Today I’m excited to interview Ann Haywood Leal, author of Also Known As Harper and the newly released A Finders-Keepers Place. She also happens to be one of my 5th grade daughter’s favorite authors!
Harper is an aspiring poet, which isn’t surprising, seeing as how she’s named after her mama’s favorite writer, Harper Lee. And life is giving her a lot to write about just now. Daddy up and walked out, leaving them with too many bills and too little money. Then Harper’s family gets evicted and has to move into the Knotty Pine Deluxe Motor Hotel, which is not nearly as nice as it sounds.
With Mama scrambling to make ends meet, Harper has to stay home from school to take care of her little brother, Hemingway. Their whole world has been turned upside down, which Harper could just about handle—if it wasn’t for the poetry contest at school. More than anything, she wants to get up on that stage and read her poems out loud . . .
Welcome, Ann! Harper is named after her mother’s favorite author. What would you be named if your mother did the same thing?
I am very grateful that my mom didn’t name me “Roald”! But I do share her love of Roald Dahl. She read all of his books to my brother and me! She always had time to read to us and I think she enjoyed it as much as we did. Coincidentally, I do have the same name as her favorite non-fiction writer. My mom loved true crime. She once went to an Ann Rule booksigning and gave her her own theory of the Green River Killer! I smile every time I think of it!
Harper is an aspiring poet. Do you write poetry? Who is your favorite poet?
I love poetry, but I don’t write a lot of it. My favorite poets are Billy Collins and Mary Jo Scott. I also really like a lot of Irish poets.
Will you describe a time in your life when you had to persevere like Harper does?
I was a single mother for a while. I definitely think it made me a stronger person. What set me apart from Harper’s mother is that she didn’t have anyone to help her. I was lucky; my parents were wonderful. They helped with my daughter when I was taking classes at night and they even paid for my daycare for a year. Harper’s mom didn’t have anyone to do that for her.
Will you tell us a about your new book, A Finders-Keepers Place?
Esther and Ruth are trying to keep things together at home. Their mother, Valley, is dealing with a mental illness, and Esther and Ruth have learned to work around it. But lately, things have been getting worse and people are starting to ask questions. Esther decides that the only person who can help them is their father, Ezekiel, a man they haven’t seen in years. All she knows about him is that he is a preacher. So she sets out to search the churches in the area, looking for someone who knows anything about him.
Why do you think it’s important to tackle tough issues like poverty and mental illness in middle grade fiction?
Poverty affects so many children these days. I think it’s important to see that there are other kids out there who are going through some of the same things, and to see how they are coping. On the other side of it, it is important for children who have a great deal, to understand that not everyone has what they have. I met with a book group of fifth graders from an upscale community. They were trying to picture what Harper’s bathroom might have been like in the motel. One of them made a comment, “You mean it was kind of messy, like the locker room at the country club?” It ended up starting a really good conversation.
Mental illness is a tough subject, but there are a tremendous amount of people out there who are dealing with it right in their own family. As a child, they might not have a name for it; they might know that something isn’t quite right, but they still are forced to deal with it. Mental illness is also not something that people are comfortable talking about. It has such a stigma attached to it. Not talking about something that is scary and confusing can be so sad and isolating for a child.
A Finders-Keepers Place is set in the 1970s. Why do you think it’s important for middle-graders to read historical fiction?
Ha! I know it’s true, but it always makes me laugh, because I can remember the 70s like it was last week! Yes, I do think it’s important for middle-graders to read historical fiction, because it helps them to understand the world around them. Middle-graders are just starting to figure things out and develop opinions that they might very well have through adulthood. The more we know about our parents’ and our grandparents’ worlds, the more tolerant and understanding we can be about the views and opinions of others. Also, historical fiction can highlight important times in the world. Since it’s got the fiction twist, the author has the ability to put the reader right back in that time.
Esther’s mother does some pretty strange things. What’s the whackiest thing you’ve ever done as a mother?
I can be a little unconventional, myself! My youngest daughter was quite shy and I wanted her to speak up for herself. So I enrolled her in a karate school. Not so unconventional, until I did it with her! Most of us go back and forth with our kids from time to time, but it got a little crazy sometimes when we actually had to spar with each other. When we got our first and second degree black belts, we each had to spar against two people at the same time. Watching her do that was really hard, and it made me wonder if I had taken things a little too far. She did fine, however, and it was me who got kicked in the head and literally saw stars! But the mom part of me took over and I knew I had to get up and finish, because my daughter was watching.
What kind of responses to your books have you received from readers?
I wrote Also Known As Harper before the economy took such a plunge, but the finished copy actually came out right as people were starting to lose jobs, etc.. Sadly, some of my letters were from children who said their life was like Harper’s. Those were very hard to read. Right before it came out, I got an email from a bookseller in Louisiana. She had read a bound galley of the book. She told me I needed to go get a copy of the New York Times for that day. When I saw the cover, I couldn’t believe it. It was as if a real-life family was living out Harper’s story. The picture showed a girl and her little brother in a motel room with all of their belongings stacked around them. The article said there were two more children also living in that tiny room with them, along with a mother and a father who had both recently lost their jobs.
A Finders-Keepers Place just came out a little over a month ago, so a lot of the response so far has been from people that I know. I teach first grade at a K-5 elementary school. One of the fifth grade teachers is reading the book to his class. Over the last couple of weeks, I have been finding notes on my desk in fifth-grade handwriting, written with pencil on Kleenex, asking me different questions about what is going to happen in the story!
So I have to ask: what were you like when you were in 5th grade?
I read constantly, and in the fifth grade, I was heavily into Nancy Drew and Judy Blume books. I can still remember the exact smell of the Auburn Public Library in Auburn, Washington. I can also still picture vividly in my mind the shelves where my favorite books were located! I had a best friend, Leslie, who lived across the street from me. We used to create these elaborate Barbie houses out of old boxes and parts of her living room furniture. We also wrote together. She had a tree house in the back yard and we used to drag all of our writing materials up an old rope ladder!
To learn more about Ann, see her website www.annhaywoodleal.com
Please leave a comment to be entered to win copies of Ann Haywood Leal’s books, Also Known As Harper and A Finders-Keepers Place.
The winner will be announced on December 7, 2010.
Sydney Salter is the author of Jungle Crossing, coming out in paperback, April 2011.