All Interviews

Twelve-year-old Millie is thrilled to work her first babysitting job, but her world turns upside down the morning after, when she learns that her four-month-old charge, Lola, has died of SIDS. In her second middle grade novel, Liz Garton Scanlon beautifully depicts a middle schooler navigating an unspeakable tragedy.

Let’s start with this book’s striking cover. In the book’s acknowledgments, you write that one of your best friends created the embroidery that serves as the cover image. How did this come about? 
I can’t get over that art, honestly. Jill Turney, Amelia Mack and Angie Kang (the book’s designers and design fellow) conceived of the image—a mashup of stitchery and sorcery. And then—it’s true!—they partnered with my friend Kathie Sever, founder of Fort Lonesome, a chain-stitch embroidery studio in Austin, Texas, where we both live. The art was made on a weighty piece of black linen, and I think it speaks to the heart and soul of this project, piercing darkness straight through with the abiding possibilities of love and light.

How did Lolo’s Light start for you? 
The first scene I imagined was the one in Chapter 3, where Millie finds herself in the gorgeous airiness of the Acostas’ house, babysitting for the very first time and enraptured by the importance of her circumstances. It all seems almost too good to be true, which is a very good place to start a story, on the cusp between the before and after. I teetered there for a while with Millie, and then we fell headlong into the story.

Tell us more about Millie, who she is and where she’s at as the novel opens.
I think Millie is like many of us at 12 years old—happy and also restless. She has friends and smarts and good dogs and confidence, but what she really wants is to be grown up. That yearning to be on the other side of the invisible line between childhood and whatever-happens-next—it’s so palpable and so universal. But, of course, it’s also inevitably more complicated than we think it will be.

“Not every adult can walk alongside kids as they struggle and crack and grow, but I wanted Millie to have some of the good ones—the brave ones.”

After Lolo dies, Millie must confront all kinds of emotions. As you created her journey through grief, what was most important to you to get right about her experience? 
I wanted to look at grief honestly—especially this first, great grief—and to allow all the nuances of it to play out for Millie. I wanted to show, for example, that while it’s unbelievably hard to feel responsible, it’s also heartbreaking when you realize you’re not, that nobody is, that there was nothing anyone could have done to change what happened. 

It was also really important to me to depict grief as a journey, as something shifting over time, as something Millie navigated and grew within and maybe even eventually understood. I just aimed to see her through it, and there were so many layers and facets and stages to illuminate along the way.

Let’s talk about the adults in this novel, because there are a bunch of really great ones. Why was it important to you to surround Millie with so many adults, particularly when children’s literature often goes out of its way to eliminate adults from narratives? 
I wanted to make sure Millie was not alone as she walked through grief. It’s as simple as that. Even when she felt alone, I wanted her surrounded by wisdom and experience and kindness and love. Not every adult in the real world is good at this. Not every adult can walk alongside kids as they struggle and crack and grow, but I wanted Millie to have some of the good ones—the brave ones. She needed them. Every kid does.

Millie’s class’s egg-hatching project works so beautifully within the story. Based on your acknowledgments, it sounds like you have experienced similar activities as both an elementary school student and as a parent. Did you by any chance attempt to re-create this project for research? 
Ha—I did not re-create the project but just you asking makes me wish that I had! I did hatch eggs in science class as a kid and I did win the chance to take one of the resulting chicks home. It wasn’t until I was on the school bus with a big box on my lap that I realized the chick was already becoming a rooster who would not do well with my dogs or upon the top of my dresser. That poor bird was rapidly rehomed!

”When adults suggest that kids shouldn’t read or know or think about those things, kids feel shame and confusion and loneliness and fear. Let’s not do that to them.”

What are some things you think novelists could learn from reading or writing picture books?
Picture books center the child and the child’s perspective in a most remarkable way. There is something about having to consider the very youngest humans—the pre- and early readers— having to witness and reflect what they love and fear and want and need that can help us in the practice of writing through and of kids rather than to or for them.

Although this is not your first novel, you have written many picture books. What do you find challenging about novels? 
I’m a short-form writer at heart, so writing a novel is a very real effort in opening up, in giving each moment and every character a little more breathing room. It’s a matter of trying to evoke meaning and emotions with the same potency I might in a picture book, but holding the reader’s gaze while I do.

You addressed a note that accompanied advance editions of this book to “adult readers.” In it, you wrote, “The grown-up world has not, historically, done a great job of acknowledging or attending to young people’s feelings.” What would you say to an adult who thinks that children’s books shouldn’t include the kinds of subjects and emotions depicted in Lolo’s Light? 
I would say, “I understand your worry and your love, but kids are simply young human beings who wonder about and reckon with things like loss and grief and heartache just like we do! When adults suggest that kids shouldn’t read or know or think about those things, kids feel shame and confusion and loneliness and fear. Let’s not do that to them. Let’s not make things worse. Let’s, instead, keep them company.”

What do you hope a kid who finds themselves in a similar situation to Millie’s might take away from Lolo’s Light? 
Honestly, I hope all kids everywhere grow to know that there’s a light they can count on, a light that can be seen through cracks and curtains, in friendships and in family and in themselves. Even on the darkest days with the sharpest edges there is still a living, humming, human light—a bioluminescent beacon—there to see them through.

