Canary in the Coal Mine is Madelyn Rosenberg’s debut middle-grade novel, joining two picture books released in the fall of 2012. Bitty is a coal mine canary in Depression-era West Virginia, who becomes determined to forge a better life for himself and those around him. Fans of Stuart Little and Charlotte’s Web will love this fully-imagined and adventuresome world, complete with a multi-lingual mouse and a fearsome hawk named Cipher. Madelyn was kind enough to join us on the Files; read on to find out how to win a copy of the book Kirkus called “charming and inventive.” (Note: This post first appeared on April 4th; due to website issues, we are re-posting and extending the contest to April 25th.)
This book was your first full manuscript. What idea inspired you to create this story?
I wrote my first draft more than a decade ago after a concert in Charleston, W.Va. The lobby of the cultural center had a miner’s canary cage on display. It was much smaller than I had imagined, and the characters and the plot flashed before my eyes, the only time that’s ever happened to me. It took forever to get it right, though.
Your book is full of rigorous details concerning West Virginia in the early 20th century. Can you talk a little bit about your research process? What are the details that you are most proud of uncovering?
Ugh. I think I did both too much and too little research for this book. I started by interviewing miners and mining professors — a man at Virginia Tech who’d worked with canaries in the UK was a huge help. Then, years later when the story became viable, I had to redo a lot of my research. I read oral histories about mining and the depression and spent some time in the patent office, looking at the different incarnations of gas detection devices. I listened to music, read old newspapers and took field trips to West Virginia (if you’re ever in Scarbro, visit the Whipple Company Store). My favorite piece of research material was probably a scientific paper that I got through a librarian for the Department of Labor. It was dated 1930 and entitled: The Response of Japanese Waltzing Mice and Canaries to Carbon Monoxide and to Atmospheres Deficient in Oxygen. The librarian also sent me mining accident reports. I researched bridges, fires and the flight patterns of certain birds. And then, you know, I made a bunch of stuff up.
Have you ever gone into an actual mine?
I haven’t been in a working coal mine, though I’ve stood outside of them. I went to the exhibition coal mine in Beckley, W.Va. a few times. My stepdad’s grandfather owned a mine not far from where I grew up, in Blacksburg, Va. I had my stepdad take me to where the mine used to be, but there’s nothing left except stories.
Canary in the Coal Mine has that very controversial children’s book character – the talking animal. Did you know about this when you first started writing the book? Do you think talking animals are making a comeback in middle-grade, a la Stuart Little and Charlotte’s Web?
When I started writing this manuscript lo these many years ago, I didn’t know that talking animals were taboo. Even if I had known, though, I would have written this story. I grew up with talking animal books – favorites include the books you mentioned, plus Mrs. Frisby and the Rats of NIMH, The Cricket in Times Square and The Mouse and the Motorcycle. I LOVED those books. I still do. You can point to strong talking animal books that come out every year – W.H. Beck’s Malcolm at Midnight, for instance, or Elise Broach’s Masterpiece (though that was actually a beetle). They’ll probably always be a hard sell, but The One and Only Ivan’s recent Newbery win goes a long way toward vindicating them. If any book can lead a comeback charge, it’s that one.
One thing I love about Canary in the Coal Mine is that you wrote a childhood rhyme, which creates a rich background for the canaries and also tells a little about their life. Can you talk a little about that inspiration?
Ring-Around-the-Rosie has fascinated me ever since I learned in school that it was often connected to The Plague. I wanted to come up with a rhyme like that – something that was fun to say, but also haunting and rooted in fear.
In addition to being a children’s book author, you are a journalist. What journalism skills have helped you the most as an author?
I think I’ve developed a pretty good ear for listening to how people talk. I’m also fast, at least with the first draft, and I’m good with deadlines (and can’t write without them). Journalism has also taught me to pick and choose details, and it’s made me favor first-hand sources. Newspapers themselves are my go-to source for historical research. They have ads, prices, news, photos and flavor and they serve as a community time capsule.
Do you believe in rules for writing? What is your favorite rule to follow (or break)? What is your favorite piece of writing advice?
I’m sure I believe in some rules, but my favorite is probably: rules are made to be broken. My favorite piece of writing advice came from you: it doesn’t have to be probable; it just has to be possible.
What are your earliest memories of reading MG? What kind of reader were you?
I was an under-the-covers-with-a-flashlight reader. Sometimes I read in the dark; with the hall light on, I could just make out the words. I would read my books over and over. Even today, I can be perfectly happy pulling a favorite book off the shelf and starting in the middle.
What does MG mean to you?
In real life, when you’re in those middle grades, I feel like you’re in the middle of everything: feelings, growing, school, family, the city, the woods. In books, I feel like you’re in the middle of a new world – or perhaps an old one – that an author built just for you.
Thanks, Madelyn! Comment below with your favorite type of bird for a chance to win a copy of The Canary in the Coal Mine. There’s also a wonderful activity guide with links to the Common Core Standards.