In the lovely new middle-grade novel “Paper Chains” by local author Elaine Vickers, Katie and Ana are best friends, in spite of their differences. Although she yearns for adventure, Katie is inherently cautious and reserved. Ana, on the other hand, leaps first and looks later.
What do these unlikely friends have in common? Secrets, for one thing. Secrets that they are keeping from one another because they are too afraid to share. Katie, whose loving parents adopted her as a toddler from Russia, suffers from a heart condition she’s reluctant to talk about. Ana, meanwhile, is working overtime to stop her family from imploding.
How these young girls learn to help one another drives the novel’s action and gives “Paper Chains” its considerable heart. Vickers talks about her novel with The Salt Lake Tribune.
TRUE OR FALSE: “Names, characters, businesses, places, events and incidents are either the products of the author’s imagination or used in a fictitious manner. Any resemblance to actual persons living or dead, or actual events is purely coincidental.”
Ha! True and false.
So which pieces of this story were inspired by your own experiences?
The very first seed of this story came from a book my grandmother read to me when I was younger: “The Snow Child” by Freya Littledale. I wanted to write a story exploring the idea that the stories we love — and the people that share them with us — shape who we are. Meanwhile, in a case of life imitating art, our family made “thankful chains” last year at Thanksgiving — just like one of the families in the book.
What kind of research did you do for the novel? Were you already knowledgeable about hockey, for instance?
One of the major changes in my life occurred when I married a person who cares about hockey. It means a lot to my husband, so I watched and cheered along with him. As a result, the language and culture of hockey have been part of my life for 17 years now.
As far as Jewish and Russian traditions, as well as Russian adoptions, go, I knew only a little. I did a lot of reading and research and was fortunate to have wonderful expert readers in all these areas who gave me guidance throughout the process. I couldn’t have written the story without them.
I’ve heard authors say a book sometimes changes directions on them once they begin actually writing it. Has this ever happened to you?
The biggest change in direction for this book relates to the Russian heritage of the characters. When I first wrote “Paper Chains,” Russia wasn’t in the news. It was just a country I felt drawn to. We’d reached the copy edit stage (my last chance to change anything before publication) shortly after the election — right as things really began heating up. I sent a panicked email to my editor because I couldn’t stop thinking of how Katie, my main character, would feel in the midst of all the headlines.
There are thousands of kids in our country who were adopted from Russia, and it broke my heart to think they might feel like there’s something wrong with them or their heritage. At the time we weren’t sure how things were going to shape up and whether the Russia story would have escalated or disappeared by the book’s release date, so we added a line in an early chapter. As they watch the news together, Katie’s mother says, “Governments can fight all they like, but there are good people everywhere. You remember that.”
That now feels like one of the most important lines in the book to me. I want to tell Katie and all the real kids like her that the Russian government is what it is, but every time they hear it inferred or stated directly that Russia is bad, it’s just not true. Russia has a rich cultural heritage with kind, good people just like we have here in America. We can’t define Russians by the actions of their government any more than we want to be defined by ours.
Why do you write for children?
Those are the stories that seem to come naturally for me. One of my favorite things about children’s books is that they’re so often about finding a sense of belonging, which I think we’re all searching for. But I also love how often they’re infused with a sense of wonder at the world around us. It’s something kids feel so acutely and something I really love, maybe because the scientist in me feels it, too.
Speaking of which, how do you strive to create balance in your life as a parent, a college chemistry teacher and a writer? Is balance even possible?
I think it’s possible, but if you’ll allow me to throw a science word in here, the fulcrum is always shifting. The balance that works on one day or in one season will almost certainly not work the next. It’s always a process of adjustment, putting your attention and efforts where they are needed most. I find that the longer I’m at this balancing act, the less I compartmentalize. Being a teacher, a writer and a mother are all such essential parts of who I am at the point that I have my chemistry students reading novels to realize just how inextricably connected chemistry is to all of life. My own kids are old enough that they read my books and give me feedback. It’s all becoming more and more connected, which I think makes finding balance a little easier.
What advice would you give to someone who tells you she or he would like to write a book for young readers?
It’s a great time of year to ask that question! November is National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo), and that’s a great collective energy that you can tap into if you sign up (nanowrimo.org). The best advice I have is to learn all you can (from conferences, blogs, books on writing), read all you can (both for depth in the genre you want to write and for breadth to understand the world better) and write all you can. If it gets hard, you’re allowed to quit — but if you really love it, you’ll always find your way back.
By Elaine Vickers, illustrated by Sara Not