Author Sharon Mentyka discusses writing, the role of libraries, and her latest book Chasing at the Surface. I received a complimentary ARC of this book in preparation for this blog interview.
How would you describe your novel Chasing at the Surface to youth services librarians interested in sharing this story with children?
Chasing at the Surface is a story of discovering something powerful that you love and finding the courage to fight for something you believe in. At the same time, readers will learn a lot about the genealogy and science of killer whales (Orcinus orca) and salmon habitat conservation. A resource section and discussion questions at the back of the book might be a nice starting point especially for kids who love animals and nature and want to learn more.
How is this novel influenced by true events?
Chasing at the Surface is inspired more than influenced by a true event, the difference being that the kernel of truth that sparked the novel became the jumping off point for a totally new story.
When I was doing my research, I read all I could about the actual event, spoke to whale researchers, journalists and community residents, and visited Dyes Inlet many times. But when I began writing, something interesting happened. My story moved beyond a re-telling of the specifics of the actual event. Other themes and connections began to emerge, and the mystery of why the whales stayed in the inlet for so long became much more central. To me, that is the beauty of storytelling. The factual events of the visit became the framework for a story that explores loss, courage, faith and what it means to call a place home.
Why was this a story you needed to tell?
In some ways, I feel that this story picked me to some extent. I’m the kind of writer who has no shortage of ideas—in fact, sometimes my problem is trying to decide which one to tackle, because I know it’s a big commitment. While it’s certainly exciting to develop an idea for a new book, committing to actually writing and then revising it is huge. I’m hopeful that the story offers an example of the importance of finding a balance between learning to trust ourselves and our intuition while at the same time being willing to ask for help when we need it—important concepts for middle grade readers.
What role did libraries and librarians play in your research process for this novel?
Libraries played a huge role. I’m not sure I could have researched the book with all the help I was able to receive from multiple library systems including Seattle, Bremerton and San Juan Island as well as the University of Washington and NOAA special collections. These resources and the many wonderful librarians I worked with along the way helped me ground my story in the facts and details of the actual event and were my go-to source for fact checking on “anything orca.”
I’d have to say, though, that my favorite part of doing library research for Chasing at the Surface was knowing that I wasn’t writing a non-fiction book. That allowed my story to move beyond a re-telling of the specifics of the actual event to a place where other themes and connections could emerge. To me, that is the beauty of storytelling. The factual events of the visit became the framework for a story that explores loss, courage, faith and what it means to call a place home.
The protagonist Marisa must make sense of complex emotions after her mother’s departure. What role does abandonment play in this novel?
I always knew I wanted Marisa to be a strong girl, a smart girl who was interested in science, but who had a little more trouble showing her other emotions openly. As the kids find out in the book from their teacher, the social organization of killer whales is matriarchal and female offspring stay with their mothers pretty much for life. So it made sense for the story to revolve around mothers and daughters, to create that parallel between orca moms and human ones. The book also touches on coping with parental crises, adoption and blended families—issues that that are a big part of the lives of many children today.
When her mother leaves, Marisa struggles with her own feelings of loss and abandonment, but she slowly discovers and learns so much from observing the whales and starts making connections and parallels in her own life. We’re not alone on this planet. If only we’d begin to realize the richness and importance in that concept, all of us, including our animal friends, would benefit.
Why is it important that libraries and librarians provide opportunities for children to deal with complicated issues, such as the concerns Marisa faces?
Today’s young readers will be faced with hard choices when they grow up as to how to keep our plant and nature’s wild species thriving. Kids need to see models for how they can cope with situations and issues like these, and books can provide that. Books, and in particular fiction, I think, is a really valuable tool for children to develop empathy, by giving them a window into what it’s like to live entirely different life experiences.
Equally important, books can provide a way for children to discover their own passion in life, learn to fight for what they believe in and find the courage and faith within themselves to follow a path they may see modeled in a character or book they admire. Libraries and librarians provide exposure to these ideas and tools through books and other media, so there’s a big contribution they can make here.
