Interview: Anne O’Brien Carelli

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It’s my sincere pleasure to welcome Anne O’Brien Carelli to the MG Book Village today. I was lucky enough to receive an ARC of Anne’s debut, Skylark and Wallcreeper, and I just loved it. It’s a historical novel that reads like a thriller, and that left me hungry to learn more. With high-stakes action, espionage, codes, and interesting, well-drawn characters, the book (which hits shelves next week!) is sure to both fascinate and excite TONS of young readers.

Check out my interview with Anne below, and get your hands on Skylark and Wallcreeper next week!

~ Jarrett

. . .

Before we get to the book, would you care to introduce yourself to our readers?

Hi readers! I’m originally from Ann Arbor, Michigan, but have landed in a beautiful spot outside of Albany, New York. I majored in History in college and started out as a sixth-grade teacher. After serving as the Executive Director of the New York State Equity Center I completed a doctorate in psychology of the gifted and have a leadership training business. For many years I’ve been involved in supporting refugee children, and I wrote a picture book used around the world called Amina’s New Friends. It’s about a Somalian refugee child’s first day in an American school.

Now, onto the book itself – can you tell us a bit about it?

Skylark and Wallcreeper is a story about twelve-year-old Lily who discovers when evacuating her grandmother during Hurricane Sandy that her Granny Collette was in the French Resistance as a child. The book alternates between New York City in 2012 and southern France in 1944 during World War II. The book is not only about missions and spies and bravery, but about friendship and the relationship between a grandchild and her grandmother.

Skylark and Wallcreeper is your debut novel. Can you tell us about your journey to writing this book?

I was talking to a nurse who had to evacuate her residents from a nursing home in Queens, New York, during Superstorm Sandy. She and other nurses stayed with their patients, even though their own homes were flooded and their families had to evacuate. I was so inspired by their story that I started researching and interviewing and typing, all at once. I had no idea where the story was going to go—but soon my lifelong interest in the French Resistance started to emerge. The publishing road was long and bumpy, but, luckily, I had been warned and hung in there.

Is there a connection between the work of the French Resistance and the Hurricane Sandy relief efforts? What is it?

This is such a good question! In both situations, there are volunteers who step up to fight an enemy. The big difference is that a natural disaster is frightening and life-threatening, but actions can be visible. But with the French Resistance, actions were underground and secretive. Resisters had to establish covert networks, and relied on codes, signals, hidden messages, disguises, and subterfuge. If caught, resisters not only risked their own lives, but the survival of entire villages.

Why do you believe it’s important for kids to learn about these two historical periods, and what are the benefits to exploring them through fiction?

For the French Resistance, it’s obviously important for kids to know about a war that has changed our world, but also to know how ordinary people can step up and fight back. I’ve read a ton of primary sources written by French resisters (diaries, first-hand accounts, etc.) and it always amazes me how the writers could easily be your neighbors, relatives, and friends. I wanted to create historical fiction that informed kids about different roles in history while keeping readers engaged in a story.

For Hurricane Sandy, experiencing a disaster is all too familiar to so many kids. They may have been through hurricanes, forest fires, school evacuations, tornadoes, resettlement, even mudslides. Many MG readers know first-hand how crises can impact lives and may be able to identify with the emotions and actions of characters. Reading stories about traumatic events develops sensitivity and empathy, as well.

Codes, cyphers, puzzles are becoming increasingly popular features of, and plot elements within, Middle Grade fiction. Are the ones you discussed in Skylark and Wallcreeper real, or are they your own inventions?

Oh no—I was very meticulous about sticking to the facts about both Hurricane Sandy and the French Resistance. I did extensive research, including visiting museums and historical sites and interviewing people. I love reading primary sources. I found the code system that was used in Skylark and Wallcreeper in a journal written by the leader of a resistance group. Later on in the war the codes got more sophisticated, and now there are more books coming out that explore cyphers used in World War II, such as Code Girls, by Liza Mundy. Love that book! 

At one point in the book, one of your characters says, “Every pen…has a story.” You devote many pages to discussing and displaying the power and importance of pens, as well as the power and importance of the stories they can be used to record. Would you care to elaborate on this here, perhaps more directly than is typically allowed in a work of fiction?   

That’s so funny because I created a classroom discussion guide for the book, and one of the discussion questions is related to this exact quote. I love symbolism in literature and like to encourage kids to think about the meaning behind an object, scene, or character in a book. I love it when they are able to think flexibly and, in this case, look at what a pen might have witnessed! Where has it been? Who used it? Why? The owner of the pen store obviously enjoyed the fact that his pens have been everywhere, and even rock stars use fountain pens!

Many of our readers are teachers of Middle Grade-aged kids. Is there anything you’d like to say to them – especially those planning to add Skylark and Wallcreeper to their classroom libraries? 

This book is about danger, risk-taking, secrets, and missions. I deliberately made girls and women the protagonists because I believe it’s important for MG girls to have strong role models. But I am hoping that teachers and librarians will also present it to boys as a book they might enjoy. (Boys, too, need to see strong, brave girls as main characters.)  

Where can readers find more information about you and your work?

I have an author website www.anneobriencarelli.com and it has the Discussion Guide and some pictures of clues in the book. Also www.aminasnewfriends and Twitter (@aobc). Come visit me at book signings! The calendar is on the website and there will be more signing events in 2019.

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Anne O’Brien Carelli is the author of adult nonfiction and the picture book Amina’s New Friends. She has always been fascinated by the French Resistance, and studied history at Case Western Reserve University. For her PhD, Anne researched psychology of the gifted. Originally from Ann Arbor, Michigan, Anne lives in the Hudson River Valley in upstate New York. This is her debut middle grade novel.

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