In just three books, author Monika Schröder has exceeded the joys known to most middle-grade novelists. Book jacket blurb praise from Newbery notables. Kind reviews from some of the best-known literary journals.
What could be better? Try witnessing the daily appreciation of your books in your day job of school librarian.
Now a full-time author, Monika Schröder shared the tale of her books, career, and life with CLN.
Q: Your father’s experiences in WWII inspired you for your debut, The Dog in the Wood. What were your father’s impressions of the book?
A: Unfortunately, my father does not speak any English and has not read the book. I am still hoping a German publisher will be interested. Maybe one day I will translate it myself.
But during the process I interviewed my dad extensively, often over the telephone. It was always very emotional for him to return to that difficult time in his life. Still, I believe he is pleased that I tried to put down a part of his story in a book.
Q: All three of your books are on serious topics. What types of readers have you attracted? Or, to put this another way, why would someone read these titles?
A: My target audience for the two books set is middle grade boys, who may have a romantic idea of war, although I hope also attract girls of the same age. I hope in these books to provide my readers with a more realistic picture of what war really means, not so much for soldiers but for children and their mothers.
In Saraswati’s Way the target audience is much the same and hopefully offers my readers the opportunity to experience a radically different culture with a character he is fighting for an education that most kids in the US can take for granted. My hope is that the reading experience will broaden their view of the world. Living in India for eight years certainly broadened mine.
Q: What character in your first three novels is most like you—and why?
A: I think I am most like Akash [from Saraswati’s Way]. I used to be a math nerd in school and I am very impatient. In fact, when my husband read an early draft of the book he said, ”This is a book about impatience. I wonder whether the author will learn a lesson from the writing of it.”
Q: You excelled in writing first-person narration for Moritz in My Brother‘s Shadow, your latest book. What’s been the reaction from readers about the immediacy of that point of view?
A: I had good responses to the first-person narrative. This was my first book from this point of view. It was challenging to write, since first person limits the perspective and doesn’t allow for a lot of exposition. The advantage of course is a heightened degree of immediacy and a voice that readers can hopefully relate to more personally.
Q: From The Dog in the Wood to My Brother’s Shadow, how have you changed as an author?
A: I have learned more about the structure of novels. And after tackling first person, am using it again in my current novel. But I consider myself still a student of the craft. There is always so much to learn.
Q: And you speak more than one language. Do you write—or imagine your plots—in German then translate? In a column, you wrote about missing the “colorful idioms” of German. Do you have an example?
A: I write in English. I also read only novels in English. I need to stay in one “code” to write my books.
The German idioms don’t easily translate into English. My mother always uses very colorful images. For example, if a person does not easily part with his money, someone you would call a ‘miser’ in English, she describes as “he has a hedgehog in his pocket.”
Q: Rebecca might be seen as only a love interest in My Brother’s Shadow. What role does she play in the story for you?
A: I wanted to have another female in the book who was not related to Moritz, but who also fought for the ideals of the “new time.” It might be relatively easy for a boy to dismiss his mother’s and sister’s ideas but if he meets a girl he really likes who is a socialist he needs to think a bit harder before he dismisses her. I also thought that by making her Jewish the conflict would become more poignant, as his brother blames the Jews for the lost war. In that sense their relationship is already overshadowed by what we know came a few years later when the Nazis took power in Germany.
Q: As an elementary school librarian and former teacher in New Delhi, how many of the students did you see daily reading your books (which may be for a slightly older readership)?
A: When I was a librarian in New Delhi we had copies of The Dog In The Wood and Saraswati’s Way in the elementary library. The fifth grade also bought a set of Saraswati’s Way for their unit on poverty and street children. It was very rewarding to see kids read books in my library that I had written .
Q: You deserve extra applause for making boys your main characters in each book. Every one is real and so appealing. How is it to write as a male character, as opposed to a female?
A: I wonder myself why I tend to write from a boy’s perspective. Maybe because I prefer to focus on fast-paced stories. But I plan to write a book from a girl-perspective one day.
Q: You’ve encountered student readers in many countries. How are American students different in reading tastes from students in other countries?
A: In the international schools I worked in I didn’t see differences in reading taste between the nationalities. Everyone loves Harry Potter. Everyone loves the Wimpy Kid. Some years fifth graders were addicted to Redwall. Other years fourth graders couldn’t get enough of Barbara O’Connor’s books. But there was no distinction between the students’ countries of origin. Kids just like good stories.
Q: How do you balance history versus fiction when you write historical fiction? In other words, does the “plot” of outside history ever threaten to overshadow the “plot” of your characters?
A: That is the biggest challenge for historical fiction writers. In early drafts there is always too much exposition. That stems often from the writer’s love for the material. But then that tends to become the setting as the character steps to the foreground. It remains important to get the dates right and to sequence the character’s story according to the historical timeline, and, if you’re interested is provoking political questions in the mind of the reader, there has to be essential reactions to events by the characters.
Q: Besides the fact that war is hell, what message do you want readers to take away from your WWI and WWII books?
A: That’s already an important message, isn’t it?
But aside from that I hope readers take away from the experience of reading my books that civilians always suffer terribly in war time. And maybe, as I am writing from the perspective of a citizen of a country who started and lost the two major wars of the Twentieth Century, my books also show how it was for normal German people during those wars.
Q: I’ve encountered many students who embrace the hope of Saraswati’s Way, along with the role model of a math prodigy. As you conceived the story, how did numbers grow to be part of Akash’s future? What are your own feelings toward math?
A: I knew right from the beginning that he would be a math wiz. I wanted him to have an important goal, connected to his gift. And as a former math nerd myself I tried to portray what the numbers might do in his head. And since my character was Indian I wanted to add Vedic math, after researching it.
Q: Speaking of historical fiction, do you have any plans to write more about the tale of Frank the Street Dog—adopted during your time in India?
A: I have been encouraged by a lot of people to write Frank’s story, or a story about an Indian street dog. I currently have only a general idea of how I could design the story arc, so it might happen one day. But first I have to finish the novel I have been working on for the last two years.
Q: Lastly, what will your fourth novel be about?
A: My current work in progress is set in 1832. The novel is about 15-year old Caleb, who is falsely accused of theft and in his pursuit of the real thief sails from Boston to India on a ship that transports ice to Calcutta. It is a historical fiction, mystery and adventure story rolled in one and, I think, the book will be a bit funnier, or at least lighter, than my first three books. Its working title is The Seal of the Kashêê.
Tom Owens writes the weekly “What’s Right With Children’s Literature” column for the CLN website.