Lolo’s Light contains some egg-cellent puns. I’m curious: If you had the opportunity to name a flock of chickens, what do you think would make some egg-ceptional chicken names? 
Oh now THIS is a fun prompt. I’m going to go for a girl group—we’ll call them The Chicks— made up of Eggetha, Yolko and Henifer. They’ll be a power trio.

Read our starred review of ‘Lolo’s Light.’

Author photo of Liz Garton Scanlon courtesy of Elizabeth McGuire.

In Lolo’s Light, Liz Garton Scanlon captures the hard work of healing from an unspeakable tragedy.
Author photo of Liz Garton Scanlon

In 2005, in order to pay off her student loans, Kate Beaton left her home in Cape Breton, Nova Scotia, to work on the Alberta oil sands, a vast region in Canada that contains one of the largest deposits of crude oil in the world. During this time, Beaton began writing “Hark! A Vagrant,” a witty, irreverent webcomic about history, literary figures and her own life. The beloved series has been collected into two bestselling books, Hark! A Vagrant and Step Aside, Pops

Ducks: Two Years in the Oil Sands, Beaton’s first full-length graphic memoir, is a beautiful and nuanced account of her time working in the town of Fort McMurray, as well as at various temporary work camps owned by several oil companies. It directly addresses the sexual harassment and violence that she and others experienced in the oil sands, as well as the toxic masculinity that permeates the work camps. 

We talked with Beaton about the difficulties of capturing the sometimes contradictory realities of such a complicated place.

You started posting “Hark! A Vagrant” 15 years ago. How have you changed as a writer and artist since then?
I’ve changed a lot. I was only 23 when I started making things that would be “Hark! A Vagrant.” I had gone through a lot in some ways, but I was very young and inexperienced, and I look at some of my old work and cringe at it, but this is the same for almost anyone making things in the public eye. Everyone is a young fool for a while, and the world changes around you, and you get older and hopefully not more foolish but the other way around.

Right now I’m 38, and it has been a long time since I was a fresh face on the comics scene. I’m more like the wallpaper or a worn-out chair, but I like being that. No one is surprised I’m here.

How did writing those comics affect your life in the work camps? Did you have any sense of how your career would unfold?
After I had comics in my life, working in the camps got easier, because I had this thing that was just for me. Before I had that, I lost myself. It was just work and people chipping away at you in a certain way. Then I had comics and I’d go home to my little camp room after work and draw them and put them online, and here I was in a work camp in the oil sands, very alone in many ways, and I was connecting to people who saw me for who I was through my work. I felt like myself. And I didn’t want to give that up or lose that.

As the book begins, you write about the tension between loving your home in Cape Breton and needing to leave it to find work. During your time in the oil sands, some of the most poignant, powerful moments—both good and bad—are the interactions you have with people from Newfoundland, Nova Scotia and Cape Breton. Talk to me about how you feel about these places. Do you see this memoir as being about Cape Breton as well as about Alberta?
It makes sense that it is. Cape Breton has always exported workers. They leave for where the work is, and they leave together. To Boston, Sudbury, Windsor, Alberta—not always, but often you see it. And when they do, there is a shared history and a connection that is always happening. 

My grandfather went out on harvest trains in the 1930s, from Nova Scotia to the prairies. There were 1,200 people on the train, he said, and there was one car for schoolteachers. Women. Along the way, the men smashed up the train and looted. “They were full of the devil,” he said. How do you think that car of women felt with those 1,200 men? I know how they felt. 

You think your story is new, you think you have something new to say, but really it is all something you are born into. My mother’s family all went to work in the car factories of Windsor, and they would come visit in the summer. And I would watch my aunts go crying into the car to go back and Grandma go silently back into the house with her private sorrow, and I would know that’s going to be me someday—or rather, that this is the choice I will have to make, to stay or to go wherever the work is.

When it really was time for me to go, Alberta was where the work was, and I went. I thought nothing of it at all. And I had no idea, none at all, what I was doing. Then you come home and talk to your relatives about what happened when they left, and they all say the same thing: “We had no idea what we were doing.” “I’ve never been so cold.” “I’ve never been so lonely.” “Thank god I knew this other person from home.”

“Everyone is a young fool for a while, and the world changes around you, and you get older and hopefully not more foolish but the other way around.”

One of the many remarkable things about your memoir is its nuance: You write so honestly about a complicated place. As many readers will likely not have given oil mining much thought beyond “necessary jobs” or “climate destruction,” what do you hope they take away from reading Ducks?
Nuance is not a bad thing to take away. I think it is a book about empathy—however you want to take that, and whomever or whatever you think that comment is about. Then that is what it is about.

You convey so much emotion through your characters” facial expressions, images of massive equipment and views of the surrounding landscape, both natural and human. What’s your drawing process like when bringing scenes from your memory to the page?
Oh, I had a lot of visual references. I can’t just draw an excavator from memory! But I knew what I was looking for in references—that was memory. You see those images again, and you can really smell it and feel it, being out there. I just wanted people to feel like they were there.

There are so many people in the book—by my count, over 40 named characters! What are the challenges or joys of drawing so many different people?
The challenge was that I drew a lot of people the same! And my editors made me go back and change some of them because people were getting confused—haha! But when you have a bunch of guys in hard hats, safety glasses and safety vests, they do start looking alike. So that was challenging for sure. I was mostly concerned that I didn’t mess up on any of them and make people confused. 

