Opening a new novel by Polly Horvath is a bit like going on an adventure—on each page something new and unexpected unfolds. And that’s part of the reason Horvath is one of the literary stars in the universe of children’s literature. The author of the National Book Award-winning The Canning Season (2003), Horvath also received a Newbery Honor for Everything on a Waffle (2001), while The Trolls (1999) was a National Book Award finalist. Horvath’s books have often been chosen as Best Books of the Year and Editors’ Choices, along with several other honors.
Horvath makes her home on Vancouver Island in British Columbia with her husband and two daughters. While her creative process includes a daily writing schedule, along with long walks in the rainforest and on nearby beaches, the inspiration for her recent books about the Fielding family came to her in an unusual place: the bathtub.
“I was reading a Country Living magazine in the tub,” Horvath explains with a laugh, “and an article by the poet Mary Oliver sucked me in. It led me to read her poems and some of her essays in which she talks about being a poor poet. And so the character of Jane’s mother, Felicity [also a poor poet], took off before Jane did.”
Jane Fielding is the eldest daughter in a quirky family that includes sister Maya and two little brothers, Max and Hershel. Jane’s mother comes into strong focus in the first book, My One Hundred Adventures, set during Jane’s 12th summer at the family’s home on a beach in Massachusetts.
But it is Jane’s relationship with her recently acquired stepfather, Ned, which Horvath explores more fully in her new novel, Northward to the Moon. As Jane sees it, she and Ned “have our own subset built on the understanding of adventures and the lure of outlaw life.”
“Writing is kind of interesting,” muses the author, who doesn’t outline her award-winning books, but rather discovers the story along with her characters. “The character that surfaced in this book was Ned.”
As Northward to the Moon begins, the family has lived in Saskatchewan almost a year. But things are about to change. Ned has just been fired from his job teaching French at the local school. The reason? Well, he doesn’t speak French.
Ned has been a wanderer almost all his life. When he gets a call about a dying friend from his past, he proposes that the family travel across country to visit her. Jane is delighted by this turn of events. “Finally, I think, an adventure. Ned had promised me nothing but adventures when we got to Canada, but this is the first whiff I’ve caught of them.”
They set off on a journey that, after some twists and turns, eventually lands them on a ranch in Nevada, with Ned’s aging mother, Dorothy. And it is here that the real journeys actually begin.
Northward to the Moon is a story about families that sometimes work well—and sometimes don’t. It’s also a book that explores the challenges different generations face. At Dorothy’s Nevada ranch, Jane develops a crush on a ranch hand, and her little sister Maya forms a deep bond with her step-grandmother. Ned and his siblings, and Dorothy herself, must grapple with difficult life decisions after Dorothy suffers a broken hip in a riding accident.
When things come to a head at dinner one night, Dorothy bursts out, “I’ll admit I may have to move somewhere where someone will assist me . . . but I don’t have to put up with you all planning it behind my back like I’m senile. . . . Sometimes I wish I’d had gerbils instead when the mothering instinct came over me.”
“What mothering instinct?” whispers one of her daughters.
Horvath believes the family issues in Northward to the Moon will be very familiar to children today. “Especially as people are living a lot longer, dealing with aging grandparents is a part of children’s lives,” she says.
Will there be another book about Jane Fielding’s adventures? Horvath, who has been writing since she was eight, is definitely planning on it.
“I began wanting to do to nine books about a character, from childhood to 90s. The voice that came to me was that of a 91-year-old lady looking back on her life, and I’m intrigued by the idea of taking someone through a life.”
Based on the first two books about Jane Fielding, readers will have a lot to look forward to from this original and talented writer in the years ahead.
In the meantime, Horvath is embarking on her own adventures this spring: a national book tour to meet her readers in person.
Deborah Hopkinson’s latest book is The Humblebee Hunter, inspired by the life of Charles Darwin.