New Voice: Tracy Trivas on The Wish Stealers

Tracy Trivas is the first-time children’s author of The Wish Stealers (Simon & Schuster, 2010). From the promotional copy:

Griffin Penshine is always making wishes. But when a sinister old woman tricks her into accepting a box of eleven shiny Indian Head pennies from 1897, Griffin soon learns these are no ordinary pennies, but stolen wishes.

This box of labeled pennies comes with a horrible curse: People in possession of the stolen coins are Wish Stealers, who will never have their wishes granted…. In fact, the opposite of what they’ve wished for will happen.

Griffin must find a way to return these stolen wishes and undo the curse if her own wishes are to come true. But how can Griffin return wishes to strangers who might not even be alive?

Her journey leads her to ancient alchemists, Macbeth’s witches, and a chance to help people in ways she never imagined, but the temptation of the Wish Stealers’ dark and compelling power is growing stronger.

Can Griffin reverse the curse in time to save herself and the people she loves?

Tracy Trivas’s rich and imaginative début novel introduces a talent as bright and sparkling as Griffin’s pennies.

What were you like as a young reader, and how did that influence the book that you’re debuting this year?

Years before I had The Wish Stealers published, I directed a gifted and talented program and taught English. My classroom door had some of my favorite quotes taped to it on colored paper—alerting students they were entering a world of words…a place where, when we read Edgar Allan Poe for example, I put all their desks together, draped our new center “banquet table” in purple velvet, set plastic “wine goblets” filled with dark red cranberry juice on top, shut off the lights, and lit an eyeball-shaped candle. Then we’d go around the table and read aloud, lingering on beautiful sentences and strange concoctions of words. The kids loved it, and even the most reluctant students started to open up to the power of words and the beauty of language.

In my classroom, I had a wall dedicated to Noah Webster, and I displayed a giant honored dictionary underneath it.

Every Wednesday, we had “Wacky Word Wednesday” and the children had to bring in quirky words and set them to pictures.

This love of words and beautiful sentences began early for me. As a child, I was a voracious reader, and without knowing why, I’d hand copy favorite sentences from books into a diary, as if trying to capture them, or maybe subconsciously absorb their structure.

On Tuesday nights, when I was very young, my dad would drive me in our big old faux-wood-paneled station wagon to the town library where we’d max out our library cards. After an hour of book hunting, my dad would retrieve the car and double-park at the curb as I tottered out the library doors with a giant tower of books, giddy with my new finds.

My dad introduced me to the library early. I remember the pride I felt getting my first library card, signing it with my wobbly six-year-old signature….

I was so proud, like I had just signed The Declaration of Independence. And in a way, reading is just that—a personal declaration of independence. What better way than through a book to find a secret life, an inner world, and explore new thoughts, desires, curiosities, and love.

My favorite book as a young girl was Anne of Green Gables by Lucy Maud Montgomery (L.C. Page and Company, 1908). I devoured the series…. I’d curl up in our living room chair and read an entire book straight through, obsessed with Anne and her independence, her strength, her mischief, and her sense of adventure.

When I set out to write The Wish Stealers, Griffin Penshine popped in my head as my protagonist. It was clear to me that I wanted Griffin to be as strong, independent, smart, and brave as Anne was for me as a child.

I truly believe that Anne in Anne of Green Gables deeply influenced my ideas of what a girl could do, what relationships looked like, and what a true friend was…. I read many, many books as a kid, but that one particular book etched something in my soul about courage and love.

In Griffin, I hoped to create a girl who loved to dream and wish. I start The Wish Stealers by describing Griffin’s character:

Griffin Penshine had three freckles under her left eye that sometimes looked like stars. This was a good thing, as Griffin was always wishing. She wished when a ladybug landed on a windowsill, she wished on dandelion dust, and she even wished on tumbling eyelashes. In fact, she often rescued the eyelash of a friend and reminded her to wish.

But then again Griffin always noticed the smallest of details. She could track her way out of a forest, spotted everything from worms to woodbeetles, and giggled at absurd words on menus like jumbo shrimp. Griffin also liked certain things a certain way. She loved peanut butter on brownies, hated wearing turtlenecks, and insisted her mom buy cool mint toothpaste.

One of my favorite reviews on The Wish Stealers came from the owner of the San Antonio Book Review. She wrote, “If you’ve just about given up on finding books for your ‘tweenage’ daughter that feature strong and capable female protagonists, check out The Wish Stealers by Tracy Trivas….Side effects may include approving of your child’s choice of reading material, a marked increase in the number of wishes made on loose change, and fielding questions from your daughter about Shakespeare, philanthropy, and vegetarism.”

As a young reader I also loved fantasy, mystery, the supernatural–especially that strange and blurry line between magic and coincidence.

