I recently had the unique opportunity to have Mary Casanova, the author of the American Girl McKenna books, answer some questions to give us insight on her writing and her inspiration for the books. The McKenna series is Mary’s third set of books that she has written for American Girl, and is among 26 books that she has written for children, from picture books to novels. Mary is the winner of numerous awards, including the Parents’ Choice Gold Award, the Booklist Editors Choice and an ALA notable, among others. Growing up in a large family and a reluctant reader as a youth, Mary now delights in writing stories that matter and that inspire young readers to love literature. She does extensive research for each book she writes, including the McKenna series, for which she traveled to Seattle as well as Whidbey Island and the Olympic Peninsula. Mary currently lives in Ranier, Minnesota with her husband, three dogs and two horses. Read on to see what Mary has to say about the lessons we teach our young women and how to inspire a love of reading in them!
A. For me, setting figures prominently into the creation of character and story, so just as soon as I learned that AG was eyeing Seattle and the Pacific Northwest, I started researching possible locations that might influence the direction of the story. I ended up finding the neighborhood where my character and her family might live, the locations they might choose for vacations (Whidbey Island and the Olympic Peninsula), and set about ferrying to locations. Of course, I could have sat all day along any of the coastal beaches watching the waves come in and out, with hopes of spotting a whale!
Because McKenna is a gymnast, I knew I would need extra insight into what it means to be a talented young gymnast today. The writing process, no matter how I try to describe it, is still a magical journey. The story elements I need seem to always show up just when I need them. It turned out that a friend of a friend had a daughter who was a talented gymnast and the same age as my character. I asked if I could “shadow” 10-year old Peyton at her practice and competitive meet, take photographs, and ask questions as part of my research on a book. She had no idea that the book(s) were going to be for American Girl. Her mother said she was thrilled when the books arrived, with Book 1, McKenna, dedicated to Peyton and the girls at her gymnastics club.
Q. McKenna is part of the third series of books you’ve written for American Girl. What do you like most about developing the life stories of the American Girls?
I love that I work with a highly talented editorial and research staff when I write for American Girl. I strive for authentic characters and stories in every book I write, and working with American Girl has been an opportunity to work shoulder-to-shoulder with others who share the same goal.
Also, writing books for “Girl of the Year” characters means tapping into what girls and families care about today. Each story is both a window and mirror for young readers; a window into a life that may be unfamiliar, and a mirror that reflects girls of today. The issues I end up writing about feel important, draw on current research, and provide stories that are both timely and timeless.
Q. In your book, McKenna struggles with her reading comprehension and seeks help. As a writer and a lover of books, was it difficult to broaden this aspect of her personality?
When I was asked to write about a character who struggles with reading comprehension, a chill ran up my spine. I struggled as a young reader and when I speak to kids at schools today, I admit that I wasn’t the best reader at my school. I tapped into the embarrassment and shame I felt when I couldn’t finish many of the books I checked out from the library. As it turned out, I completely identified with McKenna’s hidden problem and her struggle to accept help. And yet, learning that everyone needs help at times helps turn one of McKenna’s challenges into her strengths. Of course, I’m a big reader today, but whenever I sit down to write for young readers, my goal is to reach not only the strong readers, but also those who may struggle. If I can keep kids turning the pages so that they finish the books I write, and perhaps broaden their awareness and empathy at the same time, then that’s the highest level of success I can hope for as a children’s author.
Q. How can we, as parents, help our children to better understand and love the written word?
There’s no substitute for reading to our kids from the day they enter the world to help them develop a love of the written word. As kids begin to read more on their own, continue to be a reading family by making time for reading together. Read stories aloud, read silently together instead of watching TV, and make time to explore new titles at bookstores and libraries.
Q. McKenna also encounters another huge obstacle with her injury. What message do you hope to convey to young girls as McKenna struggles to cope with this huge life change?
Life is filled with goals and with obstacles. McKenna learns from her injury to take life “one step at a time.” She also learns that even with setbacks, her life is rich with family and friends who help and support her. Moreover, though she faces a setback in gymnastics, her time opens up and she learns the value of volunteering and the unexpected joy of helping others (when she volunteers at the therapeutic horseback riding center).
Q. In McKenna, Ready to Fly!, we see the tables turn and McKenna help her tutor Josie overcome a specific fear. What or who was your inspiration for Josie’s character?
When American Girl proposed to me that our talented young gymnast might work with a tutor who happened to be in a wheelchair, I loved this chance to bring two seemingly different characters together. McKenna is amazingly talented athletically; Josie excels academically and brings her gifts to tutoring. They both have strengths and weaknesses that build empathy and understanding in each other. When McKenna wants to give up and feels like a failure at reading, it’s Josie who encourages her to break it into smaller steps and to visualize what she’s reading. When Josie, on the other hand, starts to panic at actually getting on a horse and riding, it’s McKenna who helps Josie face her fear of getting hurt (something McKenna has had to face over and over as a gymnast). Despite a difference in grades, these two girls form a strong and believable friendship, and it’s that friendship that I think will help build empathy and compassion for young readers.
Q. What do you hope Josie’s storyline teaches young readers?
When I was on the film set, I had a chance to get to know the young actors, including the one who played Josie. These talented actors all told me how they loved Josie’s character because she “is a really cool girl who just happens to be in a wheelchair.” They love that Josie is wise, funny, and cool. They expressed appreciation that she’s depicted as a real character, not just someone with a disability. I appreciated hearing their response because that was my goal, to make Josie a compelling character, someone readers could get to know, and oh, by the way, along with playing flute and dressing cool, she happens to be in a wheelchair. She’s definitely a person first.
Q: McKenna’s story touches on employing strength and grace in her training in the gym. How are these two traits important to young girls within and without of the context of sports?
Both strength and grace are traits that can be measured outwardly and inwardly. A person can build muscle and develop balance/grace in sports; likewise, a person can also build inner strength and grace in life. Muscles are built through resistance, and inner strength often comes from facing life’s challenges. Grace (and balance) come from mental focus and physical practice, and inwardly, grace and balance come from mental focus and practice. That’s why “blue skies in, gray skies out” is woven into the story. It’s a simple reminder that each of us can choose to let go of stress and negative thinking and focus instead on what is good and positive. Certainly, I build on these themes in McKenna’s stories in both the physical realm and the inner realm of learning and wisdom.
* We did not receive monetary compensation for this Q&A.