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.
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!
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.
Author photo of Liz Garton Scanlon courtesy of Elizabeth McGuire.