Little did I know that, when my then-sixth-grade daughter introduced me to Karen Cushman’s Catherine, Called Birdy, my path would intertwine with Karen’s in lovely ways. (Exciting news: Lena Dunham is directing a movie version of Birdy.) After falling in love with Karen’s first book, I impatiently awaited each new title (I do think Matilda Bone is still my personal favorite). In 2006, when my first historical novel was set to release, I summoned up every ounce of courage to ask Karen to read it. She not only did so, providing a lovely endorsement, she sent me an email of the sort that can keep a writer going for the rest of her life. Now, I am lucky enough to call Karen friend, sharing the [much too] occasional whine/wine and dine. Among the many things I admire about Karen is that she doesn’t shy away from setting huge obstacles in front of her characters, including their own selves. Such is the case with her latest wonderful novel, War and Millie McGonigle (Knopf Books for Young Readers).
Thank you, dear Kirby, for inviting me to join the wonderful group of people proud to call you their friend. I’m touched and pleased to share Millie McGonigle’s story with all of you..
I often tell people my books are made of Legos, and here’s why. A class of sixth-graders once asked the eternal question, “Where do you get your ideas?” How could I explain that ideas don’t come all of a piece but as a memory here, an emotion there, a face and a street and a destination. I searched for an example of making something whole out of bits and pieces, and I hit upon Tinker Toys. I was faced with a room full of blank faces. Lincoln Logs, I said. More blankness. And then, Legos! They understood! One Lego is just a colored plastic block but put many together and you can make something remarkable–a wagon, a robot, a castle, a story.
Many of the Legos that comprise my new book, War and Millie McGonigle (Knopf Books for Young Readers), came from my husband’s memories of growing up on the bay side of San Diego’s Mission Beach. For many years I’d heard his stories about the small house on the bay, long before it was dredged and turned Mission Bay into a popular resort. The warm bay water lapped at the sand when the tide was in. There was swimming and surfing, and children went without shoes from June until September, and their feet grew calloused and summer wide.
Phil would row his small boat out where the reeds and grass grew tall and read comic books until his nose was sunburned and his empty stomach growled. He watched seals tumble in the water and fished for perch and small halibut. When the tide was out, the beach was mud, pocked with pickleweed and eelgrass. Shoals and small islands, home to colonies of mussels and sand dollars that stood on end in soldier-like rows, were revealed. And early in the morning, Portuguese fishermen would be out catching the octopuses whose hiding holes the ebbing tide had uncovered.
The place was idyllic for Phil and even for me as I listened to him. I wanted to write about it, to put someone there to be nurtured and soothed by the tides flowing in and out, the fishy smell of the mud flats, the squawks of the gulls, the peace of the small waves on the bay, and the sparkle of the sun on the quiet blue water. So anxious, fearful, worried Millie was born.
I love Millie McGonigle the character. She’s a twelve-year-old girl with tides to watch and dead things to find, grappling with growing up, facing her fears, and navigating the changes that come with a country at war. Millie is stubborn, brave, feisty, and funny. She’s part me, part my husband’s memories of growing up at the beach, and part every young person who faces fears and challenges with courage, humor, and a great deal of spunk.
The internet, newspapers, and many, many books, and historical society publications supplied the Legos I needed to summon San Diego in 1941, but by far the most important and richest resource was traveling to Diego and walking on Bayside Walk in South Mission. I watched the waves on the bay, heard seagulls call, and imagined the teeming mudflats that now exist only in Phil’s memories and stories.
Finally all the Legos came together, and Millie moved into South Mission Beach, San Diego. You can find her and her story there.
Karen Cushman lives, works, and procrastinates on misty green Vashon Island near Seattle. She has published ten books since she started writing at age fifty, including Catherine Called Birdy, the Newbery Award winner The Midwife’s Apprentice, and her newest title War and Millie McGonigle, set in San Diego,1941. Ms. Cushman loves the rain and when the weather turns warm and dry, she grumbles and blames the weatherman. She’s crazy , about anything soft and fuzzy and may someday be eaten by a grizzly bear she has tried to embrace. Her husband thinks she is a bit nuts, but he has stayed married to her for 51 years so how bad can she be?