The Year the Swallows Came Early by Kathryn Fitzmaurice (HarperCollins 2009)
Every year in mid-February, swallows leave Goya, Argentina and fly seventy-five hundred miles over the Gulf of Mexico to California. You can always count on the swallows to arrive at the San Juan Capistrano Mission in mid-March. There they make little mud nests. But the year Eleanor "Groovy" Robinson turned eleven, the swallows unexpectedly arrive early.
That isn't the only unexpected thing that happens that year. Groovy's daddy goes to jail for gambling away the savings account Groovy inherited from her great-grandmother - the savings account that Groovy was planning to use to go to culinary school when she got older.
Groovy has to come to grips with this enormous disappointment from her father and has to decide whether to forgive him. Her best friend Frankie is also struggling with anger towards a parent. You see, Frankie's mother left for a trip that was supposed to last only two to three weeks. That was two years ago and Frankie hasn't seen her since. The year the swallows came early, Frankie's mama wants to come back.
While her daddy is in jail, Groovy tries to save money for culinary school by selling "five-star chocolate-covered strawberries" at the Swallow Shop and Ferry. Strawberries dipped in two parts dark chocolate and one part milk chocolate. And not just any strawberry, but the extra-big ones that take at least four bites to eat. The kind where the chocolate crumbles off after the first bite, making you catch it with your free hand and pop it in your mouth before it melts. The good kind. (quote from pg. 130 of the advance reader's edition of The Year the Swallows Came Early)
There are several reasons I enjoyed reading The Year the Swallows Came Early. I love the seaside and the novel's setting is firmly established as a quaint area off the Pacific. The sea is sparkly. The breeze invigorating and carrying smells of salt and sand and sunscreen. The colors of buildings and other structures beautifully faded because of the sun.
Speaking of setting, many important events in the story take place in the Swallow Shop and Ferry, a charming store Frankie helps his stepbrother Luis run. (Inside the smell of flour tortillas and cinnamon greeted me. Add to that all the onions, peppers, and chilies heating up on the stove, and you could tell it was the kind of place people liked coming to. pg. 31 of the advance reader's edition) The Swallow Shop and Ferry is popular for its tacos made with special yellow chilies from Mexico.
I also enjoyed the novel because of the simple food descriptions that realistically captured the fun, wonder, and passion of a foodie who is only eleven years old.
Here is my favorite food moment from the story:
It reminded me of camping with Daddy last summer, just the two of us. How we'd woken up extra early and watched from our sleeping bags on the sand, looking at the sunrise shed pink and orange and yellow across our sky.
"Red sky at night, sailor's delight," Daddy had told me. "Red sky in the morning, sailor take warning."
"What does it mean?" I'd asked.
"It means those fishermen out there should watch out for that storm coming in. But don't worry, you're safe here with me. Even so, we'd better heat up our breakfast before that rain comes. Beans again?" He'd smiled his beans-are-the-best-thing-in-the-world smile and lit a match under our campfire.
I'd dug my feet deep under the cool sand, knowing even before he'd said it that I was safe. That at that moment, beans would taste better than even chocolate cake. And that he loved me. (pg. 236-237 of the advance reader's edition)
I loved the well-rounded and realistic characterization in the novel. I found Groovy's parents particularly interesting. They were so perfectly imperfect. Her father was a real buddy to her, but not a very responsible parent. Groovy's mother didn't seem very appreciative of Groovy's accomplishments in cooking, but she really took care of Groovy. There was only one important character that I felt was one dimensional: Mr. Tom. Mr. Tom is a homeless man who sort of acts as the conscience of Groovy and Frankie, but that is precisely my problem with Mr. Tom. He is not as fleshed out as all the other main characters. It appears as if he is simply a device for preaching about forgiveness and letting go of anger.
Kathryn Fitzmaurice shows through her characters a deep understanding of the aspirations of young people and how they follow their aspirations. There is Groovy aspiring to be a professional chef. There is also her good friend Marisol, an artist constantly drawing swallows in her sketchbook or on sidewalks. The walls of Marisol's father's Mexican restaurant are covered with her swallow drawings. We are even introduced to a twelve-year-old bird tracker who is writing a bird guide book. The Year the Swallows Came Early is a lot about creativity and inspiration, and working hard towards your dreams, even when there are people or events that crush them.
