Anne: Hello, Shawn! I’m thrilled you could join us here at MG Book Village to chat about your newest novel, The Impossible Destiny of Cutie Grackle.
Shawn: Hello! Thanks so much for inviting me to share my new book with MG Book Village!
Anne: It’s such a heart-warming story. Would you please give readers a super-brief summary of the action?
Shawn: The Impossible Destiny of Cutie Grackle is about ten-year-old Cutie Grackle, who lives with her bewildered uncle at the top of a remote mountain in West Virginia. She knows almost nothing about her family history, but she has no trouble believing it includes a curse. It isn’t until five ravens start following her that she worries much about it, though. She’s too busy trying to trick her stomach into feeling full and keeping tabs on her uncle. But when those ravens bring her a trinket that pulls Cutie into a memory from her family’s past, the truth is impossible to deny. As other trinkets and memories follow, Cutie learns not just that the curse exists, but that it’s her destiny to do what her long-lost mother could not: break it.
Anne: Great. Thanks! Now, tell me about the protagonist’s name. What a curious name! Where did you get the idea to call your protagonist Cutie Grackle?
Shawn: Since ravens are such an important part of the magic of the story, and crucial to Cutie’s insight into her missing family, I knew that I wanted her last name, as well as the last names of her long-lost family, to be some sort of bird. I happen to love grackles. They are fascinating and resourceful. Did you know that grackles will follow closely behind a farmer’s plow so that they can catch mice in the fields? They will also pick leeches off the legs of turtles. Which is kind of gross, but also very cool. (Especially for the turtle, I’d imagine.) Typically, grackles are unafraid of humans, and for that reason, they often symbolize courage. (Which I thought fit Cutie’s character nicely.) Other characters in the book have bird names, too—Uncle Horace’s last name is Thrush, and Cutie’s great grandmother’s name is Pearlie Mae Grouse. (If you aren’t familiar, thrushes and grouse are different groups of birds.)
Anne: I love this! I didn’t know all of these details about birds. Good stuff. Now, what about Cutie?
Shawn: It took me awhile to settle on the name “Cutie.” I knew I wanted her name to be unique and endearing. But every name I came up with didn’t quite fit Cutie’s personality. And then I watched Zachary Heinzerling’s documentary, “Cutie and the Boxer,” which is about the life and marriage of Japanese artists Ushio and Noriko Shinohara. I knew then that Cutie was the name I’d been searching for.
Anne: Cutie feels hungry a lot. I love the sensitive way you introduce readers to some hard truths about food insecurity. What made you want to include poverty and food insecurity as part of the plot in this story?
Shawn: Raising awareness of childhood hunger and food insecurity is really important to me. About 13 million kids in the United States live in “food insecure” homes, which means that in those homes, there’s not enough food for each family member. Imagine that: a country as rich as ours, and millions of kids, like Cutie, don’t have enough food. Summertime, which is when my book takes place, is especially hard for kids who rely on free meals during the school year.
I grew up in a single-income household—my mom’s salary as an elementary school teacher supported our family of five—and we lived paycheck to paycheck. Although we weren’t considered food insecure, my siblings and I always understood that money was tight, and that no food was to be wasted. In high school, I volunteered at soup kitchens as well as helped to donate food to our local food bank as part of our church’s youth group. Today, I regularly support No Kid Hungry and their efforts to help communities feed children. There are a lot of wonderful organizations that are working to end childhood hunger, and if you’re looking for a way to help, here’s a great place to start: https://www.nokidhungry.org/ways-you-can-help.
Anne: Thank you. That’s a great resource.
Now I have another question about Cutie. A raven causes her to experience a vision of sorts, and I loved that as Cutie and the reader together try to make sense of what seems impossible, we’re drawn deeper and deeper into the magic of this world. Did you know from the get-go that magic would play a big role in this story? How hard was it to craft the magical elements?
Shawn: For all of my books, I always start with a character. Basically, I have to know who the story is about before I knew what the story is about. Once I got to know Cutie and her predicament—alone on the mountain with no food, and no family to rely on—I knew that the ravens would become her family. And for that to happen, I knew there would be magic involved in some way.
