New Voice: Gayle Rosengren on What the Moon Said

Discussion Questions

By Cynthia Leitich Smith

Gayle Rosengren is the first-time author of What the Moon Said (Putnam, 2014). From the promotional copy:

Thanks to her superstitious mother, Esther knows some tricks for avoiding bad luck: toss salt over your left shoulder, never button your shirt crooked, and avoid black cats. 

But even luck can’t keep her family safe from the Great Depression. When Pa loses his job, Esther’s family leaves their comfy Chicago life behind for a farm in Wisconsin.

Living on a farm comes with lots of hard work, but that means there are plenty of opportunities for Esther to show her mother how helpful she can be. She loves all of the farm animals (except the mean geese) and even better makes a fast friend in lively Bethany. 

But then Ma sees a sign that Esther just knows is wrong. 

If believing a superstition makes you miserable, how can that be good luck?

How did you approach the research process for your story? What resources did you turn to? What roadblocks did you run into? How did you overcome them? What was your greatest coup, and how did it inform your manuscript?

Gayle’s mom, age 11, at Lake Michigan

Since my story was inspired by events in my mother’s childhood, my research quite naturally began with her.

Over the years she had told me about moving between Chicago and farms in Wisconsin several times; attending a two-room schoolhouse there after attending a large elementary school in the city; and how she came home from school in Wisconsin one day to find her mother burning her doll and cradle because she said my mother was “too old for dolls.”

These memories were enough to spark my imagination. From these seeds grew the novel, What the Moon Said. From them I created a fictional story around the character I imagined my mother to be as a child.

Although personal events were vividly remembered, I soon learned that my mother’s recall for background details was fuzzy and not nearly as trustworthy.

There were many occasions when I asked her, “Are you sure?” about this or that historical detail and she would get a vague look on her face before nodding and saying, “Pretty sure.”

Needless to say, this didn’t instill a lot of confidence, so this was the point at which I moved on to more reliable sources–books, newspapers, and everything I could find on the Internet that could provide me facts–about crops and planting seasons in southern Wisconsin, about banks foreclosing on farms, about clothing styles, hair styles, the price of a stamp, the films being shown in the movie theaters, the shows being listened to on the radio and, by the way, were those radios operated by electricity or batteries? I was dealing with an unreliable narrator in the truest sense of the label, so I backed up and reevaluated everything I had already written with this in mind.

My favorite example of fact-checking is a scene in the book in which I originally had the two teachers at the country school sending home a candy cane with each student on the last day of school before Christmas. It suddenly occurred to me that possibly I should have the candy canes wrapped in waxed paper because probably they didn’t have cellophane yet.

I asked Mom and she said something to the effect that of course they had to have been wrapped; it wouldn’t have been “sanitary” if they weren’t.

Get to know Gayle Rosengren.

I sighed and returned to my computer for some research on candy canes, only to discover that they weren’t even available until the 1950’s(!),making the cellophane issue moot and the need to change the treat vital. Gingerbread men were the result.

Such a little thing on one level, yet how embarrassing it would have been if I hadn’t caught the error. This near miss sent me back to review my manuscript from a whole new perspective in which nothing was assumed, everything was checked and double-checked.

My takeaway from this experience?

Writing fiction is challenging and comes with great responsibility, especially when one is writing for children, but I humbly suggest that writing historical fiction adds a whole extra layer of challenge and responsibility.

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? What advice do you have on this front for your fellow debut authors and for those in the years to come?

Promoting my book has been an overwhelming, often mind-boggling experience fraught with more challenges and time-sucks and information overloads than one who hasn’t experienced it themselves can possibly imagine.

I’ve been very fortunate. I stumbled onto to two wonderful debut groups for children’s writers–Class of 2K14 and OneFourKidLit.

Both have been incredibly generous sources of support, encouragement and helpful input that has guided me through a dizzying whirl of information and around many potential pitfalls.

The sharing of experiences–good and bad–has been invaluable. From editorial letters, title changes, and pub date changes to the nail-biting wait for reviews, the knowledge that I am not the only incredibly excited and completely terrified new author is reassuring to an inexpressible degree. The shared promoting of our books on the groups’ websites and on social media like Twitter and Facebook is one more invaluable “plus”.

The sad fact of today’s publishing industry is that publishing houses do less and less to support new authors, which means the authors have to do more and more themselves to fill the gap and get their books noticed.

The phrase “with a little help from my friends” should be every debut writer’s mantra. Help in getting the word out about a new book can’t come from too many places. It isn’t just limited to awesome debut author groups. Each writer needs to reach out to their colleagues in SCBWI, to kid lit-lovers at online blogs, to librarians, booksellers, friends and family.

Gayle’s desk

Some of the promoting can be creative and even fun. A lot of it can be tedious. All of it takes time. And this is where my advice to other new authors comes in.

Marketing a book can gobble up as much time as we’re willing to give it. The most important thing (and I admit I’m still struggling with this myself) is to establish some kind of balance between the time you give to it and the time you “protect” for your creative writing.

Set aside an hour at the end of each day for book promotion, or one day each week, or whatever works best for you.

Just beware of the marketing monster’s seductive powers and be armed with a schedule that shields a regular block of writing time. And this leads directly to my final mantra for authors: “I am a writer first and a marketer second.”

Gayle’s assistant Fiona

3 thoughts on “New Voice: Gayle Rosengren on What the Moon Said

  1. She is SO RIGHT about the responsibility of writing with all the facts absolutely correct. We owe that to the children.

    I love that she sets aside time to write and realizes that promo work can be a time suck and be bad for your spirit too.

    Thanks for this,

    Sharon Lovejoy

  2. Loved, loved, loved this book! "What the Moon Said" is a terrific read,with one a wonderful, fully-realized main characters, the vibrant & lovable Esther. The historical background (Depression Chicago and incredibly challenging farm-life after the move to rural Wisconsin) blends in perfectly with Esther's story, And the book has just the right voice for someone of Esther's age and has a marvelous structure (flowing seamlessly from scene to scene, chapter to chapter), with just beautiful use of language. A great mother-daughter relationship book. Also, because it is written so well and at an age-appropriate level for Middle Grade minds, would be a terrific "read out-loud" book for home or the classroom. A++++

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