Like you, I read lots of books. One of my favorite authors has long been Patricia MacLachlan, who I believe is one of the most exquisite writers of our time. Her newest book, Nora’s Chicks, with illustrations by Kathryn Brown is yet another book filled with the kind of writer’s craft we’d like young writers to possess. While I loved to hold up MacLachlan’s chapter books, like Baby, Journey, and Sarah, Plain and Tall to my fourth and fifth graders, I also liked to use some of her picture books when I was helping my students master sophisticated craft moves. If you’re already used to using some of MacLachlan’s picture books, like Through Grandpa’s Eyes and What You Know First, then her newest book, due out later this month, can serve as another text to help your students make reading-writing connections.
I interviewed Patricia MacLachlan. It’s my hope you will be able to use her responses to my questions as you share her books, especially Nora’s Chicks, with your students.
SAS: How did Nora’s Chicks come to be?
PM: Nora’s Chicks is about my past and much of my childhood. The landscape is where I was born, the prairie with the huge sky. My father was born in a sod house on the farm. Mostly it is about my grandmother who when she came to America was lonely and missed her homeland. It was her chicks and geese that became her best friends in the new place.
SAS: From the start, I got a sense that adjusting to live in America, on the prairie, was going to be challenging for Nora. In fact, by the second page spread I thought this would be a great companion to What You Know First. Would you tell me what the big message is in Nora’s Chicks? To that end, what do you hope children will take away from Nora’s Chicks?
PM: You are right. I think of Nora’s Chicks and What You Know First as a pair – one is about coming the other about leaving. Both are about missing something – mostly missing where you began.
I don’t often think about messages in books. What I care most about is the story and how it connects to me and to the readers. I suppose that Nora finds out what we all find out in the end – there is always something new to find wherever you may go. And Nora finds a new friend because of her loyal chicks.
SAS: I’ve heard you carry prairie dirt with you wherever you go. Would you tell me more about why you do that?
PM: I carry a small bag of prairie dirt to remind me of where I began – the prairie that I miss and still dream about. It is sort of like a charm from my childhood. I had a wonderful childhood with wonderful parents who were storytellers and educators. They loved and respected children. So, my little bag of prairie reminds me of them, too.
SAS: Norah and Susannah’s friendship blossoms close to the end of the book. Would you talk a little bit more about how you decided to have the chicks bring them together? Also, would you say more about the way you developed each of their characters?
PM: I have often thought we humans have a close relationship with animals. We have always had dogs…my daughter Emily has always had rescue dogs – dogs that came from shelters and had no one to love them.
I guess that Nora’s chicks had a small power of their own in this book…when one was lost it brought a new friendship with it. It seemed natural to me. And it grew out of the story. I knew that when her father brought home the chicks and geese that they would be important to the book and to Nora.
I think Nora and Susannah are like most children: inventive, adventurous and brave. They are, in fact, much like my own grandchildren. In fact, Kathryn Brown’s portrait of Nora looks so much like my granddaughter Sofia that it is hard to believe. I do think that no matter where in the world children may live they have similar qualities and needs – to be close to someone. To have a friend.
SAS: Where do you write? When do you write? How often do you write?
PM: I write in a very messy room at the top of my house. The room has a view of the bird feeders outside and the far away hills. I must admit that I have a television in my writing room, mostly because I sometimes wonder what is going on in the world. I write on a computer, and between chapters I often play games of solitaire to help me think. I go to bed very early, sometimes earlier than my six year old granddaughter, Ella. But, I get up VERY early to begin work. I am very smart in the morning and that is when I get most of my good ideas. I do write every day, or try to write. That’s the only way it works for me. I take breaks sometimes and go downstairs to see my dogs and my grandchildren who live with me right now. Those children give me many ideas for books, believe me. Children have the best stories in their heads!
When I get stuck in a book and can’t make the story go right I often go on to something else. sometimes I put a story aside and wait. When I look at it again it solves itself somehow.
SAS: How did winning the Newbery Medal impact your career?
