Nina LaCour’s The Apartment House on Poppy Hill, illustrated by Sonia Albert (Chronicle, Nov.), is the first in a series for middle grade readers. LaCour evokes the glamour of contemporary San Francisco in a story of a girl and her two mothers living in a rambling walk-up. We spoke with the Printz Medalist about shifting creative gears to write for middle graders and what she hopes readers take away from this tale of family, community, and inclusion set in one of America’s most storied cities.
You are best known for your YA novels. What prompted you to write for middle graders?
I started writing The Apartment House on Poppy Hill after I finished the draft of my first adult novel, Yerba Buena. Like my YA novels, Yerba Buena deals with a lot of heavy topics. When I finished it, I had a sudden burst of inspiration. This nine-year-old narrator came to me, and this feeling of joy and curiosity about life. The story just poured out of me in a magical way during the most isolating time of the pandemic.
How will children growing up in the digital age relate to Ella and her world?
The descriptions of Ella and her life are very much influenced by my daughter, who is about to turn 10. One of the most profound experiences, being a parent, is staring at my phone and then looking up and seeing my daughter without devices, just taking in the world around her. Ella is right at that time when she’s very aware of what’s around her. She’s a bright kid who knows how people and things work; she isn’t tied to technology yet. She’s able to learn in this magical way from the people around her.
Your book carries a strong undercurrent on time and its passing. Why was it important to emphasize this theme?
Adults and children think about time in such different ways. For a child, time can be an abstract feeling. For adults, with their rigid schedules, time is a much different entity. I was curious to explore different people’s conceptions of time. Ella’s one mom is a planner while the other mom is a free-spirited artist. For one, time pulls everything together; for the other, there is no such thing as time.
What do you hope readers will take away from The Apartment House on Poppy Hill?
The takeaways for me are the connections to place and community and devotion to noticing. The Robinsons upstairs are a mystery for most of this first book because they keep to themselves in a building full of friendly tenants. In the following books in this series, they are quite present as characters. Even in this first one, Ella is rewarded by them for paying attention. I would love for children and their parents to really devote themselves to noticing. That’s one of the most amazing gifts we have as humans.
Ella has two mothers and there’s an interracial gay couple next door. Are you concerned that The Apartment House on Poppy Hill might arouse controversy?
My other books get challenged and have been banned, as have the books of so many incredible writers. Even though I know it will be challenged, I’m not changing anything. It never crossed my mind and there were no conversations about that with my publisher. One of the most important things we can do as writers and publishers is to continue to put out books that represent the vast spectrum of humanity and do so without apology or compromise and trust that we represent the real world.
Nina LaCour will attend the author reception, June 6, 5–6:30 p.m.