Author of more than 125 books, including 1992 Newbery winner Shiloh, Phyllis Reynolds Naylor sets her latest novel, Faith, Hope, and Ivy June (Delacorte), in Kentucky. The story centers on two seventh graders who participate in a school exchange program and spend two weeks together with each family. Their lives couldn’t be more different—Ivy June lives in a remote mountain hollow with her grandmother and her coal miner grandfather and Catherine is a private-school student from a well-to-do Lexington family—yet the two discover that they may be more alike than different. Bookshelf spoke to Naylor about her new book.
Why did you choose Kentucky for the novel’s setting?
You know, sometimes books are long in the coming. Many, many years ago I received a grant from the National Endowment for the Arts and used it to visit West Virginia and Kentucky and I just soaked up the atmosphere. My father came from Mississippi and I’ve always been drawn to southern culture. I had set books in West Virginia—my husband grew up there—but still had all my notes from visiting Kentucky and it was great to use that research. I loved the names of the Baptist churches, the rickety swinging bridges over the Kentucky River and the signs outside luncheonettes: “Soup, Beans and Corn Bread.” I had a wonderful time writing this book.
What inspired the novel’s plot?
I’d been thinking for a long time about doing a book based on “The Prince and the Pauper” story, so I decided I wanted to write a novel about a rich girl who goes to live with a poor girl, and vice versa. But it just wasn’t gelling. And then Michelle Poploff, my editor at Delacorte, mentioned a recent mine disaster in West Virginia and suggested I do a coal mine story. Years ago I had used a coal mine theme in Wrestle the Mountain and the more I thought about it, that theme fit perfectly with the story I was trying to compose about the two different girls. And the book seemed to take off after that.
You’ve said in the past that your own childhood experiences often come into play in your fiction. Was that the case with Faith, Hope, and Ivy June?
Yes, I did dip back into my childhood. My maternal grandparents lived in Maryland. He was the minister of a small church and she was a midwife and also took in wards of the state. I remember one old man who came to live with them. Sometimes when he was eating lunch, I was assigned to watch him and make sure, if he was eating corn, that he didn’t eat the cob, too. It was kind of frightening to watch, and at the time it was a bit embarrassing that my grandmother was caring for these people in her home, but such things have stayed with me all my life. And now I understand what a rich, rich resource these memories are. That old man, with his huge eyes that stared right through me, became Ivy June’s great-grandmother in the novel. And my minister grandfather and midwife grandmother inspired Ivy June’s grandparents. Those characters just came to me.
Was it also easy to find the voices of Ivy June and Catherine?
Those characters did come to life quite easily. I think that is partly because of my southern roots and my background.
Would you say one of the girls was easier to get to know than the other?
Well, probably Ivy June came to life more easily, which is why I put her name in the title. There is that connection between her grandparents and mine. One thing I really like about this story is that tradition is a very big part of both girls’ lives. The stereotypes they have of each other at the beginning turn out to be true in part, but the girls also have some surprises.
You’ve written for all age levels. Is there one group of readers you feel most at home writing for?
Not really. I think the hardest things for me to write are picture books. They come the closest to poetry, and I’m not a poet. I love the 8—12 group—that’s where I got my start. I guess if I had to choose to write for one age level it might be young adults. In YA fiction, you can write about any subject under the sun and write in whatever way you want to write. There are no taboos.
And you’re obviously comfortable writing for adults as well.
Yes, I’m also very happy writing adult novels. Some subjects need an adult perspective. Sometimes I use the same characters and themes in both an adult and a children’s novel. For example, I wrote an adult novel, Revelations, which had the same theme as my children’s book, To Make a Wee Moon. They were based on a real-life story about a con man who was an evangelical preacher, who was in cahoots with the carnival operator across town. The more he preached against the carnival, the more the people rushed over to see what the carnival was all about. In the end, the two split the proceeds. That story really grabbed me. The children’s novel is about a girl who idolizes the preacher, until she realizes he has feet of clay. In the adult novel, the church secretary falls in love with the preacher. Actually Sally Field bought the film rights, but a film was never made.
Your fiction also covers a range of genres. Do you enjoy writing one type of book more than others?
I need them all. I never do the same kind of book twice in a row. I never follow up an Alice book with another Alice. If I finish a serious novel, then I’m ready to write a funny one, and then move on from there to a terrifying one. It keeps me fresh and it’s more fun to do it that way. And I’ve got to enjoy what I’m doing.
Speaking of Alice, your 24th novel about her, Intensely Alice, also comes out this month. She, and the series, has had a long life.
Yes, she sure has. I have two sons, but I never had a daughter. This has been like raising my own daughter. I will be sad when the 28th Alice book comes out and the series is finished.
Will the series definitely end with the 28th novel?
Yes, definitely. That will be the last word on Alice. I’ve actually already written that last novel. It’s in a fireproof box in my apartment, along with a letter to my sons, saying that if anything happens to me, send the book off to Atheneum. I still have to write two books that will come out before that, so I have to be careful not to kill off anyone who appears in that last novel!
Was it emotional for you to finish that final Alice story?
Not really, because it ends on such a happy note, a surprising note that I think kids will love. It leaps ahead—Alice jumps from 18 to 60—and covers the main points of her life. I think kids will be pleased. All their questions about her life will be answered.
Do you think you will pen a sequel to Faith, Hope, and Ivy June?
I don’t know. I got the girls to a good place in the end, and I feel as though readers can take it from there. But then I did leave open the possibility that they go to college together and be roommates. So here’s what I’d say about doing a follow-up: it could happen. I’ll leave it at that.
Faith, Hope, and Ivy June by Phyllis Reynolds Naylor. Delacorte, $16.99 ISBN 978-0-385-73615-2
by Phyllis Reynolds Naylor. Atheneum, $16.99 ISBN 978-1-416-97551-9