June 18, 2018

The Advocate's Toolbox

Siblings, tall tales, & capybaras: Lev Rosen on his middle grade debut, “Woundabout”

by Robbin Friedman

Connor and Cordelia and their pet capybara come to live with their Aunt Marigold in Woundabout, an unusual town-out-of-time where everyone follows a routine and nothing ever changes. In defiance of the town mayor, the two begin to explore their new home and discover a series of mechanical holes in public spaces as well as a curious crank. Upon winding the crank, Cordelia and Connor learn they hold the key to the town’s metamorphosis. Their actions unveil sights of marvelous beauty, but not everyone in Woundabout welcomes the transformation—or any change at all. Woundabout comes out June 23, 2015.

NOTE: This editorial content was sponsored by Little, Brown Books for Young Readers.

Woundabout coverAfter penning two adult books, why did you choose to write this story for middle grade readers?
Well, my first book, All Men of Genius (Tor, 2011), has a lot of YA crossover, so I think I was already writing for different age ranges. But one of the big reasons for writing Woundabout was so that my brother and I could work together—we, and our family, sort of came up with the idea together at a family holiday. So knowing we wanted it to be illustrated, it made sense to hit a younger audience.

How did you and your brother—the book’s illustrator—come to collaborate on this project?

It was a family holiday, like I said, but I can’t remember if it was Thanksgiving or Passover. Ellis was asking about how one gets into illustrating books, and I said we could work together on something. Of course, since we were around family, everyone threw in ideas: mom wanted a capybara, Ellis’s now-fiancee related how as a child she and her friends always pretended to be orphans running from something. So all of that came into the book. It started as family collaboration. From there, I wrote the book, and then Ellis did some sketches so we could pitch it as a joint project. And it all worked out! Which was a relief. We were scared someone might want the book but not the illustrations.

Woundabout‘s opening lines reference other types of stories, different from this one. What books or tales inspired you?

Family ideas definitely played a large part in inspiration, but as I wrote I was thinking mostly of fairy tales and their American counterpart, tall tales. I wanted it to have a “told” quality. The sort of things parents read aloud to kids or kids [read] to each other. But I wanted to modernize it, too. So smartphones (modern) and the four elements (fairy tales) and some steampunk American ingenuity (tall tales).

What makes the brother-sister pairing—such a significant type of relationship in this story—so powerful?

I wrote about siblings because I knew this was a project my brother and I were working on together, and I made it a brother-sister relationship because I didn’t want it to feel like a book “for boys” or gendered in any way. I think Connor and Cordelia’s relationship is strengthened by the fact that they don’t have much other family. Aunt Marigold is practically a stranger to them. I think any sort of sibling relationship has the potential for a “you and me against the world” feel, which makes them powerful.

Cordelia sees the world from the perspective of a photographer while Connor uses the lens of a Lev Rosencity planner.  Do you share your view of the world more with Connor or Cordelia?

I actually chose two of my non-writerly interests and divided them, so I don’t know if I can choose! I love photography and taking pictures, but I also love architecture and interior design. I think, though, those interests have an interesting convergence, in that photography is about trying to capture a fleeting moment so you can have it forever, and architecture is about creating something that can last forever. And of course, both those interests reflect on the trauma of loss.

The book’s main characters have all endured harsh losses, though the tone remains light. How did you approach writing about such grim topics?

As frankly as possible. Everyone endures loss, and I think we often assume younger children don’t understand loss, and so don’t feel it as keenly as adults do—they can “grow out of it”. But I think we all feel loss very keenly, and we can feel it from a thousand different things. And I think we also, as a culture, have this tendency to try to ignore the pain, which actually results in our holding on to it. America is very much a hoarder culture, especially considering we were born, ideally, out of radical change. So when I wrote about the loss each character felt—divorce, death, abandonment, any sort of unpleasant change—I told the story of that loss plainly. Which hopefully lets the reader identify with it more.

Your story’s timeless quality derives from an intriguing blend of just-so story, steampunk, and modern technology. Do you have a favorite genre to write or read?

Well firstly, thank you. I am one of those people who reads anything that interests me, and then I write what I want to read. So Woundabout is a blend of stuff I think I’d enjoy if I were nine years old today. My adult books are a blend of scifi and noir (Depth) and a steampunk sex comedy (All Men of Genius), respectively. I wrote them because I would want to read them. And I read a lot of different stuff. But don’t ask me to pick a favorite, since it’ll probably change tomorrow.

Enter to win a free copy of Woundabout!

And finally, most importantly, how much are we all missing out by not owning a pet capybara?

We’re definitely missing out on a lot of adorableness, and giving them belly scritches, which is a constant disappointment to me, personally. But we’re also missing out on needing a pond for them and needing to constantly replace all the wooden furniture they’d chew through. If you want a capybara, though, may I suggest a guinea pig instead? They’re related. Not quite the same, but similarly adorable, I think, and much smaller. And smaller things are often even cuter! So get a guinea pig, and just tell your friends it’s a munchkin capybara.

Lev AC Rosen is the author of two books for adults: All Men of Genius, and Depth, and two books for young readers: Woundabout (Illustrated by his brother, Ellis Rosen) and The Memory Wall (forthcoming September 2016). His books have been sold around the world and translated into several different languages, as well as being featured on many best of the year lists.

Robbin Friedman is a children’s librarian at the Chappaqua Library and writes reviews for SLJ. She lives in Brooklyn, NY, where she reads, among many other things, steampunk, Shakespeare, food blogs, and books about hideous diseases.