Through its simple and subtle treatment of plot, character, and theme, The Year the Swallows Came Early will have readers reflecting a lot on forgiveness. That quiet yet sophisticated treatment of the different elements of the story will also inspire kids to go after their dreams and big kids (like me) to reclaim theirs.
The beautiful Kathryn Fitzmaurice is here with us today to answer some questions about The Year the Swallows Came Early! A very warm welcome to you, Kathryn!
What kind of middle grade reader were you? What were your favorite books? Who were your favorite authors?
I read my grandmother’s science fiction stories, and I also liked The Little House books quite a lot. But when I was a teenager, I read a lot of poetry, Emily Dickinson, Rod McKuen, anyone who wrote it, really. I started writing poetry when I was thirteen.
What motivates you to write for middle graders?
I really like this age because many of them still believe anything can happen. They have a sense of hope about the world. You can tell them, “Listen, if you want to be a cupcake store owner someday, you go ahead and do it.” And they nod their head, and believe it. There are no obstacles too big, no problem they can’t overcome. Just a sense of confidence and joy you can see in their face. I love to see that part of people. That’s why I wrote the chapter, “The Part of Marisol That Shines.”
Do you have a particular writing process or any writing rituals?
Well I don’t have any amazing writing gloves like Ingrid Law has. But, usually, I write from 9am to 3pm most days in my home office with my dog, Holly, who is always a very big help. I try not to answer the phone, and I drink very strong green tea. Some days, I can tell that whatever I’ll write that day is not going to be very good, so then, I take the day off, and I read instead.
You used to teach elementary school. How does your experience as a teacher affect your writing?
Here’s how it affects me: I wish I could go back and ask my students why it was they loved The Tale of Despereaux so much. What was it that made that story so great? I know what I think made it great, but I want them to tell me in their own words. I would have really quizzed them more about what makes a great book. I would have taken more time to discuss literature with them when I had the chance. I know they are very savvy with amazing insights. I wouldn’t have rushed along to math so quickly.
(Kathryn with a group of students doing a reader's theater of the chapter where the swallows return to the San Juan Capistrano Mission)
What is your definition of a “bad writing day”? How do you deal with bad writing days?
I suppose a bad writing day would be when I can’t settle in to the voice of my main character. Sometimes, I seem to have an easier time finding the voices of my secondary characters than my main character. When this happens, I read a good book instead. I usually read five or six middle grade novels at any given time, and so I just pick one of those books up until I think I can write well again. Sometimes this stage takes a week, or sometimes just an hour. It depends. I don’t rush it or force myself to write until I’m ready. I know I’ll just have to delete what I’ve written if I do.
What is your favorite part of writing?
My favorite part of writing is when an entire day goes by and suddenly it’s time for my boys to come back from school, and I look up at the clock and think, “Wow, where did the day go? Who can I show this to?” Those are the best days!
What were the influences and inspirations (both literary and non-literary) you drew from while writing The Year the Swallows Came Early?
My most profound influence came from my grandmother. The summer I turned 13, my mother sent me to NYC to visit my grandmother, who was a science fiction author. This was in the 70’s, when science fiction was becoming very popular. My grandmother led a very eccentric lifestyle. I remember we never did anything until late afternoon, and then we stayed up until 2 or 3am. Sometimes, we went to dinner as late as 11pm. Then she’d sit down to write until very early in the morning. She told me she did this because the middle of the night was when people said and did things they normally wouldn’t. She had a collection of porcelain owls, because they were creatures of the night. She studied paranormal events. She discussed things like inner motivations and secret desires. She helped me to write my very first story that summer, and stayed up all night typing it for me so I could have a real story like she had. At thirteen, it was one of the best times I’d ever had.
One day, we met her agent for lunch, and after listening to them discuss how my grandmother could make her characters into whomever she wanted, I decided that someday, I’d like to be a writer, too. So she proceeded to send me books about writing techniques, books by classic authors, and literary essays for every birthday and Christmas holiday.
When she passed away, she left me a big box with all of her unfinished manuscripts in them. The box of manuscripts has been a huge inspiration to me.
