Sunday, March 26, 2017

Young Tolkien + Give Away Q/A with Debut P.B. Author, Caroline McAlister

 by Jan Godown Annino

If you like Hobbits, or if you tend to glow at the idea
of hunting dragons, you can likely reach over
to your bookshelf and pull out a volume by or about,
the sensitive British genius J.R.R. Tolkien, who created
and populated Middle Earth.

I am thrilled today to conduct our online
Hobbit's second breakfast with a children's
literature pal, Caroline McAlister, who I connect
with through the mentorship of Amanda Cockerel 
at Hollins University.

Caroline is a newly minted picture book biography
author. And look who she's tackled - a memorable
and revered literary figure known around the world.

Her biography title for young ones is
a book birthday on March 21,
events all last week & it now heads into a 
debut fun run, including visits like this. We celebrate
with multiple chances to receive a book.

My prediction is that JOHN RONALD'S DRAGONS
will become beloved.
Rather than share more detail now, 
I will let this picture book for ages 4 to 8 surprise you itself 
with the understated way that twists and turns of Tolkien's life
unfold via Caroline's story telling, and artist Eliza Wheeler's
inventive illustrations.

       "I remember loving the names in The Hobbit and just giggling whenever my father                 said 'Bilbo Baggins' because the alliteration was so fun."  Author Caroline McAlister

                                           From ''Of Tolkien and Maps" by Caroline McAlister
                                                          (an article on her site's blog)

Because Tolkien's artistic universe included the
imagining and creating of otherwise unknown languages,
I thought perhaps I would need to study extra
hard to discuss this book with Caroline. No worries.
Caroline is a funny and warm traveler in the
community that we love, children's literature.
I think you'd feel lucky to manage attendance
at one of her presentations on Tolkien, or about
Oxford, where she has traveled with her college
students as an English professor.

As a published picture book bio. author myself, of
a little-known person, I was intrigued with how
this author tackled introducing young kids to
such a giant literary figure.

So let's set out a warmed plate of toasty
seed cakes before the fireplace,
with dollops of applause on top,
for today's honored guest.

 Give away details are at the end.
Welcome! And first, a ramble across your author's map
ahead, Caroline. Are you sticking with a
well-known figure for your next p.b. biography?

Yes and no. I have a picture book biography of C. S. Lewis coming out.
The title is JACK and WARNIE'S WARDROBE. It focuses on the relationship with C.S. Lewis and his brother and the imaginary worlds they created together as children. I’m not sure when it will be out.  Kate Jacobs, my editor at Roaring Brook, is still looking for an illustrator.  After that, I have been working on a picture book about suffragettes and one about a Japanese –American artist who was held in a prison camp during World War 2. So these two are about figures who are not as well known, but who I hope are very relevant and interesting to children and their parents today.

We look forward to these, congratulations.
Before tackling the Tolkien book, what kind of writing/storytelling/
editing/publishing experience did you enjoy? Child days count.

Here is a title page for my first children’s book!  I don’t think I actually wrote anything past the title page, but I loved playing at being an author.

                                          "Thanks Mom for saving every doodle I ever made!"
                                                  Author Caroline McAlister's fairy tale book plan

I was an academic before I was a children’s writer, so I did a lot of academic writing—a dissertation and some articles about John Milton, and after I got interested in children’s literature, I wrote an article about girl readers and Harry Potter Fan fiction.  At some point though, I got frustrated with the theoretical abstractions of academic writing. I was reading to my children all the time and I felt drawn to the concreteness of children’s books, the beautiful rhythms of the language meant to be read aloud, and the brilliance, wonder and strangeness of the images.

My first published children’s book was a folktale, HOLY MOLE!, about the origins of mole sauce, which I published in 2007 with August House.  My second was a legend based on Italian history and lore, entitle BRAVE DONATELLA and the JASMINE THIEF, which Charlesbridge published in 2010. JOHN RONALD'S DRAGONS is my first book with a really big publishing house so I am very excited.


Besides NF fiction, do you write ballads, shorter poems or
fiction, and do you have fun with any of the musical

or visual arts?