Ducks illustration

Illustration from ‘Ducks’ © 2022 by Kate Beaton. Reproduced by permission of Drawn & Quarterly.

Since your time in Alberta, you’ve lived all over Canada, as well as in New York. Now that you’re back in Cape Breton, how does it feel to be home? 
It feels natural. I liked being away in those places. I think it was a healthy thing. I learned a lot from being in cities like Toronto and New York. But I always felt like a peg on a board there too, like a thing that didn’t fit in the picture. Here, I feel like part of the painting.

If you could go back in time, what advice would you give your 21-year-old self who has just arrived in Alberta? What would you say to other young women thinking about working in the oil sands?
My advice would be that you can actually ask for better money or apply for a better job. Someone told me that I wasn’t allowed to do either in the first year that I was there, and I believed them. And even the second year that I was there, I didn’t challenge the money that I was being paid, and I was in one of the lowest-paid tiers of people on site. I just didn’t know any better. And we are not really raised to know better or to ask for more when other people have no problem doing that.

Photo of Kate Beaton by Stephen Rankin Photography.

The award-winning comics artist solidifies her reputation for storytelling prowess and remarkable range.
Kate Beaton

Estranged siblings Bellatine and Isaac Yaga couldn’t be more different, both in their personalities and in their mysterious abilities. The restless Isaac embraces his gift for mimicry, while Bellatine lives a quiet life, fiercely resisting the urge to give life to inanimate objects. But when they reunite to collect a family inheritance, they get the shock of their lives: Their great-great-grandmother has left them Thistlefoot, a sentient cottage with chicken legs.

For readers that aren’t familiar with her, can you give a brief synopsis of Baba Yaga and her importance in Slavic folklore?
Baba Yaga is a magical crone, hidden deep in the forests of Eastern Europe. Lost in the woods? Maybe Baba Yaga will help you find your way home. Or . . . maybe she’ll devour you and display your glowing skull on pike. Depends on her mood, which is, to put it politely, finicky. She lives in a hut on chicken legs that never stands still, and she flies through the air in a mortar and pestle. Like any good monster, she is built of opposites: She’s ferocious and motherly, supernatural and one with nature, feminine and beastly, helper and harmer. And I think it’s the fact that she embodies all these elements, all this unpredictability, that makes her one of the most famous figures in Slavic folklore. Who is Baba Yaga? She’s whoever the story needs her to be—just before she kills the story and eats it for supper.

“Writing from folklore and fairy tales, to me, is actually freeing rather than confining.”

What was it like working with preexisting characters like Baba Yaga and her chicken-footed house? Did it ever become confining, or was it easy to spin your own tale with the parts you had?
Writing from folklore and fairy tales, to me, is actually freeing rather than confining. Instead of wrestling with a blank page and trying to conjure something from nothing, these archetypal figures serve as inspiration and guidance. Companions, of sorts.

A folk tale, a real folk tale, is designed to shape-shift, to adapt to new eras and new contexts. That’s how they survive over centuries, by mutating again and again to remain ever relevant to each new culture that adopts them. Thistlefoot leans into that transformative ability: What if Baba Yaga is no longer a crone in the woods but a young Russian Jewish woman during World War I? Or what if Baba Yaga’s hut weren’t in Russia at all but modern-day America? It becomes a game of experimentation, with endless variants. These tales have already been re-imagined a thousand times, so what’s one more?

Thistlefoot jacket

What does the folklore in Thistlefoot tell us about the people and places from which it originated?
This is what I adore about folklore: how it functions as a mirror. Specifically, a mirror reflecting a community’s taboos and fears. People would rather do anything than look at the prickly, ugly, awkward parts of life head-on. So rather than the embarrassment of, say, telling your young Scottish daughter not to sleep with hot, mysterious men on the beach, mothers would instead caution them to fear the handsome . . . kelpies . . . yes, that’s right, those sexy . . . horses . . . who would offer maidens a “ride”—before ripping out their organs. It’s supernatural metaphor at its best. Fantastical and exaggerated, while also serving as a metaphorical parallel for real-life issues.

In Thistlefoot, I use the folklore as a window into a violent period of European history—specifically pogroms in the Russian empire, which were systematic, military-sanctioned massacres against the Jewish people. In the center of the novel is the story of a pogrom my own ancestors lived through in 1919. Told plainly, the facts are horrific. Unbearable, really. But filtering it through folklore allowed me to explore this history with softened edges. Folklore lets us look at jagged truths through a sheer curtain, and then, once we’ve grown acclimated, that curtain can be yanked away. This is one of the themes throughout the book, in fact: Memory can be reformed into folk tales to make it not only more bearable, but more permanent. More easily honored and held.

How did you go about creating the magic that each of the Yaga siblings has?
The siblings both have these abilities that are intrinsically linked to who they are and to this generational history they’re discovering. It was important to me that each power held tension in it, and that the powers reflected who the characters are at their cores. Bellatine, who sees her power as a curse, is constantly battling with her ability. It turns her into a control freak, at war with her own body and the world around her. For Isaac, who has this incredible ability to mimic other people, his power is part of his restless nature, his self-hatred and his desperation to be anyone but himself. 

