September 21, 2017

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Talking with Terry Lynn Johnson: Author, Conservationist, Musher

Terry Lynn Johnson, known to many young readers and librarians as the author of middle grade wilderness and survival tales like Ice Dogs, has spent her life working to preserve and protect wild places. From serving as a backcountry canoe ranger in Quetico Wilderness Park in Ontario to running a kennel of 18 Alaskan Huskies to her current position as a Conservation Officer, Johnson lives and breathes many of the subjects she writes about. SLJ recently caught up with the busy author to talk about her early influences and her newest series for young readers.

As a writer and conservation officer with the Ontario Ministry of Natural Resources, you are in a great position to be the Gary Paulsen of the new millennium. Do you find that your jobs complement and influence each other?

Yes, both jobs influence because both aren’t just jobs. Being a conservation officer doesn’t really stop at five pm. It’s something you always are. Whether I’m out boating on patrol, checking fishing licenses and marine safety gear, or out on my own time fishing or paddling, I’m watching, learning, and thinking. You don’t turn it off. Same with all writers everywhere, I would think. The brain is always churning up ideas, characters, or situations, bits of dialogue. Both careers are a part of who I am, and that influences the kind of things I like to write about, the things I know, and what interests me.

Terry Lynn Johnson as a tween. Photo credit: Terry Lynn Johnson

Who were you as a middle grade reader? What books did you love?

Here’s a photo of 12-year-old me going camping with some of my favorite books. Well, okay, maybe I have my lunch in there, too. But I loved adventure books, especially ones with animals—Island of the Blue Dolphins, Black Beauty, and Tarzan being a few of the stories I read over and over again!

I always have some students who ONLY want to read survival books. What do you think the appeal of these stories is for middle grade readers?

I believe there is something intrinsic about wilderness and wild places that all of us feel a calling toward. Some might not recognize it, but we are all hardwired to it. I know when I go into the forest, I feel it at my base. It fills up my soul. And in today’s world where we are separated from the natural environment more than ever, it’s especially important to connect with nature. Many of us live easy lives—want food? Go to the grocery store. Want light or heat? Turn a dial. I think some readers are searching for a challenge and can perhaps find it vicariously through a character being tested.

There’s been a lot of conversation lately about marketing books to specific genders. All of your titles definitely appeal to all readers, and Ice Dogs has a spectacularly strong female character. Do you take gender into account when you are writing?

Hmmm. I don’t think so. I had a lot of questions about strong females when Ice Dogs first came out, and to be honest, it surprised me. I didn’t set out to write a strong female character. Victoria is just who I imagined in that situation. Some people have strong characters in the face of adversity and some are less so. I don’t see that as a gender thing.

Sled Dog School features one of the few characters I’ve read who lives “off the grid.” It’s great to expose middle grade readers to different lifestyles. What motivated you to portray this kind of family?

When I was growing up, we had neighbors who lived off the grid. They were eccentric, loud, wild—everything that my own family was not. Specifically, the mom had a crazy, wide-mouthed donkey laugh that I can still recall vividly. My own mom has a closed-mouth laugh, more like mouse squeaks. If she really gets going, her nostrils quiver. So the neighbors made quite an impression on me. They were the inspiration for Matt’s family. For a while, I worked for a musher who lived off the grid. In my mind, the lifestyles blend nicely together. I’ve spent a good deal of my life living without electricity. From May to October, I camped in a tent in Quetico Park. On days off, I lived in a cabin with propane lights and a propane fridge. In the off-season, I’ve stayed in prospector tents at winter camp, heated with a wood stove. The outhouse seat was covered in a piece of Styrofoam for added luxury. Water came from a bucket drawn from a hole in the frozen lake. If you collected it wearing only long johns during a cold wind, that’s what we called “running water.”

Your books very clearly describe how different the life of working dogs is compared to the pets that most readers experience, but you also explore how owners can still have a connection with one special dog. What are some qualities that draw you to a dog? Or, like love at first sight, do you think that this connection is more intangible?

Each dog has their own personality. I feel the need to mention this because quite often when I ran sled dogs, people would be surprised they all had names. Or they asked me how I could tell them apart. They most definitely all had distinct characters. Some were gentle and thoughtful, and all I needed to do was look at them and they’d correct their behavior. Other dogs on the team were wrecking balls with the joy of life blazing out of their wild eyes. You had to nearly smack them over the head and scream in their face to get their attention. I loved them all the same. But yes, I’ve had soul connections with some dogs over the years. One in particular, Denali, was not a lead dog, was not even a particularly smart dog. But he spoke to me in dreams and I’m not going to try to understand where that comes from.

From my experience, I think the relationship a musher has with all their dogs—especially a lead dog—is even closer than with a pet because a sled dog knows it has a job. They know you rely on them. You can see that knowledge in their eyes when they look at you. It’s a team effort where the musher is part of the team. There really is nothing quite like that kind of bond.

In Falcon Wild, many of the characters make poor choices. Obviously, if they made good choices, the book would be less exciting, but do you include these choices for other reasons?  Why do you think students like to read these cautionary tales?

I try to write realistic situations. When I look back at all the dumb things I did as I was growing up, it’s a wonder I’m still alive. I think perhaps students can see themselves making less than stellar choices, and it’s entertaining to read about it happening to someone else. And mostly, it’s interesting to see how the characters can get themselves out of a situation.

The middle grade years are all about identity, and students like to read about other children who do amazing things because they think “I could be this person.” You’ve said you’ve had readers write to you that they’ve taken up mushing. Could you tell us about some of these readers?

I’ve been so humbled by the number of emails and letters I receive from readers! I’ve had gifts sent to me in the mail—homemade socks, homemade dog biscuits, books, buttons, pottery, tea, chocolate, drawings, sweatshirts, and T-shirts. I would never have dreamed my books could touch people like this. I’ve also had many ask for advice on how to become a musher. After one young reader sent me many emails, I suggested to her that local mushers in her area might welcome some help in their yard cleaning up poop. Or even to just go on a dogsled ride with a tour company. She connected with a musher who helped her realize her dream of entering a race. She sent me the video of her first dog sled race and it made me proud to be part of it. It’s incredible to me to inspire anyone in a way that I was inspired as a young reader. Books are amazing.

Not surprisingly, most of your stories center on cold weather survival. Do you have any field trips planned to tropical locations so you can expand your horizons?

Actually, I’ve already done my field trips for the next two books in the “Survivor Diaries” series. Lost is based in Costa Rica and Dust Storm is in New Mexico. I’ve been so lucky to be able to travel and research for these stories. The New Mexico desert may not sound exotic, but it felt like it for me as I camped out next to cacti and listened to coyotes all night.

You published Ice Dogs in 2014, but now have your next three books coming out between July and October 2017 and a fourth title publishing in January 2018! What happened? What do you have planned after the “Survivor Diaries” series?

That gap is due to the nature of publishing. I had written Falcon Wild in 2013 after I’d finished Ice Dogs, but my editor passed on it, so it went out on submission. That can take a very long time. It had many close calls, but it finally sold to Charlesbridge in 2015. During that time, I’d written a few more, which my editor also passed on until Sled Dog School. That sold around the same time as Falcon Wild. And I only just started writing the “Survivor Diaries” last year. It’s just weird timing that all of them are coming out so close together! I hope to have the opportunity to write more “Survivor Diaries”—those are super fun to research and write. Right now I’m working on a junior game warden story with a detector dog.

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Karen Yingling About Karen Yingling

Karen Yingling is a middle school librarian from the Midwest. She blogs about and reviews children’s literature at msyinglingreads.blogspot.com.

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