Before Cutie, I’d never written a book with magic in it—all my previous books have been either realistic or historical fiction—so it was really challenging (in a good way…uh, mostly) for me to figure out how to weave the magic of the birds and the history of the curse into a contemporary story. I kind of got swept up in the magic, to be honest. In early drafts, I had written a very long, very detailed backstory of how the ravens came to the mountain and their complex involvement in the curse. Each raven had its own name and personality and feelings about the curse. It was a lot. As you might imagine, the magic got more and more complicated with each draft, until one day, my editor asked me, “Whose story are you telling?” It seemed like such a simple question, but it forced me to recognize that Cutie had taken a back seat to the magic. You can’t have your main character sitting in the backseat of your story! Once I realized what I’d done, I deleted about 100 pages until I was able to bring her back to the front again.
Anne: Oh, my. That’s a lot! But I’m sure the process helped you shape the final story. In addition to weaving magic into the book, you had many references to fine art. Cutie’s uncle Horace loves the work of Claude Monet, a French Impressionist painter. I enjoyed your description of Monet’s paintings as “blurry and dreamy with lots of light and shadow.” Do you have a favorite Monet painting?
Shawn: Before I started writing this book, I read Ross King’s Mad Enchantment: Claude Monet and the Painting of the Water Lilies, which is a fantastic read. I learned so much about the difficulties Claude Monet faced in capturing the fleeting light, color, and water, and the torment he suffered in his later years as he began to lose his vision to cataracts. He chased the impossible—expecting perfection from himself—and drove himself mad by falling short. I don’t really have a favorite Monet painting, but if I had to choose, I might pick “La Grenouillère” because the baths look so inviting, and it makes me want to live inside the painting for awhile.
Anne: While reading, I learned a lot about ravens. Very fun! How much research did you have to do to weave in details about these very intelligent birds?
Shawn: I read a lot about ravens while I was writing this book. In particular, Mind of the Raven: Investigations and Adventures with Wolf-Birds by Bernd Heinrich gave me insight into how ravens communicate with each other, their posturing and calls, and how they work (and play) together. They are incredibly intelligent birds, with a strong social structure.
Anne: Speaking of learning new things, the character Galen suffers from fibular hemimelia—a condition I found fascinating. I’m sure it’s quite rare. How did you decide to include this condition in the story?
Shawn: When Galen’s character first came to me, I knew he had a limp. The more I got to know Galen and developed his character, I learned that he was born with a limb deficiency. Part of his fibular bone was missing, which resulted in a shorter leg. You’re right, it is a rare condition in this country, with about 100 kids born with fibular hemimelia each year. What I discovered in my research is that there is a procedure to lengthen the fibular bone so that it will be the same size as the other leg. The procedure usually involves several surgeries over a period of years with extensive physical therapy. I interviewed limb lengthening surgeons and read patient accounts to get a sense of what the child has to go through, not only with the condition, but how the choice to have the series of surgeries impacts the child’s life. In Galen’s case, he’s already had two surgeries, and he’s not sure he wants to have the third. He knows what’s involved, he’s afraid, and he feels as if his parents are making all the decisions for him, without asking him what he wants.
Anne: That would be tough to go through. I’m glad you included it in the story.
You’re already known for your historical novel A Tiny Piece of Sky, your Not So Ordinary Girl books, and your Penelope Crumb series. What are you working on now? Will you be writing more novels for middle-grade readers?
Shawn: Yes! Although I love reading young adult and picture books, my heart belongs to middle grade. I’m currently working on a new middle grade novel, Anatomy of Lost Things, which is about three characters who have each lost something very important to them, and whose lives intersect as they try to recover what they’ve lost. It’s slated to publish in Fall 2024 from Peachtree.
Anne: Where can readers go to learn more about you and your work?
Anne: Thank you so much for stopping by MG Book Village, and for writing such a great story for middle-grade readers!
Shawn: Thanks again, and happy reading!
Shawn K. Stout is the author of several acclaimed books for young readers, including the Penelope Crumb series, the Not-So-Ordinary Girl books, and the historical novel, A Tiny Piece of Sky. Her newest middle grade novel, The Impossible Destiny of Cutie Grackle, is in bookstores now. Shawn is a science writer at the National Institutes of Health and holds an M.F.A. in writing from Vermont College of Fine Arts. She lives in a very old house in Maryland, where she hopes to be visited by ravens. (She sets out trinkets for them just in case.) Visit her at www.shawnkstout.com.
Anne (A.B.) Westrick is the author of the older-MG novel Brotherhood. You can learn more about her at the MG Book Village “About” page.