Two of my favorite kids' books this month (both on our Best Children's Books of September list) are Jennifer Holm's The Fourteenth Goldfish and Esther Ehrlich's Nest. They are very different stories, but have strong family relationships and spunky main characters in common--I think the same reader would really enjoy both.
The Fourteenth Goldfish (our spotlight pick) is clever, funny, and thought-provoking. I loved eleven-year-old Ellie's grumpy inventor grandfather who teaches her about the power of science and belief and being no less than one hundred percent yourself. I laughed A LOT reading this book and recommended it to three people just last night. Not even kidding.
Set in 1972, Nest is a powerful story about eleven-year-old Naomi, called "Chirp," and the tremendous change her family undergoes as the result of physical and mental illness. Over the course of the book they bring out the best and worst in each other, anger and love competing for space. Chirp finds solace in the birds near home and in an unlikely friendship with the neighbor boy who has family problems of his own. This is a book that made me hug it to my chest and heave a big sigh when it was over. Fans of Jenni Holm's books like Turtle in Paradise would like this one.
These two authors recently got together and shared their conversation:
Jenni Holm: Your book is just gorgeous. Was there a specific moment in your life that inspired it?
Esther Ehrlich: Thanks, Jenni! No, there’s not a specific moment that inspired Nest but, I think, a lifetime of moments. The spark for the book was an image that came to me of two sisters dancing in the road together in a summer rainstorm while their mom, a dancer who wasn’t feeling well, watched them from the porch. That image captured my imagination and wouldn’t let go, and the rest of the book unfolded from there.
Jenni Holm: I have all brothers, so I really enjoyed how you delve into relationships between sisters. Can you talk a little about that?
Esther Ehrlich: I grew up in a family with four children born within five years of each other, three girls and one boy. I guess I couldn’t imagine writing a story without siblings, but I could imagine a few less of them! Chirp having one sister just felt right.
There’s something so powerful and unique about sister relationships; they’re amazingly intimate, but you don’t choose them. Sisters can be dramatically different from each other, yet there’s a deep bond that links them together. Chirp and Rachel have such different personalities, but in ways that really matter, they’re similar—they’re both loyal, smart, observant girls with a huge capacity to love.
Jenni Holm: You developed a wonderful sense of place and time. How did you go about doing your research?
Esther Ehrlich: Oh, the research! I spent a fair amount of time making sure that this bird would be doing that thing at this time of year there. I depended on a wonderful guide I found online that was specific to the birds on Cape Cod. And I listened and listened to birdsongs on the Cornell Lab of Ornithology website. I wanted to do the birds justice—choose the right bird for the right mood/situation.
Most of my research was about double-checking the accuracy of my memory of the early 1970s. What did it say on the box of Screaming Yellow Zonkers? What Stevie Wonder song would Chirp and Sally most likely be dancing to in the basement? When did that commercial with the owl saying “Give a hoot! Don’t pollute!”run? I also dug up an old menu from Howard Johnson’s so Dad could order a “grilled-in-butter frankfort” instead of just a plain old hot dog!
Jenni Holm: It's great having a story starring quiet yet observant children. Were you like this as a child? Why did you decide to write these sorts of characters?
Esther Ehrlich: Wow, good questions! To answer the second question first, I feel like I made very few conscious decisions about the characters, especially about such fundamental qualities like their personalities, what makes them who they are. I don’t mean to sound mystical, but the process of writing characters, for me, is much more about following their lead, paying attention to their quirks, what they reveal in little and not-so-little ways about themselves as the story develops, than about a deliberate choice I’m making. I never said to myself, “I think I want to write about an eleven-year-old girl whose eyes are wide open to the world but who doesn’t talk much to other people about her experiences.”
That said, my mother always used to say to me, “You don’t miss a trick, Es!” which I took as a compliment. I was definitely a kid who paid attention to pretty much everything. Of course, this also meant that I was very tuned in to what was going on with the people in my life—my family, friends, kids at school, teachers—and my accurate or, I’m sure, sometimes inaccurate ideas about how they were feeling. There was a vigilant quality to my observing. What is this person feeling and what is it that they need from me? No one who knew me as a kid would have described me as quiet—I was definitely a talker and still am. But the truth is, especially as a kid, my most peaceful and therefore happiest time was when I pulled back from the hard work of being vigilant and just spent time, quietly, by myself. I can’t tell you how many hours I spent alone with my bunnies in the backyard, brushing their fur with a soft toothbrush, trying to teach them to sit and stay, and just hanging out in the grass or fall leaves or snow.
Jenni Holm: Anything you would like to add?
Esther Ehrlich: Well, I’d like to thank you for your interest in Nest and me, but I’d especially like to thank you for all of your writing. You give feisty, smart girls—and kind boys—a good name, and I appreciate that!