Susan Patron spent 35 years as a children’s librarian at the Los Angeles Public Library. She retired in 2007, after winning the Newbery Medal that year for her novel The Higher Power of Lucky (Atheneum/Jackson). A sequel, Lucky Breaks, hits shelves next month.
Photo: Ben Chun.
In what ways has your life changed since winning the Newbery?
Where to start? Okay, here’s one example that’s like a little miracle to me: my first novel, Maybe Yes, Maybe No, Maybe Maybe (Orchard) came out in 1993 and was an ALA Notable, got starred reviews, generated mail from kids, but it went out of print in a few years. After [I won the Newbery], Atheneum bought the rights for a paperback reissue with new art. Then, this very morning [Monday, February 23], an Israeli publisher made an offer to publish Maybe Yes, Maybe No, Maybe Maybe in Hebrew. So [before the Newbery] I was a midlist author and had gotten used to that sad, frustrating, and common experience of seeing my work just disappear—my four picture books had also all gone out of print. Now I get to envision eight-year-olds once again reading my first novel, and some of them will be reading it in Hebrew. This just fills me with gratitude. I’d have to say that the award has made every day begin and end with an enormous feeling of gratitude, enough sometimes to nearly lift me off the ground.
After winning the award, was there any pressure on you—from external sources, or internal pressure—about what to write next? Any performance anxiety?
I’d already begun work on Lucky Breaks, so I knew more or less where I was going, but, yeah, I felt a huge amount of anxiety and self-doubt. Ginee Seo, who edited the book, was a powerful force in enabling me to let go of that stuff and just write the story.
There was some controversy about The Higher Power of Lucky and its mention of a dog’s scrotum. The sequel refers back to that passage from the first book. Were you trying to make a point by doing that?
No, not at all; I was trying to write the best book I could, and that would totally preclude making such a point. The events unfold through Lucky’s perspective, and in her mind this unfortunate dog is forever linked with the incident. So to Lucky, Roy is ‘the dog that got bit on its scrotum by a rattlesnake.’ And I’m determined to be true to her by presenting Roy within the context of how she thinks, without allowing the specter of controversy to affect my writing. It comes down to respecting the intelligence and sensibilities of readers. And, interestingly, not one child has ever expressed any problem or concern over the reference to this body part.
What were your feelings about approaching the controversy over your work as a person who wears two different professional hats—that of librarian and that of author?
Maybe it’s really the same hat, but worn at different angles. Writers must have freedom of expression, librarians provide access to a wide range of books—we all want to connect kids to the written word. But even though I’d been comfortable and fairly articulate in the role of librarian-defender-of-intellectual-freedom-for-kids, as a writer I felt vulnerable. Like, I’m not the one who should have to defend this particular book! So I was grateful that my professional colleagues took the issue very seriously and stood up for my work.
What would be your online-/card-catalog description of Lucky Breaks for young readers?
Lucky is on the verge of turning 11, poised to grow up, but along the way she risks her life, puts her new pal in jeopardy, and betrays her oldest friend. And in trying to figure out the mystery of our home in the universe, Lucky discovers that the answer is both in the stars and close at hand.
Why did you want to revisit Lucky’s world?
I had this amazing experience with a busload of kids from the Death Valley Unified School District during a promotional tour in 2007. Their teacher had read the book aloud. The children were intense and focused, and they wanted to know if Lucky’s little town of Hard Pan was really their town, and if Short Sammy was really someone they knew in disguise. They loved seeing themselves and their world in a novel; this hadn’t happened before. I was already working on Lucky Breaks, but this experience was like having my hand stamped at a party so I could get back inside; it was proof from those kids that they’d welcome me back.
By the end of Lucky Breaks, Lucky seems to have reached a happy and secure point in her life. Do you plan to write more about her?
One final book in the trilogy, yes. Lucky’s situation at the end of Lucky Breaks is kind of like life, where if everything is going along nicely you better get ready for the ax to drop. So I’m back in Hard Pan and am aiming to have the last book finished for publication in 2010. No title yet. And I hope the ink from the stamp on the back of my hand will not have rubbed off!
Lucky Breaks. Susan Patron. Atheneum, $16.99 ISBN 978-1-4169-3998-6