Biscotti & Konigsburg: A Cosmic Interview with Grace McKinney

Updated: Oct 24, 2018

Grace and I meet on Mondays. We talk about books, the present and future of Cosmic Bookshelf, what we ate over the weekend, and what we're reading next. By way of introduction, Grace and I decided to do a couple of proper sit-down interviews for CB.

Gaby Brabazon: What was the first book you remember falling in love with? How old were you, and what do you think appealed to you about it?

Grace McKinney: Oh, this was an FAQ in grad school and I didn't have an answer then, either.

I'm notoriously bad at remembering childhood, but I know I loved ballet books. I think they were appealing because I could relate to the experience since I danced for a few years, both in theater and ballet. I mostly remember what I started reading in about sixth grade... I loved books that had female leads with tragic tales. I'm remembering a few Avi books, including The True Confessions of Charlotte Doyle and this strange series called Into the Land of the Unicorns by Bruce Coville. I liked to be transported—that was the hook. It's not how or why I read now, but that was definitely the initial hook.

GB: What did you want to be when you were little?

GM: I wanted to be famous under any performative circumstances, like a Broadway star, but was pretty consistently told from a young age that I was wonderful with children and that I should be a teacher. I think, sometimes, people are right… So here we are.

GB: Did you want to do it all? Dream of being a Singer-Actor-Teacher?

GM: No, I was never a combo person. One track mind.

GB: When did you know you wanted to study children's literature?

GM: After I took a required children’s reading course in undergrad studying education, I realized that I wasn’t looking at picture books the way I should... or could. I'd never thought about them as art, and studying children's literature has kind of opened doors for what I am able to see as artistic. There’s so much more within books and reading to unlock. Pedagogy is important, but so is artistry.

GB: What book from your childhood will you always love and defend, even though it may not hold up?

GM: Oh, From the Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler, by E.L. Konigsburg… but that totally holds up. It’s just a gem.

GB: Can confirm, I just read it for the first time and was charmed. What's your preferred reading weather, location, and snack?

GM: I'd prefer to be at home reading. We'll just talk based in reality, talk about what’s available to me, but in general I would prefer to be at home. In a corner-ish space, in my blue chair that perfectly fits tucked-in legs, with a table next to it for tea or coffee. It would be first thing in the morning or early afternoon; I’m useless reading at night.

Reading weather would be a well-sustained thunderstorm and just cool enough for a blanket. My preferred snack food without a book would be an apple with almond butter and cinnamon... With a book, coffee and biscotti. Some pairing of coffee or tea and… yeah. Something like biscotti.

GB: Do you have a favorite anecdote about a time you shared a book with a child and it didn't go the way you planned?

GM: Generally I think when a book sharing goes well, it hasn't gone the way I planned. It's the surprising moments, when children see more than I see, that make it exciting and affirming that we underestimate them. There's the story I seem to tell all the time about the group of children I was working with a few years ago... We'd been reading Make Way for Ducklings almost daily for a few weeks and we'd finally moved on to another book, The Rain Came Down by David Shannon. In the middle of all the chaos caused by the rain (basically everyone is yelling at each other and forgets how to drive, kind of like in Boston), there's a mother duck and some ducklings weaving through the cars. The children became convinced that this book was a sequel to Make Way for Ducklings and proceeded to retell the rest of the narrative as if that family of ducks was the very same one as McCloskey's, just dealing with different people.

GB: Incredible. It's so magical when that happens. Alright, switching gears: You've been kidnapped and the protagonist from the last book you read is going to attempt to save you. What are your chances at being rescued?

GM: Oh, not a chance. I just finished working my way through the short stories in Flannery O'Conner's A Good Man is Hard to Find, and the last story was called "The Displaced Person." The protagonist, if you can call her that, is a pretty heartless farm-owning white woman who waits for people in her life to quit or leave. Or die. So, zero.

Well, I am white and female, so she’d probably save me. But I’m also Catholic, so maybe she wouldn’t.

WAIT, no! The last book I read was Raymie Nightingale [Kate DiCamillo]! Raymie would definitely save me.

GB: Which author, alive or dead, would you like to write your biography?

GM: The first person to come to mind was M.F.K. Fisher, because she would make my life sound much more lush... Or she would frown on it and refuse to write it. At the risk of being one-note, I think I'd settle on Konigsburg, honestly.

GB: OK, the most important discussion point of all: Please tell me your three best cookie and picture book pairings.

Grace needed time for this one. She got back to me later via email:

GM: This is simultaneously incredibly fun and almost impossible to pin down, so I'll just go with these:

+ A Sick Day for Amos McGee by Philip and Erin Stead with lemon shortbreads because I can't think of anything much cozier.

+ The Skunk by Mac Barnett and Patrick McDonnell, a current classroom favorite, with, to no one's surprise, black and white cookies, and

+ World Peace cookies with Last Stop on Market Street by Matt de la Peña and Christian Robinson because they both unsuspectingly pack a punch. And it's been said that if everyone had one of those cookies, we'd have world peace...

GB: This will definitely be a future list. Cookie season is coming...

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