It’s funny, even I was conned a little by Isaac—because it wasn’t until a late-stage draft that I even realized Isaac’s abilities were magic. I think it was actually my editor or my agent who was like, “Uh, this isn’t like . . . a normal thing people can do.” Until then, I sort of listened to Isaac when he insisted that he was simply a skillful actor. But of course there was an element of the paranormal to it.

“In my future books, I intend to get even weirder.”

I mean this as a compliment: This book is stuffed full of weird. Was there ever a moment when you were writing that you thought, “OK, I may lose the reader on this bit”?
Ha. No. I mean, of course I feared losing the reader sometimes—drafting is full of insecure moments—but never because of weirdness. Honestly, I sometimes worried it wasn’t weird enough. The images in the book are fantastical, but the structure of the novel is fairly conventional. I love weird fiction. I’m most inspired by surrealism. Slipstream. I’m obsessed with Kelly Link, Sofia Samatar, Karen Russell, Leonora Carrington, Angela Carter. Writers who don’t shy away from operating on emotional logic and dream logic rather than worldly logic. So no, I did not worry it was too weird. In my future books, I intend to get even weirder.

There are so many details about Thistlefoot that I was drawn to: how it walks, what it looks like, what it sounds like. What was important to you to include when describing and creating a living house?
It was a unique challenge to create a being that is part setting, part character, part animal, part vehicle, etc. First off, I wanted it to have real personality, a sort of arrogance, but also be hospitable. It’s a fiercely protective being because it exists to be a haven for this family. Writers like Sholem Aleichem and Isaac Bashevis Singer, who wrote such wry, winking shtetl stories, inspired the house’s voice in its first-person chapters. And of course, I had a lot of fun with the visuals. Covering it in velvet curtains and paper lanterns when it becomes a mobile theater. Cultivating a garden of yams and alfalfa in its sod roof.

When you’re working in magical realism, that delicious sense of the uncanny is created by holding unfamiliar magic up against familiar, real-world details. In this case, the magic in Thistlefoot‘s world is that trauma can literally, physically alter a space—like causing a house to sprout legs. But to balance that, and to highlight the significance of that strangeness, it was essential that everything else in the world remained rooted in our own logic system. So I did a lot of research into what actual houses from Russian and Ukrainian shtetls would have looked like, including the materials and carpentry practices that would have been used. Yes, the house is wild and whimsical and cartoony, kicking around on these big chicken legs and laying giant eggs and telling tall tales—but it’s also historically accurate, down to the smallest detail. For example, I originally had Bellatine pulling old nails out of the walls while she refurbished it, but then a carpenter friend told me that back in early 1900s Russia, where the house was built, they wouldn’t have used nails because metal was too expensive. They would have fixed boards together with wooden joinery instead. So I went back in and cut the nails. Wooden joinery only! 

As a puppeteer yourself, what’s one misconception of the art form a layperson might have? What do you love most about performing?
Ah, so I actually can’t claim the esteemed title of puppeteer—yet! I did travel with a scrolling panoramic shadow puppetry show to promote my narrative poem The Lumberjack’s Dove, but that was designed by my collaborator, Wooly Mar. I just turned the crank. And I’m only starting to work with hand-held, figurative puppets now for the first time as I prepare for a very elaborate and kooky Thistlefoot book tour. So I’m going to defer to a conversation I had with my friend Shoshana Bass, who is a professional puppeteer.

While I was writing Thistlefoot, Shoshana was adamant that I refer to the puppets in the Yaga siblings” puppet show as being “animated” rather than “manipulated.” She told me that the most common misunderstanding about puppetry is that it’s about controlling something else. We even use “puppet master” as a means of saying someone is manipulative or Machiavellian. In reality, Shoshana explained, the art of puppetry is the opposite. It’s about stepping back to be a support system for this being in your care and allowing it to live. A puppeteer follows the puppet’s lead, not the other way around.

As for performing, I love the opportunity to collaborate with amazing artists and to connect with a live audience. Writing can be isolating as hell, so to switch from Hermit to Traveling Bard, where the book becomes a carriage I ride out into the world . . . that’s what makes all the isolation worth it. I was also raised as a professional child clown (as in, I was a child who was a clown, not a clown for children), so I guess it’s in my blood.

Read our starred review of ‘Thistlefoot’ by GennaRose Nethercott.

When you think back to writing this book, what sections stand out most in your mind?
First, the folk tale chapters in Thistlefoot’s voice. They were just such a joy to write. I loved existing in the house’s playful, unreliable, teasing voice and getting to tell these compact stories within the greater narrative. They’re my favorite parts of the book, both to read and to have written, and are the excerpts I’m currently working on with Wooly Mar and Shoshana Bass to translate into live puppet shows for my book tour.

And on the complete opposite end of the spectrum, something that stands out is . . . my mortal enemy. A chapter I bitterly named “This Fucking Chapter.” A spiteful bastard of a chapter I wrote and rewrote and re-rewrote at least 12 times, and it got worse each time. I won’t even bother mentioning which one, because it’s honestly a nothing of a chapter. You wouldn’t even notice anything odd about it at this point; it’s sort of a neutral, expositional moment. But oh god. It shaved years off my life. This chapter . . . it laid one eye on me and said, “That one. Let’s kill her. It’ll be fun.”

Anyway, it ultimately turned out just fine.