How can children’s librarians provide the most support in meeting the reading needs and interests of their young patrons?
There are probably 10+ kinds of profiles of what a “typical” elementary or middle grade student is like. The common thread might be that the middle grades are a time when kids are all about finding where they fit in or where they stand out in their families, their schools and the world. They’re living at a kind of a tipping point, where they take note of everything happening around them, and weigh it all against the backdrop of “how does this fit into my worldview and who I am?”
What’s great about writing for middle grade readers is that this is the time when kids are really figuring out what the world, their families and themselves are all about. They’ve so open to new ideas and learning, and books are a great way for them to explore all the possibilities for the future.
And since you ask, here’s my conservation plug—even with their designation as an endangered species, Southern Resident orca numbers have been dwindling. Orcas are considered an “apex predator”—they’re at the top of the food chain. This means that everything in their environment, from the bottom to the top, affects their survival. There’s a good resource section at the back of my books that lists organizations where kids and their parents can learn more about ways to help but I’d like to list two of the best right here: the Center for Whale Research in Friday Harbor (http://www.whaleresearch.com) and Orca Network (http://www.orcanetwork.org).
What role did reading and libraries play in your life as a child?
Surprise fact—I was not a particularly good writer as a child. But I loved to read, and that’s a huge part of writing. And sometimes I would imagine what it would be like to be one of the people whose names were on the books I loved to read. Some teachers and librarians may remember, long before computers were used to keep track of books, the wooden cabinets of card catalogues that every library used to have. To find books, you would pull out little drawers and shuffle through typed and handwritten cards, one for each book in the library’s collection, organized by the last name of the author.
I used to spend a lot of time in my local library just outside New York City and sometimes I would go the section with authors whose last named started with “M.” And I’d look for the exact place where my card would go if I had a book. I think once I may have even made a card for myself for some imaginary book and slipped it in there when the librarian wasn’t looking. Now if this was a movie—POW!—in the next scene I’d be all grown up and be a writer. Except it didn’t happen that way. It took a much longer time. But I always loved to tell stories. If no one was around, I would just tell them to myself, out loud. When I got older, I finally realized, wait a minute, telling stories is pretty much the same as being a writer! I had been doing it all along. Now all I had to do was start writing them down.
How has visiting students in schools and libraries shaped your writing process?
I have to say that I think, in general, we underestimate what our students are capable of and what insights they bring to ideas and problems if we, as adults, are open to really listening. When you spend time with young people, you can see their innate optimism and how receptive they are to learning and growing. Stories still matter, and every child has a story inside them that they need to see reflected in the books and stories they read and hear. As you know, this is a pretty hot topic right now in the children’s lit community—the right that every child has to see themselves in stories.
I also always find it telling that students are genuinely surprised and, in a way, encouraged, that the book an author is showing them took many years of hard work. It just didn’t appear one day, complete and whole. I think it makes any struggles they might have less lonely. I’m also lucky because my role as a visiting author is kind of like being a grandparent. I can come in and have great interactions with students, but then I get to leave at the end of the day. It’s the full-time teachers who have the greater responsibility and burdens of working with students on a day-to-day basis, and these are the folks we really need to support.
What is the next project you are working on at this time?
I have a couple of projects in the works. One is a nonfiction picture book biography that I’m excited about, and I’m also working on a middle-grade novel that follows a boy who turns to art to heal a crisis in his family. It will include a section of visual pages relating to the story, which is fun for me because I still do work as a graphic designer in my “day job.” Hopefully, I’ll be able to announce more details about both of these soon.
There’s also another story that’s very close to my heart that I’m still looking to find a home for—a historical fiction middle grade told through the perspective of two characters of different races. This is a story that holds particular significance for me because of my personal experience, but it’s also a story that I know I need to be very sensitive in telling. But ultimately, I think my readers need this story, which is one of compassion and forgiveness.
Thank you to author Sharon Mentyka for sharing your perspective!