In The Rag Coat, her 1991 picture book, Lauren A. Mills introduced Minna, a kind and resilient Appalachian girl whose mother and fellow quilters make her a coat from scraps of fabric so that she can attend school during the Appalachian winter. Taught by her coal miner father that material objects do not matter (“People only need people, and nothing else”), Minna is devastated when her classmates, including mean girl Lottie, ridicule her coat – until they realize that remnants of their own lives are, literally, part of its fabric. Now Mills delves deeper into Minna’s life – and the lives of her family, friends, and neighbors – in Minna’s Patchwork Coat, an illustrated middle-grade novel out this month from Little, Brown. PW asked Mills a quartet of questions about revisiting Minna in her debut novel.
What inspired you to revisit Minna and her world so many years after introducing her in The Rag Coat – and to reimagine her story as a novel?
I guess Minna’s story kept living on with me since I wrote The Rag Coat, and many children who wrote to me after that book came out were insistent on having Lottie be nicer, and wanted more resolution to Minna’s story. But I decided to give up doing picture books for a while, since the picture book market has changed so much. The writing and art styles of picture books have become so much simpler and younger, and less traditional than my work. Some people even advised me to change my pen name or change my style – but I decided that rather than focus on picture books, I would focus on fine arts – portrait painting and sculpture – and teaching, which I did.
But then there was some talk about possibly making the story into a movie, and I had in my mind that if that happened, I wanted to be the one to expand the story in the way I imagined it. And after joining a writing group that focused on more stream-of-consciousness writing, I started asking myself, “Why not make Minna’s story longer?” I felt there was more to tell. To me, The Rag Coat is really about prejudice and meanness, and not seeing who people really are. In a novel for older children, I could add more characters, and further explore the idea that we all have the same emotions, struggles, and need for love. And I wanted to keep using my traditional, more realistic style of art, which I think is better suited to the novel venue, given today’s trends in picture books.
What new challenges did you encounter writing your first work of longer fiction?
It’s interesting – I never thought I could actually write a novel, but Maria Modugno, who encouraged me to create The Rag Coat, and then edited the book [Andrea Spooner and Deirdre Jones acquired and edited her new novel], has always said to me, “I think of you first as a writer rather than an illustrator.” And it is true that ideas for books always come to me first in words. Still, I had no idea that writing a novel would be so hard compared to a picture book, where the story is so short that you can flip back and forth and see the whole thing unwinding. Which is helpful to me, since I am also a visual person. With Minna’s Patchwork Coat, I had to go back a million times and reread, to make sure I was weaving things together in the right way, and that the story held together. The process can become quite unwieldy.
Still, I do think that novels are easier to write in a way – in terms of being able to tell a full story without having to cut short what you want to say. I feel as though writing a picture book is like writing a poem – every single word counts. A novel is more conversational, and I love language and conversation, and being able to share that with readers rather than feeling that pressure to keep the story short. And I also loved writing Minna’s story in the first person, and realized that might be the easiest way of writing for me. In fact, my husband Dennis said, “I think you channeled Minna – and maybe you were her in another life.”
Are there many similarities between your and Minna’s childhoods?
There are certainly bits and pieces that are similar. I didn’t grow up in Appalachia in 1908 – I grew up in Connecticut much later – but I did spend every summer with my grandparents in West Virginia, and I always wanted to live in a log cabin and have goats and chickens. And when I was 16 my brother and I lived for a time at my aunt and uncle’s ranch in Montana. My aunt was a quilter, and instilled in me a love of quilts and quilting. We moved to Oregon when I was in high school, and I remember saving up my money to buy a patchwork coat made from an old quilt. The type of clothes I liked to wear did not fit in with the new polyester outfits that most people were wearing in the 1970s, and I remember getting teased for my clothing. And then, in my early 20s, I moved to California, and finally got my chance to live in a log cabin, and have goats and chickens.
Given your familiarity with – and affinity for – so many of the aspects of Minna’s lifestyle, did you do much research in order to flesh out her story?
While writing the novel, I was spending summers teaching drawing in the Children’s Book Writing and Illustrating MFA program at Hollins University in Roanoke, Va., so I had a chance to further research Appalachian culture. I read many books, of course, and watched films, and visited museums and the Exhibition Coal Mine in Beckley, W. Va. And I did quite a bit of hiking in the Blue Ridge Mountains, where I took many photos that were helpful in creating the graphite pencil illustrations in the novel.
I also did quite a bit of research into the folk songs that play such an important role in Minna’s life. I wanted to find the earliest publications of the songs and include the versions closest to what people would have sung in early 20th-century Appalachia. That part of the research was especially gratifying, because folk and bluegrass music is a very big part of my own family’s life. In fact, the songs I included in the novel are my and my husband’s favorites – and are ones that we sang to our daughter, who is now 25 and is a singer, dancer, and an artist, when she was young. I know writers are often told to write what you know, but from my experience, I would advise them to write what you love.
Minna’s Patchwork Coat by Lauren A. Mills. Little, Brown, $17 Nov. ISBN 978-0-316-40621-5