Would you rather be able to animate the inert or perfectly mimic anyone you met?
Ooh, that’s a good one! Hm. Probably animating the inert, just because it’s the more dramatic of the two. One of my prized possessions is a handmade cotton and silk doll I sewed a few years ago. Her name is My Beautiful Daughters, and she has two heads. My friends all think she’s cursed, but she’s my gal. Might be nice to wake her up for tea and a chat.

Photo of GennaRose Nethercott by Kirk Murphy.

GennaRose Nethercott makes herself at home with Slavic folklore in her debut novel, Thistlefoot.
GennaRose Nethercott

When Orthodox Jewish teen Hoodie Rosen sees a girl dancing on the sidewalk outside the window of his yeshiva classroom, he has no idea that the connection they’ll form will lead them to question everything they believe and change both of their lives forever.

Debut novelist Isaac Blum’s The Life and Crimes of Hoodie Rosen might be the funniest YA book of the year, thanks to Hoodie’s often hilarious, deeply authentic narration. It’s also an unflinching portrait of how hate can take root in a community—with tragic results.

Blum spoke with BookPage about balancing humor with heartbreak and horror, and why his novel’s intense emotions will ring true for teen readers.

Tell us about Hoodie and Anna-Marie when we first meet them.
Yehuda “Hoodie” Rosen is goofy and sarcastic. He attends yeshiva, where he studies Jewish stuff plus “regular” school stuff. He doesn’t take much seriously. He hates zucchini.

Anna-Marie Diaz-O’Leary is a more “typical” teenager. She goes to the local public school and spends a lot of time thinking about boys. She practices different dances and makes TikTok videos with her friends. Compared to Hoodie, she’s serious, thoughtful and confident in her place in the world.

When the book starts, Hoodie has just moved to a new town, where his father is helping their Orthodox community build a high-rise apartment building to house more Orthodox families. Anna-Marie is mourning her father, who has recently passed away. She’s lived in Tregaron, Pennsylvania, all her life, and her mother is the mayor and hellbent on preventing the Orthodox community from growing in their town.

You do a great job of representing how neither Hoodie nor Anna-Marie see each other clearly, and yet they form what turns out to be a life-changing connection. What was challenging and what was fun about writing their relationship?
The difficult part was making their respective confusion feel true. I needed them to have very different understandings of their relationship, but for both of their perspectives to feel valid to the reader. That was challenging, and I asked myself over and over, “Will the reader buy what Hoodie’s thinking here? Will the reader understand why Anna-Marie thinks about this so differently?” I relied heavily on early readers to help me get that right.

“You’re going to deeply trust somebody who works hard to know you.”

The fun part was that once I got that balance where I wanted it, I could use Hoodie’s and Anna-Marie’s inability to read each other for some funny and surprising moments. I also think their initially crossed signals make the relationship they do create more meaningful, because they had to work to get there. It’s hard-earned. You’re going to deeply trust somebody who works hard to know you.

My list of favorite supporting characters in this book is not short. (The list is topped by Hoodie’s sisters Chana and Zippy and his friend Moshe Tzvi.) Who was your favorite supporting character to write?
You and I have the same top three. I’d probably even put them in that order, so that makes Chana my favorite. She was definitely the most fun to write.

The thing about Zippy and Moshe Tzvi is that they both have some heavy lifting to do in the book. Zippy has to help Hoodie come of age, show him that she’ll love him unconditionally and then cede the eldest sibling position to him. Moshe Tzvi has to be the studious foil to Hoodie’s slacker, and then he has to have his own coming-of-age arc, in which he grows into a place where he can disagree with his father about Hoodie’s place in the community.

Chana has no such responsibilities. She just stands up on the roof and throws soup at people. Writing her was just me sitting around thinking of silly pranks for her to pull.

Hoodie narrates from some unknown point in the future. It’s right there in the opening line: “Later, I tried to explain to Rabbi Moritz why it was ironic that my horrible crime was the thing that saved the whole community.” Was this perspective always part of the novel? Why did you employ it?
That perspective is there because of the opening line, or at least the first couple paragraphs. Before I’d outlined the novel at all, those first lines came into my head, and I wrote them like that, and I never changed them. But I like this narrative tool for a couple reasons:

It establishes tension and a bit of suspense right off the bat. Hoodie tells the reader that the events of the novel “humiliated him on a global scale,” “put him in the ICU” and “ruined his life.” Hopefully the reader wonders how all that went down and looks forward to reading about it.

That narrative device also lets the reader know that Hoodie makes it to the end of the novel alive and on good enough terms with Rabbi Moritz that Hoodie can try to explain the story’s ironies to him. I’m not categorically against having horrible things happen to my protagonist, but there’s enough grave stuff going on already in this book, and I didn’t see the need for the reader to worry about Hoodie’s fate.

“I think that being a high school teacher is a great job if you’re going to write YA.”

You’ve taught English at Orthodox schools. How did those experiences come into play as you worked on the novel? 
I think that being a high school teacher is a great job if you’re going to write YA. Whether you want to or not, as a teacher you learn a ton about your students’ worlds. And if you forget what it’s actually like to be a teenager, you’re reminded every day. In this case, if you happen to be writing a book from the point of view of an Orthodox yeshiva student, it certainly helps if you spend your days surrounded by Orthodox yeshiva students.

While the novel is not based on my students—I don’t think that would be fair to them—it’s certainly influenced by them: their struggles to balance modernity with tradition, their fears of antisemitism and the way the rest of the world sees them, and their humanity and sense of humor.

