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Morris Award Finalist: Wonder Show by Hannah Barnaby

The William C. Morris Award celebrates new writers in young adult literature by honoring outstanding works by authors who are writing for teens for the first time. Wonder Show, a story about a teen orphan searching for her family during the 1930s, is one of this year’s finalists. Today’s post features an interview with author Hannah Barnaby.

Wonder Show by Hannah BarnabyCongratulations on being named a Morris Award finalist! What was your reaction when you found out?

I received the call from Lisa DiSarro, who is the school and library marketing manager at Houghton Mifflin Harcourt and also an old friend from my days as an editor there. We had been trying to get in touch and catch up, so when I saw her name on my phone, I never suspected she was calling with such wonderful news. It took me a few minutes to comprehend what was going on! (This is oddly similar to what happened when my editor, Kate O’Sullivan, called to offer me a contract for Wonder Show. My son had been born a few months earlier and I thought she was just calling to ask about the baby.)

The theme of family is so strong throughout the book. Was that intentional from the beginning, or did it evolve along with Portia’s story?

I think I’m like most writers in that I don’t set out to develop certain themes in a story — those threads and patterns evolve more organically most of the time, especially in the first draft. It’s the revision process that clarifies things and brings particular themes to the surface, and it was then that I noticed how much I had built into the story about family. Not just Portia’s absent one, but the families of Caroline and Gideon, and the communal family that the carnival inhabitants create as they live and travel together.

The public interest in “human curiosities” does not seem to have waned much since the 1930s. What was it that drew you to those characters, and why did you want to include them in your book?

While I was researching Wonder Show, I read several volumes of carnival and circus history, and because these shows existed fairly recently, the performers are well-documented with photographs. Some even had “trading cards” that they handed out as souvenirs. I looked at so many images of them, and seeing them as they actually existed made them impossible to forget. The conditions that made them unusual now have medical names, more formal labels than “The Lizard-Skinned Man” or “The Bearded Lady,” but in those black-and-white pictures they were just truly wondrous, perplexing creatures. And the chance to explore their humanity and their experience was irresistible.

McGreavey’s Home for Wayward Girls was heartbreaking. Was there any basis in reality for this part of the story?

I didn’t research them specifically, but homes like this one have earned an apocryphal place in American history and in fiction. My goal was to make Mister and his domain feel slightly unreal, like something out of a dark fairy tale, which is how I imagined it felt to the girls who were living there and had very little hope of leaving. The place had to be bleak enough to drive Portia away — not just unpleasant, but really and truly miserable.

On your website, it says you spent seven years writing Wonder Show. How much of that was devoted to writing the story and how much was editing and re-writes? And can you tell us a little about your writing process?

It’s true that Wonder Show took seven years from inception to completion, but I wasn’t working on it continuously. I finished the first draft during my time as the children’s writer-in-residence at the Boston Public Library, and then set the project aside for almost two years. I was teaching and working in a bookstore, and then I got married and my daughter was born, and we moved a couple of times — I always kept the novel in the back of my mind, but I didn’t pick it back up in earnest until one of the judges who awarded me the BPL grant got in touch and asked about Wonder Show. She was an editor and wanted to read the manuscript. I knew it needed quite a bit of work before I sent it out, so I put her off for six weeks and did an intensive revision. That led to another round of changes and, eventually, to my sending it to Kate O’Sullivan, who eventually acquired it. As you can see, it was a circuitous path to publication!

Before you published Wonder Show, you were an editor and reviewer. Did your insider knowledge of publishing help or hinder you in any way?

It probably did both, to some extent. I had a distinct advantage because I still had connections to editors and agents that were willing to read my work — that’s the main obstacle to most unpublished writers. But once my novel was acquired and the publishing process started, I found it quite difficult to set my editorial experience aside and sit comfortably on the author’s side of the table. Thankfully, Kate kept me very well informed as things progressed and even consulted me about jacket ideas. And it’s been such a gift to work with my former colleagues in this new way.

Like many readers, I am anxiously awaiting your next book. Any hints on what is to come next?

I’m in the early stages of a contemporary young adult novel, a gothic story about a girl on a quest to track down the recipients of her brother’s organs. I don’t usually outline my stories, but I’m finding that because my children are still quite young and my writing time is limited, it helps to plan ahead. And here’s hoping it won’t take another seven years before it’s published!

YALSA will name the 2013 award winner at the Youth Media Awards on January 28, during the American Library Association’s Midwinter Meeting in Seattle. Can’t make it to Midwinter? Watch the livestream this Monday!

–- Summer Hayes, currently reading Tell the Wolves I’m Homeby Carol Rifka Brunt

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One Comment

  1. amy amy

    I have just 40 or 50 pages to go on this book and am loving every minute of it.

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