In June, I did a book signing at R.J. Julia Booksellers in Madison, Connecticut. Right before I arrived, a few towns away, a freak tornado spiraled through Connecticut, wrecking a few buildings and then swirling off as if it never existed. Tornadoes in Kansas sure, but in Connecticut? Coming out of nowhere, hitting two buildings and leaving? Strange but true.

This is exactly what happens in The Wish Stealers…some readers think oh, that’s the fantasy, the absurd part…a tornado happens to blast into town right after Griffin is tricked with a cursed box of wishes, but things like this do happen.

Actually, Carrie Seiden of RK Julia Booksellers said to me, when she heard about the tornado a few towns over, that she couldn’t believe it occurred the day I was coming in for The Wish Stealers signing. She asked if I had planned it to accompany my visit! I told her writers can conjure up many things, but tornadoes were out of my repertoire…

As a teacher-author, how do your two identities inform one another? What about being a teacher has been a blessing to your writing?

The best part of being a teacher before being a published author is having had constant contact with the target audience. I taught for seven years before writing full time…. I saw up close what kids liked, loved, and hated!

Children are a fierce audience and do not have the tolerance of older readers to give a book a chance by wading through a murky or boring section. Their time is so valuable and competed for so brutally with TV, video games, etc., that a book better be a page-turner.

Of course it must have the emotional depth and resonance of any great book, but don’t skimp on plot and weave yards and yards of description. Working with children hammered into me the importance of a really strong plot, and at least one character that the kids love–I mean love, relate to, want to root for, be best friends with, and meet in real life.

For middle grades, especially at that 8-12 age, having a best friend in the world is everything. I also witnessed upfront that what an adult thinks is great in a book, a child may experience very differently. It is so easy for us as adults to forget that we need to go back to an eight–year-old mindset where everything is new, relationships and friendships are the whole world, and kids are looking for the “psychic rules of life”–like how do girls weather fair-weather friends when their hormones can change everything over a summer? How does one stick up to a bully and not become one herself?

I created Grandma Penshine as a strong artist, but also as a guide for Griffin as she navigates the social/emotional world of school and crosses the rapids of adolescence.

How have you approached the task of promoting your debut book? What online or real-space efforts are you making? Where did you get your ideas? To whom did you turn for support? Are you enjoying the process, or does it feel like a chore?

The most surprising thing about having a book published and then working on the promotion process is how different promoting a book is from writing it–how it requires a totally different part of one’s brain.

When I write, I love to hunker down into a quiet space. I don’t answer the phone, I force myself to look at email only at the end of the day. I shut the door to my office, open the windows, and maybe even light a candle. My two cats come into my office, and one sits on my desk like a calico sphinx. Time passes so quickly as I slide into the world of imagination.

Cut to: a day of promotion means writing about ten million emails to publicists, my manager, amazing friends who help bring The Wish Stealers to their children’s schools; writing back to teachers regarding school visits; answering children’s emails with question like: “Who is your favorite character, and do the names of characters in the book have secret meaning?” (yes!).

The phone is ringing, I am checking Facebook, email, yahoo, and my blog. I am adding photos to my blog and jotting a quick paragraph about a recent school visit or library event or what it was like to speak at the Los Angeles Times Festival of Books on a panel.

I am very grateful to be able to share the book and see it reach all fifty states and get email from people overseas. I recently heard from a young girl in Australia whose family got hold of the book, and she emailed me a few times about how much she enjoyed it. It is thrilling to think that something one created in solitude in a tiny office with purring cats has traveled into people’s homes, into the imagination of children around the world, and into libraries.

Having those human connections with readers is incredible, especially on those writing days when things are not flowing and one just feels alone and stuck on a difficult chapter.

I am grateful and thrilled to have the “promoting” days, but it a very logical, active, driven part of the brain. Soon I find that I must get back to story—to that dreamy space I love so much…

Cynsational Giveaway

Enter to win a copy of The Wish Stealers by Tracy Trivas (Aladdin, 2010)! To enter, email me (scroll and click envelope) with your name and snail/street mail address and type “The Wish Stealers” in the subject line (LiveJournal, Facebook, JacketFlap, MySpace, and Twitter readers are welcome to just privately message or comment me with the name in the header/post; I’ll write you for contact information, if you win). Deadline: Oct. 31. Sponsored by Simon & Schuster; U.S. entries only.

Cynsational Notes

Tracy Trivas, a graduate of Dartmouth College, won a Dartmouth Graduate Fellowship to study Victorian Literature at Oxford University, England. She received her Masters Degree in English from Middlebury College.

She directed a Gifted and Talented program in a Los Angeles private school and has published gifted and talented workbooks as well as an adult non-fiction book, co-authored by Sarah Culberson, A Princess Found: An American Family, An African Chiefdom, and the Daughter Who Connected Them All (St. Martin’s, 2009).

Tracy lives in California with her family.