Also published on this date: Shelf Awareness for Monday, April 17, 2017

Monday, April 17, 2017: Kids Maximum Shelf: Orphan Island


Walden Pond Press: Orphan Island by Laurel Snyder

Walden Pond Press: Orphan Island by Laurel Snyder

Walden Pond Press: Orphan Island by Laurel Snyder

Walden Pond Press: Orphan Island by Laurel Snyder

Orphan Island

by Laurel Snyder

Every year or so--though it's hard to tell when there are no calendars--a small green boat comes to a mist-encircled island that's inhabited by nine children. The boat brings one new child from parts unknown, and takes away the oldest child, the Elder. It always follows the same path through the water "[a]s if pulled by an invisible string."

There's "a silly little song" all the kids know by heart:  "Nine on an island, orphans all/ Any more--the sky might fall." The children don't know exactly how to decipher that warning, but they trust the very worst will happen if the oldest child refuses to leave when the small green boat beckons. That's why no Elder risks staying on shore, as heart-wrenching and terrifying as it is to abruptly leave one's only known family for uncharted territory, perhaps even "over the edge of the earth" or "into the jaws of some ravening sea creature."

Orphan Island by Laurel Snyder (The Longest Night; Bigger than a Bread Box; Seven Stories Up) begins with the ringing of the bell that signals the "Changing" ceremony: "At the cove, they lined up, breathless and staring out to sea, to watch the boat come in against the sunset. They stood waiting like uneven fence posts." It's tall, brooding Deen's turn to leave the island, and Jinny, the main character, isn't fully cognizant of how heartbroken she is to see her best friend go. His departure officially makes her the Elder, meaning she is now charged with taking care of  "Ess," the damp little girl with black curls and stunned, huge brown eyes who has just arrived in the boat. Jinny hopes Ess will quickly learn to forget the "mama" she asks for--on the island, mothers, like "dragons or birthdays," exist only in books.

Jinny the Elder poignantly, or comically, but rarely successfully attempts to teach Ess three basic survival requirements: cooking, swimming and reading. Any caregiver, young or old, will relate to Jinny's love, exasperation, fierce protective instincts and dismaying feelings of inadequacy. Still, as Jinny and Ess spend their days together accidentally making chicken eggs explode, screaming and shrieking in the water ("Ess no, no, no, no like swimming") and writing the letter A (for abalone) in the sand, it's heartwarming to witness the growing closeness between the two.

Children may also revel in the particulars of how the orphan family manages their little village, how they forage for snails in tide pools ("Snail get sad, when I eat him up?" asks Ess), harvest honey from beehives, pick and dry fruit, dig for clams, fish with nets and cook in their outdoor kitchen. The orphans wash themselves and their laundry by putting on all their clothes at once and wading into the water, then letting the sun bake them dry. Life is civil and orderly, but with enough natural crankiness and conflict between the children to be realistic. Though there are no adults present, this is no Lord of the Flies.

What is this utopian island, whose beauty and bounty are so vividly, invitingly described by Snyder? The mystery of how the island "works" supplies a great deal of suspense, along with an underlying sense of foreboding. None of the children know why the island is the way it is, or why they dutifully follow rules, such as abandoning their shoes in a sacred heap upon arrival, or why they don't eat "scuttles," their word for crabs. Who was the critical bookworm from long ago named Abigail Ellis who left a whole library of snarkily annotated books about "wars, unicorns and something called chocolate," now disintegrating from the salt air and voracious reading?

What the orphans do know is that the island protects them. It is safe. They can even playfully throw themselves off the cliffs and the breezes will catch them. The snakes don't bite like "in storybooks." Jinny discovers a hidden letter from Abigail to her mother, but wasn't Abigail an orphan, too? Why on earth would living parents ship their children off to a remote island? Jinny keeps this startling new information to herself, as she does most of her innermost thoughts. Jinny is likable, but prickly, and struggles with her peers' general perception that she always gets her way. Indeed, Jinny's rocky emotional landscape will hook readers as much as the magical setting.

