The books looked interesting; the event looked like a good opportunity for me to promote a community literacy activity and explore a new author. I asked Charity Cantey, the Lab School librarian, for an introduction to Ms. Herlong. In a day or so, Ms. Herlong and I exchanged emails and arranged a time to discuss her books and her career as a writer. I settled in and began reading the books. Remember what I said about possibility, unexplored lives, connections, allusions, and serendipitous discovery? Wow, was I in for a treat over the next week as I read the books and prepared to interview this author.
First, I read Buddy, the book that has been chosen as the topic of the seventh grade reading event at the Lab School and the impetus of Ms. Herlong’s visit. Buddy is a wonderful middle grades novel set in New Orleans. Our first summer in Baton Rouge was 2008 and after about six weeks Hurricane Gustav provided us with an eye-opening introduction to the startling power of Mother Nature. We lived for eleven days without power and learned to cut and clear trees. However, as most people know, the effects of Gustav pale in comparison to the destruction, devastation, and loss of life that occurred during Katrina. When the levees breached, a new level of destruction occurred. Herlong’s Buddy is set in the context of Katrina during which a young boy, Li’l T, and his dog, Buddy, are separated during the storm. As you may not know, pet deaths and stranded animals was a significant issue during and after Katrina. No one imagined that they would be away from their homes and their pets for more than a day or so. I invite you to explore Ms. Herlong’s Buddy website, it is tremendous. Above all, read the book and pass it along to middle grades readers.
Second, after reading Buddy, I settled in to read Ms. Herlong’s The Great Wide Sea, her first published novel. Once again, her website is a tremendous source of information. I wasn’t quite prepared for how smoothly this author was able to switch tone and subject matter. I became aware that I was reading the work of a gifted writer whose books deserve more attention. I was a bit upset that I did not find this first book when it was originally published in 2008. This book is not exactly a middle grades book, yet for those that love a good story, this book could be easily maneuvered. Nevertheless, its most natural appeal is for slightly older readers who love realistic adventure novels.
I didn’t just like this book, I loved this book. I read for a living. I go to sleep most nights knowing that the books will still be there in the morning. In this case, once I reached the halfway point, I had to stay up until I finished the book. It was that good. It reminded me of the best of Gary Paulsen. Readers who love Paulsen will love this story. I kept thinking Gary would love this book. I thought about it so much I convinced Ms. Herlong to provide me with a couple of extra copies so that I could try and get one to him. I sent two copies to Jim Blasingame, one for him to keep and one for him to send along to Gary. Jim is the only person I know who can get a book directly to Gary Paulsen. Jim breathes more rarified air than I do.
I don’t want to talk much more about these books. Instead, I want you to find a copy and read them. Below are some excerpts from the discussion I had with M. H. Herlong. I hope you enjoy it. For my part, I look forward to her visit to the Lab School and, then, her visit with my pre-service English teachers. Don’t you just love author visits?
(SB) Your books immediately reminded me of couple of YA writers. The initial tone of Buddy, made me think of the books by Christopher Paul Curtis—it was funny, tender, and brought me right into a family that I wanted to know more about. Who do you see as your literary influences, either in the world of children’s, young adult literature, or the larger world of “literature?”
(M. H. H.) Wow. That’s a tough one. I love Christopher Paul Curtis. I knew of his book Bud, Not Buddy as I was writing Buddy but I did not read it—purposefully. When I had finished Buddy, I read Curtis’ book and was delighted to learn that his character insisted on being called Bud, not Buddy, because Buddy is a name for a dog. Perfect! It is hard to point to influences in the YA world. When I decided to try my hand at it, I went first to Hatchet because all my boys had read and loved that book (as had I). I wanted to write something like Hatchet for my sons. Obviously, I didn’t. But I learned some principles—such as get rid of the parents, keep chapters short, and supply information about the world—which I was able to use. In the larger world of literature, my favorite novels are usually Dickens or Dickens-style—comfortably paced, big stories. I also like a book that gives back. What I mean by that is a book that makes me think, that is not obvious. Here I would list Wallace Stegner and Salmon Rushdie just off the top of my head.
(SB) Clearly, Katrina is a major influence in the book as well. You had personal experience with the storm, but did you also conduct interviews and/or study news accounts?
(M. H. H.) Because I live in New Orleans and had three sons at home at the time of Katrina, I knew intimately the pain and despair that so many young people experienced with the sudden dislocation. At first I thought mostly about the high school seniors. You work your way up the high school ladder toward senior year—to be quarterback of the football team, to be editor of the yearbook, to finally have a speaking role in the school play, to go at last to all the events as the one of the important people at school. And then it’s gone. You may go to another school but at that school there is another guy who has been working his way up to be quarterback, another yearbook editor, etc. Your chance—as well as your friends, your home, the life you knew and expected—is gone. At first, I wanted to write about that. But a different character started talking in my head, and it turned out that he was twelve. It turned out that he wanted a dog and that he had an awful lot to say about it. And so Buddy was born.
I wrote out of my own experience as well as the experience of people I knew. I did not need to conduct interviews. I lived a lot of it, and everybody in New Orleans just tells (or told) their stories. I read much in the newspaper and, in particular, was moved by a story about a man and his dog.