PM: I felt very fortunate and pleased to have won the Newbery Medal. I especially felt proud that the book was small, for many different ages, and was about my other step great grandmother. There are many wonderful books that have not won the Newbery, of course, and I never lose sight of that. I am happy and honored to be part of the large community of children’s book writers.
I don’t believe that it changed my writing at all. I had other books to write, all for different reasons. Sarah, Plain and Tall was a step in my journey of writing.
SAS: What are three things you wish someone had told you about writing when you were younger/starting out?
PM: When I began writing I knew two of the things already. I knew it would be hard work. And I knew it would often take a long time to get a story done.
What I DIDN’T know then that I know now is that writer’s don’t get a story right the first time. We write and rewrite over and over again. I write chapter 1 of a story three or four times before I go on to chapter 2. That takes a long time.Writers have to be very patient.
SAS: What advice do you have for children who want to become writers when they grow up?
PM: My advice to children who want to be writers is to read, read, read! That is the very best way to find out what kinds of stories they love and how they might want to write themselves. Sometimes I meet a writer who never did read as a child, but that doesn’t happen very often. All of my children read and still read. And their grandchildren read. In fact, my sixteen month old granddaughter Anna dreams of books in her sleep! She was taught signing as a baby and she makes the sign for an open book as she sleeps. I find that profoundly touching.
SAS: Do you have any favorite young authors whose picture books we should be keeping an eye on as teachers?
PM: Now, I’m not sure about what age some of my favorite writers are, but many are younger than I am! One whom I admire is Kevin Henkes who writes the most lovely, simple and poetic picture books. I love each and every one. Another is Kate DiCamillo who, among her other fine books, wrote one of my favorite Christmas books of all time – Great Joy.
SAS: What are you working on now?
PM: I am working on a picture book of the artist Henri Matisse titled The Iridescence of Birds, a book with my daughter called Cat Talk. I have three new novels just finished, White Fur Flying about rescue dogs, The Truth of me about a boy whose parents are musicians, Fly Away, based on a song my grandchildren learned in music school. There are a few new things I’m thinking about – I can see the beginnings of these books on my computer. One is about chickens! I love chickens!
Take a peek inside of MacLachlan & Brown’s new book:
NORA’S CHICKS. Text copyright © 2013 by Patricia MacLachlan. Illustrations copyright © 2013 by Kathryn Brown. Reproduced by permission of the publisher, Candlewick Press, Somerville, MA.
This giveaway is for a copy of Nora’s Chicks for one of our readers. Many for thanks to Candlewick Press for sponsoring this giveaway. To enter for a chance to win a copy of Nora’s Chicks each reader should leave one comment about this post in the comments section of this post. Feel free to share your thoughts about the interview, ways you might use this book in your classroom, or thoughts about Patricia MachLachlan’s writing in general. All comments left on or before Thursday, February 21st at 11:59 p.m. Eastern Time will be entered into a random drawing using a random number generator on Friday, February 22nd. I will announce the winner’s name at the bottom of this post by Sunday, February 24th. Please be sure to leave a valid e-mail address when you post your comment so I can contact you to obtain your mailing address and have my contact at Candlewick send the book out to you. Please note: Your e-mail address will not be published online.
Comments are now closed. Thank you to everyone who left a comment for a chance to win a copy of Nora’s Chicks. The random number generator picked Melanie Meehan’s commenter number. Here’s what she wrote:
Patricia MacLachlan remains one of my favorite authors and my oldest daughter’s name is Larkin, inspired by Baby. Whenever I am trying to write, I reach for one of her books. Arthur For the Very First Time is wonderful and has a super funny and memorable chicken named Pauline. Such complex simplicity in all of her books. Or is it simple complexity? I wish I could write like her!
I am a literacy consultant who has spent the past dozen years working with teachers to improve the teaching of writing in their classrooms. While I work with teachers and students in grades K-6, I'm a former fourth and fifth-grade teacher so I have a passion for working with upper elementary students.
I'm the author of Craft Moves (Stenhouse Publishers, 2016) and the co-author of Jump Into Writing (Zaner-Bloser, 2021), Welcome to Writing Workshop (Stenhouse Publishers, 2019), and Day By Day (Stenhouse, 2010).