Today we’re pleased to be interviewing middle grade author Jessica Lawson. We featured her novel Nooks & Crannies on Mixed-Up Files back in 2015, and she’s back today to talk about her latest book, Under the Bottle Bridge.
In the weeks leading up to Gilbreth, New York’s annual AutumnFest, twelve-year-old woodcraft legacy Minna Treat is struggling with looming deadlines, an uncle trying to hide Very Bad News, and a secret personal quest. When she discovers mysterious bottle messages under one of the village’s 300-year-old bridges, she can’t help but wonder who’s leaving them, what they mean, and, most importantly…could the messages be for her?
Along with best friend Crash and a mystery-loving newcomer full of suspicious theories, Minna is determined to discover whether the bottles are miraculously leading her toward long-lost answers she’s been looking for, or drawing her into a disaster of historic proportions.
Hey, Jessica! Welcome back to the MUF! Can you tell us how came up with the idea for this novel?
I always thought of bottle messages as things that were found bobbing up and down in the ocean. For whatever reason, when I was brainstorming new story ideas, I had this picture in my head of a girl finding message bottles in a shallow, empty ravine—a place that used to run with water, but had been dry for hundreds of years.
As for the setting, I’ve always been fascinated by traditional arts—blacksmiths and weavers and candlemakers and such. I wondered what it might be like to live in a modern-day place that really valued those talents, and what sort of encouragement and pressure the children of artisans might be given to continue that work. Those elements blended and I had myself enough to start writing
This is your first crack at a contemporary story. What were the challenges for a writer used to historical settings?
Well, I cheated a little. Under the Bottle Bridge is set during autumn in a modern-day artisan village that’s steeped in tradition and history. While there are modern conveniences like cell phones and yummy pizza restaurants, there’s definitely a thread of the town’s history being very much alive. Each chapter opens with a consecutive piece of village history that leads-up to a reveal that concerns Minna, and the Gilbreth’s annual AutumnFest involves people in period dress…bottom line, you can take the author out of historical fiction, but you can’t always take the historical fiction out of the author.
Honestly, I couldn’t get away from my interest in personal history and how it shapes us. There’s an Alex Haley quote at the beginning of the novel: In every conceivable manner, the family is link to our past, bridge to our future. I think that, for better and for worse, that’s so true.
In terms of challenges, dialogue had to be more modern than I’m used to writing and school scenes had to reflect modern conveniences.
Your character, Minna, is raised by her uncle and she reads all of the parenting books that he buys for himself—the titles are pretty funny (for example: Rollercoaster: The Oft-Nauseating Ups and Downs of Parenting Kids, Tweens, Teens, and Twenty-Somethings That Won’t Leave the House). Have you read many parenting books?
I have not read many, but I am a mom and stepmom to four kiddos (ranging in age from 4 to 22) and I think it’s nearly universal to have the occasional wish that our precious children came with a straightforward handbook. It can be intimidating to be the framing influence in our children’s lives, just as it can be scary to navigate the ups and downs of childhood. Minna reads all of her uncle’s books and has sort of internalized all of the advice. She comes to realize—as does her uncle—that there’s no one answer to life’s trials.
What are themes that teachers, librarians, and booksellers might latch onto when sharing the story with readers?
Family, friendship, and expectations all come into play in this story. There are elements of balancing family expectations and the desire to honor the past while becoming your own person. A new girl in town teaches Minna about pre-judging others. Also, the bottles play with the idea that sometimes the thing you’re searching for isn’t necessarily what you need to feel complete.
I think the book would pair nicely with a student project on traditional artisan skills or interviews with family members to delve into personal history.
Thanks so much, Jessica, for stopping by! We wish you and your new book all the very best!
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