Alaska has much to offer to storytelling for children and young adults: fabulous locales for adventures, exotic animals, and the richness of different cultures. Today’s conversation is with Deb Vanasse, a long-time Alaskan resident, former teacher, and writer of numerous books for children and young adults.
Giveaway! Comment on today's conversation for a chance to win one of two free downloads of Deb's audiobook OUT OF THE WILDERNESS, winners to be selected at random from comments received by noon on April 8.
Visit Deb at www.debvanasse.com
Yes—Cold Spell, book number fourteen, comes out in August! Alaska is a platform for all of my children’s and young adult books except for No Returns, Book One of the Battleband Saga. That one is co-written with Gail Giles, and it’s set in Texas, where she lives.
How did you get started in the children’s book business? Was it a natural progression from your work as a teacher?
It was by chance, actually. I’d written a short story with a young protagonist, and a workshop teacher (who became a friend) suggested I turn it into a young adult novel. I knew little about the genre but got up to speed quickly after the book was accepted by Dutton, a division of Penguin at the time.
You’ve lived in Alaska since 1979, and you’ve resided in several different regions of the state. Is there an area in Alaska that you find particularly appealing as a setting for a younger audience?
Among the many wonders of Alaska is its diversity, in terms of people, cultures, and landscape. I’m emotionally attached to the villages of Western Alaska, where my first novel is set, but I also spent twenty years in Fairbanks, where the midnight sun inspired my first picture book. I’ve been fortunate to travel throughout the state, finding stories almost everywhere I go—Totem Tale in Southeast Alaska, Black Wolf of the Glacier in Juneau, Lucy’s Dance in Western Alaska. Most recently, my novel Cold Spell (for grown-ups) is set near a glacier, with landscape that resembles the area near the Matanuska Glacier. It’s something of a cliché, but for me, place takes on the importance of character in most of my books.
Your books range from picture books for very young readers and pre-readers to novels for young adults. Has your focus audience changed over time, or do you still write for a wide range of ages?
When it comes to developing a career, it’s smarter to specialize. But Alaskans tend to be generalists, and I’ve not been able to shake that in my writing. At present, I’m mostly focused on fiction for young adults and adults, but I still do a lot of work with younger readers along with some mentoring of children’s writers.
The young adult genre is particular vibrant these days. Wildly popular books like The Hunger Games and Divergent transcend their genres and also appeal to an adult audience. What do you think are the key elements of a successful young adult novel?
Above all, young adult novels must be strong in character, voice, and plot. Readers of these novels—they do come in all ages—want the story to grab them from page one. Writers may mistake this as a need for lots of action, but really, it has to do with strong emotional engagement.
Tell us about your next project.
For me, it’s always projects, plural. I need an extra lifetime (or two) to complete the stories that have lined up to be told. Right now, I’m finishing the first draft of the sequel to No Returns, co-written with Gail Giles. I’m also starting revisions of a project for grown-ups, a nonfiction narrative of the Klondike gold rush from the perspective of the First Nations wife of one of the discoverers. I also have a survivor story, young adult, that I hope to revise soon.
Excerpt from Cold Spell, a literary novel for adults
by Deb Vanasse
Displacement from the advance or retreat of a glacier
I am a poem, Sylvie once thought, swollen like a springtime river, light swirled in dark, music and memory. Then her father ran off and her mother became obsessed with a glacier and she realized this was what happened to girls who believed themselves poems, poems in fact being prone to bad turns and misunderstandings.
Before the glacier, Sylvie’s mother had been ordinary and dependable, a plain woman with kind eyes, unlike her father who was dashing and quick, with a flair for the dramatic. When he’d come home cursing his boss in the Ford parts department or when he’d blow up at the neighbor for turning his dog loose, Sylvie’s mother would massage the base of his neck and speak calm soothing words. After he left Minnesota for Florida in the company of Mirabelle, a redhead from the dealership, Sylvie cried in long, heaving sobs every night for a week, and because she cried her sister Anna did too, and there was nothing poetic in their sorrow, no words for it even.
