Book Nerd Interview
I have been writing for children for 20 years, helping create educational books, documentaries, and online content for Discovery Networks, National Geographic, the Library of Congress, Scholastic, and Time-Life Books.
My debut novel, NEVERSINK, is now available in paperback. The first book in THE VANISHING ISLAND trilogy releases in early 2015.
Actually my defining moment didn’t come until I was around 30. I was writing content for the Discovery Channel’s education website and my boss went to a conference, where she met Lance Wilder, the background animation supervisor for The Simpsons. A few year before, on a lark, I had entered a Writer’s Digest screenwriting contest with a Simpsons script I had dreamt up. My boss had never actually read it, but she told Mr. Wilder about it anyway, and he agreed to take a look. He said he loved it and offered to share it with one of their writers if I was okay with his making a few changes. Tragically, nothing ever came of that, but it was the confidence boost I needed to do more imaginative writing.
Beyond your own work (of course), what is your all-time favorite book and why? And what is your favorite book outside of your genre?
All-time favorite children’s book is Alice in Wonderland (and Through the Looking Glass). Nonsense is so underrated, and I love wordplay. Just brilliant examples of what someone called “imagination murdering time.”
The Jungle Book, Beverly Clearly’s Ralph Mouse books, and the Uncle Wiggily stories were the biggest influences on my writing an animal fantasy.
Outside of my genre, Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials series is my favorite. Love the books, and the audiobooks are fantastic, too.
What is the best piece of advice you ever received from another author?
That the essence of drama is this: your protagonist wants something, and somebody — or some thing — stands in their way. How your character tackles that obstacle and the others that follow — is the story. So simple, but I have to remind myself often not to let my main character become a mere participant in events rather than the catalyst.
In your new book; Neversink, can you tell my Book Nerd Kids a little about it and why they should read your novel?
Neversink is a hero’s journey with a classic reluctant hero. Lockley Puffin just wants to “blend in” and “not make waves” (two unwritten rules of his colony), but being a puffin makes that difficult. And then real trouble starts when Rozbell, a pygmy owl with a Napoleon complex, becomes the new leader of the Parliament of Owls. Lockley is forced to summon courage he didn’t know he had in order to save Neversink.
I think anyone who’s ever had to learn to be brave about anything will appreciate Lockley’s journey. And if you search “puffin videos” you will quickly see why I have long thought that puffins deserve to be on a par with penguins in children’s lit. They are so expressive, and so odd, it’s easy to imagine them being a lovable creature that struggles with being different. Aside from all that, I think if you appreciate a certain style of writing, wordplay and smart humor mixed in with your plot, you will love Neversink.
For those who are unfamiliar with Lockley, how would you introduce him?
Lockley is a bit like Bilbo Baggins — he wants a quiet life of simple pleasures, but forces beyond his control make that impossible. Like a hobbit, a puffin would not be high on your list of potential heroes, and seeing how Lockley overcomes his underdog (or underbird?) status is part of the drama.
If you could introduce one of your characters to any character from another book, who would it be and why?
Alice from Alice in Wonderland. I’ve said this before, but it’s true: a puffin looks like something Lewis Carroll would have invented if it didn’t exist in real life. Lockley would be a perfect companion through the looking glass.
What was one of the most surprising things you learned in creating Lucy?
How much I started rooting for her when she stands up to Rozbell, as if I had nothing to do with it!
What's the most memorable summer job you've ever had?
I’m going to cheat – it wasn’t a summer job, exactly, but it was my very first job in publishing. I lived in Washington, DC, and worked as a researcher for six months on a book called the Washington Information Directory, a compendium of every government agency, department and nonprofit association in the District. Two fellow researchers and I sat in a windowless basement in a Soviet-style building, calling every phone number to verify all the information manually. (This was 1993, before the digital era.) It was like being in a Kafka novel.
Who was your first girlfriend?
A girl named Melanie forced me to hold her hand under our desks in second grade and told me she was my girlfriend.
Tell me about your first kiss
The first one I remember is kissing a neighbor at the back of the theater showing Poltergeist after we had made her little sister go out to get popcorn with about 15 minutes left in the movie. I wonder if the sister ever found out how the movie ended?
When was the last time you cried?
A few weeks ago. A fellow writer and her husband here in Memphis woke up the Saturday after Christmas to find their two-year-old son had died in his crib. He had just turned two a couple of weeks before, and the most recent picture on her Facebook page was from his birthday party.
Which would you choose, true love with a guarantee of a heart break or have never loved before?
Who am I to question Lord Tennyson (Tis better to have loved and lost)? But I’m not so sure. Heartbreak is brutal.
What decade during the last century would you have chosen to be a teenager?
Please don’t make me be a teenager again.
Top Ten List - Things you would change about your high school years if you could go back in time.
I would not be the only 10th-grader who couldn’t drive himself to homecoming.
I would not be terrified of girls.
I would not have a mullet.
I . . . actually, there’s almost nothing about high school I wouldn’t change.
Barry Wolverton’s masterful middle-grade debut, Neversink, is an epic tale of some very un-epic birds, a fast-paced and funny story of survival, friendship, and fish, in the vein of Watership Down and Kathi Appelt’s The Underneath.
Along the Arctic Circle lies a small island called Neversink, home to a colony of odd-looking seabirds called auks, including one Lockley J. Puffin. With their oceanfront views and plentiful supply of fish, the auks have few concerns—few, save for Lockley’s two best friends, Egbert and Ruby, a know-it-all walrus and a sharp-tongued hummingbird.
But all of this is about to change. Rozbell, the newly crowned king of the Owl Parliament, has long had his scheming eyes on the small colony to the north. Now Neversink’s independence hangs in the balance. An insurgence of owls will inevitably destroy life as the auks know it—unless Lockley can do something about it.
The delightfully entertaining and educational book, Neversink, by Barry Wolverton is an inspiring tale of two groups of birds, with the Auks standing up to the group that makes up the ruling class, the Owls. This is an excellent book to introduce children to the meaning and ideas of equality and the importance for standing up for what you firmly believe in. Barry had done an exceptional job of creating a story that will interest younger readers about the concept of class.
Barry creatively developed a well-formed group of characters, in this case--birds, which I would think is difficult to channel in their animal-like and human-like behavior. He also presents believable political conspiracies and ethical quandary. All readers will value the themes of companionship and family and the main character’s aspiration to always do what is right. There is a great lesson in this book about following orders and why standing up for yourself is important even if no one agrees.
The title of this book will appeal to readers as young as 8, but it will take to likings to many adults as well. Adults will find appropriation to the well-written plot, and children will enjoy the lively colorful characters. The writing style of Barry perfectly fits this kind of book. It is just right for young readers, yet sophisticated enough for older ones. Readers will thoroughly enjoy and be entertained by the story plot and the lessons within. Cute little story that packs a powerful message. Get ready for a great adventure for this is one of my top reads of 2012. A storytelling you do not want to miss.