Author Liz Garton Scanlon has been busy writing lately, but that’s nothing new. However, what is new and novel for her is…well, a novel. The acclaimed author of picture books, including the 2010 Caldecott Honoree All the World, illustrated by Marla Frazee, published her first children’s novel this year. The Great Good Summer was released in May and has been met with positive reviews, Kirkus calling it “equal parts peculiar and poignant.”
It’s the story of Ivy Green’s seventh-grade summer, not as relaxed as the summers to which she’s accustomed. Ivy’s mother has run off with a Holy Roller preacher named Hallelujah Dave to the Great Good Bible Church of Panhandle Florida to “find herself.” Ivy’s Daddy tells his daughter that her mother had to shake loose some sadness after the family’s hometown of Loomer, Texas, was ravaged by wildfires in the spring. “Apparently,” Ivy muses, “those fires just freaked her all the way out and she needed help to make sense of it all.” Ivy’s father, whose faith never waivers, is as understanding as a deserted husband can be. But Ivy is desperate to know “how lying around on the ground speaking in tongues is gonna get anything out of Mama’s system.”
Despite her frustrations and precisely because of her confusion, she sneaks off on a Greyhound bus with her new friend Paul Dobbs to find her Mama. Paul isn’t having such a great summer either. His dream of becoming an astronaut has been shattered, since the Space Shuttle program has been dismantled. Ivy figures that if Paul wants to kiss space good-bye and start considering a more realistic future for himself, then he can “break up in person” with the space shuttle by seeing it in person at the Kennedy Space Center. Thus the duo sets off—to say goodbye to a dream, as well bring a beloved, if somewhat confused, Mama back home.
All the while, Ivy and Paul have some heart-to-heart chats about religion. Ivy comes from a church-going family, but not Paul. As he tells Ivy one day:
“ … You’re always swearing by these made-up fairy tales about a ‘God’ that nobody’s
ever even seen in person. It’s one thing for grown-ups to buy the whole thing, but
we’re young! We should be more . . . skeptical!”
Ivy’s discussions with Paul help clarify for her, in some ways, her own faith, and they also assist her in seeing the similarities between believers and non-believers. “Looking up at the sky and wondering is what science people like Paul do,” she notes as they wander the space center in Cape Canaveral. “And it’s what God people like Mama do too. If that’s not the craziest thing.”
I asked Liz via email about deciding to craft a story partly about religion and faith, but as it turns out, that’s not what she set out to do. “That emerged as Ivy emerged,” she explains. “It became clear to me that her family had religious traditions and that she was going to be reckoning with the comfort and the challenges of those traditions as part of her coming-of-age. Then, as Paul fleshed out as a science kid, I realized that faith and science were going to get to play off of each other, which I thought was awesome (and daunting). I worried that readers on ‘either side’ would be offended, but I really believe that discussions around religion and science are way too polarized, so it felt both true and worth it to look at them in a true and blurrier way.”
The molding of these characters didn’t come without their worries, as Liz orchestrated their long and involved road trip, one that doesn’t go half as smoothly as they planned. “I've had a number of young readers tell me that they were really worried about Paul and Ivy,” Liz tells me. “I was too, as I was writing, so I can relate!”
When Ivy does find her Mama, she is full of questions. “In the early drafts of the book,” Liz says when I ask her about this complex woman, “Ivy's mama was just gone. I really didn't know who she was. But I knew that Ivy really loved and missed her, so she couldn't just be absent—she had to be good and loving and flawed. She's going through a crisis of faith that Ivy's own crisis kind of parallels, but probably she was always imperfect, right? And Ivy is just now noticing it. I think that's a part of coming-of-age, too. The realization that parents are far from perfect.”
Coming to shelves in mid-August is Liz’s next picture book, In the Canyon. Readers follow a young girl hiking the Grand Canyon, one of the world’s most beautiful natural landscapes. “My agent (Erin Murphy) nudged me to write a book about the Grand Canyon,” Liz tells me, “because she knew I'd hiked it a million years ago. I pulled from that experience and from lots of other hiking and camping trips in the West and Southwest. I spend a lot of time outside.”
The book is illustrated in earthy, vivid hues by Ashley Wolff. “Ashley's art in the book is mind-blowing,” Liz adds. “She used a linoleum block printing process, and it just feels so totally ‘of the natural world’ to me.” Liz feels like she’s hit the jackpot when it comes to the illustrators who have been paired with her picture books. “I've got several picture books coming out over the next couple of years, all with some incredible illustrators,” she says. “I've been on a permanent winning streak in that regard!”
Fans of The Great Good Summer will be happy to know Liz has also begun writing another middle-grade novel. “It's hard,” she tells me. “I worry that being able to write and publish The Great Good Summer was beginner's luck. Meanwhile, I've only got a few more years with my kids at home, so I'm busy being my own kind of imperfect mother, too.”
IN THE CANYON. Copyright © 2015 by Liz Garton Scanlon. Illustrations © 2015 by Ashley Wolff. Spread used by permission of the publisher, Beach Lane Books, New York
Julie Danielson (Jules) conducts interviews and features of authors and illustrators at Seven Impossible Things Before Breakfast, a children's literature blog primarily focused on illustration and picture books.