Today I have Ellen Potter on the blog. We are of course promoting her new book, The Humming Room, which is a contemporary interpretation of The Secret Garden. I was asked to be a part of this blog tour, and I couldn’t say no. Guys, I loved Ellen’s book so much. I love reading middle-grade novels, but I don’t always feel as enchanted by them as I would like to be. Not so with this book. I adored it. You can see my 5 star review here.
And now I’d like to introduce Ellen to talk to you about the stress and process of retelling a beloved children’s classic (*cough* my favorite children’s classic).
I’ve found that many children’s books have a short shelf life. Although I loved certain books as a child, I no longer love them as an adult. In fact, I sometimes wonder what the heck I loved about the book in the first place. Not so with The Secret Garden. That book has staying power. In fact, I had read my battered old copy so many times that when my editor, Jean Feiwel, suggested that I write a contemporary version of it, I thought, “Oh yeah. This is going to be a breeze.”
Then I started writing it.
Well, let me just say that if you are considering re-telling a beloved classic, you should first stock up on bottles of Maalox and some stress food (mine are Swedish Fish). Trying to live up to a classic that classic can take a few years off your life. You worry that it will be too close to the original; you worry that it won’t be close enough. You worry about how it will be received by all those people who loved the original as much as you did.
Most of all, you worry that you will spend all your advance money on Swedish Fish and Maalox.
Once I found the setting for The Humming Room, though, things began to come together. I chose The Thousand Islands region of New York, where I was living at the time. The St. Lawrence River is wild and moody and vast, much like Yorkshire moors. My “Misselthwaite Manor” was a defunct tuberculosis sanitarium on one of the islands. Not only was it fittingly eerie, but it also isolated my main character, Roo, just as Mary was had been isolated on the moors.
The character of Roo spilled out so effortlessly that for a while I really did think The Humming Roommight be a breeze to write. Tough, whip-smart girls are sort of my specialty. But when I came to the Colin character, Mary’s sickly cousin, I ran into trouble. In The Humming Room, the cousin is named Phillip, and for a few months I couldn’t figure out what his problem was. Clearly I couldn’t give him a hunchback, like Colin. I tried out other ailments on him, but none of them seemed to make sense. I nearly gave myselfan ailment trying to figure it out. So I did what I usually do when I’m stuck. I ate Swedish Fish. Then I took my dogs for lots of walks. I walked and walked, and thought and thought until a solution came to me. Phillip’s ailment would be mental rather than physical. It made sense, and a good thing too, because even my dogs were looking tired.
I suppose the biggest change was the romance between Roo and the Dickon character. I’d always wished that Mary and Dickon had fallen in love. In fact, I think that Mary was in love with Dickon, but I suspect Dickon was the kind of guy who didn’t notice when a girl was head-over-heels for him. This time around, I wanted Dickon to notice; and to fall in love right back.
My “Dickon” is named Jack, and he lives alone on the St. Lawrence River. Mysterious and elusive, there is a local lore that he isn’t a human at all, but a sea creature. He is followed everywhere by a great blue heron named Sir and he can turn the river stormy or calm at will. When he and Roo meet, they recognize the wildness in each other, and the loneliness. Remember the first time someone you liked held your hand? And how nothing in the world had ever felt that nice before? That’s the sort of romance I wanted for Roo and Jack. That simple, melting-warmth-in-your stomach kind of romance. I like to think that Mary would be pleased.
A few weeks ago, my dog did the unthinkable. He urinated on my prized and battered old copy of The Secret Garden. I think he may have been angry at all those walks I made him take. I was surprised at how sad I was, especially after a year and half of living so closely, and anxiously, with that book. But I cried. And that, to me, is the mark of a book with an enduring shelf life—when you spend a year and half worrying yourself to death about retelling the book, and you still cry because your dog urinated on it.
McMillan Children’s Publishing Group has notified me that I can give away a copy of The Humming Room as part of the blog tour! Contest is open to readers in the US/Canada. Enter using the Rafflecopter form below. Contest lasts for a week and then the winner will be notified via email.