With her soft, steady voice and her fingers stroking their hair, Sylvie’s mother assured the girls that their father loved them whether he was still in Pine Lake or not. For her mother’s sake Sylvie tried to pretend this was so, though in truth she doubted it deeply. She wished her mother would cry, wished she would wail and scream and flail, wished she would rage at something, at someone, at anyone, even at Sylvie.
Instead her mother’s smile, always ready, became automatic, as if by the push of a button her lips made their slight upward turn. She roused the girls every day at precisely 6:30, even on weekends. She sliced bananas over their oatmeal and sprinkled brown sugar, one tablespoon each. She sipped coffee brewed in a new pot that made only one cup and ate toast spread thin with peach preserves and deflected Sylvie’s complaints that no one else ate oatmeal for breakfast. She rinsed the dishes and loaded the dishwasher, glasses on top, bowls on the bottom, spoons up, butter knives down, and she folded tidy waxed paper over sandwiches cut on the diagonal, peanut butter and apple for Anna, cream cheese and turkey for Sylvie, both on wheat bread no matter how Anna begged for white, the old-fashioned wrapping an embarrassment to Sylvie, who turned her wishes to small things like thin, transparent plastic. The tiniest quiver in her mother’s smile hinted at their shared understanding, hers and Sylvie’s, of how a single uncontrolled moment could upend everything.
Not long after Sylvie’s father drove off, her mother took the girls for their annual physicals. Dr. Temple was the only pediatrician in Pine Lake, and for as long as Sylvie could remember she had been ushered to him for every sniffle and cough. She was humiliated at the idea of the old doctor with his hairy hands and long ears poking her cold naked chest where breasts had recently sprouted. She begged to be taken to Gainesville, to the sprawling clinic where no one would know her, but her mother refused, insisting of course on their usual routine. So Sylvie planted herself in a corner of Dr. Temple’s waiting room, apart from her mother and sister, and buried her head in a book as she tried not to choke on the heavy smell that hangs over medical places, part alcohol and part cleaning products, foolishly confident that after her father’s sudden departure things at least couldn’t get any worse.
From the doorway that separated the waiting from the business inside, Dr. Temple’s nurse called for Sylvie and Anna. When their mother rose to join them, the nurse suggested the girls were old enough to see the doctor alone. “But Anna is only five,” Sylvie’s mother said through her auto-smile. “She just started kindergarten.”
The nurse cupped a milky white hand over Anna’s shoulder. “Eleven and five. Plenty old to see the doctor alone.” As she steered the girls toward the door, Sylvie’s mother blinked hard, like a shutter that closed on an image to save it.
“You’re a big girl,” the nurse said to Sylvie as she trotted them down the corridor. “Slide right on into this little room and slip off your clothes and put on that gown while I help your sister.” The nurse brushed back a strand of Anna’s hair, silky and fine like their mother’s.
“We always . . .” But Sylvie had no words for their self-conscious cleaving since her father had left.
“It’s okay.” Anna’s pressed lips turned up like their mother’s. “I don’t mind.”
Since she was in no way a poem, Sylvie did as the nurse said, slipping out of her jeans and her shirt and folding inside them her underpants and her sad little bra. She eased onto the exam table, her slender but big-knuckled feet dangling as her haunches stuck to the vinyl and her nipples stiffened beneath the rough cotton. She had never before had to fully undress for the doctor, and her resentment at this fell squarely on her mother, helpless to insist on a routine when for once one was needed.
She sat hunched under the impossible blue gown, a limp balloon from which her limbs protruded, while Dr. Temple tapped at her knees with his little hammer and pretended not to look as he pressed his cold stethoscope to her chest. Then he started in with the questions. How were things at home, now that it was only the girls? Did Sylvie miss her dad something awful? Were there bad dreams she might want to share?
