August 09, 2016

Helen Frost: Holding loved ones close, especially when they’re gone

Interview by
We spoke with Printz Honor-winning author Helen Frost about her tender, profound novel for young readers.
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Applesauce season has finally come, but for siblings Faith and Peter, it’s a bittersweet arrival. It’s the first year they’ll harvest the apples without their Aunt Lucy, who planted the apple tree when she was a little girl. They’re not even sure Uncle Arthur will come at all, and when he does, he’s lost the twinkle in his eye.

Gentle Faith and clever Peter are here to help, and slowly Uncle Arthur—who can tell a great story better than anyone—finds his twinkle. Throughout Applesauce Weather, the three characters remember Aunt Lucy, in particular reflecting on the love story of Lucy and Arthur. (Are these tales fact or fiction? The kids may never know!)

In this charming novel-in-verse, it becomes clear that young and old understand each other much better than they realize.

What inspired you to write Applesauce Weather?
My grandmother grew up on Prince Edward Island and moved to Minneapolis with a group of friends and relatives. Among this group was a couple who never had children of their own, but were beloved by the children and grandchildren of others in the group. We called them Uncle Arthur and Aunt Lucy, though they were not blood relatives. Uncle Arthur was missing a finger and would never give us a straight answer about what had happened. That was the seed of the story, and for many years I tried to write it as a picture book. But as many editors told me, it was not a picture book.

After letting it sit for awhile, I decided to try rewriting it as a novel-in-verse for children a little older than “picture book age.” This opened up many possibilities, including what became so central to the story—the intergenerational love of the family, focused on their missing Aunt Lucy.

Several voices contribute to this story. Which came first? Which spoke loudest to you? Which was hardest to write?
At first it was Faith, then Uncle Arthur, the two of them back and forth together, telling the story. Then Peter’s voice came in, expressing the skepticism that balances Faith’s eager-to-believe delight in life.

As I wrote, the voices seemed well-balanced, none speaking more loudly than the others, and each of them actually quite easy to write, which is not usually true for me. Uncle Arthur’s grief paralleled a grief of my own at the time I was writing, and that was hard in a way, but also comforting, as he could ask some of the questions I wasn’t quite ready to ask myself.

Not all children grow up on a farm, but this book has great reverence for a child’s relationship with growing things (from Aunt Lucy all the way to Faith). What are some ways kids can forge this relationship with the earth, even if they’re not growing up on a farm?
Whether in a small garden, a window box or an old boot filled with dirt, children can plant seeds and watch them grow. If they live in a city, they can pay attention to what’s going on in the parks or curbside plants. Schools can often find a patch of earth for a garden, in which students can grow food they enjoy eating or perhaps sunflowers to fill birdfeeders, or milkweed and parsley to attract butterflies.

Children everywhere can be encouraged to know where their food comes from, and what the growing season is for the food they eat.

“When we are grieving, nothing is more comforting than to know that our love is shared and our loved ones are remembered.”

When a family member is grieving, what are some ways a child can feel like they’re helping?
I love this question. Children can help in a very particular way because they are the ones who will carry memory farthest into the future. When we are grieving, nothing is more comforting than to know that our love is shared and our loved ones are remembered. So children can say, I’ll never forget how she . . . or Remember when we. . . . In Applesauce Weather, this kind of remembering happens naturally through the things the family does together, more than through words.

While we feel Aunt Lucy’s absence, her voice is so powerful through her songs and her apple-tree traditions that she feels both missing and present, all at once. What do you hope young readers will learn about love and loss from Aunt Lucy’s voice?
Exactly what you are describing here—that a loved one can be present, even in absence, through the things we love and remember about them. In missing them, we hold our loved ones close and in that way we keep them alive for one another.

What do you think is the key to talking to young people about death and grief?
As Lucille Clifton so beautifully reassures us at the end of Everett Anderson’s Goodbye: “…love doesn’t stop, and neither will I.”

Did you grow up celebrating the arrival of applesauce weather? What other traditions did you have as a child that you looked forward to with as much anticipation as Faith?
​When I was Faith’s age, I lived in a small town in the Midwest, and watched the seasons change in many ways that are still part of my life. Certain fruits ripen at the same times: blackberries and apples, blueberries and peaches, strawberries and rhubarb. Applesauce weather follows shortly after blueberry-and-peach jam weather, which follows strawberry-rhubarb cobbler weather, which follows maple-syrup weather, which alerts us to the end of winter, much as ripening apples signal the end of summer.

Perhaps I should add that not all my memories are about food. For example, when I was a child, we lived in a big house with no air conditioning, and it was quite a project to change the storm windows for screen windows every spring, and then back again in the fall. I always looked forward to those days, even though they were a lot of work. Another memory: My father was a basketball coach, and my sisters and I loved going with him to put posters of the basketball schedule in all the small towns.

So many ways of marking the changing seasons.

What do you love most about writing for children?
It’s different for each book. In this book, I love bringing memories from my childhood into a new time and place and seeing how they emerge as a story for today’s children to enjoy. It’s a way of expressing several loves at once—for poetry, for story, for people I miss and for children.

It will be fun to share this book with children. I’m sure I will be asked, “What really happened?” To which I will invite, with a twinkle in my eye, “You tell me and we’ll both know.”


Author photo credit Chad Thompson.

Get the Book

Applesauce Weather

Applesauce Weather

By Helen Frost, illustrated by Amy June Bates
ISBN 9780763675769

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