My dream is to publish a middle grade novel.  I have several that I have begun. I also have some poems about pickles and about picky eaters, which I have not shared with any agents or publishers.
As for music, my mother has a beautiful voice, and my children are very musical, but somehow the gift passed me over.  I can’t remember a tune or sing on pitch and I was terrible piano student.
I like to draw, but am not trained. I enjoy making quilts that are kind of bright and wacky and I do have a nice rhyming picture book about a quilt that I need to shape up for publication. 

Your father read THE HOBBIT to you, seated in his rocking chair
when you were a kid in Sacramento, California; he inspired
your love of books. Any memories of imaginative play with dragons or
of dreamy times thinking of The Shire as a kiddo?

This is such a good question, and I really wish I had a better answer.
I remember loving the names in The Hobbit and just giggling whenever my father said Bilbo Baggins because the alliteration was so fun. But I don’t remember my sister and I ever pretending to be characters from The Hobbit or The Lord of the Rings or engaging in the kind of fantasy play that I know many children do with Tolkien.
I have had students who have ring tattoos, and who claim to be fluent in Elvish, and of course, I love the way Stephen Colbert geeks out about Tolkien, but sadly I never did that myself.
We'd love to know about the editorial letter and highlights

of the revision process after the contract was inked
for JOHN RONALD's DRAGONS. (Normal English on
that contract, we presume . . .)

Getting JOHN RONALD'S DRAGONS published by Roaring Brook/Macmillan was kind of surreal. I did not have an agent, but a friend in my critique group, Betty Hicks, to whom I am forever grateful, loved the story and thought her editor at Roaring Brook, Kate Jacobs, would love it. She told her about it and asked if I could submit it to her. In a few weeks Kate called and said she wanted to acquire it.  At the same time, I had sent it to some agents. The agent I had submitted to at Andrea Brown was not interested, but showed it to another Andrea Brown agent, Jennifer Mattson, who was.  So in a couple of weeks I sold the book and got an agent.  Kate didn’t send an editorial letter, but a copy of the manuscript with a couple of questions inserted about the ending, trying to make sure that the ending captured the theme.  I have struggled much more with JACK and WARNIE'S WARDROBE, and she sent me several editorial letters about that. I feel like sometimes you get a book right, right off the bat, and JOHN RONALD'S DRAGONS was like that.
How did you know/ponder/wrestle what to leave out?

Tolkien’s father died when he was three and his mother when he was just twelve, leaving him an orphan.  His mother’s death was so sad and so terrible I was worried about sharing it with children, but I couldn’t explain who he was without including this formative experience.  I left out though that she had been abandoned by her family for joining the Catholic Church, and that Tolkien viewed her as a martyr.
I also felt it was really important to go into his World War 1 experience.  The images of the front and the destruction of the landscape help to explain his love of trees and hatred of mechanization.  What I did not go into was how two of his best friends from school, who had served as a substitute family for him, an orphaned boy, were killed in the war. The third friend, who was not killed, he met up with after the war. Their friendship, without the other two young men, could not be re-ignited. I have a blog post about this, which older readers might find interesting.
In essence what I tried to focus on was his imagination. So I left out some of the events and details too painful for younger readers and some of the academic, political, and religious controversies he was involved in, which would distract and not hold a young reader’s attention.

             A hint at the magic. Eliza Wheeler's tree cover, JOHN RONALD'S DRAGONS
                                            Comment for a chance to have a copy, below.

Any practical tricks to share, in organizing your Middle

Earth-sized mine of resources and materials?

