If you knew that something unexpected were about to happen, what would you feel? Excited? Or perhaps terrified?
Children's author Sharon Creech realized that although adults may find the unexpected exciting, her young readers found it frightening. In a telephone interview, the author explained how she got the idea for her newest novel, "The Great Unexpected."
"I started thinking about how in this post 9/11 world, we put so many fears on our children and ourselves, and we dread and fear the unexpected," she said. "So I started thinking if there were a couple of kids who feared the unexpected, but something came along that reversed that."
Ms. Creech is a former high school English teacher who taught for 18 years in England and Switzerland. Her 1995 novel "Walk Two Moons" won a Newbery Medal, which honors the most distinguished writing for children in America. Ms. Creech is author of 18 published works for children, including "Love That Dog," "Bloomability," "Chasing Redbird" and "Absolutely Normal Chaos." Her works have won awards such as the Newbery Honor, the Carnegie Award and the Christopher Award.
She appears Sunday at 2:30 p.m. in the Carnegie Library Lecture Hall in Oakland as part of the Pittsburgh Arts and Lectures series for children, Black, White & Read All Over. Her appearance will be followed by refreshments and a book signing.
Ms. Creech's novels balance thought-provoking seriousness with hope and humor. "The Great Unexpected" opens up with an orphaned girl, Naomi, standing beneath a tree in a country town of Blackbird Tree. Suddenly, the body of a boy falls out of a tree. Naomi and her friend Lizzy, also an orphan, discover that the boy is alive. He dusts himself off and totters off. Readers wonder: Who is he? Is he real?
Readers eventually understand that the boy, Finn, may not be as real as Naomi wishes. He may be a figure from the past, or a figment of Naomi's imagination.
Ms. Creech weaves two seemingly separate stories together. Naomi's and Lizzy's perspectives are juxtaposed alongside Sybil's, a wealthy but ancient woman who lives on a sprawling estate in Ireland. There, she plots her "revenge," and readers assume something awful will happen. In alternating chapters, readers start to see the connections between the two story lines.
Ms. Creech emphasized the importance of making connections in her work. After living overseas for 18 years, she said she would "run into somebody [she] knew in England in some small town in Ohio." These "odd and random things" happened frequently enough to make her wonder: "What if there are more connections that we never know about? What if there are people in our lives that are connected to us in ways we don't know?"
The connections Ms. Creech makes between characters, locations, and time can be surprising and fanciful. The novel pushes readers to reconsider the definition of what's "real."
Children readily understand that what's "real" extends beyond the material world and includes what lives in the imagination. "Young children are naturally so philosophical. They ask: 'What is real? What is truth?' They have to learn it; they don't automatically know it. To them it's a game. You can study this for years in college, and yet you probably asked it when you were four or five years old," she said.
There's a lot of personal resonance in this novel. Like Naomi, Ms. Creech finds solace in the world of memory. "When my father died, I was living in England. It was very traumatic that he died when I was away. I was grieving so for my father. There came a point six months later, when I forgot he had died. I had lived so long overseas and had such a strong image in my mind of [him]. It was very comforting to me; I knew he was as alive as in my mind as he had been the past 15 years. That was how I dealt with being so far away from my family," Ms. Creech said.
Ultimately, Naomi comes to terms with the traumatic event that took her father's life and left her physically and emotionally scarred. Something unexpected and monumental does happen to Naomi and Lizzy. Both fear the worst but are pleasantly surprised by what actually happens. This novel seems to say that no matter what difficulties you've been through, great things are just around the corner.
In many of Ms. Creech's novels, young characters are faced with serious issues, such as loss. "I cannot just write a frivolous book, a la-di-da book. Everything isn't la-di-da. There is something that's going to pull you up short. I want to reassure young readers. I want to comfort them, to not fear the unexpected," she said.
Ms. Creech is known for her vast and vibrant country settings, such as the fictional Bybanks, Ky., that is featured in several of her novels.
She always was drawn to the outdoors as a child. "That was where I felt I belonged. That appeals to me when I'm creating a character; somebody who responds to the outdoors. There is unstructured time, where kids can walk around the ocean collecting rocks, [or] climb mountains. That nourishes a child. One thing I'm interested in is what shapes us: the people? The place where we live? It's both of those and more. That's what I keep coming back to," she said.
Once Naomi and Lizzy understand their connections to the past, they want to help others. In doing so, they discover their place.
"Every character is asking: 'What's my place? Why am I here? I don't want the answer to be 'Just because.' You find your own purpose. Each finds the reason to be here and how to contribute."
Julie Azzam teaches literature at the University of Pittsburgh and blogs about children's literature and parenting at www.instantlyinterruptible.com