It’s been a whirlwind year for Lauren Wolk, whose debut children’s novel, Wolf Hollow, received a Newbery Honor, and whose second book, Beyond the Bright Sea, will capture even more readers’ hearts.
“It’s been very hard to imagine,” Wolk says of the accolades and awards bestowed upon Wolf Hollow, which has garnered comparisons to To Kill a Mockingbird. “I’ve been a writer since the day I was born, plugging away, but all of a sudden, out of the blue, everything changes overnight. It’s funny: Just when you stop thinking maybe something big is going to come along, something big comes along!”
“In a way it feels a little more like my own child than Wolf Hollow.”
Wolk is busier than ever, but she has taken time from her day job as associate director of the Cultural Center of Cape Cod, Massachusetts, to speak about her new middle grade novel. Over the phone, Wolk sounds warm, friendly and organized. “This place has my heart,” she says of the arts organization. “We do the most amazing things. But it’s hard to do a 60-hour-week job when you’re away for several days a month, so I’m finding my way slowly.” (In addition to being a wife and mother of two sons, she’s also an assemblage and mixed-media artist, as well as a poet.)
While Wolk is a newcomer in the world of children’s publishing, she published an adult novel, Those Who Favor Fire, in 1999. In fact, Wolk wrote Wolf Hollow for adults, and was surprised when her agent suggested a younger audience. “That was out of left field,” she says, later adding, “I have to say, I don’t think I’m ever going back.”
Wolk wrote each of her middle grade books in “exhilarating” spans of three months. Like Wolf Hollow, which is set in the mountains of Pennsylvania in 1943, Beyond the Bright Sea is also a work of historical fiction, set in the Elizabeth Islands off the coast of Cape Cod in 1925. While her first book pays tribute to her mother’s family farm and stories her mother told her as a child, Wolk’s latest novel is solely her own invention. “In a way it feels a little more like my own child than Wolf Hollow,” she says, explaining that the book’s central character, 12-year-old Crow, “came into my imagination one day and just took hold of my heart.”
When just hours old, baby Crow was set adrift in a small boat upon the sea, but was rescued by Osh, a kindhearted refugee from an unnamed country who fishes and lives off the land in a small, ramshackle cottage. A nearby neighbor, Miss Maggie, is a close friend and one of the few people on the island who doesn’t shy away from the dark-skinned orphan, who may have been born on the nearby island of Penikese, which once housed a leper colony. The isolated landscape plays a powerful role in this carefully plotted, exciting story, which features buried treasure, a dangerous villain, a raging storm and the ongoing mystery of Crow’s abandonment.
Although she’s been to several of the Elizabeth Islands, Wolk hasn’t visited Penikese. Twice, when she booked a ferry passage on an Audubon Society trip, a hurricane cancelled the excursion. “Both times!” she exclaims, adding, “Somebody really didn’t want me to go out there.” Luckily, Google Earth helped her fill in the details.
“I’ve always been in love with the sea,” Wolk says, fondly remembering childhood summers she and her family spent in Cotuit, the Cape Cod village where her mother now lives. (Growing up, Wolk and her family lived in Maryland, California and eventually settled in Providence, Rhode Island, when she was about 10.) None of the family knew how to sail, a skill her father felt was best acquired by doing, so one summer when she was 11, he sent her out to sea.
Adding that Cotuit is known for its safe harbors, Wolk recalls, “He got an old Sunfish and plunked me on it, gave me a shove and said, ‘See you later.’ I cringe now when I think about that, but it was one of the greatest things he could have ever done for me. And I learned to sail really well without a single lesson, except for the lessons the sea gives you.”
Wolk had been toying with the idea of setting an adult novel on the Cape for a long time, inspired by a grave in the Cotuit Cemetery for a baby who was born and died at sea. She eventually decided that she didn’t want to write that story, but had already conducted extensive research about the Elizabeth Islands. Then, when the character of Crow appeared, Wolk says, “She just took me for a ride.”
Wolk likes to include just enough historical details “for my readers to be immersed in that world.” Believing that “people are people,” she doesn’t want young readers to think that her historical characters “are unlike them in some way simply because of the passage of time.” She added just enough historical detail to Crow’s story—like era-appropriate ship routes and native wildflowers—to help set an authentic stage. Too much historical detail, Wolk notes, can be a distraction.
Wolk mentions the 1960 Newbery Medal winner, Island of the Blue Dolphins, as inspiration not only for the island setting but also for the character of Crow, “a really strong girl who has to find her way.” She pauses, then says, “That really didn’t hit me until I just this second said it.”
As is the case with Wolf Hollow, Beyond the Bright Sea contains some “very dark themes,” which Wolk admits she always liked in books she read as a child. “But there’s also a great deal of hope,” she says. “I like the juxtaposition of the dark and the light. And the kids I’ve talked to really seem to like that I respect them enough to know they can handle that sort of thing.”
Wolk is currently finishing revisions of a third children’s novel, set in modern times, about a girl living in the Arizona desert. But the characters of Crow, Osh and Maggie remain very much on her mind. “They’re wonderful, wonderful misfits,” Wolk says. “I miss them terribly. So maybe I’ll write a sequel.”
For anyone who reads Beyond the Bright Sea, that’s very good news indeed.