Today we welcome Helen Phillips to the Mixed-Up Files! Her novel, HERE WHERE THE SUNBEAMS ARE GREEN, just released on November 13th. Her official bio: Helen Phillips grew up in the foothills west of Denver with her three siblings. When she was eleven, she lost her hair due to the autoimmune condition alopecia, which was pretty hard at the time, but now she thinks there are some major advantages to not having hair (no shampoo in the eyes, for one). Soon after she lost her hair, she (like Mad) made a New Year’s resolution to write a poem a day, a practice she continued for more than eight years. Helen attended Yale University and went on to earn a master of fine arts in fiction from Brooklyn College. She lives in Brooklyn with her husband, artist Adam Douglas Thompson, and their child.
About HERE WHERE THE SUNBEAMS ARE GREEN: Mad’s dad is the Bird Guy. He’ll go anywhere to study birds. So when he’s offered a bird-tracking job in Central America, his bags are packed and he’s jungle bound. But going bird tracking in the jungle and disappearing completely are very different things, and when the Very Strange and Incredibly Creepy Letter arrives, Mad can’t shake the terrible feeling that her father is in trouble. Roo, Mad’s younger sister, is convinced that the letter is a coded message. And their mom is worried, because the letter doesn’t sound like Dad at all. But Mad is sure it’s a sign of something sinister. The only way to get to the bottom of it is to go to Lava Bird Volcano and find their dad themselves. Though they never could have imagined what they’re about to discover. (from IndieBound)
I loved that Madeline and Ruby are a sister team. Ruby, the younger sister, often comes across as the fearless leader. How does Madeline gain the courage to ultimately save her family from the evil corporation La Lava Resort and Spa?
Mad’s journey from scaredy cat to heroine is in a sense the central journey of the book. When push comes to shove, Mad has plenty of inner resources—it’s just that push has never come to shove until now. A lot of the struggle has to do with how she perceives herself; she has to overcome considerable self-doubt. All along she gives herself less credit than she deserves. She’s intelligent and creative and big-hearted. But in comparison to Roo, she feels weak and wimpy and un-magical. At the same time, Roo’s courageousness is what inspires Mad in the climactic scene.
Speaking of La Lava Resort and Spa, it purports to be an eco-friendly resort while it’s actually hunting the Lava-Throated Volcano trogon [a type of bird] to extinction for use in a stay-young cosmetic. What inspired this type of villain?
I thought it would be interesting for a place that seems like paradise to have a very dark underbelly. It was a fun writing challenge to depict the sinister qualities of such a gorgeous, “perfect” location. Moreover, as someone who attempts to tread lightly on the earth and buy green products, I’m fascinated/horrified by the trend of “green-washing,” in which companies falsely claim to be environmentally friendly and market their products as being greener than they actually are, taking advantage of well-intentioned consumers like myself.
Madeline and Ruby’s father, the Bird Guy, is thrilled to discover the Lava-Throated Volcano trogon is a Lazarus species. This was the first time I’d heard of a Lazarus species, where a species thought to be extinct is rediscovered. Is this based on a true story? How frequently are Lazarus species discovered?
I write about this in my Author’s Note: in the early 2000s, my dad showed me a newspaper article about a recent sighting of the Ivory-Billed Woodpecker, otherwise known as the “Lord God Bird” for its spectacular appearance. Declared extinct by the International Union for Conservation of Nature in the 1990s, it had supposedly been sighted in its former territory, causing a flurry of excitement in the ornithological community and inspiring a great search effort. Unfortunately, none of the searches for the Lord God Bird has proven that it still exists. Even so, this tale stuck with me, a tiny bright spot amid the disturbing news about the ever-decreasing biodiversity of our planet. It seemed as magical to me as the sighting of a unicorn or dragon. For years I knew I wanted to write a book about the thrilling possibility that a species believed extinct might have managed to survive. There are some wonderful examples of these so-called “Lazarus species” (Lazarus, in the Bible, was raised from the dead). The Bermuda Petrel, a bird believed extinct for 330 years, was found alive on small, remote islands. The Lord Howe Island stick insect, believed extinct since 1930, was rediscovered beneath a shrub on the world’s most isolated sea stack. The Monito del Monte, a marsupial believed extinct for eleven million years, was revealed in a thicket of Chilean bamboo. These are just a few from the intriguing list of thirteen Lazarus species on the Mother Nature Network site. Wikipedia also maintains a list of Lazarus species.
One thing that stands out in your story right away is how strong the rainforest is as a setting. How much research did you do to make it come alive?
Though I (sadly!) didn’t get the chance to travel to Central America for research purposes while I was writing the book, I lived in Costa Rica for two summers in high school and college, studying Spanish and doing volunteer work. As someone raised in the arid foothills of Colorado, those first encounters with the rain forest made a huge impression on me, and I drew on that stockpile of rich, quasi-magical images in writing Here Where the Sunbeams Are Green. My creation of the jungle setting got a boost when my brother and sister-in-law spent their honeymoon in Costa Rica while I was revising the book; they sent me about 200 pictures of birds, flowers, foliage, bugs, monkeys, etc. Aside from that, the Internet was helpful in terms of jogging my memory and enhancing the details.
In the rainforest, you describe an umbrella flower that blooms just in time to be a shelter for the rain. Does that exist? And can flowers really grow out of your toes, like they do for Ruby?
I wish! As far as I know, there are no umbrella flowers or toe flowers. But they’re both just believable enough …
What’s next for you?
I’m working on a collection of short stories for adults, and I have the idea for my next book for young readers, which will be set in a post-apocalyptic world.
What’s your favorite middle-grade book?
I have to confess that I adored From the Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler; now that I live in New York City and actually get to visit the Met, I think of that book every time I step through those doors. Other favorites include Madeleine L’Engle’s A Wrinkle in Time and Laura Ingalls Wilder’s Little House on the Prairie books. And everything by Cynthia Voigt. And Lloyd Alexander. And C.S. Lewis. And J.R.R. Tolkein. And … well, you get the idea …
Karen B. Schwartz writes humorous middle-grade novels (and tween and YA) and raises humorous middle-grade kids (one is a tween that thinks he’s YA).