And to Think That I Saw It on Klickitat Street. No, it's not a new Dr. Seuss title. But it could perhaps serve as a thumbnail summary of where Kathleen O'Dell found inspiration for her novel Agnes Parker... Girl in Progress (Dial). "Several years ago I was working on a historical novel and had done months of research," recalls O'Dell. "I had just read the first volume of Beverly Cleary's memoirs [A Girl from Yamhill]. One afternoon I took a break and fell asleep. When I woke up from that nap, it came to me; I shouldn't be writing something historical, I should be writing something more like the Cleary books I loved as a child. I grew up in Portland, Ore. [as Cleary did], and all our street names were in Beverly Cleary's books. I knew those places and felt like I knew those characters. I guess you could say the idea came to me during a nap. That, and I think my subconscious decided it didn't want to do any more research," O'Dell jokes.
The result of O'Dell's liberating trip to dreamland is a breezily paced tale about an unassuming girl who is navigating her way through some of the landmines of sixth grade: a bully, a first crush, evolving friendships and a tough teacher. Reviews have complimented O'Dell's realistic scenarios and dialogue, something the author says she admires about the works of her writing idols. "All I want to do is penetrate to the heart of a character," O'Dell says. "Beverly Cleary uses a plain-spoken style where you can recognize her characters as people in life. Canadian author Alice Munro has that same gift."
Agnes Parker was not O'Dell's first attempt at authordom, however. "I had been writing for a long time," she says. "But when my children went off to grade school I got absorbed in volunteering at the large library at their school. I was immersed in what children like, then about 10 years ago I started thinking about writing children's books. I sat around in my sweatpants and did a lot of typing then," she says with a laugh.
Along the way, O'Dell, an English major in college, had gained experience writing in the public relations field and had studied with writers in the Los Angeles area (near her Glendale home) through UCLA's extension program. That path led her to eventually submit a poetry collection to Dial Books for Young Readers.
Following a "bunch of circumstances" including the personnel changes common in publishing, O'Dell's work landed with editor Cecile Goyette. The poetry title did not come to fruition, but Goyette "snapped up" O'Dell's idea for the middle-grade novel back in 2000. "I was under the impression that when I finished my first draft the book was finished," O'Dell says. "But no! It was just the starting point. Working with Cecile was much more of a collaboration than I thought it would be; she has really helped me as a writer."
And these days O'Dell does indeed feel like a writer. She writes full-time now, and her husband and two teenage sons applaud her efforts. "My 13-year-old is a big fan, as long as he doesn't have to read the part about the bras," she says. He even purchased one of her books "out of support" at a recent signing O'Dell did during the L.A. Times Book Festival.
She has not done much promotion yet, but plans to do more in the fall, when an excerpt of Agnes Parker will run in American Girl magazine (the Sept./Oct. issue). She is hard at work on a sequel ("Agnes goes to summer camp," she notes) and has finished another novel, due out in summer 2004, about a girl who is "obsessed with Dorothy from The Wizard of Oz."
"It's all been exciting," O'Dell says. "I've been thrilled at seeing the cover, seeing the book listed on Amazon—all the little things that make it real." And she has received her first fan letters as well. "Sometimes you have to take yourself by the shoulders and say 'Hello, you're an author now.' "