Sylvie mumbled fine, no, and no as she beat back the dream image of her father sinking in a vast, lapping ocean, and Sylvie paddling with all she had, trying to save him. Finally the doctor gave up with his stethoscope and patted her shoulder, his hand sweet with soap, and pronounced her a good strong girl who would be a great help to her mother during this difficult time.
That’s when Sylvie realized that not only a few of the parents but the whole town of Pine Lake was talking about how her dad had run off. If she’d been the good strong girl the doctor pronounced her to be, she might have thought how this gossip must impact her mother. But instead her resentment balled up even tighter, like a leech left to dry in the sun.
Dressed, she returned to the waiting room. On her mother’s lap was a magazine, splayed open to a white and blue-shadowed mass that shrugged out from a large range of mountains. Sylvie slid into a chair and waited for her mother to ask what had gone on with the doctor. But her mother only stared at the ice as if it were the most lovely and mysterious thing she had ever encountered. A tingling crept beneath Sylvie’s skin, up her arms to her chest, dread at how a mere image could insert itself between them, so that it was no longer just her and her mother, pretending for Anna’s sake that everything would be fine.
Sylvie’s mother glanced at the receptionist, then pressed the magazine flat and with great precision tore out the glacier, folded it twice, and tucked the photo into her purse. “You’re not supposed to do that,” Sylvie said. Known by everyone, including herself, to be a compliant child, she was struck by the power in so few words. “The magazines are for everyone.”
“What magazines?” From the hallway, Anna came forward.
Their mother pressed a finger to her lips. The way she draped her hand on her purse made Sylvie suspicious of what else might be stashed inside. Sylvie’s father was the one to come home with a fluffy hotel towel stuffed in his suitcase or a shot glass swiped from a bar in his pocket. Her mother she’d never known to take anything.
They piled into the car. “I can’t believe you ripped out that picture,” Sylvie said.
“I want to see,” Anna said.
Their mother tucked the purse next to her hip and folded her elbow across it. “Later.”
In light of Sylvie’s recent exposure, her mother’s smug smile was especially hateful. “They’re all talking about us,” she said
Her mother’s eyes shone in the rearview mirror. “Who’s talking about us?”
“Everyone.” Of all things, her mother was smiling; you could see it in the way the skin crinkled at the corners of her eyes. “Everyone in this whole entire town. And you think it’s funny.”
“No, honey.” The smile stayed. “It’s not funny. But there’s nothing we can do about it.”
“Is it a picture of someone we know?” Anna poked the side of the purse. “I want to see.”
“In a minute.” Their mother hung a sharp right into the Carson Crafts parking lot, where she wheeled the sedan between a panel truck and a big Suburban.
“You’re parked crooked.” How had Sylvie not noticed sooner this duty to point out her mother’s flaws? “The door of that truck’s gonna smack us.”
“I’m just running in for a minute.” Her neck flushed at the base, her mother pressed her purse between her ribs and her arm.
“I’m coming in.” When Anna swung open her door, it clunked against the side of the panel truck.
“Told you,” said Sylvie, but already her mother was scurrying toward the entrance, Anna half-running to keep up. Sylvie scooted out of the sunlit square that beamed through the window into her lap. She was used to hanging back, not drawing attention, but she had failed to anticipate this unexpected consequence, that Anna would latch onto their mother in her place.
When they returned, her mother clutched a small bag next to her purse. Anna got in from the driver’s side. “It’s a glacier,” she informed Sylvie. “A big bunch of ice that never melts.”
“I know that,” said Sylvie, though it was clear no one cared.
Once home, Sylvie’s mother trimmed the magazine picture and used a knife to pry back the wires that held cardboard next to the glass. She balled up the glossy photo that came with the frame, a girl plucking petals from a daisy, and replaced it with the glacier. Then she bent the wires back into place and raised the picture between her hands. “This will sit right on my desk.”
“I’m never eating oatmeal again.” It was the single act of rebellion Sylvie could summon on short notice. “Never.”
“Goodness,” her mother said. “What’s gotten into you?” But her eyes never left the glacier.