Kid Lit Frenzy: The book consists of letters from (almost) 11-year-old Penny to her sibling in utero. Why did you choose this form for the novel?
Joanne Rocklin: Penny is overjoyed that she will be a big sister and takes her role very seriously. Even though the baby won’t be born for another eight months, the fact of “You’s” existence is very real to Penny, so she decides to describe the world to You right away.
I love writing in first person for the middle grades, and have done it in diary/letter form before. It is an age of increased introspection, an intense pondering of identity, and a growing desire to examine one’s place in the world, which the form allows. There are also many opportunities for humor (both conscious and unconscious) as my narrator expresses observations that are innocent, open, and sometimes erroneous.
The form of the novel is also a “metaphor” for Penny’s own development -the birth of her discovery of life’s surprises and complexities.
KLF: What is the significance of the date June 26, 2015 listed at the end of the book trailer?
JR: That is the date that the U.S. Supreme Court voted to end the ban of same-sex marriage across the nation.
KLF: The trailer says that Penny is “not Ohlone by DNA, but... Ohlone by love.” What can you share about Penny’s adopted Ohlone family?
JR: Penny’s mama, Sammy, is not her biological mother. She adopted Penny when Penny was a toddler. Sammy’s mother is Ohlone, and Sammy’s Native American heritage is a big part of Sammy’s identity. To feel as close to Sammy and Sammy’s family as she can, Penny reads and learns about the Ohlone culture throughout the story. She shares what she has learned in the letters to her unborn sibling.
Elementary school students in California study the Ohlone, who have lived in the areas where Penny lives for thousands and thousands of years. But Penny acquires an even deeper appreciation of their ongoing struggles to save their heritage and sacred areas. And she connects with the Ohlone’s deep love for the earth and all of nature, as well as with the beauty and significance of their artifacts. Penny also discovers that, long ago, the Ohlone may even have invented basketball!
KLF: As a children’s book creator in Oakland, California, do you, like Penny, find the “Golden State Warriors are the greatest team in the NBA. On the planet - probably”?
JR: Yes. And, of course, it has nothing to do with living in Oakland, California. They just are.
KLF: How do Penny’s friends make her a bigger, better person?
JR: Penny thought she knew about tolerance, empathy and forgiveness, but sometimes important words are just plain old words until your friends teach you what they really mean in real life. Gabby, and Hazel, and Kenny, and Penny’s Secret Impossible Love all have their own stories, and Penny writes them down in her letters.
“Dear You,” Penny writes. “So much has happened this year. Or does it just seem like a lot happened because I wrote it down? Mr. Chen calls that a RHETORICAL QUESTION. A question without an answer. No, there is an answer. A lot happened. And I wrote it down. Love, Penelope.”
And as Penny writes it all down, she grows. Just like the baby inside Mama.
KLF: Banana slugs or goats?
JR: As Penny says, banana slugs are easy to draw, but very hard to love. Especially when compared to goats. Penny and I agree that bright yellow slimy slow-moving unfriendly garden banana slugs are not huggable. Goats are huggable. And in Penny’s world, goats keep secrets and give very good advice, just when you need it.
KLF: Your starred review in Booklist called Love, Penelope a “joyous testament to our complicated world.” How do you find joy in this complicated world?
JR: Penny and I find joy in family,
nature, (ok, even banana slugs, which are SO amusing to look at!)
Wait, there’s more!
Food! Food from all around the world!
And then there’s that joy that comes from honing the wondrous superpower of empathy--when you really learn to understand someone else’s point of view and can actually feel your mind and heart grow bigger and bigger.
And of course, there’s the joy of love, which is what it’s all about. Nothing beats it.
Check out the book trailer for Love, Penelope:
ABOUT THE AUTHOR: Joanne Rocklin is the author of many other award-winning novels for children, including The Five Lives of Our Cat Zook (Golden Kite Award), One Day and One Amazing Morning on Orange Street (California Library Association Beatty Award), and Fleabrain Loves Franny (Bank Street College of Education’s Best Children’s Books of the Year) all from Amulet Books. Look for her at JoanneRocklin.com.
ABOUT THE ILLUSTRATOR: Lucy Knisley, who provided the spot illustrations for Love, Penelope, is a critically acclaimed comic creator and author of the graphic memoirs French Milk, Relish, An Age of License: A Travelogue, Displacement: A Travelogue, and Something New. Look for her at LucyKnisley.com