Thursday, January 18, 2018

Kara LaReau and the Bland Sisters Are Anything But

I'll admit it. These books surprised me. I expected them to be good reads. I was there for the quirky humor and puns. I didn't know I'd be bowled over by their charm and emotional depth.

Isn't that a wonderful gift? If you're here, I assume you're a reader, possibly a writer. We plow through book after book every week, every month, and it's always a treat when one or two of them rise up and find a place in our lives long after we turn the last page.

The Bland Sisters have moved into my brain, and although book two only arrived last week, I'm ready to pre-order book three today.

Abandoned by their adventurer parents, the sisters live a small, isolated life in Dullsville. They get by by darning socks. They start each day with plain oatmeal and tepid tea. There's is a washed out existence in a gray landscape, until...

Until, in book one, they're kidnapped by an all-female band of pirates. Until, in book two, they're swept away on the Uncanny Express, a train with a mystery Christie would be proud of. Through it all, Jaundice and Kale navigate the dangers with a mild, budding enthusiasm. Just like their parents intended. Maybe?

Illustration by Jen Hill
Sisters Jaundice and Kale carry a hint of the Baudelaire children, a dash of Roald Dahl, and a weirder-than-life world fit for Pushing Daisies.

Let's Hear From the Author

Kara LaReau
You used to be an editor with Candlewick and Scholastic. Which side of the desk is easier? (This might be a trick question.)
Yes, I worked at Candlewick for about eight years, at Scholastic Press for about three years, and then I had my own freelance editing business. Editing and writing both have their challenges, but writing is really where my heart is, so that tends to make the job easier!

What was that transition like?
I had my first book published back in 2003, while I was still at Candlewick, so I was juggling both careers for a long time — though I tended to put editing (i.e. working on other people’s writing) first. It wasn’t until I had some health problems a few years back that I decided I needed to reprioritize. P.S. I’m fine now!

How does your editorial background inform your writing today?
I’m pretty good at figuring out where the problem areas are in my writing and articulating why they’re not working — good editors are a lot like good mechanics, in that way. And I know what goes on behind the scenes in publishing, so that informs my relationships with my publishers now, and some of the decisions I make as I prepare new work for submission.

I love the relationship between Jaundice and Kale. Are they twins? Which sister is older?
Thanks! Well, they certainly look and act like twins. This comes from my own relationship with my sister; we are three years apart, but many people have assumed we’re twins. The exact nature of Jaundice and Kale’s relationship is revealed in the third book, along with other secrets about their family — you’ll just have to wait to find out!

Illustration by Jen Hill
Jen Hill’s illustrations pair so nicely with your prose that I can’t imagine one without the other. Much like Roald Dahl and Quentin Blake (not a bad comparison). Did you have much (or any) interaction with her during the character design process?
I’ll take that comparison, and I’m sure Jen will, too! Though Jen and I are friends, we don’t interact directly while the book is being made — I review her character designs and sketches and send any art-related feedback to my editor, who relays them to Jen through the designer. The creative team at Abrams knows what they’re doing, and I respect their process. I think it’s a testament to Jen’s talent and proof that we are on the same wavelength that her art matches the Bland world in my mind, often from the get-go.

Despite the humor in these stories, there is an underlying thread of melancholy as the sisters navigate a world without parents. Did that darker side appear naturally or was it something you developed intentionally?
That element was always there, but I definitely worked to tease it out (with my editor’s help!) in all three books. Jaundice and Kale are inherently bland, but many of their habits and routines are merely distractions, or attempts to maintain some control over their lives, in the absence of their parents. The more we get to know them, the more this becomes clear. I think the story (and every story, really) is so much richer with that emotional resonance, and it balances out the absurdity of the Bland Sisters’ adventures.

Have you read Matt de la Peña’s recent essay on darkness in children’s books and Kate DiCamillo’s response? Maybe because those hit me so hard, I’m finding (or perhaps recognizing) a resonance to their thoughts within the Bland Sisters.
I have read Matt’s essay and Kate’s response, and what they’ve said rings true for me, in my work on The Unintentional Adventures of the Bland Sisters and my chapter books and picture books. I find that it’s usually adults who tell me something in my stories is “too dark” or “too scary.” When I read to kids, they’re nodding in acknowledgment, because they already sense (or have experience with) the darkness and uncertainty in the world. When we portray some of that reality in our stories, we’re saying, “Yes, I see and feel it too. You’re not alone. Let’s try to make some sense of it together.”

OMG, you worked with Kate DiCamillo. Can you please share a glorious Kate-nugget about that experience?
Yes, though it seems like a lifetime ago! I edited Kate’s early novels (Because of Winn-Dixie, The Tiger Rising, The Tale of Despereaux, and The Miraculous Journey of Edward Tulane) and the first three books in her Mercy Watson series. Of course, I have many, many stories from that time, but one I tend to remember, especially now that I am focused on my own writing, is that whenever I sent her editorial notes, she would say, “I already baked the cake; now you want me to add eggs?!” I totally get that now, Kate!

What are you reading now?
Beyond the Bright Sea by Lauren Wolk, which I am loving. I grew up by the ocean, so any story about that life has my attention, but this one is so rich and poignant and mysterious, I can’t put it down.

What books are you looking forward to in 2018?
So many! The Wild Robot Escapes, the new (and final, sniff sniff!) Penderwicks story, the new Jasmine Toguchi and Dory Fantasmagory and Terrible Two books, Winterhouse, The Problim Children, Smart Cookie, The Truth as Told by Mason Butte…I could go on and on, and that’s just for middle grade and chapter books. Honestly, I don’t know when I’m going to have time to write this year!

Anything else you want to share?
I just reviewed the copyedits for the third and final (??) Bland Sisters adventure. I don’t want to give away too much, but I will tell you that it features 1. a tortoise named Paris, 2.  a very intimidating all-female motorcycle gang, and 3. a long-awaited family reunion!

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