Clare Vanderpool won the 2011 John Newbery Medal for her historical novel Moon Over Manifest. A first-time author and mother of four, Vanderpool wrote the book over six years while “making lunches, driving to field trips, folding laundry, and saying, ‘Hurry up, you’ll be late.'” She is the first Newbery-winning writer from Kansas and sets her story in a small town based on Frontenac. The heroine, a tomboy named Abilene, arrives in 1936 and solves mysteries dating to 1918.
Vanderpool talked with Avery Fischer Udagawa about the challenges of first-time authorship, writing while parenting, and setting and composing a story in a place under-represented in children’s literature.
Avery Fischer Udagawa: Your novel began to form in your mind when you read a sentence from Moby Dick: “It is not down on any map; true places never are.” You wondered what home would mean to someone like Abilene, who grew up riding the rails with her father. Tell me about your own home.
Clare Vanderpool: Wichita, Kansas, is the place I call home. I’ve lived here my whole life, pretty much in the same neighborhood. For me, home is all about the familiar — the neighborhood, my church and school. I love the fact that my children go to the same school I went to — they can walk or ride their bikes to school and are surrounded by friends and family.
AFU: You wrote Moon Over Manifest while parenting four children, now ages 10 to 16. How many years elapsed between conception of the story and publication? Where and when did you write?
CV: I started writing Moon Over Manifest in 2001 when my children were ages 1, 3, 5, and 7. So from conception . . . of the book, not the children, to publication was around nine years. During those years, I wrote in small snatches of time, during naps, early morning hours, long stoplights, etc. It was challenging and there were stretches of time when I didn’t write because I just couldn’t make the time. But the story was always in my head and in the long run, I think the extended period of time it took to actually write the book was a good thing. All that time of just mulling over the story in my head really helped add layers and texture and depth that wouldn’t have been there if I had written the book in a shorter period of time.
AFU: Was it a challenge to develop and publish the book from your location in Wichita?
CV: I don’t think distance from New York really plays a factor in publication today. With Internet and e-mail, we’re just as plugged in as anywhere. I still had to do my homework. I read up on various agents and who was interested in the kind of book I had written. I still had to send out query letters and sample chapters. In my case, there were no shortcuts. Eventually, I got an agent in New York and she began sending the book to editors that she thought would like my kind of book. But even that part of the process took a while.
AFU: Did you ever worry that setting the book in Kansas would limit the audience?
CV: I never thought of setting my story in anyplace but Kansas. There may have been times at the beginning when I wondered if Kansas would be as colorful as someplace else, but then I realized that, for most of the country, Kansas is “someplace else,” someplace different. I think we’re all interested in reading a story set in a place we’re not so familiar with. And once I settled on the town of Frontenac, which I rename Manifest, I knew I had a setting rich enough and colorful enough for the story.
AFU: Your book brings out the diverse immigrant histories of the central U.S. Was this multiethnic background obvious to you growing up?
CV: I wasn’t exactly raised in a diverse or multiethnic neighborhood. But my high school was very diverse. I went to a very small high school, but there were students of many cultures and many nationalities. In some ways, I think the smaller the town or the smaller the community, the more meaningful ethnic diversity can be as there are not opportunities to separate into various groups. We all sat in the same classroom and we were all an integral part of the class.
AFU: Your book describes anti-immigrant activity by the Ku Klux Klan. How did you decide to weave this together with a humorous scene in the novel?
CV: In my research, I found that the Ku Klux Klan had been a significant force in the late 1800s, and then the group’s activity and influence dwindled until a rebirth in the 1920s. So it seemed realistic to me that there would be some fledgling groups who were less organized during those in-between years. That theory is the basis for the Klan that we encounter in Manifest. Ned [a teenage 1918 character] probably says it best when he says, “They’re drunk and they’re mean. That’s a dangerous combination.” I didn’t want to downplay the threat of even an unorganized group like this. The humor in that scene comes from the way Ned and Jinx [a young con artist] respond to a dangerous situation.
AFU: What did it take to write portions of the novel from the viewpoint of a teenage soldier serving in Europe in World War I?
CV: I did a great deal of research for the whole book. Part of that research involved studying World War I and reading firsthand accounts of soldiers involved in that war. Ned, like many young men of that time, is compelled to sign up underage not only by a sense of patriotism, but also by idealized visions of adventure and heroic exploits. As the soldiers in my research quickly found out, Ned also realizes that war is ugly and brutal. I think this comes through in his letters home.
AFU: Was it a challenge to set the novel in two distinct time periods — one the era of World War I and Spanish influenza, the other the time of the Depression?
CV: Yes, it was very challenging, but I enjoyed the back-and-forth rhythm of the story. I also enjoyed painting the picture of this town and its people in both time periods. It was interesting to figure out how to portray [local columnist] Hattie Mae in 1917 vs. 1936. It raised the question, what is essential in a person that doesn’t change, and what parts of us evolve or devolve over time? As far as the historical elements of the different time periods, I had to keep a detailed time line on my bulletin board with dates of actual events, so that I wouldn’t get confused and put something in my story at a time when it didn’t belong.
AFU: Please talk about your decision to weave in Prohibition and bootlegging.
CV: There was very little decision about it. Bootlegging was big in southeast Kansas. In fact, that little corner of the state was considered the bootlegging capital of the Midwest. There would be no way to write a story about Frontenac, Kansas, in either time period without including bootlegging in the story.
AFU: The language in Moon Over Manifest brims with regionalisms, rhymes, and wordplay; you even affect the language of gossip columns and cure-all ads from old newspapers. How did you come by your love of language?
CV: I’ve always been a big reader and my brother and I were natural mimics as kids. I guess we tend to pick up on the way people talk — their accents, expressions, mannerisms. I suppose it’s just another way of pretending and using my imagination, only as a writer I get to do both in stories.
AFU: Are there particular writers who inspire you?
CV: I have many favorite writers. Children’s writers — Madeleine L’Engle, Scott O’Dell, Richard Peck, Patricia Reilly Giff. Adult writers — Willa Cather, Mark Twain, Fred Chappell, Wendell Berry.
AFU: The Newbery Medal is like an Oscar for children’s literature. Did the announcement in January surprise you? Has it changed your life?
CV: The Newbery announcement was a big surprise. On one level, my life is pretty normal. I have four kids who still need rides to various activities and I still have lots of laundry to do. But I have had many wonderful opportunities come my way as a result of winning the Newbery. I have been invited to speak at different schools and book festivals around the country, which is very exciting. I’m even taking my children on a few trips. I’ve seen my book in everything from USA Today to The New York Times. The coverage has been far-reaching. The Newbery certainly puts a book on the map!
AFU: How do you feel about this recognition? Do you have more projects in the works?
CV: I consider winning the Newbery Medal to be a great honor and a wonderful recognition for my book. It does provide a bit of a challenge though to make sure the next book measures up. I need to get busy and finish the next one . . . but I’m close!
AFU: How can parents help their children learn to love writing?
CV: I can only say that I think encouraging kids to read and to develop a love of reading is essential. But in addition to that, I think kids need to be given opportunities to tell their own stories. And that doesn’t necessarily happen in a written format. For me, I always felt it was important to listen to my children and be interested in their stories.