Interview with Caroline McAlister

There is such a richness in picture book biographies. My children and I love reading stories of real people and what inspired them. John Ronald’s Dragons: The Story of J. R. R. Tolkien by Caroline McAlister is a brand new book just released in March 2017. I was so excited about this brand new picture book biography, I promptly emailed Caroline and asked if I could interview her for my blog. She graciously agreed. I love that Caroline McAlister has written a picture book biography about JRR Tolkien for children. This book is beautifully illustrated and the story beautifully told. My kids loved “the dragon book” as they kept referring to it. For myself, Caroline’s book has me looking biographies of JRR Tolkien; I need to know more!

Enjoy my interview with Caroline!

1.What inspired you to write a picture book about JRR Tolkien?

Caroline: I was inspired by Tolkien’s essay “On Faerie Stories.” It is a difficult, rambling piece, but enchanting. He wrote it around the same time he wrote The Hobbit to deliver as a lecture in honor of Andrew Lang, who collected and edited the Red Fairy Book and Green Fairy Book, which Tolkien read as a child. In this essay Tolkien is justifying his love of fantasy to scholars who denigrated the world of faerie, as he called it. He remembers his childhood attachment to fantasy in this passage:
The dragon had the trade-mark Of Faerie written plain upon him. In whatever world he had his being it was an Other-world. Fantasy, the making or glimpsing of other-worlds, was the heart of the desire of-Faerie. I desired dragons with a profound desire.”

His desire gave me a way to tell his story.

2. What do you hope children take away from your book?

Caroline: I want children to recognize the magic of imagination and imaginative play. I’m not sure that our current educational policies value and empower children’s imaginative lives, but it is through imaginative play that I believe children do their most important and profound learning.

3. In your author’s note in John Ronald’s Dragons , I noticed you mentioned Tolkien’s editor’s son thought The Hobbit was ideal for children, ages 5-7 year olds. What do you think is the perfect age introduce Tolkien’s books to children?

Caroline: I think that very much depends on the individual child. Tolkien wrote in the same essay about children:

“…at any rate children differ considerably, even within the narrow borders of Britain and such generalizations which treat them as a class ( disregarding their individual talents, and influences of the countryside they live in, and their upbringing) are delusory.”

If a child is delighted by the funny names and jokes in The Hobbit and can listen for a whole chapter, that child is ready.

4. In your book, you introduce children to the TCBS (Tea Club and Barrovian Society). Is this a tradition you have carried on with your students?

Caroline: I have occasionally brought tea and cakes to class, but have not tried to bring them into the library. Our library at Guilford now has a coffee shop inside it, so taking tea among the stacks is no longer subversive the way it would have been for Tolkien and his buddies.

5. I loved how John Ronald had such fond memories of his mother reading to him. Who encouraged a love of reading in your life?

Caroline: Both my mother and father read to us. We did not have a television so reading was our entertainment. I distinctly remember it was my father who read us The Hobbit. I don’t remember how old I was, but I remember being tickled by Bilbo’s alliterative name and hairy feet. He seemed quite real to me.

6. You travel every year with students to England to study fantasy. What’s your favorite part of this annual trip?

Caroline: I don’t go every year. Guilford is a small college and I go when I can get enough students signed up. The last time I went, I got to hear Phillip Pullman speak about Blake in the Sheldonian Theater and a group of students sang some of Blake’s poetry that had been set to music. When we came out of the theater the windows glowed orange against the night sky and it was magical.

7. Why do you think fantasy is important for children?

Caroline: I think children have a kind of plasticity of mind which allows them to suspend disbelief more easily than an adult. This does not mean that a child doesn’t know the difference between fantasy and reality. Rather it means children can move more nimbly between them; in other words, they know how to play, and it is through play that they learn empathy, that they develop curiosity, that they stretch and grow.

8. What was your favorite book as a child?

Caroline: I remember loving the Little House on The Prairie Books, perhaps because I was the younger of two sisters and because I loved making things. As an adult, I was disturbed to discover the books’ anti-new deal ideology and the racism in the depiction of the Native Americans. When I read them to my daughters, we also read Louise Erdrich’s Birchbark House, but the smallpox epidemic was frightening to them. I also remember loving the T. H. White The Sword in The Stone. I thought it was hysterical that Merlin’s owl pooped on his shoulder.

9. What books did you read to your children?

Caroline: Gosh! We read everything under the sun. They were born in 95 and 97 so Harry Potter was very important to us. My husband had a serious illness when the girls were 5 and 7 and he started reading Harry Potter with them when he got home from the hospital. It was a way for all of us to bond and get over our trauma. She does such a good job in those books of creating a complete world for children to enter, what Tolkien calls a secondary world.

10. What are you reading now?

Caroline: I just finished reading Adam Gidwitz’s The Inquisitor’s Tale, which I adored. I thought his mashup up of saint’s legends and super hero tropes was brilliant. I am also reading The Magician’s Book: A Skeptic’s Adventures in Narnia. And on the coffee table in front of me is a book of essays entitled The Size of Thoughts by Nicholson Baker. His crazy in depth research inspires me, and like him, I hate people who throw out old books.

11. You have also written Holy Mole and Brave Donatella and the Jasmine Thief; do you any other book projects in store? If so, can you tell us about them?

Caroline: My next book is Jack and Warnie’s Wardrobe is about C.S. Lewis and his brother and it is currently with my editor at Roaring Brook.

Be sure to check out Caroline’s website.

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