April 2009

Alison McGhee

A search for joy leads to unexpected places
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Julia Gillian is a master of many things. She is skilled in the Art of Papier-Mâché Making, she is skilled in the Art of Telepathic Human-Dog Communication, and she is skilled in the Art of Chopsticks. Unfortunately, she is not as skilled in the Art of the Trumpet, and even worse, she is learning to be skilled in the Art of Lying.

In award-wining author Alison McGhee’s Julia Gillian (and the Quest for Joy), the second title in her three-part series, we find our precocious and loveable heroine struggling to find herself—and happiness—in the fifth grade. Her best friend is treating her strangely, her favorite lunch lady has been replaced by a tyrannical lunch man, and her dream of becoming a famous jazz trumpeter is quickly being dashed. Julia Gillian is a very serious young girl who never-in-a-million-years would lie to her parents, talk back to her teachers or fake her way through trumpet lessons—until she does.

McGhee captures Julia’s struggles with amazing dexterity, balancing the delicacy of the young girl while respecting the weight of her very mature worries. “I always try to honor the child of whatever age,” McGhee says from her home in Minneapolis. “Too often, adults dismiss the concerns of children—or they are terrified of them, especially teenagers—but children are wonderful, magical beings. They are young, but they have these incredible inner lives, and they are so tender. So I always keep that in mind when writing for children.”

In retrospect, McGhee thinks she might have been a bit like Julia in her own childhood. “I was the oldest child and ultra responsible,” McGhee recalls. “There is some of that in Julia.”

For the most part, however, Julia invented herself. “I created a goal for myself of writing a children’s book, set in my neighborhood, with a young girl who had a big dog,” the author says. “I just let the characters do whatever they do—it’s often a great surprise to me.” This particular character became an accomplished girl with an ever-expanding list of achievements: Skilled in the Art of this, that, and the other. Oddly, she did not become Skilled in the Art of Reading. “I was surprised because I thought she would be like me and bury herself in books all the time,” McGhee says.

The author’s own love of books started at an early age. “My earliest memories were of wanting to be an actor, then a ballerina, then a singer,” she says, “but then when I was six, I started writing stories and I decided I wanted to be a writer.”

After graduating from Middlebury, McGhee spent her off hours writing, but it took six years to get her first short story published, and it was 13 years before Rainlight, her first novel for adults, was published. Her second novel, Shadow Baby, also for adults, became a Pulitzer Prize nominee and a Today Show Book Club selection. “By that time, at least I had an agent,” McGhee jokes.

Her foray into children’s book writing, however, started quite by accident. “I kept a journal about each of my children for every year of their life,” recalls the mother of three. Her sister noticed that there were quite a few ideas for children’s books in the journals, and suggested that she start writing picture books. “It was a huge challenge for me,” she says, but she became skilled in the Art of Picture Book Writing, nonetheless. Her first attempt, Countdown to Kindergarten, won the 2003 Minnesota Book Award and became a Booksense 76 pick, among other accolades.

After that, she delved into writing novels for children.  “Whether I am writing picture books, children’s novels or short novels, I try to hold the same sense of honor and respect for children, their concerns and their amazing ideas.” Indeed, she seems to sympathize with children in a fresh and personal way through her books. In Quest for Joy, McGhee says, “I relate to the fact that she [Julia] is truly at sea and yet she continues to makes things hard for herself. That has been one of the lessons of life for me, too: sometimes it’s OK to ask for help.”

Luckily for Julia Gillian, she learns this lesson as well, and in the end, she does succeed in her quest. As we learn in the book, joy comes in many forms—in the anticipation of new siblings, in freeing oneself from the entanglement of lies, and in the triumphant sounds from a challenging trumpet. For McGhee herself, joy comes in enjoying her children and her dogs, listening to music and reading a wonderful book. She should know. She is, after all, skilled in the Art of Writing Wonderful Books.

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