Chickens with superpowers, a farm full of junk to explore, and a series of mysterious typewritten letters are just a few of the wonders within this year’s Read Across Lawrence for Kids title, Unusual Chickens for the Exceptional Poultry Farmer, by Kelly Jones. Jones, who recently answered a few of my questions about the book, will be available via Skype at the library on Sunday, February 19th, from 1:30-2:30 p.m. to answer more questions from kids (between bites of free pizza donated by Rudy’s). Join us for this and the other events we’ve put together this month with the help of KU Libraries and the Friends of the Library to celebrate this unique book.
DC: Sophie, your novel’s protagonist, is doubly an outsider: she is both “the new kid” in town, and a Latina in a predominantly white community. What advice would you give to kids who feel like outsiders?
KJ: Remember that everyone feels like an outsider sometimes. I wasn’t an outsider in either of the ways Sophie is, but I still felt like one. Look for people that start to see the real you, and value you, the way Sophie does. You’ll find them. Make friends with them! Remember that the way someone else sees you has a lot more to do with them than it does with you. Know that Sophie would be rooting for you, and so will I.
DC: The book consists of letters Sophie writes to dead people, and features a prominent mailman character. Are you a letter writer, and have you ever written a letter to someone who is deceased?
KJ: When I was a kid, I wrote to a distant cousin about my age near Perth, Australia. I loved hearing how different things were there – kangaroos by the side of the road, and parrots in the fruit trees! Maybe that’s why I’ve always loved books in letters – I like to think about how each letter is written for a particular someone, not for the world. I’ve often written to my own dead grandparents. I find when I miss someone, I still want to tell them what’s happening.
DC: Sophie’s main activities in the book (tending to chickens, riding bikes, exploring the farm to which she has recently moved) are rooted in the physical rather than onscreen world. Was this intentional, and how do you view the impact of technology on childhood?
KJ: Technology has been an important part of my life since I was a kid, playing text adventures on floppy disks. But Sophie has physical chores that must be done every day, like feeding her chickens. Her family can’t afford a computer or smart phone for her, or even one for family use; their computer is for her mom’s work, and she works a lot. They can’t afford cable (and don’t get good TV reception.)
For Sophie, computer stuff is something you do at school or at the library, not at home – not because she doesn’t want to, but because it isn’t an option for her. Still, she spends a lot of time typing, making sense of the world around her, trying to reach out. Aside from brain research on screen usage, what’s the difference between typing on a computer vs. a typewriter?
DC: You are a former children’s librarian, and among the book’s heroes is a librarian character. How have libraries affected your writing?
KJ: I was a reader long before I was a writer, and there were no bookstores in my small town. But there was a library. I learned to tell stories from books. I also learned that the books I loved would always be a safe place to escape to. While I was a librarian, I met many readers who needed that safe place more than I did. I’m so glad they found it. I guess I want my books to welcome readers, to feel hopeful and make them laugh, and to be a safe place to see things differently.
DC: What is your own experience with chickens and chicken keeping?
KJ: I got my first chickens in 2012, and immediately began to think about what superpowers they’d choose, if they could pick. Unusual Chickens for the Exceptional Poultry Farmer grew out of that list and what I learned about taking care of chickens.
—Dan Coleman is a Collection Development Librarian at Lawrence Public Library