The creeping feeling that something bad is going to happen intensifies when Jinny takes her first lone, terrifying swim in the vast, dangerous sea no one ever claimed was safe. As the orphans' deep sense of security starts to fray around the edges, readers might wonder... will the sky fall? Will the snakes start biting and the breezes no longer usher cliff-jumpers back to safety? What will Jinny do when it's her turn to get on the small green boat? Will she be able to leave her now-beloved Ess? Snyder, with her engaging and lucid prose, gets to the core of what makes the human heart beat faster, be it terror or love. Orphan Island is full of adventure, delight, tenderness, questioning, loss, fear of the unknown and the lure of it. This enormously appealing island paradise and its unexplained mysteries will leave readers begging for more. --Karin Snelson

Walden Pond Press/HarperCollins, $16.99, hardcover, 288p., ages 9-12, 9780062443410

Walden Pond Press: Orphan Island by Laurel Snyder


Laurel Snyder: Fantasy Island

photo: Sonya Naumann

Laurel Snyder is a poet, essayist, teacher and author of picture books and novels for children, including The Longest Night, Bigger than a Bread Box, Seven Stories Up and her new middle-grade novel, Orphan Island (Walden Pond Press/HarperCollins, May 30, 2017). She is also a graduate of the Iowa Writers' Workshop. Here, Snyder talks with Shelf Awareness about Orphan Island, the nature of childhood and the advantages of staring at the ceiling.

In Orphan Island, nine children live by themselves on an island, and every year or so a small green boat brings a new child and takes the oldest one, the Elder, away. No one knows how or why. How did this idea pop into your head?

It came from a couple of different places. My grandfather was a doctor at Okinawa and many of his patients were children, orphans whose parents were civilian casualties of the war. So my initial idea was that Orphan Island could be a historical novel set on Okinawa.

Years later, I was reading The Little Prince to my sons, and I found myself thinking about allegory. It was something I wanted to try, creating a world representing something other than just that world. The next book we read was My Side of the Mountain, and what I was struck by was both the lack of adults in the book and also the ability of kids to do for themselves--the physical doing. We also had that response to the Little House books. Kids who know how to cook and clean and fish and build and use tools. That was very exotic and exciting for my children. So all that got swirled together in my head, and Orphan Island is what happened.

That makes sense. So, in what way is Orphan Island an allegory?

When I started it, I was thinking about parenting... which is sort of deadly for a children's book, since that's about adults and not about children. But I was thinking about our unwillingness to let kids loose. Our unwillingness to stop protecting them. And the things that they don't learn because we don't stop protecting them.

As I moved along, the book became more about childhood--the idea that children should feel safe and protected, but need to at some point step out into the world as an adult. There's the moment where a kid is leaving the safe space, and really wants to, but at the same time, is terrified. I think it's pretty obvious. The island is the safety of childhood, and Jinny is navigating that awareness of safety and what is beyond safety.

That parenting theme still feels pretty strong... in particular, Jinny's feelings about having to take care of Ess when she arrives in the boat: frustration, exhaustion, joy, love, the desire to protect.

Yes, right. Jinny becomes the parent.

The emotions felt so true I wondered if some of Jinny's internal dialogue came straight from your experience.

I have my own children, but in fact Ess is my sister Emma. My parents divorced when I was eight and Emma was two. Years later, when I was 15, my father had a son from a second marriage, so I suddenly had a baby brother. That was wrapped up in it, too. I'm definitely an oldest child.

It's an important thing about siblinghood that you love these people, and that you own these people. They are your people until the day you die and you're jealous of them and you resent them and you snoop in their drawers--all that is true and they can be the most important people in your life. My sister--the book is dedicated to her--is the most important person in my life. But that doesn't mean she doesn't drive me absolutely crazy.

Back to the allegory question, if Orphan Island represents the safety of childhood, would you call it a utopia?

