The first book in The Books of Elsewhere series has a tall order to fill: publicity materials compare author Jacqueline West to Roald Dahl and Neil Gaiman. Luckily for readers, The Shadows does not disappoint. In her first book for young readers, West—who is also a poet—introduces a spooky, magical world that will captivate middle schoolers.
Olive Dunwoody, a shy and curious child, moves with her “dippy” mathematician parents into a Victorian mansion. Olive soon learns that they’re not alone in the dusty, antique-filled house. With talking cats as her guides, Olive discovers that she can travel through paintings on the walls, as long as she’s wearing a certain pair of glasses. But the paintings hold a dangerous, life-or-death secret, and it’s up to Olive to figure out the mystery.
In an interview with BookPage, West elaborates on why she likes writing for kids, her preferred type of superpower and what to expect in the second book of the series.
You have mentioned your interest in magic—talking cats, paintings as portals to another world. What sort of magical adventure would you like to go on; is there a power you’d like to have?
Back when I thought I might be a superhero when I grew up, I wanted to be a shape-shifter. Actually, I’d still like to be one. I know this is sort of like wishing for more wishes, because it’s one power that would come with all kinds of other powers: flying, breathing underwater, running at incredible speeds. But I’m greedy that way. I’d like to see the world from all different points of view, to experience life as a whole slew of people and animals and objects. Of course, this is the same reason I wanted to be a writer.
Do you believe that houses can really be haunted? Would you be delighted—or terrified—if you discovered your house was built on a graveyard (or came with a talking cat)?
Sadly, I’ve never had a personal experience with ghosts or haunted places. I’ve lived in several old houses and even in rooms where people had died, and I remember wishing that their ghosts would show up and keep me company and be my quirky roommates. But it never happened. That’s not to say it couldn’t happen . . .
The Books of Elsewhere: The Shadows is your first book for young readers, although you are an accomplished poet. Have you always wanted to write novels for kids?
When I started writing The Shadows, I was experimenting with all kinds of genres and forms—poetry, short fiction, scripts for a series of graphic novels (which no one ever needs to see), an adult novel (no one ever needs to see this, either)—and I’ll try to keep challenging myself this way. Focusing on writing for kids has been a huge pleasure, in part because I’m writing for my inner child rather than for my inner critic, but I know I’ll continue to write poetry, I’ve got drafts and notes for several middle grade and young adult books underway and maybe someday I’ll baffle myself by waking up with the plan for a three-act melodrama in my head.
Your book has been compared to works by Roald Dahl and Neil Gaiman, and there are scenes reminiscent of The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe. What are your favorite books for children? Do any authors inspire your writing?
As a child, I read A.A. Milne, Lewis Carroll, J.M. Barrie, Roald Dahl and Bill Watterson’s Calvin and Hobbes collections over and over so intently that I think they became part of my genetic makeup. I can still remember finishing Matilda for the first of many times. I was in the backseat of the family car, it was dark outside the windows and I felt as though my whole body was full of lit fireworks . . . It was that exhilarating. My favorite books for kids haven’t changed much—I still love Milne and Dahl and Shel Silverstein (I also deeply admire some writers who are currently working, like Gaiman and Rowling and Kate DiCamillo)—and I suppose it was the joy I got from reading these books that indirectly influenced me to write for kids myself.
The Shadows is filled with descriptions of paintings and antiques—do you have a particular interest in art? Did you do any research on art and architecture when writing the book?
This was drawn more from memory and imagination than from research. I’ve worked as an arts writer, and I’ve spent considerable time wandering in a happy daze through museums, so I had quite a lot of material stored up.
Throughout the book, Olive’s only companions are Morton, a boy from a painting, and three talking cats. Why does Olive have trouble making friends her own age, when she’s clearly funny and spunky?
The qualities that appeal to grown-ups aren’t necessarily the qualities that appeal to kids when making friends. Among kids, fitting in is generally more important than standing out, and even standing out in a good way can be a liability. Olive is shy and awkward, she has moved from place to place a lot and she’s the only child of parents who are more than a bit out of touch with the real world. She certainly hasn’t been prepared to fit in.
Although The Shadows is magical (and often creepy), it also includes themes that are timeless and very real: trusting others, taking chances, being lonely. Are there any lessons (or types of encouragement) you hope kids take from the book?
I certainly didn’t write this with any type of lesson in mind, but I suppose any book in which a child protagonist has to solve her own problems lets the reader learn from her mistakes and her growth. I hope kids will identify with Olive and that getting to know her might make them feel a bit less alone or misunderstood or out of place. Aside from that, I just hope kids will be entertained.
How many books to you intend to write in the Books of Elsewhere series? Can you give us a hint about Olive and Morton’s next adventure?
The total number of books is still up in the air at this point, but I’d estimate four or five volumes in total. Volume Two is already written, so I can tell you that the house has some more big secrets waiting to be revealed, including an object that begins to take over Olive’s life. Olive also makes a friend who isn’t from a painting or covered in fur, and someone else—someone Olive thought she knew—turns out to have been fooling everyone all along.
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