Twelve-year-old Ember's trailer home has been burned in a fire set most likely by her best friend, a boy whose father believes Ember's family are witches. Yes, Ember's mom reads Tarot cards as a business. Ember's friend set the fire to warn the family before his father did something worse to them. The friend never intended to do so much damage.
Now the family is homeless, and living in a campground. They have no money. Ember's beloved dog is missing. School is going to start, and Ember and her sister have no clean clothes, no notebooks. The only place Ember feels at peace is floating in the middle of the lake at the campground. She has to make a fresh start. Can she?
PM: Hi Sarah! We've heard some high praise for Ember's story. Kirkus reviews calls it "An enthralling tale that demystifies Wicca, humanizes homeless families, and inspires reflection on friendship, forgiveness, and moving forward." Wow!
Congratulations on BODY OF WATER and many thanks for joining us today. Let's dive right in. Both your debut novel LIVVIE OWEN LIVES HERE and BODY OF WATER are contemporary novels that deal with challenging themes. What inspired you to write these stories for the middle-grade audience?
SD: Some of my best reading was done when I was a middle-grader. That's the age where you put together your knowledge of what the world is. When I was that age, it was tough to find books that dealt with poverty in a realistic way. Not that there weren't some great ones that did.
We loved HOMECOMING by Cynthia Voigt, WHERE THE LILIES BLOOM by Bill Cleaver and Vera Cleaver, SHILOH by Phyllis Reynolds Naylor - but when I was twelve, Ember's age, and starting seventh grade from the campground where my family lived, I was reading about kids whose biggest problem was whether they would win at the horse show, or whether they would pass math class, or - ironically - whether they would be allowed to go on a camping trip. These were good, quality books and I was entertained, but I was also forming a world view that said those characters were normal and I was something else. I write for middle-grade readers because sometimes their lives have challenging themes, and they should have access to books that reflect that.
PM: You've mentioned your own experience with homelessness as a girl, and it seems likely that your thoughtful portrayal of the challenges facing Ember's family will motivate people to action. Do you have any recommended resources for readers interested in learning more about homelessness?
SD: It's wonderful to volunteer your time or money to an organization that assists people dealing with poverty and homelessness. You can check the yellow pages or use Google to find soup kitchens, food pantries, and organizations that hand out clothing, school supplies, diapers, and other necessities in your area. But keep in mind with each donation, and especially with each interaction, that you are trying to help a human being - not a "homeless person" but a PERSON. Be mindful of treating each person with whom you interact with respect and allow them to retain their dignity.
I once taught a young boy who did not own a good pair of blue jeans. His only jeans had holes in the knees and were slowly fraying up from the ankle. What I should have done is, I should have bought him a pair of jeans and stuck them in his backpack. Instead, I allowed the school principal to buy the jeans. She brought them into the classroom and made a show of presenting him with this brand new garment. She told him how lucky he was to receive the gift and how he should now treat it with respect because it was newer and nicer than anything else he owned. The child, ever polite, grinned from ear to ear. I could see the tears starting in his eyes. He took the jeans and went home. I never once saw him wear them.
PM: That just makes my heart sink. You are so right to point out the importance of respecting each person and how easily our focus on "the issue of homelessness" can block out the inherent dignity of each human being. Ember encounters this when the church that is helping the family seems to breathe a collective sigh of relief when Ember's family (and their problems) disappear to the campground. Could you tell us about the role of religion- both the practice of Wicca and its interaction with Christianity - in BODY OF WATER?
SD: Ember starts the book in a very bitter place where religion is concerned. The few experiences she's had with Christianity have been negative, and may even have cost her family their home. But her faith in her own religion, Wicca, has also been shaken. Her beloved brother has decided that it isn't for him, and, for the first time in her life, she questions whether her beliefs match her parents'. Ember's turmoil over religion is one reason she is so challenged by her friendship with Lucy. Through Lucy, Ember struggles with adapting her world view to allow that she may have been wrong to lump together those of a Christian faith. In so doing, she adapts her perception of Wicca as well, realizing that religions are made up of people and that people deserve acceptance.
PM: Excellent point. You've created some strong characters in BODY OF WATER. Which character do you most relate to in BODY OF WATER?
SD: I tend to hide a little piece of myself in each character I create. When I wrote BODY OF WATER, I was thinking back on being twelve years old, living in Battle Run Campground, starting seventh grade from a dome-shaped tent. Two characters emerged: Ivy, who represents the way I felt early in the summer, before school started. And Ember, who feels the way I did once I had other seventh-graders to compare myself to. School has an immense impact on the way kids view themselves. In the summer, I was just another kid on vacation, and, like Ivy, I made half a dozen friends and climbed every tree in sight. Then school came and
I had to worry about things like getting to sleep early, doing homework in whatever light we could find, going to school clean and dressed, and finding things to talk about with my classmates. I started to feel a lot more like Ember, growing a little quieter and more subdued.
PM: I like how you've put it: hiding a little piece of myself in each character I create. Writing can be such an emotionally draining - and liberating! - process. Do you have any advice for other writers?
SD: If you want to write, but you find it difficult to get started, I can recommend a great jumping-off point for you. It's called National Novel Writing Month - NaNoWriMo. During this wonderful project, people with an abundance of both bravery and foolishness agree to write a 50,000-word novel during the month of November. Yup - that's 1,667 words per day. Both LIVVIE OWEN LIVED HERE and BODY OF WATER were NaNoWriMo novels. If you're interested in jumping in headfirst to noveling, check it out at www.nanowrimo.org.
PM: And how timely that is, since the first of November is nearly upon us! Thank you so much for joining us, Sarah. Best of luck with your book release and whatever your NaNo project is for this year. :)