Wednesday, July 7, 2010

The Accidental Adventures of India McAllister by Charlotte Agell: review, interview and ARC give away

My fabulous writing critique partner, Charlotte Agell, has just published her 12th children’s book. The Accidental Adventures of India McAllister follows a mischievous nine-year-old tomboy as she struggles to understand the shifting relationships in her life.

Although the protagonist is called India, she was adopted from China. Her artist mother named her for India Ink. India loves her parents, but she resents her birth mother for giving her up. India feels doubly rejected when she has to share her father with his new partner, Richard. Then India’s best friend, a boy called Colby, starts flirting with her arch nemesis, Amanda.

How’s a girl to cope with all this stress? India doesn’t mope. She seeks out adventures: searching for UFOs, spying on gossiping girls, playing detective and camping in the woods of Maine. India has a big heart and a nose for fun/trouble. Charlotte’s whimsical line drawings highlight the many humorous moments in this easy to read novel.

Although the material is very now, Charlotte's child-centered style with freedom to explore reminds me of the classic books from my childhood from Harriet the Spy to Jenny Linsky and the Cat Club. Families with step-parents, breast cancer survivors (India’s mother is one), same-sex partners and/or adopted children will especially appreciate the inclusiveness of this contemporary story. Charlotte covers “The Big Issues” in an age appropriate manner without being judgmental. For example India has typical problems accepting her new stepfather, but his being gay is a not an issue (except to the nosy neighbor.) I’m buying a copy for my half Japanese niece, who is starting fourth grade next year.

My daughter and I were intimately involved in India and its sequel (in the works.) Charlotte and I have been critiquing each other’s manuscripts for the past three years and have since become close friends. She encouraged me to try writing for teens as well as for adults, leading by her fine example. Since my daughter was the same age as the targeted audience, Charlotte asked for her input too. Any criticism my daughter and I had Charlotte has already responded to or ignored (like not calling a Chinese American girl India - a minor quibble) as suited her unique vision. We have enjoyed watching India grow over the past two years.

My 12-year-old daughter's review:

I first read The Accidental Adventures of India McAllister as a rough draft when I was ten and absolutely loved it, and I just reread it again recently as a published book, and I still love it! When I was ten, I enjoyed the story because it was new, cool and funny. Rereading it now, I notice more specific things like how it’s written very believably as a fourth grade girl narrator.

Each character is perfectly described and sculpted so I can picture how they are in my mind and how they act. One of the most fun parts about this book is India’s voice. She narrates out of her own eye and has a young, funny essence to how she does it. I really like her crazy dog, Tofu, because I can completely relate to having one hyper, lovable, woofing yellow bundle of craziness in our house! India was a super fun read, and I would definitely recommend it to kids around the age of eight to ten. I think they would really enjoy reading this book, I know I did!

Interview of Charlotte Agell
by Sarah Laurence and her daughter
(author photo by Sarah Laurence)

1. You’ve written 9 picture books and then 2 young adult novels (ages 12-18) as your own children grew up, what made you decide to try middle grade fiction (ages 8-12) now?

It was really more as if middle grade fiction decided to try me! I find that’s often the case with my books. I chew on an idea, and the idea itself decides its form. My hunch is also that spending so much time with 5th graders at the middle school where I teach contributed! The other thing is that I loved so many chapter books, growing up: Astrid Lindgren’s Pippi stories, the Moomintroll books…they were also illustrated, the latter by the author herself. I think the illustrations are similarly key to The Accidental Adventures of India McAllister (and if anybody doesn’t know Tove Jansson’s Moomintroll books, well, they should run to the nearest library and find them!).

2. You are happily married with two biological children, what led you to write about a girl adopted from China, who is being raised by a single mother and by a father and his gay partner in the fictional town of Wolfgang, Maine?

A fifth grader at the school where I work showed me her memoir. It contained very powerful writing about how she felt about her Chinese birth mother. This started me thinking…. India’s story is very, very different from this girl’s story, but that was definitely one of the seeds. As for India’s mother, she is a strong woman artist with a great deal on her plate, reminding me in some ways of my own mother, and how it was for her, after my father left. India's father is very much in her life, and part of this story is about how she gets to know his partner, Richard. For India, the issue is a step-parenting one. I was writing this book as Maine's Gay Marriage Law (approved by the legislature) went out to referendum. It didn't pass, unfortunately. I wish it had, as Andrew and Richard would definitely like to be married. Maybe they will be, in a later book.

3. Did you have anyone in your life a bit like India or did she just come up in your head?

India has elements of quite a few real life characters. She has my daughter’s love of reading and science, for example, and her willingness to be completely herself, even as a “tween.” She has a bit of me in her, too, as almost all my characters do. (I, too, made a snake mistake and saw a U.F.O.!) But in the end, India is mostly invention; she walked into my life and notebooks with attributes that came from who knows where! It’s funny about characters – they may be fictional but they feel very real to me.

