Mystery and adventure blend with kid-friendly political suspense in The Great Hibernation by Tara Dairman, a Bas Bleu Young Readers Book A Month 2018 pick. This wonderful novel is set in St. Polonius-on-the-Fjord, a tiny coastal town with some bizarre traditions—like the eating of the sacred bear liver on every Founder’s Day, a practice that, due to a town ordinance, is mandatory for every citizen twelve and older. But when a mysterious slumber falls upon the town, it’s up to twelve-year-old Jean and the rest of St. Polonius-on-the-Fjord’s kids to keep the town running until they can solve the riddle of their parents’ slumber. In our exclusive interview with author Tara Dairman, she talks about why she chose to write for middle-grade readers, how traveling informs her writing, and how learning to cook from a book changed her life.
Tara Dairman: I grew up in suburban New York, and I knew I wanted to be a writer from about age 10. I made my first attempt at writing a novel the summer after fourth grade…but I didn’t actually finish my first novel (a different story, thank goodness!) until I was 30. In the interim I studied creative writing in college, and worked as a magazine editor in New York City and wrote and produced plays in festivals on the side.
When not writing, I’m probably planning my next international adventure (so far I’ve been to 94 countries—including Iceland, which inspired the setting for The Great Hibernation), cooking, practicing yoga, or spending time with my family.
BB: What draws you to writing stories for kids? What about writing for children comes easily, and what challenges you?
TD: I fell in love with reading as a middle-grader, and the books I read over and over again then have stayed with me even decades later. It’s a privilege now to write for readers in that age group, because I know there’s a chance one of my books will be the one that really turns a kid into a reader for life.
When writing 11- and 12-year-old characters, I find it easy to reach back in time and remember my own emotions and struggles and triumphs at those ages. For better or worse, that time in my life is strongly imprinted on my brain. Sometimes I have struggled more with writing believable adult characters, though I think that becoming a parent has helped me with that.
BB: The premise for The Great Hibernation is silly and fun—and it has plenty of humor in it—but there’s a serious side to it as well, with timely situations and messages that touch on issues like bullying, immigration, and political propaganda. What real-life lessons do you hope kids learn while reading this book?
TD: I try not to write books with a lesson in mind for the readers—I focus instead on writing a good story and let the themes arise as they will. That said, The Great Hibernation is certainly my most topical book. I hope that it will lead readers to question where traditions come from and whether they always deserve to be upheld…and also to recognize how something that looks fair or impartial at first glance (a poster, a test, a jury of your peers) may not always be so upon further examination.
BB: The Great Hibernation is your fourth book—what can its fans expect from your previous All Four Stars trilogy?
TD: The All Four Stars series chronicles the foodie adventures of 11-year-old Gladys Gatsby, who secretly becomes a restaurant critic for New York’s biggest newspaper. No one at the paper knows that she’s only a kid, and her fast-food-loving parents don’t know about her secret job at all! It’s got a lot of the same humor and madcap adventure as The Great Hibernation, plus even more food and recipes.
BB: You’ve traveled a lot. How did you get so lucky?? How has traveling impacted your writing? Any particular location (real or imaginary) that you’d love to set a future story in?
TD: I have traveled to many places! I started by studying abroad in France in college, and then in Ireland after college, but the bulk of my foreign adventures came when my husband and I quit our jobs, sold all of our things, and backpacked around the world for two years, visiting 74 countries. We had both been working full time for about seven years before leaving, and had saved up enough money to go. We lived very frugally on the road (and ate a lot of delicious street food).
Traveling has impacted my writing in so many ways. Cuisines I was exposed to in my travels made their way into the All Four Stars series. My time in Iceland gave me the setting for The Great Hibernation, and my experiences in some other countries inspired the bully-led government and propaganda details that made it into that book. My most recent trip was to the Azores (the Portuguese islands in the mid-Atlantic), and, no surprise, I’m currently working on a book with a setting that’s based on those isolated, garden-rich islands.
BB: You’ve been writing since you were a kid. What advice can you give to budding young writers out there?
TD: Read a lot, in all genres. Write a lot, too, but don’t worry too much if what you’re producing isn’t up to your standards yet. With practice, it will get there. And don’t worry if you’re not a write-every-day person or a journal-keeper! Not every writer is.
BB: Which book(s) from your childhood helped to shape the person you are today?
TD: As a kid, I was really drawn to books where smart kids triumphed over incompetent (or just plain evil) adults. Matilda was my favorite for many years—and I loved the humor in it, too. I really should also mention the book How To Cook Everything by Mark Bittman, which I read as a young adult. I went into that book not even knowing how to boil a pot of water, and came out able to cook…well, anything! I can’t overstate how much learning to cook changed my life for the better. It has put me in touch with my body, the seasons, my creativity, and my family and friends like nothing else.
BB: Aside from your own titles, which books are you quick to recommend to other readers? Who are your favorite authors?
TD: There are so very, very many. My favorite authors of all time are probably Jane Austen and J.K. Rowling, but I am constantly reading and discovering new books that blow me away. Lately I’ve been recommending Akata Witch and its even better sequel Akata Warrior by Nnedi Okorafor, which some have dubbed the “Nigerian Harry Potter.” I spent some time in Nigeria during my travels and it’s been joyful for me to return to that setting—and to discover the incredible magical world that Okorafor has created within it.
A few other recent reads that I could hardly put down were The World’s Greatest Detective by Caroline Carlson (mystery), The Last Grand Adventure by Rebecca Behrens (historical), and Love, Ish by Karen Rivers (contemporary/magical realism). Ish’s story still haunts me, and the voice in that book is probably the best I’ve ever read in middle grade. I hope that more readers will pick it up.
BB: What future projects can our readers look forward to seeing from you?
TD: My first picture book will be on the shelves in 2020, and I’m working on another novel that I hope will come out around that time as well.
BB: Thank you, Tara Dairman, for taking time out of your busy writing (and traveling!) schedule to chat with us today.
[Author photo by Tiffany Crowder @ Crowded Studios]
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