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Anne Ursu on 'The Real Boy' and writing for kids

If there is a young reader at your house, take a look at the Scholastic Books order form that comes home in the backpack this month. Inside, you’ll find a book called “The Real Boy” by Anne Ursu. (Walden Pond Press published it in hardcover last fall.) You’ll have to skim past a lot of merchandise-related sort-of-books — LEGO, Pokémon, Barbie — but there are literary titles here too. Because of Scholastic, Minnesota writers like Gary Paulsen, Kate DiCamillo, and Ursu end up in classrooms and backpacks far beyond the Midwest.

That’s not to say Ursu’s book is regional in any way; in fact, “The Real Boy” takes place in another time and another world. The story follows an awkward orphan boy who is taken on by a magician; Oscar tends and gathers the plants that are used in various remedies and concoctions, until life is disrupted by some mysterious monster out in the woods. It’s a beautifully written, complex, absorbing tale aimed at the sort of kids (and adults) who like Harry Potter. The book was recently long-listed for the National Book Award in Young People's Literature.

The first two incarnations of Ursu didn’t necessarily point to her current success as a middle-grades author. For several years, the writer was best known in these parts as Batgirl, author of the prolific and quirky Twins baseball blog by the same name. She shut down the blog in 2007, after her son was born; “I don't have space in my brain anymore, or time to devote to something like that,” she says today. (But she still comments on matters baseball as @TwinsBatgirl on Twitter.)

Ursu also began her writing life with adults in mind. Her well-received first two books, “Spilling Clarence” and “The Disapparation of James,” were adult literary fiction. But then something happened.

MinnPost: Why did you switch to writing for kids?

Anne Ursu: For some reason it didn't occur to me that being a kids writer was something you could do. I wrote a couple adult books and made Internet friends with Laura Ruby, a children's book writer. Then I read Harry Potter and fell in love with the series, and Laura gave me more recommendations, and I was just hooked on them. I was tangled up in a really difficult book and not enjoying writing, so I decided to take a break and write a kids book for fun.

And I never went back. My adult books always had a little magical element to them — one reviewer called them "Midwestern magical realism" — and I was surprised and disheartened to find readers resistant to books that aren't straight realism. And I liked playing around with storytelling — I shifted points of view and had an intrusive narrator and the like — and you hear readers and critics just dismissing books out of hand for stuff like that because they think that's not the way stories are supposed to work. But kid readers don't care — they just want a good story.

Anne Ursu

MP: Several other Minnesota writers have made the same switch. Why is this such a prolific town for kid lit?

AU: It is such a prolific town. We say you can't throw a stick without hitting a kids book writer here. About 75 books were nominated for the Minnesota Book Awards in the kids and YA categories — 75 eligible books by Minnesota authors published last year. That's insane.

Minnesota has been a great place for writers and artists to live, always, and writers beget more writers. We have these amazing institutions here — there's The Loft, which offers classes in writing in kids and YA. We have one of the country's most eminent teachers, Jane Resh Thomas, who has mentored countless local writers over the last couple of decades, including our current National Ambassador for Children's Literature, Kate DiCamillo. We have children's booksellers who do a great job of supporting local writers. And we now have one of two of the country's low residency MFA's in writing for children at Hamline (where I teach) and about a fourth of the writers who come through there are from the area, and then they go out and start publishing and teaching. So, a few kids book writers start teaching, people take classes and realize this is something they love, there are resources for them to hone their craft, and then they go out and publish, and they inspire more writers to study and do the same. It's like a virus, but a virus for good!

MP: “The Real Boy” is set in what would probably be considered a "dystopian" society. Why is this such a strong theme in literature for young people today?

AU: This actually isn't really dystopian. This is a historical fantasy where the society has a lot of problems, but compared to a dystopian society it all almost looks functional. Dystopians generally have a brutal totalitarian government rise up after some kind of cataclysm, and the citizens are dehumanized and repressed. We see this a little in books for middle-grade readers (roughly third through seventh grade) like Lois Lowry's “The Giver.” But it's really thriving in teen books right now. There are a lot of complicated theories out there, but I think the biggest reason is really simple — someone wrote a really good teen dystopian book that sold a jillion copies (“The Hunger Games”), and that inspired publishers to want to publish more and readers to want to read more. The same thing happened for fantasy when Harry Potter came out.

MP: You've said that you wanted to write a book featuring a character who has autism, as one might infer that Oscar does. Some pretty significant books have touched on autism in recent years (Jonathan Safron Foer's "Incredibly Loud and Extremely Close"; Mark Haddon's "The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time"; Margaret Atwood's "Oryx and Crake"). Are you satisfied with the way other writers have approached the topic?

AU: In children's literature, we can be a little straightforward about things like this, and sometimes we treat identity issues simplistically. It was very important for me to have a character who is rich and complicated and his autism informs his personality but does not define it. I also didn't want him to triumph either because of or despite his disability, nor did I want him to seem like he had unique and quirky wisdom, which you sometimes see in portrayals of special-needs kids. I just wanted him to be a person.

There's an internationally best-selling adult book that came out last year called “The Rosie Project” that I thought was really terrible. The main character is a collection of Asperger's stereotypes played for laughs. We see this kind of caricaturing in other media too. There are so many false ideas about autistic people out there — that they lack empathy, that they lack imagination — and these become essential aspects to these caricatures. I think because people believe autistic people don't have empathy, they don't work to empathize with them themselves. I can't think of any other disability where we are currently allowed, as a culture, to play the characteristics for laughs.

MP: Tell me about writing for "middle-grade readers" — is this a niche that gets overlooked? What makes them special?

AU: Oh, I love writing for this age so much. I already talked about how open-minded they are. They're at this amazing time in their lives when they are trying to figure out what the world is made of and what their place is in it. And they're just willing to give so much of themselves to a story; you can leave so much unsaid because they are happy to use their own imaginations fill in the gaps. And no one loves a book the way a kid loves a book — they incorporate it into their whole being.

Event

Ursu will discuss autism in literature at a Minnesota Life College event. Feb. 13, 6:30 p.m. Southdale YMCA, Edina.

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Comments (1)

Happy for her

I have a fond memory of running into Anne in Barnes & Noble downtown right when “Spilling Clarence” came out. She was adjusting the display in the front of the store and seemed a little surprised that anyone recognized her.

The roots of her success today were clear even then. Kids are lucky to have a writer with such literary talents writing for them.