At the heart of Touch Blue by Cynthia Lord is a moral dilemma. A small island community decides to take on several foster children to prevent the closure of their one-room schoolhouse. Is it right to use children as means to a good end?
Eleven-year-old Tess does not want to move to the mainland if her mother loses her teaching job. She dreams of growing up to be a lobsterman like her father. After reading Anne of Green Gables, Tess hopes that her foster brother will be her new buddy. Thirteen-year-old Aaron would rather be back on the mainland playing his trumpet in a jazz band. He's no grateful orphan but a sullen teenager who wants to live with his mother. She lost custody of him due to her substance abuse. The modern problems update the old fashioned story.
Like Rules, Cindy’s debut children's book, Touch Blue is destined to be a modern classic. Her descriptions engage all the senses without bogging down the narrative. The characters are so real that they breathe from the page. The writing never falters down to the perfect last sentence. This excerpt is from the opening:
“I glance to the boat crossing the bay now. ‘All right. I’m coming!’ Running over the clam flats, my feet slap the muck. Broken mussel shells jab my feet, and my toes clench from the cold water, but I run faster with each smacking step. It might be June, but it’ll be weeks before the flats feel warm under my feet.”
What I enjoyed the most about Touch Blue was the island setting and the care that Cindy took in getting the details right. I know because I did similar research about lobstering for my adult novel S.A.D. The amusing bantering on the shipboard VHF radio was pitch perfect. The beautiful landscape was recognizable and totally captured summer in coastal Maine.
Touch Blue would be a perfect bedtime story or read aloud book in the classroom. Cindy makes novel writing look deceptively easy, but having read an early draft of the first chapter and synopsis, I know how much hard work and critical thought went into refining this literary gem.
Interview of Cynthia Lord
Sarah: Did winning a Newbery Honor for your debut novel, Rules, make it easier or harder to write a second novel?
Cindy is my neighbor, and we became friends after I interviewed her for Rules. It was the first book review/interview I posted on my blog. Last week, we met in my backyard (above) and drove down to Harpswell to talk about writing.
Cindy: It was much easier to sell my second novel because of the Newbery Honor, but it was harder to write. Events for Rules kept me very busy, and at every event, people would ask me about my next book. So I couldn't hold Touch Blue close in the same way I was able to do for Rules. I had to change the way I wrote for Touch Blue.
Can you tell us the story of the real Maine island that was the inspiration for Touch Blue? Did their scheme work?
Touch Blue was inspired by several things. Before I had my own children, I was a teacher on a small island in Casco Bay. I took the ferry out and back from work every day, and it was one of my favorite teaching experiences. I've set Touch Blue in that bay, and I've used many details from my own experiences there.
One challenge for all remote island schools is staying open. Over the years, Maine islanders have done some remarkable things to keep their schools from closing. Any small, rural place needs families with children to stay viable. If you can't attract families with young children to settle there, your population gradually grows older, and on an island, it often results in losing your year-round community. Islanders are very conscious that losing their school is the first step to losing everything.
In the 1960's there was a small island in Downeast Maine that was down to two children in their school. The State of Maine was ready to cut off the school's funding, which would have effectively closed that school. So the islanders got together and came up with a plan. Their school needed children, and there were children in Maine who needed good homes. So several of the island families adopted foster children. That decision kept their school open, and that school is still open today.
Do you think the islanders' actions were justified?
Were their actions justified? It's a complex question and one I have thought about often. Does the fact that the islanders got something from the foster children negate or cheapen what the children received from them? Would it really have been better for those children not to have come? At one point in the book, the main character says,
“Everybody gets something for the things they do. Even when people seem like they’re only thinking of others, maybe it’s because doing good makes them feel nice inside. Did you ever think of that? Those people are still getting something in return.”It's not a simple answer. And that makes for a good discussion, I think.
What surprised you the most about the system of foster care? How do you think it could be improved?
I was surprised how difficult the system makes it for foster children. Simple things like wanting to take driver's education or stay overnight at a friends' house can be a huge challenge. In some states for a foster child to attend a sleepover means everyone at the friends' house has to agree to a background check.
Ultimately, I was left feeling hopeful, though. I met some amazing, committed, open-hearted foster parents while I was researching this book. I wish every foster child could have the opportunity to belong to those families.
Yes, it was similar to the school I created for my novel.
How was teaching on an island different from teaching on the mainland?
Teaching in a tiny school on an island is very different from teaching on the mainland. On the island I taught a wide range of ages at once, and I had siblings in my class, which adds a different dynamic. Also, I had to do lots of jobs. If the phone rang, I had to answer it. I picked up the mail. I was the nurse if a child received a minor injury. In the middle of a lesson, I might get asked to sign for a package.
An island teacher has to be more flexible, and yet, I loved the freedom of letting a project go a little longer if the kids were really into it (there were no bells to tell me to stop), and I could be creative in different ways. The kids were wonderful and there was a lot of parental and community support.
How did you research the lobstering parts of your novel?
I've lived around lobster fishermen and their families for 20+ years now. I've even had kids in my classes who had their lobstering licenses and their own traps. Several lobstermen and their families graciously answered questions and they took me out on the boat with them to get the details and the timing right. One summer, my car smelled like bait every time it rained--which is not a very nice smell. My husband was constantly saying, "Um, honey. Let's take MY car."
When Touch Blue was nearly done, I asked a lobsterman and a friend whose husband and three sons are lobstermen to read the book and comment. Fishing practices vary a bit from region-to-region, so I wanted to make sure Touch Blue was accurate for the area of Maine where it is set.
Can you share something about your next novel?
My third novel is at a very early stage, so I'm still discovering what it's about. I do know that it will be set in New Hampshire. I love dramatic settings, and I grew up in New Hampshire. My parents sold their house there last summer. It's a complicated thing to leave behind and let go of a childhood home. At night, I often find myself dreaming about that house. I think dealing with those feelings through a new book will be good for me--and for the book.
Do you have a photo of you at the same age as the protagonist?
The snapshot (at right) is of me on my first day of 6th grade and newly 12. It was the closest I could find to Tess's age of 11. Yikes. It was the 70s: the age of short skirts and knee socks. :-)
What’s the best writing advice you received?
"Find the story only you can tell and tell it in a way that only you can tell it." We all have powerful experiences inside us, and when we tap into those unique stories and perspectives, it makes for a great book.
Thank you, Cindy, and good luck with your third novel!
Touch Blue was released on August 1, 2010 in the USA.
Photos and More Info: Cindy blogged about our time together with her photos and links to other interviews. I shot the first photo of Cindy and the wildflowers at Lookout Point, Harpswell. I took the lobster photo out on the marine patrol and the lobsterman out lobstering, while researching my novel S.A.D. (not published yet.) More photos of Bailey Island in Fog here (that's my daughter in the fog.) My husband, Henry Laurence, took the photo of Cindy and me in our backyard. The photo of Cindy at age 12 was reproduced by permission.
Reviewer’s Disclaimer: I requested a Touch Blue ARC. When I returned the ARC, Cindy gave me a published copy as a gift (the first copy she signed!) As a friend, Cindy gave me invaluable feedback on my young adult manuscript, as u like it.
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