Rain Reign, Newbery Honor author Ann M. Martin’s latest middle-grade novel, centers on Rose, a fifth grader with high-functioning autism, who is obsessed with homonyms, primary numbers, and rules. The lonely girl takes solace in her bond with Rain, a stray dog found by her mechanic father, who spends most of his spare time at the local bar. But Rose’s fragile world is shattered when Rain disappears during a hurricane – and then her original owners turn up. A dog lover, Martin previously wrote A Dog’s Life: Autobiography of a Stray and its companion, Everything for a Dog. Rain Reign is dedicated to the memory of Sadie, Martin’s beloved, longtime canine companion, who died exactly one year ago. The author talked with PW about the personal experiences that inspired the novel, which Feiwel and Friends is releasing this month.
Given the novel’s dedication to Sadie’s memory, is it safe to assume that she provided some incentive for writing Rain Reign?
I would say that Sadie and Rain definitely have similar personalities, in that they were both quiet, sweet dogs. When my editors Liz [Szabla] and Jean [Feiwel] started talking to me a couple of years ago about possibly writing another dog book, it wasn’t clear to me what that novel might be. And then Hurricane Irene hit my upstate New York town badly in 2011. After the storm, I’d take walks with Sadie, and saw the damage – downed trees and washed-out stone walls, bridges, and driveways – and also heard stories about animals who had disappeared in the hurricane turning up at animal shelters. And I started wondering about what would happen if Sadie got lost in a super storm, and how that story might play out.
What was the inspiration for Rose’s character?
The character of Rose has been a long time in the making – in fact going back as far as the 1970s. During college, I worked summers at a small school in Princeton, N.J., for kids with autism, though at that time of course there was no such term as the autism spectrum. I became fascinated with autism, and continued to read about it for years after that. So Rose’s character was circulating in my head for a long time, and her quirks and obsessions came more and more into focus as the years went by.
And her voice finally came to you?
Her voice became increasingly clearer as the pieces of the story came into place. Before I finally set out to write the novel, I researched how the approach to educating children with autism has changed. I was lucky to have a friend, Jamey Wolff, who is cofounder and program director of the Center for Spectrum Services in New York’s Hudson Valley, which serves students on the autism spectrum. She answered tons of questions for me and told me what materials to read.
Did you have an opportunity to spend time with any children with autism as you prepared to write Rain Reign?
Jamey graciously allowed me to spend a morning at the school, talking with students and observing their interactions with each other and with teachers. Though Rose is not based on a real person, and the way these students are taught is very different from Rose’s education, observing them helped me in terms of getting into Rain’s head, and figuring out how she reacted to certain situations.
Well, her obsession with rules for example. While I was observing, I saw one boy become very upset because someone had borrowed his pencil and hadn’t returned it. The issue was so immediate to him, and it was heart-wrenching to see his reaction to what he saw as a rule not being followed. Not that all children on the spectrum have an obsession with rules, but it’s more a matter of seeing things in black and white. Once I realized that that is how Rose would see things, her voice and how she might view her world came more easily to me.
Rose is thrilled that both her name and Rain’s are homonyms – and she devotes hours to collecting and recording homonyms that pop into her head. Why make this one of her obsessions?
I have to admit, homonyms are an obsession of mine! I don’t know where it came from, and I don’t have a list as extensive or as well organized as Rose’s. But every time I think of a homonym, I write it down. I refuse to go to the computer to find them – that spoils the fun. If I’m listening to a book on tape, I completely lose track of the story if I hear a new homonym or homophone. Oh, I sound like Rose, going on and on about homonyms! But I have to add that last weekend I cam up with one that I particularly like.
Rose would be so pleased – do tell!
Phrase and frays. Yes, Rose would have loved it, especially since the spellings of the two words are so different. And it follows all the rules of homonyms.
You set Rain Reign in a rural town, all the more isolated after the hurricane, and except for the mutual affection between Rose and Rain and between Rose and her caring uncle, her life with her intolerant, verging on abusive father is so bleak. Why?
I didn’t want to paint Rose’s father as a stock evil character. In his own damaged way, he’s doing the best he can for Rose, right up until the end, when he hands her over to his brother to give her a better home. Her father comes to more of an understanding that Rose is in a bad living environment – it would have been so for any child, but for her particularly. I wanted to untangle her from that, and help her find her own way and do what she strongly believes is the right thing to do.
Did Rain Reign in any way present a new challenge for you as a novelist?
Writing from Rose’s point of view and telling the story of a character was so different from anyone I’ve ever written about was not so much challenging as fascinating. I found getting into Rose’s head so very interesting.
Was it difficult to leave Rose behind – and might we see her again?
It’s always hard for me to say goodbye to characters at the end of book. I find myself thinking a lot about Rain, but especially about Rose, and not just because she loves homonyms. I feel very strongly for her, and I know that I put her in a horrible situation. But I’m happy that I left her with as good a life as she possibly can have and hope all will work out. I have had trouble getting her out of my thoughts. I hadn’t thought of writing a sequel, but since I can’t seem to let go of her – who knows?
Rain Reign by Ann M. Martin. Feiwel and Friends, $16.99 Oct. ISBN 978-0-312-64300-3