“I don’t want to stay,” 12-year-old Raine O’Rourke tells her mother in Sparrow Road, Edina resident Sheila O’Connor’s wonderful new novel for children.
Readers will be glad that Raine sticks it out at Sparrow Road, an artists’ retreat near a small town named Comfort, a train ride away from her home in Milwaukee.
“I was looking to write a book in the tradition of classic literature that would be multi-generational in its appeal like Charlotte’s Web, The Phantom Tollbooth, Alice in Wonderland, and Winnie-the-Pooh,” author O’Connor reveals. “These stories have thematic significance and important subjects that can be read on many levels.”
O’Connor was born in Minneapolis, then moved to rural Minnesota with her family, and returned to Minneapolis when she was six years old. The same rural/urban dichotomy of Sparrow Road and her youth can be found in the author’s backyard. There is a pastoral quality to O’Connor’s Morningside home where she lives with her husband and their two college-age children. She writes in a backyard shed with windows looking out on trees, garden and greenery with her dog, Rollo, at her feet.
“My husband and I loved the wildness about the house when we first saw it. It felt like The Secret Garden to us.”
O’Connor is the author of two adult novels, Tokens of Grace and the award-winning Where No Gods Came, and a graduate of the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, where she received an MFA in poetry. At Hamline University, she is a professor of creative writing and specializes in teaching fiction. So how did she come to the world of children’s literature?
“I had always wanted to write children’s books and have written picture books that are not published,” says O’Connor. “For 20 years, I taught as a poet in the schools through the COMPAS Arts for Learning program. The kids always wanted to read my books, but I told them they weren’t for children.”
After teaching her final poet-in-the-school class, O’Connor began the manuscript that would become Sparrow Road in a small office that she rented for the summer before her shed was built.
“I didn’t set out to write a book for children that day, but I knew that I wanted to write something like To Kill a Mockingbird that both children and adults could read,” says O’Connor.
One cannot spend 10 minutes or three hours with O’Connor without talking about family. Family is at the heart of all her writing, and life. Loss is also a recurring theme in her writing, particularly “stop-time,” the desire to preserve life’s fleeting moments. She mentions that her two adult novels are about children in sometimes dire circumstances, while Sparrow Road is a novel populated by generous and self-sacrificing adults narrated by a thoughtful child.
At Hamline University, O’Connor is well known for putting her students before her own writing. So when does she find the time to write?
“I have a hard time writing when I’m teaching,” she explains. “In order to write fiction, I have to enter into a waking dream state, but to teach, my mind has to be taken up with conscious life. I tend to work most fully in the summer when I don’t have a lot going on and that is why I don’t have that many books. Teaching is constant invention.”
When asked what children’s writers inspired her, she replies without missing a beat, “I’m a huge fan of Maud Hart Lovelace. I thought that if I could write something like Betsy-Tacy and Tib, that I would have it made. I also love Cynthia Rylant.”
What she loved about Lovelace’s stories as they were read to her, and later when she read them to herself, is that they were about “ordinary children” and “ordinary adventures” that a child could imagine doing in a world where a child would want to live. The same can be said of Sparrow Road.
O’Connor’s second novel for children, Keeping Safe the Stars, will be published in fall 2012. Sparrow Road can be purchased at Wild Rumpus, Red Balloon, Barnes & Noble, and online, and can be requested through the Hennepin County Library system. Learn more about O’Connor at her website.