4. Did you like as a kid (or still like) going on adventures like India?

Who doesn’t like adventures? Well, actually, as India demonstrates, they can be scary. I lived in Sweden, Canada, and Hong Kong as a kid, and often found myself wondering what on earth was going on. The sometimes strange situations I found myself in, due to culture bump or just growing up, made me wonder. Writing is, to me, mostly about wondering about things, just on paper. I’m still digesting that long ago U.F.O., and I’m guessing that this is why it makes my appearance here.

5. After 9 years teaching creative writing in a Gifted and Talented middle school program, what do you think is the most helpful writing advice? 

When an idea strikes you, write it down as immediately as possible (otherwise it is guaranteed to morph into its boring cousin). A corollary: always carry a notebook, or have one nearby. Write every day, even if it is only for a little while (some days, three minutes counts!) Writing is truly a matter of revision. Get those ideas down, sleep on them, take another look. Although ideas may strike like lightning, or waft in on the breeze, so much about writing involves perseverance. So, stick with writing, if you wish to write (and why not?) Finally, do not cook and write at the same time, for you will burn the onions. I keep this advice on my bulletin board, as a reminder of an unfortunate incident.

6. Which is more challenging: writing or illustrating? How does being responsible for both affect the editing process, as a manuscript becomes a published book? 

I draw a lot, but feel more like a writer who illustrates, rather than a true illustrator. This is because I have a great deal of stamina and patience for revising my writing, but I don’t much like to rework pictures. I will, of course, but not in that careful way of someone trying to get it just right. My illustrating style is on the loose side, and related to how I draw portraits (quickly, in one go). Both writing and illustration are at root about observation…just different ways to express what I notice.

7. What can you share about the sequel?

After this book, India goes to camp. There, she encounters her worst enemy and the action escalates. India’s second book of adventures is one big adventure, rather than chapter length vignettes (although it’s still a chapter book). I had a great deal of fun writing the second book, too. Its working title is "India McAllister Goes to Camp," but that might change. Writing and illustrating a series feels good to me, since India seems to have a lot more to tell me!

In our opinion, the sequel is even better than the first. We're looking forward to more adventures. Thank you, Charlotte!

Want More Info? Visit India’s blog at India's Ink is written from the character’s perspective and features Charlotte’s drawings. Note that the wrong URL was printed on the book cover (another accidental adventure?) You can read another one of our mother-daughter (and son) reviews of Charlotte Agell’s books here. Visit her website to learn more.

Brunswick Book Signing: Charlotte will be reading from India and signing at  Gulf of Maine Books in Brunswick, Maine on Saturday July 24 at 4pm. Sadly we'll miss it since that's the drop off day for my daughter's camp.

Reviewer’s Disclaimer: the publisher Henry Holt sent me both an Advanced Reader Copy and a finished copy of this book. I will be giving away the ARC below. All drawings by Charlotte Agell are reproduced with permission.

Free ARC Give Away: if you live in the U.S.A. and would like an Advanced Reader Copy of The Accidental Adventures of India McAllister, please mention so in your comment and give your email so I can reach you. On July 21, 2010 I will select one of you at random to receive the ARC. Published copies are already in American bookstores and available online anywhere through Amazon.

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@Barrie Summy

My novels: one of you blog readers recently stopped by the wonderful Gulf of Maine Books in Brunswick and asked to buy my novels. None are in print yet. My agent has submitted both S.A.D. and "as u like it" to publishers. I hope to announce good news on my blog some day. Gary Lawless has already promised me book signings at his Gulf of Maine Books. In the meantime, I'm working on a new novel, A MATCH FOR EVE, inspired by my sabbatical in Oxford, England. Thank you so much for your support! Knowing I have readers waiting is the best encouragement.


David Cranmer said...

I may be far from the targeted audience but I appreciate the plot of a young person getting out there and exploring her world. I grew up on Tom Swift and The Hardy Boys/Nancy Drew canon and bet the kid in me would dig India McAllister's adventures.

A Cuban In London said...

Like David before me, I appreciate a good book, whether it's intended for my age group or not. Like you, I also thought 'Harriet the Spy' when you mentioned the plot. Maybe because my daughter has it on her bookshelf.

It really is a contemporary work with so many issues focusing on situations one encounters nowadays: adoption, gay parents, cancer. Thanks for introducing me to Charlotte (the interview was great, especially your question about the illustration vs writing challenge).

Greetings from London.

tina said...

Congrats to Charlotte on her new book! It sounds wonderful.

Tracy Golightly-Garcia said...


I enjoyed the review and it sounds like a book my daughter would enjoy.

Please tell Charlotte, I am happy for her new book and look forward to more!

Tracy :)

PS Don't you give up on your books!!

Stacy Nyikos said...

A major Nancy Drew follower as a kid, I'd love to read India. I'm curious to discover Agnell's contemporary protagonist. Sounds like a fun read. Please sign me up for the giveaway!

Stacy said...

Sounds like a great book. Love the illustrations and the interview.