Research is never wasted.  It is always there in the texture and shape of the book, if not overtly in the text.  Also, go to the primary sources.  The genesis of this book was in Tolkien’s essay, “On Fairy Stories.”  He writes: “The dragon had the trade-mark Of Faërie written plain upon him. In whatever world he had his being it was an Other-world. Fantasy, the making or glimpsing of Other-worlds, was the heart of the desire of Faërie. I desired dragons with a profound desire.”  I read this line and I immediately wanted to write about this desire and how it shaped him.
As far as organizing, I am a very disorganized, old-fashioned, and technophobic scholar.  Anyone who is going to take tips from me on managing their research should probably beware.  I Xerox articles by the boatload and throw them into messy, sagging, overloaded folders. More seriously, researching and writing are pretty organic processes for me.  I was lucky with this project because the book grew out of research I did to teach a class. I was really nervous because I was taking students abroad and teaching them there, and I couldn’t take all of my books and sagging piles of folders over with me.  So I made a bunch of power points.  This probably helped me to synthesize my ideas. When I got back from England I kept reading (Tolkien’s letters, which are super fun and made me feel like I knew him), researching and tweaking the manuscript.  I can’t separate the researching and writing into distinct parts of the process.

Hey, Caroline, I understand you! And yes about Power Points, too. 
For vivid sharing in class and other talks, they collect the baskets of treasures 
that a picture book biography author amasses. 

You are an experienced guide for students to
the Oxford literary world and area. What should a
Tolkien traveler not miss, especially in lanes or nooks
less known, to visit places connected to his imaginative life?
Perhaps you'll write a guide to Tolkien's Shire?

I highly recommend visiting some of the early medieval sites in the area—the white chalk horse and Wayland’s Smithy. Also in Birmingham the history museum has a wonderful trove of golden Anglo-Saxon artifacts a local farmer dug up in his field.  It’s called the Staffordshire Hoard.  When Tolkien describes mithrail and the skillful metalwork of the dwarves, he is working from descriptions of metalwork like this in Anglo-Saxon texts.   He spent so much of his professional life with his head in the Anglo-Saxon period that you need to try to take your head there too.
I also think Tolkien’s visual imagination was very much informed by William Morris and Edward Burne-Jones so try to see as many tapestries and stained glass windows as you can.  When I was in Oxford the last time there was an enchanting exhibit at the Oxford Museum of Modern Art of some William Morris Arthurian tapestries. Everyone knows the Ashmolean Museum, but this museum is smaller, more intimate and really interesting, and it hosts talks.
Another cool thing is the bookstore, Blackwell’s, holds events. Before you go, look on their website and see what is coming up. I got to hear Philip Pullman and a bunch of Oxford professors talk about William Blake.  
Finally, since I took my students during Jan. term, there was a panto playing.  Tolkien talks about hating pantos in his “on Fairy Stories” essay so we went to find out what he hated. Pantos are important to the British culture of the child, and they only exist in England so particularly if you have children in tow, take one in.
The Eagle and Child is a bit touristy. You have to go there, but I don’t personally get any kind of frisson of authenticity.  The Trout in Wolverton has better food and is a lovely walk. Read Tolkien’s letters and you will discover that they drank at all of the pubs.  Make a list and try to go to each one he mentions, but not all in one night.  
What a lively tour! Thank you.
Appreciations also for teaching us about pantos.
And also you sent me to learn a bit about the artist, Edward Burne-Jones (who apparently didn't like to use the Sir title that was his.)

Visit Caroline McAlister

Visit Eliza Wheeler

Publisher Macmillan generously offers multiple copies for comments here. 

Your comment shared through Monday, April 3 is your entry.

In your comment you can also say that don't want to be entered into the contest cave. 

If you end up making multiple comments, which are welcome, your name is only entered once.


  1. How interesting! I love the cover.

    1. Only one person is replying under this name; my guinea pigs are named Arwen and Eowyn! : )

  2. What an enchanting and magical interview. Thank you, Jan and Caroline. I especially loved your title page. Gotta start somewhere.

  3. I am enchanted by this soon-to-come bio of Tolkien. I was obsessed w/LTR and The Hobbit as a teenager and read the series 3 times. Good interview, Jan, and Caroline, glad to see there is hope for us disorganized folks. Bravo.

  4. Oooh, I can't wait to get my hands on this book! Congrats, Caroline on this book and your upcoming books. They sound fantastic!

  5. Jan, thanks so much for introducing us to Caroline. I look forward to this book, and it is fascinating to hear how she formed it! Best wishes to both of you!