(SB) I also found out that Buddy is getting some notice from various award committees. (Ms. Herlong sent me a copy of the notification letter she received from New Hampshire—see below.)
(M. H. H.) For the award Buddy received in New Hampshire I received the following notification:
Dear Ms. Herlong,
I am writing to inform you that Buddy is the winner of this year’s New Hampshire Great Stone Face Book Award. This award is given annually to an author whose book receives the most votes from 4th through 6th graders throughout the state. The children vote for their favorite book from a list of 20 recently published titles that are chosen by the Great Stone Face Committee, and the voting takes place every year during April. The purpose of the award is to promote reading enjoyment, to increase awareness of contemporary writing, and to allow children to honor their favorite authors. Over 5,100 children in 66 schools and libraries cast their votes this year, and as the votes rolled in, it was clear that Buddy was the favorite. We on the Great Stone Face committee consider this the highest form of praise that a children’s author can earn.
Thank-you for opening the eyes of New Hampshire children to both the similarities and the differences between their lives and the lives of children who faced the devastation of Hurricane Katrina. Congratulations on winning the Great Stone Face Award.
Amherst Town Library
Amherst, NH 03031
(SB) Thank you, I think that captures the impact of the book quite nicely. What do you like best about visiting schools?
(M. H. H.) Oh, an easy one. The students. I love talking to students and answering their questions. I am also always impressed by what teachers and administrators do. Visiting schools is the perfect antidote to any qualms one might have about the future.
(SB) Some writers of children’s and YA novels tend to have a specific focus, for example some always write about animals. You have chosen two fairly divergent topics for your first two novels. How do you choose the topics? Do you follow one trend or the other?
(M. H. H.) My goal is to follow no trend. I have written what moves me. I want to be always doing something a bit different.
(SB) You have a fairly elaborate website that is user friendly. Did you develop it yourself or do you work with somebody else? How do you decide what to include? For example, I especially like the connections to scientific facts that would enhance a readers understanding of the book. Do you track the blog traffic?
(M. H. H.) I developed the website myself but my son turned my ideas into reality. I decided what to include based on what I guessed that readers and their teachers might need or want. Both of my books are set in contexts that could be unfamiliar to a lot of students. Sailing, for example, is its own world and has its own language. As I wrote The Great Wide Sea, I tried to avoid too much sailor talk even though I myself love it. So I knew a glossary would be useful. The same principle applies with the Buddy section of the website. It is important to me, for example, that readers of Buddy understand why Li’l T’s family made the decision to leave Buddy behind. It can seem so cruel and short-sighted unless you have a good picture of the whole situation. That is one reason I wanted to include a lot about hurricanes and especially the history of hurricanes in New Orleans. As for the “Ideas for Teachers” sections—well, as a former teacher, I just couldn’t help it. I do not track the blog traffic and, in fact, have not written in the blog for a long, long time because I found it to be taking away from what I primarily want to do.
I am also proud of the video trailer for Buddy because my son made it for me so I am allowed to brag.
(SB) Good reads has an impressive collection of reviews about Buddy. Do you follow the reviews as an author or do you ignore them?
(M. H. H.) I used to follow reviews—and my editor and agent will send me ones from national publications. But I sometimes find myself paying too much attention, both to the good ones and the bad ones. I work better as a writer if I can ignore the world. My husband, however, focuses on the reviews a lot and sometimes will insist that I look at one on Amazon or Goodreads.
(SB) Both books deal with loss. Do you find your way to this theme accidentally or do events and observations in your own life encourage you in some way to write about this issue?
(M. H. H.) Hmmmm. You might even be more specific. They both deal with loss of home and with the question of what is home. I have realized this before, though it was not intentional. It makes me wonder if the actual theme is loss of childhood, which is a kind of home, and whether maybe all middle grade and YA books address this issue in some way. The old adage “Write what you know” applies not so much (I think) to the situational center of a story as to the emotional center, and because I am human, I have experienced loss. But what I really want my stories—or I should say, what I wanted these stories—to be about is not the loss itself but the recovery of strength and faith in life after the loss. To me the important step, the step toward maturation and human fulfillment, is the movement through loss to the new normal.
(SB) I have one final question. The motif of story-telling plays a role in both books. Can you talk about that?
(M. H. H.) Yes! In both The Great Wide Sea and Buddy a major motif is the practice of storytelling. Besides the fact that both of them are written as if the narrator is telling his story to someone, both have many moments when someone is telling a story, referencing a past telling of a story, reacting to a story, etc. That’s partly because I come from a culture of storytelling and so I think in stories. But it is also because stories help us figure out how to live our lives and how to understand our lives. Perhaps more important, though, is the fact that when we read and hear stories, we are learning how to tell them, and learning to tell stories matters because we need to be able to shape the story of our own lives for ourselves. That is what both Ben and Li’l T needed to do and did. They told the stories of their own lives in order to shape them and to understand them.
(SB) Thank you so much for the opportunity to chat with you. It has been great fun. I hope that in a year we are talking again and discussing how many more people are reading your books.
(M.H.H.) I hope so, too!