Joanne Rocklin has been writing books for children since the 1990s, when she contributed several volumes to Scholastic’s “Hello, Math” series. Her book, For Your Eyes Only (Scholastic), has been a children’s choice book in a number of states–it’s a book about classroom journal writing and the secrets that are revealed. Although she’s a native of Montreal, Canada, Joanne lived in, and taught elementary school in, Los Angeles, California for many years. She currently resides in Oakland, California. CLN asked her to talk about her most recent book, One Day and One Amazing Morning on Orange Street (Abrams), which is included among IndieBound’s Kids Next Summer ’11 picks for ages 9 to 12. CLN’s Chapter & Verse book clubs discussed the book at their June 2011 meetings.
1. You’ve written a book in which setting is one of the main characters. Were you inspired first by place or story to write this book?
That is an interesting question; I had to stop and think for a bit. My immediate answer is “place” because I was inspired by the incredibly beautiful, old orange tree in my backyard. I also knew that I wanted to explore a city block, which isn’t done very often. I remember how I’d loved Eleanor Estes’s The Moffats, growing up, which takes place “outside.” When I was young, my block was my “real life.” School and family sort of happened at the periphery of things. (Well, that’s how I remember it!) And—I wanted to explore and play on the name “Los Angeles,” that sunny, orangey, complicated city I knew I would be leaving soon. It’s a very kid-like stance to wonder about that name, identify with it a bit, and ponder imaginary angels. (The innocence and goodness of children, combined with their funny misperceptions and quirks, is very intriguing to me, especially in the middle grades.) So—tree, street, city. Places, but I knew there were lots of stories connected with them. What had the tree witnessed? How could a group of neighbors on one street coalesce on one ordinary, but special, day? How does the history of L.A. affect the present day? My answer to your question: ‘Place, or story?’ Both!
2. There are multi-generational characters with important voices throughout your book. Was this a conscious decision on your part?
There are several adults who have roles in the present-day story. Yes, they developed naturally and organically in terms of what I needed: a witness and teller of old stories (Ms. Snoops); a mysterious stranger who had to be an adult, in order to generate some anxiety (Larry); someone losing her memory, (Ms. Snoops) to accentuate the tragedy of losing a connection to the beautiful present moment, and the need to honor the past, both of which the tree represents. Ms. Snoops also brings out Ali’s compassion. Manny, the adult caregiver, is necessary in order to have Edgar be present in the various scenes, and to inspire hope. All of these adults, however, are strongly connected to the children, as well as the children they once were themselves.
3. It’s unusual to have a book set within 36 hours. “One day and one amazing morning” is a title and a timeframe and … a challenge. Did you find any particular challenge in keeping an entire story within this period of time?
Surprisingly, no. It seemed exactly right to me, and fun to write the story that way. It felt necessary to “stop time” and examine the moments. I remember how lo-o-o-n-g a summer day used to seem as a child! And once I divided it up into segments (Morning, Afternoon, Evening, Night, And…) my writing just flowed. Of course Ms. Snoops’ and the tree’s stories tell about other days, as do the thoughts and conversation of the kids, and that gave me lots of leeway.
4. Of course, the irony is that the story spans decades, but everything pivots around this 36-hour period of time. Your story is all about the passing of time and people’s passage through it. In earlier drafts, did your concept of the timeframe for the story change?
The timeframe was essentially there from the start (morning, afternoon, etc.) I knew that Ms. Snoops was a witness to the history of the tree and the street, but I didn’t know at first where I would make my “stops” in terms of her own story. I knew, too, that I had to tell the mysterious stranger’s story, (why had he shown up?) that his story would take place during his childhood, and that it should come at the end. I knew that everyone’s story, past and present, would connect to the tree in some way. I knew that all the stories must connect by the end of the book, and the tree would be instrumental in each character’s growth. I also knew that Edgar would represent everyone’s joy, dramatically, at the end. That was the journey I planned for my story, in the beginning, but I didn’t know how I would get there! But subsequent drafts gave me Gertrude, the reason for Larry’s interest in digging around, a Vietnam connection, and the details of that “amazing” morning.