The novel itself was inspired by a real-life event, too. Can you tell us about that?
On December 10, 2019, there was a shooting at a kosher supermarket in Jersey City, New Jersey. Two shooters opened fire on shoppers in a targeted antisemitic attack. It was one of a number of violent attacks on Jews and Jewish institutions around that time, but this one in particular moved me. Within a week of the shooting, I started outlining the story of an Orthodox Jewish teen who finds himself caught in the middle of violent antisemitism—plus all of the normal things teens are caught in the middle of, like crises of identity, first love, etc.

The shooting at the market followed months of growing tension—in Jersey City and elsewhere—between long-established communities and a new influx of Orthodox Jews. I created my own long-established community, the fictional town of Tregaron, Pennsylvania, and put Hoodie at the center of his community’s move into the town.

What do you hope readers take away from Hoodie’s deep connections to his family and his community?
I have two answers to this question, one specific, one general:

In many mainstream depictions of Orthodox Judaism, the protagonist is depicted as oppressed by their own community. There are lots of “leaving narratives,” stories where the main character is fleeing the religion, leaving their family behind. And while any orthodoxy won’t be for everybody—Hoodie isn’t sure if it’s for him—a close-knit community like Hoodie’s has so much warmth and love to offer. I wanted to make sure readers saw the positive, supportive qualities of Hoodie’s community alongside the flaws.

“It’s totally cool to be furious with the people you love. While that’s a painful feeling, it can be a starting point for growth.”

The more general point is that all families and communities are like that: flawed. With the caveat that some family relationships aren’t reconcilable, I hope readers see Hoodie’s story as an argument that it’s worth finding ways to maintain connections to your family or community, even when you’re angry at them, even when they’ve wronged you. It’s totally cool to be furious with the people you love. While that’s a painful feeling, it can be a starting point for growth.

The novel swings very quickly between humor, contemplation and heartbreak. Why was this important to you? What was the key to getting these shifts right?
I think that’s the adolescent experience. Teens feel stuff really strongly. We all cycle through our moods and feelings, from humor to contemplation to heartbreak and back again. But I think teens cycle quicker, and they feel each one more intensely. And I think it’s important to show that those seemingly contradictory feelings are going to exist next to each other, that you can experience heartbreak with a sense of humor, or that you can ask yourself important life questions without being overwhelmed by the gravity of them.

The key to the shifts for me, honestly, was self-restraint. It’s my instinct, like it’s Hoodie’s, to turn everything into a quip or a joke, to deflect from the serious back to the humorous. So when I thought Hoodie should take a step back and ask a big question, or when I knew I had to write a heavy scene, I tried to rein in that side of me and let those moments breathe.

How did you make sure the humorous moments were actually funny?
I still have no idea if the humorous moments are actually funny. When you write a novel, you spend a lot of time with it, so it has to be something you want to read. I had fun writing goofy scenes. I enjoyed reading them later. I was amused by them. But it’s often hard to judge your own work, and of course you don’t know if the reader will share your sense of humor.

To that end, I have a critique partner—let’s call him Rob, because that’s his name—who functions as a kind of snark police. When I’m too self-indulgent with the goofiness, especially to the point where it distracts from the narrative, he berates me and forces me to trim the excess stuff that’s not funny, and I’m very grateful.

“Sometimes in the most horrific moments, levity really does help. You can take the world seriously, confront its horrors and still find time to laugh.”

This novel has some awful events. I’d like the humor to show that while existence contains innumerable ills, such as bigotry, hate crime and zucchini, it’s worth keeping your sense of humor. Sometimes in the most horrific moments, levity really does help. You can take the world seriously, confront its horrors and still find time to laugh.

Hoodie asks himself big questions about whether the life he thought he was supposed to want is the life he actually wants. What advice would you give teens asking themselves similar questions?
Oh man. I’m certain that I’m not qualified to give this advice. But here are two thoughts:

First, you can only be you. So once you figure out who that person is, just be that person. Hoodie finds a way to be himself and still be part of his community, but that’s not possible for everybody. And if you figure out who you are, and the people around you won’t accept that person, then the flaw is with them, not with you.

Second, lean on people you trust, people who will support you unconditionally. Find those people and let them help you.

Hoodie memorably waxes poetic about his love for Starburst, so I have to ask: What is your favorite Starburst flavor? What is your least favorite? What do you hope never becomes a Starburst flavor?
Most flavors should not be Starburst flavors. Starburst flavors should be limited to fruit. I tend to think of them in terms of color. Pink is my favorite. I assume pink is everyone’s favorite. I don’t understand why they make nonpink flavors. Yellow and orange are bad. Those are the ones you give away to your friends when you pretend to be a good sharer.

Read our review of ‘The Life and Crimes of Hoodie Rosen.’

Author photo of Isaac Blum courtesy of Milton Lindsay.

The debut novelist explores faith, friendship and family in The Life and Crimes of Hoodie Rosen.

Margaret Wilkerson Sexton’s third novel, On the Rooftop, is a welcome disruption, both to literary trends and in her own publishing career. In a time of immense social upheaval, when many African American writers are foregrounding issues of race, economics and oppression in their books, Sexton chose to write a novel that centers on Black ambition and resiliency.