  6. Wow! What a great post. Your books sound fantastic, Caroline. Thank you!

  7. Thank you, Jan and Caroline, for sharing an adventure into researching Tolkien. I look forward to the magic of reading your new book, Caroline. One of my favorite illustrators is Eliza Wheeler. This is a win-win story :)

  8. Thank you Jan for introducing Caroline. Congratulations Caroline on your debut book.

  9. Thank you Jan for introducing Caroline. Congratulations Caroline on your debut book.

  10. I'm working on a PB biography of a lesser known person. Always good to hear about others' journey.

    1. Best of luck with that, Julie. Thanks for sharing.

  11. I cannot wait to read this book. I love biographies in general and love Tolkien. I loved hearing about your research. I keep trying digital ways to save and organize but I almost always go back to copying.

  12. Wonderful post! Thank you for sharing your journey with us, Caroline and look forward to reading your debut book!

  13. Thank you for a lovely interview. The bulging files....I know them well.

  14. Great interview, I can't wait to read this book.

  15. Gorgeous cover art and a fabulous topic, I look forward to reading the book. And what a fascinating interview. I truly feel inspired to move forward with an idea I had for a children's book biography. Thank you!

    1. Great good wishes with your children's bio. project.

  16. Congratulations, Caroline. The book looks great!

  17. Terrific post! Thank you for sharing your journey with us. I’m glad to know that I’m not the only writer who has tons of digitized research notes crammed into folders and drawers etc. I can’t wait to read John Ronald’s Dragons

  18. Jan! This is a gold mine of an interview. I cannot WAIT for this book to be in my library....and a Hollins alum?! Wow.
    You will laugh. I just started organizing ideas in....wait for it.....power point! It's kinda like story boarding in it's way. I really loved this interview. Thanks a million for sharing Caroline with us.

  19. Love your statement that no research is ever wasted!

  20. I am endlessly fascinated by the new biographies coming out for children and this suggestion to look to primary sources sparks my interest even more. What a great thing that there is still so much to discover, still so much to learn, still so much to study and learn. It is never over. Thank you both for this great interview. Maybe we should all get ring tattoos! xx

  21. What a wonderful and detailed interview, Jan. I re-read Tolkien as much as I can squeeze in, and appreciate the extra links you and Caroline have provided, and the travel ideas too. Thank you both, Jan for the great post, and Caroline for the book.

  22. At some point last year (or maybe 2015?), I read in PW marketplace about the acquisition of a PB about J.R. Tolkien. I'm guessing this is the one! I've been excited to read it ever since. Thanks for the interesting interview, Jan and Caroline!

  23. Thank you, Jan and Caroline. Congratulations, and thanks for sharing your journey! Lovely cover, can't wait to see the book!

  24. Such exciting news for Caroline whose idea to create this biography is brilliant. Seems she's put her brilliance to excellent use. Sure looks like an award winner to me. I look forward to getting my hands on a copy.

  25. Thanks for this wonderful interview Jan! And thanks Caroline for all the nooks and crannies you shared here about your book–The back story of Tolkien's life, your research and teaching trip; all was fascinating, and I look forward to reading it. The art looks rich also.

  26. I have always loved books, evil, " the worst mom in the whole wide world" read with our son over 1000 books before kindergarten. Along with him, then without me, he read over 4000 books before he entered high school. He was reading at 12 th grade level in the 3rd grade, and today he is still reading. I still buy him books, he loves science fiction.
    My first grand little just turned one, and another will be here in August. Already stock piling books for them.
    We went through all the Hobbit and LOR books in grade school. Later he reread them several times. Bilbo is still lurking among the shelves here at home, years after he has moved out. He can correct me on every pronunciation, even in casual conversation.
    I'd like to win your book, it'd be a trick for us both to read, I don't know all of Tolkien's background, that post of yours in itself was interesting.
    Also my grand littles will need books, might as well be "evil" with them too, and see that they learn to read.
    Oh, and if you're wondering,my son and I have a wonderful loving relationship, even if we are too much alike in temperament :)

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