5. You worked with Maggie Lehrmann at Abrams as your editor. What did she bring to the book?
She was wonderful. Several editors were interested in my manuscript, but her initial suggestions were insightful and inspiring. One concrete suggestion was that the kids should also be digging around in the empty lot and have something to do with figuring out the mystery of the stranger, both for themselves, and the reader. Then there were the writerly suggestions she made, in terms of encouraging me to bring more emotion and detail to certain sections. For example, she suggested I rewrite the very last paragraph of the book, which is very important to what I believe. She didn’t tell me what to do, but I knew she wanted “more.” She always understood what I was trying to convey. And the wonderful artwork by Chris Buzelli, as well as the lovely design of the book by Maria T. Middleton (the book cover under the jacket is orange!) and art director Chad W. Beckerman, represent the sensitive choices made by the entire talented Abrams team.
6. I grew up in a neighborhood where there were many kids, who all played outside together, with plenty of spats and forever-friends-pledges and the immediacy of the child in the company of other children … no questions asked about home life or parents or school. You’ve managed to capture that feeling in this book. Did you grow up in that kind of neighborhood?
Yes! Wow. You’ve described it perfectly! We really didn’t know what was going on inside one another’s homes, or at school (unless we were classmates). Not that those things weren’t important. It’s just that we were too involved with living in the moment, with each other, on our street.
7. Which of the characters in the book is closest to your Self?
Honestly, I really have to say all of them are, to a certain degree, and each in a different way. (Except for the tree, of course, which I do consider a real character.) I have experienced all of their feelings, although perhaps for different reasons.
8. Lately we’ve been talking about books which have military family stories … yours does. The sadness of loss that changes a family’s life … a man’s life … it’s one of the layers within your story. A memory that ties a man to a place. When you set out to write this book, did you develop the characters first or did they “show up” in the process of writing?
My characters developed in draft after draft, especially Larry. As mentioned above: a mysterious stranger returns. He plans to dig for something in the empty lot (I didn’t know what, at the beginning.) He wants to forgive, and needs to understand the people who created the man he became. It is his birthday. Given these requirements, the full story eventually came to me, and when it did. it was the only story it could have been,
9. Ethel is aware of her loss of memory. Have you known someone like this?
Yes, as we all have, of course. Relatives, and friends of my parents, and spouses of good friends. The sadness for me in creating Ms. Snoops is her ability to experience happiness in the present moment, and her keen awareness that she is losing that ability, as she struggles to remember things. She is so fond of the kids of Orange Street because they allow her to share her memories, and feel alive.
10. Have you known a special orange tree?
The Valencia in my Los Angeles backyard was gorgeous, generous and very, very old. I couldn’t stop wondering who had planted it, and what that tree had witnessed, year after year. I met that tree soon after my mother died, she who had given me a childhood steeped in books and lots of time to daydream. So around that time I found myself thinking about the past a lot, honoring the small moments of beauty in the present, and it all became connected to that tree. And so, my story.
11. This is not your first novel. Can you share with us at what point in your writing journey this book first occurred to you?
I was writing another novel, or trying to, about a girl in the 1950′s who disguises herself as a boy in order to play hockey. I thought the concept was intriguing. Unfortunately, I didn’t know much about hockey, had never played it, and didn’t really like it that much. I wasted some time struggling with the story, until I realized I was writing the wrong one, and really wanted to write about my tree. That story was a joy to write at that point in my writing journey, and my life!
12. Joanne, if there’s something else you’d like to share with your readers, what would that be?
It was important for me to express the longing we all have for something magical and “amazing” in our daily lives. Sometimes amazing things do occur during seemingly everyday moments, especially when experienced as a community. I did not want to write a fantasy. I wanted the moments of my story to feel as true and possible as anything that happens in real life. I hope I accomplished that.