the trainers Madison and Fletch, who are college-aged.
I absolutely loved writing the scenes with all the kids together. When I put all these unique characters together, the scenes became noisy and full of life. Often surprises would emerge. Things I didn’t expect would happen. Characters would say things I never could have planned. That richness came from putting all this diversity together.
It can be such a struggle even with a very supportive publisher to get them to move beyond the tried and true sales formula. Thanks for sticking to your convictions and keeping your larger cast of characters gender diverse. And speaking of diversity, how did you go about choosing which race or ethnicity or economic background for a character?
First, let me say having a diverse cast of characters was really important to me and Kiersi. By diverse, I mean in all ways: ethnically, economically, and personally. This was the most challenging part of our work on the series. For the series, we created nineteen kid characters and six primary adult characters plus assorted parents, neighbors, camel-owners, etc!
Each one had to have a distinct personality and unique issues that brought him or her to the ranch. In some ways it was a giant chess game to figure out the right combination of characteristics for all of them. We would have conversations like, “We already have a girl with anger issues,” or “This set of kids is all too quiet.” It was a head-spinner, but honestly, the ethnicity of the characters—and about half are kids of color—came pretty organically. It just made sense for them to be from around the country and from all kinds of backgrounds.
The upside of this crowd of characters is that there is LOTS of opportunity for conflict!
What a minute! Camel owners? Really! You’re just going to toss that out there and not say which book they’re in? Sorry guys, I guess you’re just going to have to read the whole series.
A ranch for troubled kids sounds like the sort of story that could have gone in a YA direction and you’ve written YA before. Why MG for this series?
In my mind, the key distinction between MG and YA is this: MG characters are trying to find their place within the milieu of their family while YA characters are trying to find their place in the broader world.
I read a parenting book when my kids were young that said a parent needed to be a fixed point of stability, and at different developmental stages, kids needed to pull away and make forays into the broader world, but they always needed a home base to return to. For the kids in our books, the summer they spend at Quartz Creek Ranch is that adventure outside the family, and in the end, each character brings new insights and new strength back to their family of origin.
It’s hard for me to imagine these books as YA. I mean, I can imagine writing a YA novel about a girl and horse. Certainly she’d have bigger, edgier problems than the characters in these books. No doubt she would also connect deeply with the animal. But the difference, I think, is that she wouldn’t take those lessons home. She would take them and leave home. And that’s a different story.
I always think of MG as a more circular story with a character venturing forth and then returning home, rather then the more linear path of the YA story. Which scene (or scenes) was all joy to write?
There are two scenes in THE LONG TRAIL HOME that I loved writing. In the first one, the vet, Carla, comes to check on a pregnant horse and does a manual inspection of the foal. It involves a glove that goes up to the armpit. (This still makes me laugh.) The other scene that was great to write was the birth of the foal. It is very messy!
Oh! I wrote a calf birthing scene in Heart of a Shepherd. That was a blast. So deliciously earthy! One last thing. Do you have a horse in your life now?
I do! I’m riding at a barn called Harmony with Horses. Almost all the horses there were rescues. Mostly I ride Tucker. He was in bad shape when he arrived, but now he is a total love!