“With [my previous two novels], it felt like most of my interviews were sociological conversations,” Sexton says from her California home, “but I wanted to be talking about the work.” So for On the Rooftop, she didn’t have a rigid agenda. Instead, her novel emphasizes “the endurance and the joy of a community . . . while also drawing attention to the history of the issues and the fact that they still continue to exist.”

Set in 1950s San Francisco, On the Rooftop focuses on the multifaceted yet endearing Vivian, who has complicated relationships with her three daughters, Ruth, Esther and Chloe. The widowed Vivian dreams of stardom for her musically gifted daughters, who sing together as the Salvations. The young women are popular performers at a local spot called the Champagne Supper Club, and Vivian has hooked the attention of an enigmatic talent manager. 

However, just as the Salvations are on the cusp of fame, Vivian’s aspirations are challenged by personal trauma and their neighborhood’s changing landscape. Her daughters are also beginning to prioritize their own desires over their mother’s prescribed plan. Loosely inspired by Fiddler on the Roof and told from multiple perspectives, On the Rooftop is a masterful examination of family and community that celebrates the legacy of Black dreams and determination.   

“The music really exemplified the endurance of this community. They came here with so much optimism.”

Readers of Sexton’s previous historical novels will recognize On the Rooftop‘s exploration of the often-complex relationships between mothers and daughters. “I can’t escape it,” Sexton says. “There is just so much to be mined. They are such primal relationships, and even the best ones are fraught.” 

In the novel, Sexton describes Vivian’s feelings about motherhood with care and nuance, successfully avoiding tropes and instead creating a character who embodies very specific personal and cultural dynamics. Vivian is a Louisiana transplant who lost her husband, Ellis, long ago, and whose own musical dreams were stunted by her difficult life. This is not, however, your typical parent-living-through-their-child story. “I feel like Vivian has some challenges around when to let go, but I think she ultimately does learn to do so,” Sexton says. “At her best level, she has learned when it’s time to step aside, and I think that’s what parenting is—surrendering to the child’s metamorphosis into an adult.”

The distinct relationships between Vivian and each of her daughters reflect their divergent personalities, histories and ambitions. Vivian puts much of her faith in Ruth—the eldest, the quintessential rock, the de facto leader of the sisters. Ruth has a strained relationship with middle sister Esther, who dreams of making an impact but has conflicting ideas about how to do so. Chloe, the youngest daughter, yearns for her mother, sisters and community to recognize her gifts. 

Sexton notes that despite their differences, all four women are ultimately searching for the same thing: security. “I love that through each of the girls, you get a different window into what security means,” she says. “The goal is for all of them to feel safe in their own separate worlds.” 

The past is ever-present for each of them, and nodes of memory function as creative forces, influencing the women as they navigate generational trauma, interpersonal violence and grief. Vivian, for example, grapples with recollections from her Louisiana homeland and the aftermath of Ellis’ death. As Sexton notes, these memories catalyze Vivian’s goals for her daughters, her self-esteem and her ability to love again. 

“I feel like honoring the memories that you hold is a symbol for the entire book,” she says. “For Vivian . . . she has these painful memories of segregation in the South, of humiliation in the South and of her father’s tragic death in the South. She can’t forget those memories. She can’t erase them, and she can’t bury them. She has to somehow continue to hold those memories and almost transform them into something educational for herself in order to allow this new world to enter into her space.”

Vivian’s memories were also an important factor in Sexton’s writing process. After setting her previous two novels in her hometown of New Orleans, the author wanted to explore the Bay Area, her home of 15 years. The former lawyer, who has a degree in creative writing from Dartmouth College, was cautious, however, feeling that she had yet to possess the cultural authority to imagine her adopted home. “It made sense to me to make Vivian someone who had been born in Louisiana, so we were both coming from the same place,” Sexton says. “She was basically a visitor. Her lens and my lens are not any different.”

During the 1950s, San Francisco’s Fillmore District was considered the “Harlem of the West,” a nod to its similarity to the Harlem Renaissance of the 1920s and ’30s. The Fillmore’s Black community began to emerge during what is known as the Great Migration, a national trend of northern and western movement as many African Americans left the South in search of new residential and occupational opportunities and to escape the horrors of Jim Crow. The predominantly Black neighborhood became the center of San Francisco’s vibrant jazz scene, where transcendent legends collaborated with local musicians in the many clubs that lined the streets. 

 “Our ancestors have done it, and our descendants will do it. We’re not all alone in this.”

Sexton has a personal connection to the Great Migration. Similar to her characters, members of her own family moved from Louisiana to California in the 1940s and ’50s. When Sexton arrived in the area decades later, these family members welcomed her with open arms, allowing her to immediately feel a sense of community in her new home. She inscribes this sentiment into On the Rooftop

“I love that they brought Louisiana to the Bay Area,” Sexton says, “and that they created this mini-community that was an echo of their own that they had left back home, [where] they could access all of the sources of comfort. . . . They founded the same churches that they would have gone to back home.”

In the novel, Vivian and her daughters dream of musical stardom as a way to secure liberty in the face of racial and economic oppression, and as the Salvations channel their existential angst into jazz and blues numbers performed at Black-owned Fillmore clubs, they share stages with iconic musicians such as Dinah Washington and Lena Horne. While brief, these cameos ground the story in very real historical dynamics. From blues to jazz to gospel and hip hop, music has been the lifeblood of Black people in America, conveying emotion, building community and offering pathways to freedom. Music feels like its own character in On the Rooftop, a vibrant entity that seems to breathe, occupy space and impact social activity.