(the manuscripts of Kathryn's grandmother, the real Eleanor Robinson)
Also, I wanted to include the feeling in my book that I got from the annual migration of the swallows which return to San Juan Capistrano each spring. Their return reminds me of a promise that can never be broken. It always fills me with so much hope.
Why did you decide to make your main character, Eleanor “Groovy” Robinson, an aspiring chef?
My husband is a very good cook, and he’s constantly watching the Food Network. He has every cookbook imaginable. And though I don’t particularly enjoy cooking, I am surrounded by zesters and rolling pins and organic flour and handed-down recipe cards with tomato sauce stains on them. It just seemed easy to make her want to be a cook.
What is your favorite food moment in The Year the Swallows Came Early?
My favorite food moment is when Frankie gives Eleanor a caramel at the end of the book. Even though it was by chance, to her, it symbolized what was to come. My second favorite is when Eleanor makes scrambled eggs for her mom after they finally see eye to eye. The simplicity of the scrambled eggs matched their mood at the time.
What was the road to publication like for The Year the Swallows Came Early?
It took me three years to write The Year the Swallows Came Early. During that time I went to many writer’s conferences and took writing classes. I joined a critique group. I received many rejections like everyone else who’s tried to get a book published. It wasn’t until I met Jennifer Rofe, of the Andrea Brown agency, at The Big Sur Writing Conference, that things started to take off. She helped me refine the manuscript until it was ready to go out, and then when she sent it out, we had responses right away.
Where were you and what were you doing when you found out that your first novel was going to be published? What were your first thoughts and feelings after hearing the good news?
I was home. It was 7am. Jennifer Rofe called me to tell me Brenda Bowen would be calling me to discuss the manuscript and would I be available to talk to her? I told her I absolutely was available, and then paced around until 11am when she finally called. I must have checked the phone lines to make sure they were working 900 times that morning. I called my sister and asked her to call me to make sure they were working correctly. And then, I’d worry that Brenda tried to call when I was checking. Brenda called me ten minutes early, and I answered the phone so abruptly because I didn‘t think it was her. But she was very nice.
Groovy says that there is the exact right food for every situation. What did you eat to celebrate the publication of your first novel? :o)
We made chocolate covered strawberries, partly because Jennifer Rofe suggested we do so, and partly to test the recipe to make sure the parts were accurate.
(Kathryn inside the mission with her editor, Molly O'Neill)
If you could choose only one, which would you choose: for The Year the Swallows Came Early to be award-winning, or for it to be bestselling? Why?
This is a tough question. I already feel so blessed just to have had it chosen to be published. I’m sort of still in the I-can’t-believe-it’s-really-out-there stage. Maybe when I have come back to earth, I can answer that question better. But either way would be a tremendous blessing and honor.
What can we expect from the companion book to The Year the Swallows Came Early?
This is an even tougher question. I am revising a first draft of it now and it is REALLY changing day by day. I am not the type of writer who uses an outline. I’m still putting the bones of it in place. Right now, it’s a story told from Frankie’s point of view, about his life without his mother.
Which books would you like your work to match or surpass (in terms of writing, impact, influence, popularity, or awards)?
Well I have always wished that I could write like Kate DiCamillo, or Sharon Creech, or Debra Wiles, or Susan Patron. But now that my book is out there, I see that there is a place for everyone, and it’s not a competition. It’s about your own book speaking to readers in the way that it can. Every book has at least one brilliant paragraph or line in it. Some are brilliant from beginning to end, but they are all truly beautiful in their own way.
Thank you very much, Kathryn, for spending time at Into the Wardrobe to talk about your debut novel!
(a drawing of a swallow)
One lucky person gets to win a signed copy of The Year the Swallows Came Early. :D To enter this giveaway, all you have to do is answer this question in the comments section:
In The Year the Swallows Came Early, part of Groovy Robinson's cooking notebook is dedicated to foodology. That is, she lists certain foods that remind her of things. Like how scrambled eggs (her two-eggs-plus-1/8-cup-of-milk recipe) remind her of talking to her mama in the fog. What foods evoke memories and emotions for you?
Your response to that question will count as one entry. Only one entry per person is allowed. This giveaway is open to all readers of Into the Wardrobe, no matter where you are in the world. :D
The winner of the book will be randomly selected on March 26. I will post the name of the winner and his/her answer to the question on the same day. Yay!