Author Interview: Rose Kent on Kimchi & Calamari

Rose Kent on Rose Kent: “Rose Kent is a Navy veteran and former public relations manager. She lives near Albany, New York with her husband and blended tribe of six children. Kimchi & Calamari is her first children’s novel. It publishes from HarperCollins on April 10th.”

What about the writing life first called to you? Were you quick to answer or did time pass by?

Two comments always appeared on my report cards in elementary school: “shy” and “loves to write.” I was a quiet, little freckle-faced kid. I think writing stories became a means for adventure. I wrote mysteries and melodramas that took hundreds of pages of loose-leaf paper. And they all featured gutsy girls tracking down the bad guys and righting the world. Come to think of it, my protagonists were all tall too, with cool names like Marlo or Chastity (this was the 1970s, after all).

With time I outgrew the shyness. In fact, I attended the United States Naval Academy, in one of the first classes that admitted women. That rigorous experience and later my five years of service as a naval officer were wonderful and demanding. But even in those action-packed years, writing was an anchor in my life (whoops, there goes the Navy reference). I kept a journal during training tours aboard ship. I edited a newsletter at the joint command where I was stationed in San Antonio, Texas. Later, when I left the Navy, I worked in public relations for a food company. My favorite part of that job was writing news stories about food and the people who made it and sold it. You can really get wacky with words when you’re hyping Kraft Mac and Cheese and Oscar Mayer wieners. I even got to ride in the Wienermobile, a feat that impressed my own children more than publishing a novel.

What made you decide to write for young readers?

In part writing for young readers evolved as my own children grew. My four kids and I read hundreds, even thousands of books together that made us laugh and cry and often left me amazed at the talent of countless children’s authors. My older kids are in college now, but reading out loud together is still part of the nightly routine at our house with Connor, age eleven, and Theresa, eight. And I can still remember the rainy day that I sat down, alone, and read Missing May by Cynthia Rylant (Scholastic, 1992). I was blown away by the power of this seemingly “quiet” story. That book inspired me to write my story. That was seven years ago and here I am, still at it.

On a deeper level, I wasn’t drawn to young readers simply because I had children. I’ve always respected children as readers. You can’t pull the wool over kids’ eyes–they’ll sniff out stale characters from under a heap of perfumed prose. Kids want to know who to root for, and they want rich stories. And I appreciate how young people have minds that still seem to be open to new ideas and perspectives.

Could you tell us about your path to publication, any sprints or stumbles along the way?

My path has been long and windy with plenty of sprints and stumbles. But reflecting on it makes me think of that terrific essay collection by Maya Angelou, “Wouldn’t Take Nothing For My Journey Now” (Random House, 1993). I jumped into writing my first middle-grade manuscript, finishing it in four weeks.

And boy did that story read like I jumped into it, with a runaway plot and way more telling than showing. Then I began to take writing classes and connect with other writers and the Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators (SCBWI). That was the best thing I ever did. And I attended conferences where I listened to the voices of experienced writers and editors.

It was at a conference that I first met my editor. That led to a submission of a new story (the first one stayed in the drawer for good reasons), an exciting I want-your-manuscript email, and lots and lots of revisions.

I heard Joan Bauer, a writer I greatly admire, once say that we are as much writers for the stories that are published as we are for the ones that don’t. I believe that, and I am grateful for my past writing, missteps and all.

Congratulations on the publication of Kimchi & Calamari (HarperCollins, 2007)! What was your initial inspiration for writing this book?

My inspiration came wrapped in a blanket and drinking a bottle of soymilk–all the way from Pusan, Korea. I’m referring to my son Connor, who I nicknamed Buddha Baba because of his plump cheeks and glowing smile.

Adopting is a true joy and blessing – and I felt that so deeply, but it also involves a primal loss for the child and birth parent. I remember holding Connor in my arms and worrying about how he would cope later, especially during puberty, a natural time for such reflection. I knew I couldn’t spare him from some hurt, but I wanted him to know that I “got it”— that I understood that who he was as a person didn’t begin the moment he arrived in America.

So while Joseph’s story is all his own, Kimchi & Calamari came from a place where I wanted to connect with kids reflecting on their identities. I love that old proverb that says children need to know their roots to develop their wings. And it isn’t just adopted kids needing this knowledge; all kids do. Nobody cruises through middle school without some struggling to figure out who they are and where they fit in.

Could you briefly describe the story?

Kimchi & Calamari introduces Joseph Calderaro, a quirky drum-playing eighth-grader who describes himself as an ethnic sandwich: “Korean on the inside, Italian on the outside, and some days, the other way around.” Joseph’s life takes a complicated twist when he’s assigned an ancestry tale for school that he can’t write. But what he does, instead, leads to a catastrophe messier than a table of broken dishes.