When I would describe the book to people they would say, so it's like James Dashner's Maze Runner. And I'd say no, it's really not like Maze Runner. It seems we're so primed right now for dystopia that people could only understand the island as a response to something terrible. And it was very important to me that it would not be a dystopian book. This is actually, genuinely, a perfect place.

Did you model your island after any island in particular?

In my head it was off the mid-Atlantic coast, somewhere between Delaware and North Carolina, just because that was the beach I grew up with. But I gave myself license. Once you're in a place where magic boats arrive unmanned, you can also say, "And you have peaches year-round!" You're allowed to create a ridiculous growing season.

Your island is magical. The green boat comes and goes "as if pulled by an invisible string." The snakes don't bite. Breezes keep children from plummeting off cliffs. Tell us about the process of writing and world-building.

It was a slow process, three years from start to finish. I had just finished a multi-book contract. I wasn't trying to create a book. I literally spent time staring at the ceiling and thinking. Once I got started I wrote it longhand on a legal pad with a mechanical pencil. I mean, I was trying to slow myself down. I got to take all the time I wanted, just doing the layering. And then there were many, many passes, adding detail or strengthening the world-building and characters.

Laurel Snyder at ALA earlier this year.

Every Elder must teach the newly arrived child swimming, reading and cooking. How did you come up with these three essential skills?

That is actually from the Talmud. Jews are supposed to teach their children to read the Torah, to support themselves and to swim. And I always thought that was fascinating, that there was a Jewish requirement to teach your children to swim.

Are you Jewish?

Yes. There were other references in there, too, such as the idea of a bar mitzvah or bat mitzvah, a moment when life changes for you and you are no longer a child.

This is Jinny's coming-of-age story. You said in your blog that "kindness and niceness are not the same thing" and that seems true of Jinny. She's kind, but not necessarily nice.

Middle-school readers, ages 11 and 12, really need books that allow them to explore all aspects of themselves, including the ones they're reprimanded for having. Being 12 was awful for me personally. It's just a hard age. Your body is changing and your brain is changing, and you want independence and you're scared of independence. You want to be taken care of and you resent it. It all gets mixed up and what it produces is not always a nice person. I feel like you can still love Jinny and empathize with her and identify with her, and realize that we all make mistakes.

Your child-only society is much more orderly than, say, William Golding's Lord of the Flies. How would you say the self-governing on Orphan Island is different?

This is a basic political theory question, right? In general, societies can run as long as everyone feels they have enough. We see this with animals, too. The minute there's not enough scraps for the dogs they start fighting with each other. On Orphan Island, the children's basic needs are met. They have community. They feel loved. The tension comes in when people, for whatever reason, feel they aren't getting what they need. And in that sense, this whole story gets kicked off because Jinny loses Deen. She doesn't have what she needs anymore.

Much of the suspense in your novel comes from the fact that we don't know how the island works. Will we ever find out?

I felt like I wanted this to be an imitative experience for the reader. Jinny is full of confusion. She doesn't know things. And that's not just Jinny, that's 12, that's 13, that's what this age feels like. You have no power, you want power. You have no information, people won't answer your questions. Even if they do answer your questions honestly, it may or may not make sense to you.

The challenge to writing a sequel to a coming-of-age story demands that you're then on the other side of coming of age. I feel like following the story to where Jinny does or doesn't find and reconnect with Deen wouldn't be a middle-grade book. But just recently I think I figured out a key that unlocks how I could write a prequel, so I'm outlining that right now.

That is great news. I definitely want to know, if Orphan Island represents the safety of childhood, what lies beyond that wall of mist.

Well, anything can happen, right? I mean, we keep our children safe in our houses and then one day we open the door. And everything that's in the world is out there. We do what we have to do to keep ourselves sane, and imagine that some of those things won't happen, and most of them won't happen, but the potential is all there, and that's the issue. --Karin Snelson


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