Margaret Wilkerson Sexton author photo
Margaret Wilkerson Sexton, author of ‘On the Rooftop’

“Setting [On the Rooftop] in the jazz era really enlivens the book,” Sexton says. “The music really exemplified the endurance of this community. They came here with so much optimism and so much hope, you know, to work in the shipyards. They had more money than they ever had before. They re-created this community so it felt like home. And this musical scene was part of this.”

In the book, the community’s camaraderie and stability are undermined by white businessmen who begin buying up property in the area. For these businessmen and their partners in government, the Fillmore was a blight, despite being a strong Black residential and business base. Some property owners sold out for a quick windfall, while others resisted until the seemingly benevolent offers turned into harassment. Some continued to fight, as Esther does in the novel.

This process, known as “urban renewal,” affected African American communities across the country in the 1950s and ’60s and is an antecedent to present-day gentrification. While some Black neighborhoods were wiped out through this process, others were able to persist and still exist in some form. With On the Rooftop, Sexton hoped to present a portrait of community resiliency for contemporary neighborhoods resisting gentrification. 

“I want people to be aware of the fact that it’s been around for a long time and that it continues,” Sexton says. “We need to start having conversations, and we need to start creating policies that preempt it, right, that abolish it. And I want people to experience the joy and the endurance of a community that has undergone it and still continued to flourish.” 

Sexton’s work entertains and inspires at the same time, and with On the Rooftop, she urges us to find comfort in the triumphs of our past. “I hope that it will relay the security of knowing that we’re not all alone in this,” she says. “Our ancestors have done it, and our descendants will do it. We’re not all alone in this. We kind of have a blueprint for how to fix it and how to heal ourselves in the process.”

Photos of Margaret Wilkerson Sexton by Smeeta Mahanti

In the third novel from the author of A Kind of Freedom and The Revisioners, the sweetest song comes from the heart of San Francisco's 1950s jazz scene.
Margaret Wilkerson Sexton author photo

First we met Evelyn Hugo in The Seven Husbands of Evelyn Hugo. Then came Daisy Jones of Daisy Jones & The Six, followed by Nina Riva from Malibu Rising. Author Taylor Jenkins Reid brings her quartet of novels about fictional female celebrities to a close with the highly anticipated Carrie Soto Is Back, about a tennis player’s major comeback. In anticipation of its release, we volleyed over a few questions about the author’s favorite bookstores and libraries.

What are your bookstore rituals?
I seem to have a habit of hitting up the front fiction shelves, then making a beeline for the cookbooks and then hitting up fiction again. It’s very hard for me to leave a store without a novel or a cookbook. Not sure it’s ever happened.

What is your ideal bookstore-browsing snack?
A very fancy—perhaps even artisanal and overpriced—flavored black iced tea.

“I love literature but also deeply love architecture. Libraries are such a beautiful way of exploring both.”

What’s the last thing you bought at your local bookstore?
One of the volumes of the Bad Guys series by Aaron Blabey. My daughter absolutely loves that series, and it is such a treat to take her to the store and let her buy a new one. I love watching her come home and go right to her bedroom so she can devour it cover to cover.

Bookstore cats or bookstore dogs?
I love all animals, but my heart belongs to dogs!

How is your own personal library organized?
By color and sections that make sense only in my brain. To me, the organizing principle of a home library is “How will you best remember where the book is?” and so I do that by color of the book and a general “vibe” that defies logic but works every time for me.

While writing your books, has there ever been a librarian or bookseller who was especially helpful?
When I first started writing, I was trying to absorb as many of my contemporaries as I could. I was voracious. At the Beverly Hills Public Library, they had a Friends of the Library store, and that store would have a used book sale two times a year. I used to go in there and ask the volunteer behind the desk what books I should get and come home with a stack of 20. It was such a lovely way to read outside of my own taste, picking those used books up for a dollar or two each.

Tell us about your favorite library from when you were a child.
The library at my elementary school felt like such a special place. We only really went there during specific free periods or during the coolest, most magical time of the year: the Scholastic Book Fair. That sense I still get in a library or bookstore, that there are so many books I want to read and so little time, started right there.

Do you have a favorite library from literature?
I’m forever intrigued by Jay Gatsby’s library—all real books and none ever read. 

Do you have a “bucket list” of bookstores and libraries you’d love to visit but haven’t yet?
Oh, absolutely. I love literature but also deeply love architecture. Libraries are such a beautiful way of exploring both. I was blessed to go to college near the Boston Central Library, which may have formed my taste in libraries. It is such a gorgeous building. 

I hope one day I get to see some of the libraries at Oxford, the Royal Monastery of San Lorenzo de El Escorial in Spain and the George Peabody Library in Baltimore.

Photo of Taylor Jenkins Reid by Michael Buckner.

So many books, so little time! The bestselling author of Carrie Soto Is Back discusses bookstore rituals, her devotion to cookbooks and more.
Taylor Jenkins Reid author photo

Sign Up

Stay on top of new releases: Sign up for our enewsletters to receive reading recommendations in your favorite genres.

Trending Interviews

Sign Up

Sign up to receive reading recommendations in your favorite genres!