Emma Donoghue, author of bestselling adult novels Room and The Wonder, offers her first book for middle grade readers, and it’s positively packed to the brim with lovable characters, new experiences and diverse voices.
What was it like to transition from writing for adults to writing for children? Did you always plan to write a children’s book?
No, it never occurred to me until six years ago when (our kids being 7 and 3) I got the idea for the Lotterys project.
The Lotterys seem at once over-the-top and realistic. How did you achieve this? Did you set out to write the most diverse book you could think of?
Yes, I did set out to create the most diverse family I could, leavened with a lot of humor, and it’s a very loving, stable family, too. I aimed to give the book very contemporary content, but some of the atmosphere of classic 19th- and 20th-century family stories.
The Lotterys are a contemporary North American family in every way. Were you able to bring in any of your Irish background into the novel?
Well, in Ireland big families were normal when I was growing up (as the youngest of eight), so that could be considered an Irish perspective. It could be argues that the Irish talk nonstop, and the Donoghues are no different. Also, what I brought was my background as an immigrant to North America; like me, PapaDum (from India) and MaxiMum (from Jamaica) started life a long way away, as did Sumac’s birth parents, and I hope the book is celebratory of what immigrants bring to the urban mosaic.
“I hope the book is celebratory of what immigrants bring to the urban mosaic.”
Precocious 9-year-old Sumac provides a delightful perspective to the story. Will any of the other Lotterys take a turn at narrating?
No, I’m afraid I’ve promised the job to Sumac for life. She argued that the others are too exhibitionistic, self-absorbed or downright silly to be as good as observing and recording as she is.
Some of your adult novels take place in the 19th century and have required research. Was there any research needed for The Lotterys Plus One?
Just as much—it’s just that the research shows more in historical fiction! For The Lotterys Plus One, I’ve had to research everything from Toronto street food to native plants, care homes for the elderly to the effects of smoke inhalation.
With names like PapaDum and MaxiMum and the family home, Camelottery, the story is filled with wordplay. Are you a fan of puns?
I used to say no to this question . . . but I find that motherhood had brought out the bad-joker in me. In the case of this book, the reason I’ve given my taste for wordplay free rein is that I believe every family is its own little micro culture, held together by private jokes, special words for things and family stories, so it seemed likely that the 11-person Lotterys gang would do that with knobs on.
Even though this is a book for children, it deals with such complicated topics as racism, homophobia, gender identity, disabilities and dementia. Is it harder or easier writing about these topics for children? Did you ever worry that you were including too many “issues” in the story?
It’s a little tricky, at times, but so important: I’m so sick of middle grade books that stick to that Mommy-Daddy-Son-Daughter-everything’s-rosy convention. I think it’s important to distinguish between the things that freak children out and those that don’t. In the first category I’d put distressing material such as dementia or shaken-baby syndrome, for instance; here I tried to use a delicate touch, telling the readers as much as they needed without weighing down the narrative, and putting it all in a loving-family context which feels safe. In the second category I’d put differences such as Brian’s gender variance, the parents’ same-sex relationships or the family’s ethnic variety, which needn’t distress child readers even if they’re new concepts. My experience of writing books with queer themes over the past quarter of a century is that humor—and strong, likable characters—are key.
At first this “hippy-dippy” family seems completely nontraditional, but by the end, readers are focused on their love and acceptance. Have you heard from any children who have read the book? What has been their response to the Lotterys?
Prepublication, the only children I’ve had a chance to hear from so far are my focus group of my kids and their friends, who I bribed with gift cards to a bookstore to give me feedback. Interestingly, most of the responders of 10 or 11 liked little Brian best, which proves that young readers don’t always read “up,” focusing on characters a few years older than themselves.
How similar is your parenting style to any of the Lottery parents?
It’s probably closest to CardaMom—warm and huggy, but with some of MaxiMum’s “fascinating facts” thrown in.
Can you give us any hints about the sequel?
I’m afraid not, except that my kids are mercilessly editing the first draft now.
ALSO IN BOOKPAGE: Read our review of The Lotterys Plus One.
Author photo credit Mark Raynes Roberts 2015.