Book Birthdays are the perfect way to celebrate spring. And today is Deborah Kerbel’s special book birthday, as we celebrate her sixth (SIXTH!) novel, Feathered.
When Deborah told me about her new novel, I was intrigued. First , it is historical fiction, set in 1980. (And, yes, it is weird to think that something during my lifetime is historical fiction, but there it is.) Second, her main character Finch, is obsessed with Little House on the Prairie. I’m thrilled that she agreed to come on the blog to chat about writing this novel, all things 1980s, and her character’s obsession with the TV show. So, Happy Book Birthday, Deborah!
About Deborah: Deborah Kerbel was born in London, England, but moved to Canada before she was old enough to cultivate a posh accent or a love of marmalade. She grew up in Toronto, Ontario, with her parents, sister, brother and a beagle named Snoopy. A finalist for the 2012 Governor General’s Literary Award, Deborah is the author of six novels for young adult and middle grade readers. She lives in Thornhill, Ontario, with her husband, two children, and a schnoodle named Alfredo.
About the book: For eleven-year-old Finch, there couldn’t be a better time to fly away from her life. But when a girl named Pinky moves in next door, a girl from India who also doesn’t seem to fit in, Finch feels a flicker of hope that her life might just be turning around. And when something terrible happens and it seems Finch may be the only one who can help her new friend, she comes to understand that flying is not the answer. Sometimes right where you are is the best place to be.
Auld Lang Syne-O-Rama
“In my best dreams, I am Laura. I call my parents Ma and Pa, wear a sunbonnet wherever I go, skip happily through flower-filled fields, and put Nellie Oleson in her place whenever she’s nasty.” –Feathered
I didn’t actually set out to write a novel about a lonely Gen X pre-teen with the weight of the world on her shoulders and a Little House on the Prairie obsession. It kind of just happened.
It was spring of 2013 when I sat down with a fresh bag of licorice, opened a blank page on my computer and started writing a new story. Inspired by a news item I’d recently read, I imagined a scene about an eleven year-old girl named Finch who, after pulling a feather out of her neck several years before, believes she’s destined to fly.
The manuscript would eventually turn out to be my sixth novel for young readers. But the writing process for this one was different than any of my previous books. Writing Feathered was one of those mythical unicorn-esque experiences every writer dreams about. You know, the one where sparkly characters come to life on the page and basically write their own story while you sit back and watch in silent awe? Yeah. That. Finch’s voice in my head was so strong and clear, it was almost like I was channeling a spirit from a Victorian séance. All I had to do was listen. And type like a maniac to keep up.
By the end of that first scene, I knew from the tone of Finch’s voice and her expressions that she was speaking to me from the past. But when? On a whim, I picked a random date — August, 1980. And with that decision, Finch’s fictional world instantly rose up around her. Fortunately for me, it was a world I knew pretty well. Born in the early 70’s, I was nine years old in 1980 and right on the cusp of those oh-so formative middle-school years. Faster than you can say Joanie Loves Chachi, a bazillion childhood memories were suddenly beating down the door to my manuscript, begging to be let in. It didn’t take long before the 1980’s reunion party was in full swing. The story is sprinkled with references to Frisbees, Kool-Aid, and Love’s Baby Soft perfume. Finch’s mom drives a Dodge Dart. Her older brother has a Sony Walkman, a Star Wars sheet set, and a Rubik’s Cube. Terry Fox is also a pivotal figure in the story. But by far, the most persistent 80’s memory was Little House on the Prairie. The TV show, not the books. (I hadn’t yet read the books in 1980. But really, what daughter of the 70’s and 80’s wasn’t addicted to the show? It was retro before retro was even a thing.)
As any Little House fan will tell you, there was something irresistibly alluring about the simple, hard-working Ingalls family and their lopsided log cabin surrounded by rolling hills (which looking back, had no business passing for a prairie). Something so romantic about those pioneer stories set in the mysterious days of Auld Lang Syne. I remember running home to watch reruns every day after school, sneaking my big sister’s copy of Laura (the Donald Zochert biography with the whoa-there-farmer-boy! steamy looks between Laura and Almanzo on the back cover that made me certain I was reading something forbidden), and stuffing apples down the front of my Snoopy t-shirt, curious to see if it would turn out better for me than it did for Laura.
No matter. There were other Little House dreams to be realized. I begged my mother to bake homemade bread. I wanted to do my homework on a slate. I dreamed of climbing a ladder into my tiny, cramped loft bedroom. And having a baby sister named Grace. And milking a cow. And falling asleep to the sound of a fiddle.
When I had a daughter of my own, one of the first things on my agenda was to haul her up on the covered bandwagon. (She’s ten years old now and we’ve read the Little House series together several times. When she craved more, we moved on to the Rose Years series. Her childhood – like mine and Finch’s – has been happily haunted by the spirit of Laura Ingalls, although her Little House fantasies were all her own: walking barefoot in a field of grass, churning butter, and sewing a quilt. Check, check, and …. sorry honey, this ma doesn’t sew.)
So is it any wonder that Feathered’s fictional 1980’s world would reference Little House on the Prairie once…twice…okay fine, twenty-six times? Stubborn as a little French, er…mule, Laura kept popping up in Finch’s story until it finally dawned on me – the character living in my head had a character of her own living in hers. Finch, Laura, and I were like a trio of Russian dolls, each one nesting snugly into the other. So it was probably inevitable that Ma became the standard against which Finch held her depressed, grieving mom up to. And that the Ingalls’ simple, pioneer lifestyle became the dreamscape alternate reality to Finch’s plethora of middle-school problems. And those mean girls in Finch’s class? You guessed it. All of them Jordache-Jeans wearing disciples of snippy Nellie Oleson.
With Finch chattering in my ear, and Laura chattering in hers, I had the first draft of Feathered written in three weeks. Like I said before, totally unicorn-esque! Inevitably, however, the revision process took about as long as an elephant gestation. As revisions are wont to do.
Fast forward three years on your VCR, kids. This spring, Feathered was finally published.
And – hold on to your Morgans – it’s being categorized as ‘historical fiction’. The same genre as Little House on the Prairie. Which means the 1980’s are officially the new days of Auld Lang Syne.
What’chu talkin about, Willis?
For those of us who can still belt out the lyrics to the Love Boat theme song, it’s hard to wrap our heads around the fact that those days are now just a page right out of history. But perhaps now a new generation of readers will read Feathered and feel the irresistible allure of a simpler time, before iPhones, Snapchat, and Kardashians took over the earth. It would be nice. But somehow, clogs, tube tops, and feathered hair don’t seem quite as mysterious and romantic as calico dresses, sunbonnets, and flying braids. At least not to me.
My daughter and I finished the last book in the Rose Years series this week. With a family trip to Prince Edward Island planned for this coming summer, we’ve decided to move on to Anne of Green Gables for our next read. Luckily for me, I still have my big sister’s copy from the ‘80s. Borrowed with permission this time.