Karina Yan Glaser’s debut novel about a large biracial family living in Harlem, The Vanderbeekers of 141st Street—the first in a series of seven—received a warm welcome from readers, librarians, and booksellers when it was published in 2017. For this month’s release of the final book, The Vanderbeekers Ever After, Glaser spoke with PW about her childhood dream of living in New York City, the importance of a supportive community, and how it feels to say goodbye to these characters.
Where did the idea for The Vanderbeekers come from?
As a child, I was a huge reader. I devoured books about big families because I had such a small quiet family myself, just my brother and me and my parents, with no extended family in the area. We lived in a suburb of Pasadena, California, and reading books about big families, especially ones in New York City, always gave me a big thrill—series like Elizabeth Enright’s books about the Melendys and Sydney Taylor’s All-of-a-Kind Family books. I also loved A Tree Grows in Brooklyn and From the Mixed-up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler. New York City seemed like a big mythical place, and somehow I knew I belonged there. It was always my goal to live there, and that gave me direction during high school to work hard and get good grades. And I made it! I came to New York for college, and I never left. When my friends started having families and leaving the city, I had this idea from all the books I’d read as a child that raising a family in New York would be very glamorous, so that’s what I did. And even though it is hardly glamorous much of the time, I always saw it from that lens of the books that made me love the city.
When I did have children, I started keeping a blog for my family and friends about what being a mom in New York is really like. I learned that even my husband’s uncle, who lived in Chicago, was reading it—he’s the one who told me I should write a book about raising a family in New York City. I laughed, but the nugget of that idea stayed in my mind. I mean, I had young children and I had to focus on keeping them alive. But as I would walk with my kids and our dog past brownstones in our Harlem neighborhood, I would sometimes think of the cover of one of the All-of-a-Kind Family books, with all the kids spilling out the front door of a brownstone, and that’s when I began thinking about the Vanderbeekers.
What did you do with that idea?
I started Googling writing classes, and signed up for a children’s books writing course taught by Kody Keplinger. She told me about National Novel Writing Month, and I told my husband I was going to try it. He thought I was nuts, but was supportive. So I wrote 1,667 words a day for a month and that was my first draft of The Vanderbeekers. It was horrible! But the characters were there with their personalities, and the other basics, too.
I started fixing and revising the best I knew how. I was still in the writing class, so that helped. I signed up for another class, with Lev Rosen, and I kept revising through the lessons. When the class ended, I hired Lev to help edit the manuscript, and he gave me great feedback. After about a year and a half of working on it, I started looking for an agent. It took about four months for Ginger Clark, who was then with Curtis Brown, to sign me up. We submitted it to Ann Rider at Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, who pretty quickly bought it.
Did you plan from the start that it would be a series?
I always wanted to make it a series, but HMH offered me a contract for two standalone books. [The second one was A Duet for Home, which came out in 2022.] When The Vanderbeekers was in the copyediting stage, they asked for a second Vanderbeekers book. That was great news—what wasn’t great was that it had the same deadline as A Duet for Home, so I had much less time to write it.
When that second book—The Vanderbeekers and The Hidden Garden—was in copyediting, they asked for a third book. When the third book—The Vanderbeekers to the Rescue—was in copyediting, they asked for a fourth and fifth! I initially wanted to write four books; I had envisioned writing one for each season, and honestly, I wasn’t sure I had a fifth book in me. But I signed the contract and while I was on tour for To the Rescue, I started having regrets. But I thought about it more, and asked for a contract for books six and seven, too. I realized I would need three books to develop and carry out the plotline I would start in book five.
The Vanderbeekers deal with some tough issues: homelessness, the death of a close friend, a life-threatening illness. What inspired you to include these issues, and was it difficult to write about the family facing them?
A lot of the books reflect something I’ve been thinking about, or something our family or somebody close to us has gone through. The final book was definitely hard to write. I had been hearing a lot about kids experiencing health issues, and my own kids have had their share of struggles with their health as well. I had been meeting a lot of families whose kids were diagnosed with cancer or other serious illnesses. Over the course of the decades that a child is with their parents and siblings, there are many ups and downs. Many of us living in New York City don’t have family nearby to support us through difficult times, so it’s especially important to have other communities of support. I actually approached every one of the books with that thought in mind.
To me, the Vanderbeekers are a very healthy family with a lot of open communication. That’s not how I was brought up, but I’m trying to raise my kids a different way. So I modeled in the books what I think is a healthier way to raise a family, including dealing with hard things and talking about them instead of ignoring or avoiding them. The books have become a template for me in that way.
Did you approach the writing of each book in the same way or did the process change over time?
I worked on them all pretty much the same way. Once I get a general idea what the book will be about, I do a fast first draft—the way I wrote the first book. I try to write 1,667 words every day for a month. Sometimes, after about 10,000 words, I might realize I’m headed in the wrong direction, so if I’m veering too much off course, I do stop and reflect. And the process of revision is always different. But every book is really hard to write! It never gets easier.
Have you had the same editor for all seven books? What kind of input/feedback has the editor had and has that changed over the series?
I’ve been really lucky in having the same editor for six of the books. Ann Rider was with me for all but the last one, because she retired. The first five were published by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, but then they were bought by HarperCollins, so the final two were published by their imprint Clarion Books.
Ann was a very consistent editor. Her first editorial letter was only about one and a half pages, and she wrote things like, “I don’t think this is working. Will leave it up to you to fix. You know best.” Sometimes she would give me a hint as to what she thought didn’t work, but usually she just edited with her gut, and that worked for me. She retired during Covid, so she told me on a video call and I burst into tears! It was so embarrassing. She also told me Anne Hoppe would be my new editor and I got an email from Anne that same day, acknowledging how hard it must be to switch editors for the final book. I couldn’t have imagined a better transition. She is a very different editor—she guided me more in terms of “here are some ways you might want to think about it.” I’m very proud of the final book and really glad the universe brought me both of these editors.
After all the adventures the family goes through in books one through six, what did you think was important to focus on and include in the final book?
The final book had to wrap up the series, and I would never want to leave readers unsatisfied. I wanted to respect the emotional connection my readers have with the books. I wanted the theme of the family working through difficult times together to culminate in the final book, as well as the concept that families and communities expand and grow. I wanted a hopeful ending, and I wanted a wedding at the end of the series!
This was the hardest book to write. I was late, and I was over the word count by a lot! I always try to respect the time of the editors and the production team and the publisher, but with this book I had to ask for an extension for the first time ever—I felt terrible.
What’s it like to be done with the Vanderbeekers?
When I received the second-pass pages, I read them out loud to my younger kid, who is 13, and we both cried. It was a beautiful experience, a sweet and sad momentI had read all the books out loud to both of my children, butthis time was especially bittersweet since it was the final story. The books have mirrored many of our own experiences as a family, so saying goodbye to these beloved characters felt somewhat like bidding farewell to dear friends.
How does it feel to have written the kind of big-family New York City book series that was such a big part of your childhood dreams—to be in the canon with Sydney Taylor and Elizabeth Enright?
It is incredibly humbling to have The Vanderbeekers compared to books that have been such a big part of my life. When I hear from readers and see the way people are connecting with the Vanderbeekers, I feel honored that these stories are having an impact similar to the one that Sydney Taylor’s and Elizabeth Enright’s books had on me.
The Vanderbeekers Ever After by Karina Yan Glaser. Clarion, $19.99 Sept. 19 ISBN 978-0-358-43458-0