There was no predicting the 2013 National Book Award in the category of Young People’s Literature, the field was that strong. But when the winner was announced, few who had read The Thing About Luck (Simon & Schuster) could have feigned surprise. With five starred reviews and a bevy of fans, it’s clear that author Cynthia Kadohata has made waves with her truly original, honestly heartfelt middle-grade novel.
At the center of The Thing About Luck is 12-year-old Summer and her little brother, Jaz. Their parents have been called away to Japan, due to a family emergency, leaving the siblings in the care of their grandparents, Obaachan and Jiichan.
Tougher still, the family members are custom harvesters and it’s time for the season to begin again. While Obaachan remains biting and sardonic as ever and Jiichan, cool and collected, the two aren’t getting any younger. But this is one job they simply have to get done. Summer knows this is her family’s sole shot at keeping everything they have. She also knows that though sometimes you have to wait for luck to come your way, there are other times when you have to go out and make your own.
I absolutely adored your book. One thing that came to mind when I was reading it was when we think of migrant workers we think almost exclusively of Latino workers coming from countries like Mexico. The range of people in the book was fascinating. How did you discover the communities of custom harvesters like the ones that are in your book?
I was actually at an award ceremony for my book Cracker! (Simon & Schuster, 2007) in Kansas and somebody there made a brief mention of custom harvesters. I asked what that was and they told me. On the train ride home, I emailed my editor [Caitlyn Dlouhy]. I was working on a novel and Caitlyn thought it was coming along terribly, so I just dropped it and started writing about custom harvesters.
And what kinds of research did you do?
I visited with a family who worked as custom harvesters in Kansas, whom I found out about when I got back in touch with the woman I’d met at the Cracker! award ceremony, because I couldn’t stop thinking about what that type of work might be like. I lived with them for about a week and then I spent another week in this cheap hotel near where they were harvesting. I bothered them quite a bit. I also really bothered two other women custom harvesters a lot—and they were so helpful. Finding out that these workers lived in motels and trailers and were on the road for months at a time—that brought back memories of my own childhood. They also let me join them on the combines. I was also fascinated by how the wheat has to be in an absolutely ideal condition before it can be harvested, right down to the moisture and protein content. How did early humans figure out how to use wheat in the first place? I can’t overestimate how much I badgered these poor ladies! I interviewed other people as well. I even studied a video—I don’t even know where I found it—about John Deere combines. Two custom harvesters have read the book, and I was so relieved when they gave it the thumbs-up.
Part of what I like so much about the book is that it’s about working- class people. It’s wonderful to see interesting, original portrayals of kids from working-class families. Is that something that speaks to you in particular?
Oh, absolutely. I came from a working-class family so I have a lot of strong feelings about that. I think about my dad and his life, how hard he worked and how long his hours were—easily 100 hours a week—and he accepted that as his fate.
I have to ask about the grandparents. Basically, I’d say this book wins the award for Most Interesting Grandparents of 2013. I know people always ask authors if their characters are based on real people, but that grandmother…where did she come from?
My mother will probably sue me for saying this—but she’s kind of based on my mom.
Purely her or are there other people who might have had an influence?
Imagination and my mom, I think. Visually, I pictured her as my dad’s mom, though.
And what about the grandfather character?
He was mostly made up. He would be my dream grandfather—quirky but deeply caring, a smallish, thin man.
It’s the grandmother’s sense of humor that really sets her apart. That for me was what made this tough character original. Does your mom have that sense of humor?
My mom does have that sense of humor, yes. Although it’s not always funny to me.
Another reason the book works so well is that this is a world wholly unfamiliar to a lot of your readers, yet you seamlessly get us into that world. When you were initially laying out the novel, did you write an outline or did you just write the book?
With this one, I didn’t outline. Sometimes, for other books, I’ve made outlines, but I didn’t even follow them.
How did you figure out how to integrate all that information about harvesting into the novel?
The first draft that I submitted turned out to be all about the dog. Caitlyn sent it back and said, “This is all about the dog!” So I had to rewrite it. She said it had to be much more about the harvesting. Then I changed it all. I have a Doberman named Thunder, so I can get obsessed with my dog sometimes.
So it was really your editor’s idea to have more of the harvesting in the book?
Yes. She said she could not publish a book that was focused on this particular dog when the book was supposed to be about the harvesting. It’s so easy for me to get distracted by dogs because I love them so much, so it’s true that sometimes I can go, um, completely overboard, and overly “doggify” a story, forgetting the forest for the trees.
And you’ve known your editor Caitlyn for a long time, I believe.
Yes, we were roommates in grad school in 1985. At first we hardly spoke to each other because I’m nocturnal and Caitlyn is a morning person, so we barely saw each other. But we had a very difficult third roommate, so maybe because of that we ended up being good friends.
And did your friendship make editing this harder or easier?
I think easier. There’s definitely been a couple times over the past few years where we got a little mad at each other and had to cool off a bit. I think we’re actually closer now than we would have been otherwise. Even though we’ve always been good friends.
Has Caitlyn always been your editor?
For children’s books, yes.
Now, you’re not a serial sequeler. After winning a Newbery Award for Kira-Kira (2004), you didn’t do, like, five follow-ups. But of any of your books, this one makes me think, “Oh, there’s gotta be a sequel!” Will there be one?
Noooo! [laughing] I did want to write a sequel for Cracker!
How long did it take you to write The Thing About Luck?
At the end of 2010 was when I went to stay with the custom harvesters. I finished the book toward the end of 2012. So about two years. At the beginning, I was just accumulating details. I got really anxious because it was a while before I actually got started writing. Then, when I began to write, I became a bit nostalgic about the time when I was accumulating details.
What’s been the most difficult book for you to write?
Probably Weedflower (2006). That was the one where I had to make a lot of changes. And that was the first time I sent Caitlyn a manuscript and she said, “No, I can’t publish this the way it is.” In the first draft, the main character was a dancer, but that didn’t feel natural. I worked hard with it, and at the time I was adopting my son from Kazakhstan. So it was a difficult and stressful time. Writing that book while going through the adoption process just made that experience really hard.
What are you working on right now?
I am actually working on a book about a 12-year-old Romanian boy who is very troubled and who is being adopted by an American family.
We’ll look forward to that one. How far are you along with it right now?
It’ll come out in September 2014.
Does it have a name?
Electricity. The boy is very into electricity.