About Madelyn Rosenberg
Madelyn grew up in Southwest Virginia where she spent many years as a newspaper reporter telling other people’s stories. Now she tells stories of her own. Her books include The Schmutzy Family, a finalist for the National Jewish Book Award for illustrated books, and Happy Birthday, Tree, which is on the Bank Street College best-of list for 2013. Canary in the Coal Mine is her first middle-grade novel. She lives with her family in Arlington, Va.
About Canary in the Coal Mine
Bitty is a canary whose courage more than makes up for his diminutive size. Of course, as a bird who detects deadly gas leaks in a West Virginia coal mine during the Depression, he is used to facing danger. Tired of unsafe working conditions, he escapes and hops a coal train to the state capital to seek help in improving the plights of miners and their canaries. While there, Bitty manages to bring together two men: a state senator and the inventor of a machine that can replace canaries. But Bitty’s return to Coal Hallow coincides with a shattering mining accident that affects humans and canaries alike.
In the tradition of E.B. White and George Selden, Madelyn Rosenberg has written an extraordinary novel starring unforgettable animals in an incredibly imaginative society.
What sparked the idea for Canary in the Coal Mine?
I’d gone to a concert at Mountain Stage in Charleston, West Virginia, (something my friends and I did fairly regularly as the groups who visited Mountain Stage were typically better than the groups that visited Blacksburg — that particular show was Billy Bragg and Lucinda Williams, for instance). Anyway, a canary cage was on display in the lobby, and the whole idea popped into my head. I already had a heightened awareness of coal mining because my newspaper assignments sent me into coal country, both in West Virginia and Southwest Virginia. Meanwhile, my stepdad was telling stories about his own childhood. He wasn’t a miner, but his grandfather owned a coal mine in Blacksburg, and he (my stepdad) was always getting in trouble for paying in the slag piles.
Do you have any advice for someone who might want to write a book about animals – specifically animals that talk?
People in and around publishing often talk about how much they loathe talking animal books: They’re passé, they’re uncool, there hasn’t been a good one since The Mouse and the Motorcycle, etc. But those are the books I’d loved as a kid, and not everyone loathes them; there are still a lot of good ones being written today. When I first talked to my editor, Mary Cash, at Holiday House, she told me that at a conference, someone had asked James Cross Giblin (award-winning author, former editor-in-chief for Clarion) what he thought about books with talking animals. “Well, I suppose it depends on what they have to say,” he’d said. So I guess if I had any advice it would be to ask yourself that: What are your animals saying? Listen to them, and listen to your gut.
Canary is a mid-grade novel. Your other books, The Schmutzy Family and Happy Birthday, Tree!: A Tu B’Shevat Story, are picture books. Your upcoming novel, Dream Boy, is for teens. What are the challenges of writing in different forms?
I’ve always worked on different projects at the same time, because working on only one project feels too overwhelming, if that makes any sense. Picture books are like poems. They *feel* doable so working on them while I’m working on a longer piece helps my sanity. I admit, though, that some of my PB manuscripts have taken much longer to get right than my MG manuscripts. And I do worry a bit that it’s not helping with audience-building, especially in the early stages of my career. If I get that fabulous, 5-year-old fan I’ll have to say, “and in 10 years, you can read Dream Boy!” But the truth is, this is just the way I write. Each form teaches me something about the other and I’m not sure I could do it any other way. (As a side note: I’ll have a YA, a middle-grade, and a picture book coming out in 2014.)
Canary is set in 1931. How did you find writing historical fiction verses writing straight-up fiction?
They have a lot of similarities, in that each world you’re creating has certain rules. Only in the historical world (as opposed to, say, Planet Quinautoron), you’re not making as many of those rules up yourself. When I wrote Canary, the fiction part definitely came first — story before history, I suppose. I tend to think of it more as a period piece than as historical, but maybe that’s because I’ve watched too much Downton Abbey. Kids are smart so I don’t think any of them will take this as the definitive history of coal mining in West Virginia (especially as history doesn’t mention talking animals). But I do hope they’ll be curious enough to try to go learn more.
What character in Canary is closest to your heart?
I feel like I’d be cheating on him if I named anyone but Bitty, my main character. I love his bravery and his Opie-Taylor sincerity. But I became attached to my supporting characters, too, especially the gulls and Eck, the mouse. The first thing people seem to ask when you finish a book is if there’s going to be a sequel. I always thought if I ever did one it would be more of a spinoff, and that I’d follow Eck.
What’s your favorite thing that someone in the book says?
I love poetry, so I’m probably most proud of the nursery rhyme that Bitty recites and of the song that Alice sings (which I really wrote, but don’t ask me to sing it for you because I can’t carry a tune to save my life.) Also: When I was researching this story, I came across an article on West Virginia expressions from a 1928 linguistics magazine. I incorporated a couple of them. But when my son was in second grade, he had a teacher who used an expression that sounded like they could have come straight from that magazine (even though she wasn’t form the 20s and she wasn’t from West Virginia). I slipped that one in there, too. I keep hoping one of my son’s friends will read the book and say: Hey, Mrs. James used to say that! But it hasn’t happened yet. (It still might, so I’m not telling you which one it is.)
Nope. I love newspapers and they helped me solve quite a few problems as I was writing this book. They were also a good research tool for me. Newspapers also make a brief appearance in Happy Birthday, Tree. They also play a role in Dream Boy, and in my next middle grade.
What do you want readers to get from Canary in a Coal Mine?
That’s always a hard question for me because I’m not sure there’s a way to answer it without sounding completely full of myself. I want readers to see the absurdity of stereotypes and the power of friendship. I want them to see that you can be small but make a big difference. (See what I mean?) I want them to know that these people had a hard life, but that they still had each other’s backs. I want readers to be able to fall into another world. I want to spark imagination. And I want kids to wonder what their cats (or dogs or mice or hamsters or canaries or cockatoos or lizards or guinea pigs) are thinking.