Pamela Terry and Edward said...

I so enjoy your interviews! Charlotte's new book sounds delightful and I wish her much success.
India is one of my all-time favourite names!

Ellen Booraem said...

This sounds like such a fun book-and I'm so glad about the dad and his partner. The more intelligent fiction gets written about gay relationships, the more sensible the world becomes.

And, as usual, it was wonderful to have the added insight from an interview--as well as your daughter's perspective, Sarah!

Linda McLaughlin said...

I enjoyed the review and interview, also. This sound like a good read and I love the illustrations. Milk and cookies is my idea of a well-balanced meal, too, lol.

Alyssa Goodnight said...

I like the sound of this book. I wasn't one of those free-spirited, explore-your-world sort of kids, and I think that makes reading about one all the more interesting to me.

I'd love to be included in the drawing!

Sarah Laurence said...

All, if you want to be included in the drawing, please remember to leave your email in a comment so I can reach you. It’s hard to tell from some of these comments if you are just generally interested or want to be included in the drawing for the free ARC.

David and ACIL, my husband read and loved India too. Although India is meant for ages 8-11, we grown ups can enjoy a return to childhood romping. I was a big fan of Nancy Drew as a kid too. There’s a wonderful blend of classic style and new issues in India.

Tina, it is wonderful.

Tracy, let me know what your daughter thinks of it. Charlotte is reading the comments and very pleased.

Stacy Nyikos, I have you down for the drawing. Thanks for leaving your email. I think you’ll appreciate Charlotte Agell’s mastery of children’s literary technique as much as the content.

Just Stacy, it is great.

Pamela, I love the name India too. I only objected to the confusion with China but now I’ve gotten used to it and can’t see her called anything else. Charlotte also does the final drawings in India Ink and the name of the ink in French refers to China instead of India. It makes sense in a round about way.

Ellen, Charlotte does a brilliant job covering gay relationships in an age appropriate manner. I like that it is just part of the social fabric instead of a plot about gay bashing as is more often the case.

Linda, that milk and cookies drawing was Charlotte’s favorite too. It made us laugh.

Alyssa, I’ll include you in the drawing but please leave your email so I can contact you.

Alyssa Goodnight said...

Sorry, Sarah. I reminded myself to include my email and then promptly forgot after typing in my comment.

Bee said...

This book sounds charming. I want to read it just to admire all of the drawings and to see how Charlotte's handles the various "sensitive" subjects in India's life. Children's books have certainly moved on from the homogenous world of Klickitat street.

Rosaria Williams said...

Looking forward to your novels!

Barrie said...

i think my daughter (age 10) would love this book!!

Sarahlynn said...

I love the combination of plot synopsis, your review, your daughter's review, and an interview with the author. This sounds like a great, complicated, messy, creative, wonderful story.

And now I want to re-read Pippi Longstocking. Can't wait until my eldest is ready for middle grade fiction!

Maria Padian said...

Great review and interview, Sarah! I loved the book, too, and Charlotte's delightful illustrations really bring the story to life.

Kelly H-Y said...

This book sounds fantastic ... I'm definitely going to have to check it out, and maybe pick up a copy for my niece!!

Rose said...

Sounds like a great book for young girls, Sarah. As always, I enjoy the author interview, too. I've heard all kinds of advice about writing, but never to "not write and cook" at the same time. I'll keep that wise tidbit in mind:)

Sarah Laurence said...

Alyssa, thanks.

Bee, it is amazing how far children’s books have evolved to embrace the diversity of our culture. I'll need an American mailing address from you if you win but that shouldn't be hard with your family. I'm restricting the contest to the US only because I'm paying for the shipping and the book isn't published overseas.

Lakeviewer, thanks for the encouragement!

Barrie, I thought of your daughter when I reviewed this book. I’d love to hear what you two think of it. Thanks for hosting the book review club!

Sarahlynn, as much as I enjoyed the picture book stage, sharing middle grade novels with your children is even more rewarding. I’m sad that my youngest is now almost too old for MG, but I’m enjoying reading along with young adult fiction.

Maria, thanks for adding your endorsement of India too.

Kelly, I’d love to hear your reaction to India.

Rose, I have blackened more than a few pots. A watched kettle might not boil, but an unwatched pot while writing will most certainly will be nearly ruined. I’ve burnt brownies too. My kids have to make do with just stories.

Elenka said...

Sounds like a great book...
The part about your blog entry, however, that is sticking with me is how proud I am of myself now knowing I truly do eat a balance meal !!

Sarah Laurence said...

Elenka, that was my favorite too.

cynthia newberry martin said...

Such a great post with your words, your daughter's words, and Charlotte's words and fun drawings!

I particularly appreciated how, because she has no inclination to revise her drawings, Charlotte determined she was really more of a writer who illustrated than an illustrator who wrote.

Sarah Laurence said...

Cynthia, I learned something new interviewing Charlotte even though I know her well. That response was the most interesting one for me too.