Friendship, Mystery, and Maybe a Mermaid: A Conversation with Josephine Cameron
There are a few things I look for, specifically, when I pick up a book for young readers. Some of them are part of a mental checklist from the educator part of my brain: what’s the language like? How about the representation? Is the plot something that will entice the prospective reader, and is it emotionally true?
Then there are the other items, the checklist kept by my own inner twelve-year-old: Is there magic? Is there mystery?
Luckily, thrillingly, both these sets of criteria were met when I got my hands on an advance copy of a new middle grade novel with themes of friendship, a complex mother-daughter relationship, and a twist of magic: Maybe A Mermaid, by debut author Josephine Cameron. I spoke to Josephine via email about her new book, her childhood in Wisconsin, and some of the key elements of writing for young people.
Congratulations on the release of your first book! What made you want to tell this story? What’s the seed it sprung from?
Thank you! I would say it sprung from a whole scattering of seeds. But the main root was place. I grew up on a lake in Northern Wisconsin. There were only 800 people who lived in our town year-round, but once the ice on the lakes melted, tourists moved back into their cabins and filled the resorts (yes, there was a resort Up North with a boat-shaped lounge called Marty’s Showboat)…our town felt transformed. Every summer felt magical and filled with possibilities.
One of the things I loved about Maybe a Mermaid was the focus on female friendships and relationships, especially the dynamic between generations. Can you tell us about that?
I’m so glad you appreciated that. This was definitely a seed from my childhood. One of the summer residents on our lake was a woman named Jane. I grew up in a wonderful but rowdy family of six kids. When I needed some calm and quiet, I would ride my bike to Jane’s cabin and we would read, garden, swim, listen to public radio, and drink chamomile tea. I loved that we didn’t even have to chat. We could be quiet and do quiet things all day. Jane was a True Blue Friend!
Anthoni is wrestling with this concept of trust, both trusting and being trusted, which is such a powerful theme for middle grade readers who are deeply passionate about justice and understanding right and wrong. It’s also that period in our lives when a lot of us realize for the first time that our parents are fallible. Can you talk a little about that theme of trust in your book?
I remember being Anthoni’s age and realizing that several things I’d thought were true, weren’t. My parents weren’t superheroes who could fix everything. Some friendships weren’t as true as I’d thought. At that age, you start seeing the world a little differently, forming your *own* point of view. It can be kind of scary to question the people, ideas, and philosophies you’ve trusted for years. But it’s also healthy and empowering. In fact, I think most of us adults could stand to question like an 11-year-old. We (including me) get stuck in the same patterns of thinking, we see what we want to believe, and try so hard to Stick to the Plan. I’m afraid we miss out on a lot of hopeful possibilities that way.
Without giving too much away, the climax of the book had me so anxious — the social and safety risks were so real for everyone involved! Considering both this and DJ’s family’s backstory, what’s the place of fear and grief in narratives for young readers?
I think fear and grief are realities in all our lives, regardless of age. I want to write (and read) stories that treat the reader seriously and honestly. Life isn’t always easy. I admire authors for young readers who acknowledge that and do so with heart and humor.
What books did you read as a kid that have really stuck with you?
Maybe because I wasn’t allowed to read books with magic in them, I absolutely adored books that had a hint of magic. I loved the way animals flocked to Dickon in The Secret Garden. After I read that book, I used to sit out in the woods and wish and wait for a bird or a squirrel to come sit on my lap. In the Emily of New Moon series, there was magic in Emily’s premonitions, her friendship with Teddy, and the abandoned house they found. I read that trilogy dozens of times. As far as contemporary realistic fiction, I felt like Lois Lowry’s Anastasia Krupnik books were written personally for me.
What are you reading lately? What’s next on your to-be-read list?
I’m getting ready to do an event at Print Bookstore in Portland, Maine with Ann Braden, so I’m re-reading The Benefits of Being an Octopus which is such a great book. I just finished Front Desk by Kelly Yang, and I admire how she wrote such a sweet, fun story that also addresses issues of social justice head-on. Sweep by Jonathan Auxier is my latest favorite middle-grade fantasy. My to-read list is SO LONG! On the top of my shelf right now: New Kid by Jerry Craft, Because of the Rabbit by Cynthia Lord, and Pashmina by Nidhi Chanani. In adult fiction, I’m reading The Luminaries by Eleanor Catton, which is a fascinating and complex mystery that I’m really enjoying!
What, in your opinion, is the job of fiction written for young readers?
I think it’s the same job as fiction written for any reader. When I read, I want to get swept up in the story. I want to look at the world from a slightly different angle, feel a sense of wonder, read sentences that make me laugh or cry or take my breath away. As Charlotte Boulay (the ex-vaudeville star in Maybe a Mermaid) would put it, I want to be transported.
I have to say, it was awesome reading a book about summer in the depths of a New England winter. Did you spend your childhood summers more like Anthoni and DJ, sort of on your own and making your own fun, or more structured like Julie and Maddy’s?
Oh definitely like Anthoni and DJ. I spent my summers roaming the woods, riding my bike, swimming, exploring, baking, playing music, and reading TONS of books! My siblings and I were completely left to our own devices in the summer.
Where are you on the internet, and how can readers follow your work?
You can find news and behind-the-scenes photos on my website: www.josephinecameron.com. Macmillan/FSG built a very fun landing page at www.maybeamermaid.com where you can read an excerpt of the book and take the True Blue Friend Quiz!
I can be found pretty regularly hanging out on Twitter @josephinewrites. I have a Facebook author page: @josephinecameronbooks. And if you want to know what middle grade books I’m reading, definitely come visit me on Goodreads. I have an Instagram account (@josephinecameronbooks), but mainly because it’s the only way to keep up with what my nieces are up to!
Thank you again for your time, Josephine!
Be sure to check out Maybe a Mermaid, which was released on March 26th and can be found wherever books are sold. *