I’m thrilled that some nice reviews are already coming in from Adoptive Families Magazine and ALA’s Booklist. And I think it’s a book for all kids because in different ways, they all feel “sandwiched” between expectations, different interests, ethnicities and friend groups these days.

One of the many aspects of this book that I appreciated was its depiction of a loving interracial family. Are there other such books in children’s literature that you especially recommend?

Thanks, Cynthia. I like showing diversity in my stories, which of course includes interracial families. And I think showing interracial friendships and loving ethnic families is important, too. The 2000 Census reported that 2.8 million children under age eighteen identify themselves as being more than one race in our country, so certainly our readers are getting more diverse, and so should our characters.

A book I read early on that influenced my thoughts on race and writing was Necessary Roughness by Marie Lee (HarperCollins, 1991). This YA novel depicted a loving (however imperfect) Korean family coping with life after moving to a lily white suburb in Minnesota. I read this book three times because I thought the characterization was incredible and because Lee dealt with racism head on but still focused the story on Chan, a teen all kids could relate to.

Other books I love with an interracial family, interracial friendship or ethnic family presented include Whale Talk by Chris Crutcher (Greenwillow, 2001); Millicent Min, Girl Genius by Lisa Yee (Scholastic, 2006)(author interview); Ninjas, Piranhas and Galileo by Greg Leitich Smith (Little Brown, 2003)(author interview); Dark Sons by Nikki Grimes (Hyperion, 2005) and, of course the classic, Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry by Mildred Taylor (Dial, 1976). There’s also a charming picture book-Russian tale that celebrates a different child called Little Daughter of the Snow by Arthur Ransome and illustrated by Tom Bower (Frances Lincoln Publisher, 2005).

I also appreciate a book you may have heard of, Cynthia, called Rain Is Not My Indian Name, by Cynthia Leitich Smith. (HarperCollins, 2001). I admired your novel because, as my kids would say, “you kept it real.” Rain’s Indian heritage is relevant to the plot of the Indian camp, of course. But because of her grief over Galen, Rain also epitomizes every kid who has experienced loss. I think it’s important that we authors present “diverse” characters in a way that readers can appreciate their unique attributes, but the difference alone doesn’t become the story.

What advice do you have for beginning writers?

I’d offer the same advice that I need to remind myself of every day: To have a NIKE attitude about writing and just do it. Don’t just talk about writing. Don’t plan to write or wish you could write if you had more time and talent–just do it. Writing comes from this deep well of pain and joy that all humans experience, and you have a story to tell. Jump in and tell it. Maybe you are afraid. Maybe you have a pesky gremlin bothering you and suggesting your story isn’t worth telling. Well tune him out, put your butt in the chair, and write anyway.

Just do it.

What are some of your favorite recent reads?

My children and I just finished reading out loud Each Little Bird That Sings by Deborah Wiles (Harcourt, 2005). I loved getting to know Comfort and her energetic little cousin Peach, and I admired how Wiles portrayed the grieving process so honestly and beautifully–all the while still making it a deliciously fun read.

Now I’m reading A Drowned Maiden’s Hair by Laura Amy Schlitz (Candlewick Press 2006). So far I’d say the Newberry committee made a terrific choice in giving this title an honor award. I like Maude’s spunky, survivor instinct, and the book is chockfull of suspense. I just found out why the Hawthorne sisters took Maude from the Barbary Asylum and it’s one doozy of a reason.

What do you do when you’re not writing?

I read. I run. I laugh. I watch movies. I snack on gummi bears, and I drink a lot of tea. I listen to Eva Cassidy CDs.

At school visits, children often ask what they should do to become writers. I say, “Write–and be a liver.” At this point some of the kids wrinkle their noses and say, “Yuck, like in your body?” I tell them I mean to live, to put their hearts and souls in full gear every day. Taste, smell, touch, see and hear everything. I truly believe that those who experience life fully–the good, the bad, and the ugly–have something to say, and so I try to do that with my wonderful family and friends. Oh, I make plenty of mistakes, too.

What can your fans look forward to next?

My work-in-progress is a baseball story, in tribute to the men in my life and their maniac obsession with this game. (I live with a Yankees fan, a Mets fan, and a member of Red Sox nation. Now there’s true diversity.) This story is set in Albany in 1974, and I’m having a ball writing it–pun intended.

Cynsational Note

See my bibliography of Children’s and YA Books with Interracial Family Themes.