Lauren Wolk has certainly made a name for herself in children’s literature. In 2016 her debut middle grade novel Wolf Hollow was awarded a Newbery Honor and named Best Book of the Year by The Wall Street Journal, NPR, Entertainment Weekly, and many others. Her new book, Beyond the Bright Sea, tells the story of a 12-year-old orphan named Crow. Abandoned as an infant and pushed out to sea in a rowboat, Crow has spent her entire life on a small island off the coast of Massachusetts with only her rescuer, Osh, and teacher, Miss Maggie, for company. The local islanders shy away from her and Crow doesn’t know why. When a mysterious fire breaks out on a nearby island, Crow sets out on a dangerous journey to discover the heart-wrenching truth about her past.
We were thrilled to chat with Lauren Wolk about her middle grade novels, why the ocean begged to be the setting for her new book, when she knew she was a writer, and what family means to her.
When did you know you wanted to be a writer?
I hope I won’t sound too arrogant when I answer a slightly different question: “When did you know you were a writer?” The answer to that question is the same as if you’d asked me, “When did you know you could think?” Being a writer is bred in the bone, though being a good writer involves lots of hard work. Being a writer — or any kind of artist — means being creative and inventive but also naturally observant, nosy, perceptive, and devoted to the medium most able to convey the ideas and observations that arise. I knew I was a writer when, as a very young girl, I got really excited by something I saw or overheard and couldn’t wait to write about it. I knew I was a writer when I found myself using words — first verbally and then, when I could, in writing — to alleviate anger, capture a sensory experience, describe things in fresh ways, transform the imaginary into the real. Paper and pen have always been skin and blood to me. They hold me together, allow me to function, and give me a way to live a meaningful and satisfying life.
You mention in an interview with The Children’s Book Review that Wolf Hollow was inspired by your mother’s childhood. What was the inspiration behind your new book, Beyond the Bright Sea?
At one point in the book, my protagonist, Crow, describes how another character, Osh, is determined to put his past behind him. “When I asked questions about pearls or tides he did his best to answer them. But when I looked beyond our life on the islands, he became the moon itself, bent on tugging me back, as if I were made of sea instead of blood.” That’s how I felt as I got ready to begin Beyond the Bright Sea: as if my veins flowed with seawater. The ocean has always been one of my strongest inspirations, always had a mighty pull on me, and finally insisted that I set a book on its shores. But I was also inspired by Crow herself: a strong, smart, interesting, mysterious character who appeared in my imagination one day and refused to go away. I’m so very glad that she didn’t.
Both of your novels for middle graders are historical fiction and the vibrant settings really shine through in the narrative. What is it about exploring these places and points in time that you are drawn to? If you could travel to any point in time in any part of the world, where would that be and why?
I have always been in love with days gone by. As a child, I devoured books like The Secret Garden, which took me back and back to another time and place. Even when I was very young, I loved antiques (which is a little weird). They were like time machines that transported me, just as books did. I love the natural world, items made by hand, simplicity, and all things unspoiled. Creating or recreating such things in my books gives me enormous pleasure and just feels … right. I am at home in my own books. Ironically, if I could travel to any point in time, in any part of the world, I would go to any place, any place after we’ve figured out how to live without bloodshed.
The definition of “family” plays a huge role in Beyond the Bright Sea. Can you talk a bit about how that developed as a theme for the book?
My own family consists of those I’m bound to by blood but also my extended family, my friends, and those who value the things I value. There are many kinds of love and many kinds of families, and I simply don’t understand why anyone would doubt or demean how we choose to define “kin.” As far as I’m concerned, the more we have in common and the more we care for one another, the better off we’ll all be.
Crow and the two people she considers family don’t have much, but they have each other, and that’s plenty. And while Crow feels compelled to search for her “real” family, she becomes increasingly aware of how lucky she is to love and be loved by those who raised her. Blood is important, but it’s not everything.
Do you see parts of yourself in your protagonists Annabelle and Crow?
Absolutely, though I wish I were more like them. As brave as they are. As confident. I love them as if they were my own children which, in a very real sense, they are. They are my family, so yes, I see myself in them even though we’re also different in many ways. I guess they represent the best parts of me combined with the hope that I’ll find ways to improve myself, be a better person, be of use. Be of help. Contribute. And make people happy. That’s what I most want. To make people happy. I think I share that desire with Crow and Annabelle.
Your middle grade novels have garnered fans across generations. What are some of your favorite books for families to read together?
There were many books that I think my parents enjoyed reading to me as much as I enjoyed listening to them. Some were picture books like Goodnight Moon and Millions of Cats. But chapter books were also a shared treat. Books like Little House in the Big Woods. Or My Father’s Dragon. We all cherished those books and the simply wonderful experience of reading together at bedtime. Just as I loved reading to my sons from the time they were newborns. That’s a tradition that has been in my family for generations and I hope always will be.
Lauren Wolk is an award-winning poet, artist, and author of Beyond the Bright Sea, Wolf Hollow, and the adult novel Those Who Favor Fire. She was born in Baltimore and has since lived in California, Rhode Island, Minnesota, Canada, and Ohio. She now lives with her family on Cape Cod.