A Conversation with Libby Koponen,

author of Blow Out the Moon

Occasionally, we come across a book that is pulls us in and holds our attention to the very last page. Such is the case with Blow out the Moon. In its pages we find a spirited main character who shares with us the silliness and seriousness of growing up and the sudden, sweet realization that the world is wide-open with possibilities.

In a recent interview with Education Oasis, children's book author Libby Koponen shared her experiences concerning the road to publication as well as her thoughts on books, reading, and writing.

You may read a review of the book here.
For those who may not have read it yet, could you briefly describe your book Blow Out the Moon?

It's a true story. A very American girl who's quite a tomboy has to move to England. She misses her friends, especially her best friend, Henry, and her London school is quite a shock! She and her parents decide that she'd be happier at a boarding school in the country. Sibton Park, the school, really was the way I've described it in the book - I better not say more than that, because it's what readers see that counts! If I've done a good job, readers will put themselves in Libby's place and will think about her experiences later, after the book is over. What the book becomes about will depend on them.

In what way is the main character, Libby, like you?

Almost everything in the book really happened. People who know me say, "I can hear your voice when I read it," or, "She sounds just like you." I think the main difference between Libby in the book and me is that I'm grown-up and she isn't - though she grows up over the course of the book. How that changes her is part of the story.

One comment we've heard over and over from readers of this book is that when they reach the end and close the cover, Libby lingers in their minds. They wonder what she is up to now that she is back in America. Why do you think she is so "real" to readers?

I think because she—that eight year old narrator—just pushed me out of the way, grabbed the keyboard, and wrote the book. That's really what it felt like. I was surprised. I didn't even like her at times—but what I thought didn't matter. She had something to say and she took over (she was pretty bossy anyway!). The grown-up Libby did the editing and rewriting, though—and took out a lot that the narrator would have perhaps liked to keep in.

Did you ever imagine yourself as a children's book author?

No. I always imagined that I would write novels for grown-ups; but (when I grew up myself) I think I came to believe that I had more to say to children. I say "I think I believed" because it wasn't really a conscious decision.

Could you tell us a bit about the road to publication?

I started writing stories when I was seven (as Libby did in the book) and—also like her—have wanted to be a writer since before I can remember. But it's taken me my whole adult life (I'm now 54!!) to get a book published.

I've always written, though, and I started this book in 1990 and worked on it off and on for years. I sent it out a few times, too, without getting any encouragement. Some of the rejections were quite rejecting! I still remember the editor who said that children prefer the third person and "Libby's voice isn't interesting or compelling enough to justify the first person." However, in fairness, some of them made good points, too.

In 1999, I decided to really try my hardest to get this published and (after all the convincing reasons in those rejection letters!) I thought it would be a hard sell. So I put the entire book up on my Web site, hoping children who loved the book would write to me. They did, and I wrote back. (Later, when the book was about to come out, I tried to write to them all and thank them again, but by that time their email addresses had changed.)

Then, in September of 2000, I sent the children's letters, a bound book with about 30 color illustrations, and a letter (I'd spent an entire weekend writing) to 30 publishers. I forgot about it—this wasn't as hard to do as it might seem! In November I received an email from Little, Brown that ended "P.S. A letter we sent came back marked 'No such street.' Have we got your address wrong?'" I checked and, sure enough, I had written "92 Clarendon Street" (NOT the street where I live) on every single letter.

So I've always felt that Little, Brown was meant to have this book. And I number among the greatest blessings of my life (not an exaggeration) that Alvina at Little, Brown—then a young editorial assistant—read my letter and wanted to see the manuscript. It was her first book, too: the first one she found on the slush pile and shaped and saw published. She is the kind of editor writers dream of but few ever find—and she has since become a close friend.

Were there any obstacles or particular challenges in the writing of this book?

The hardest part was deciding what to leave out.

A child who read the manuscript over and over when she was nine, really helped me here, too. She marked up the whole manuscript with a pink magic marker, and we talked about it, too. I remember her saying that the incidents in one chapter "aren't really important." I thought that was a great way to summarize what should and shouldn't be in a novel, and used the question as a test when I was trying to decide what to leave in and what to take out.

Alvina and I took out quite a lot, too, including about 100 pages at the beginning and a long London chapter. I think we were right to do this—and as Alvina said, "You can put them on your Web site."

Did you have a "typical" reader in your mind as you wrote this book?

No. Libby was unselfconscious (if that's a word) and I was too—until we were editing the manuscript!

What role did books play in your childhood?

I started really loving to read when I was about eight, although I loved to run around and play with friends, too. I can't imagine a childhood (of life, for that matter!) without reading. The books and characters I've loved stay in my mind and I think about them as much as I think about the real people I love.

My parents and grandparents were both generous and discriminating in the books they gave us: I still have all of my favorites, even the ones that have, quite literally, fallen apart, like The Tall Book of Make Believe. (I wish someone would republish this!)

Did you have a favorite book as a child? If so, what was it?

I have to answer with a list.

Peter Pan by J.M. Barrie (we had the book that had been my mother's when she was a child, with beautiful illustrations. It was published in 1932 by Charles Scribner). This has not held up to my adult self, but I loved it so much when I was very young that I must include it here. For many years it was my favorite book. I have a copy of Peter Pan in Kensington Gardens inscribed "In memory of your first favorite book."

Little Women by Louisa May Alcott. When I was in third grade, this replaced Peter Pan as my favorite book—and it's still a favorite, though now I find Marmee hard to take, I still love it—and still cry when I read it!

The Treasure Seekers and The Would be Goods by E. Nesbit. These are also still favorites; and they still make me laugh out loud in some places and cry in others.

Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen. This replaced Little Women as my favorite book. I got it for Christmas when I was eight and at first, was furious because the flap copy called Jane Austen the "greatest" woman writer. I was very indignant about the insult to Louisa May Alcott; but then I came to love this book. If I had to pick one favorite book now, Pride and Prejudice would be it. And even though I didn't understand it when I was a child, I can understand why I loved it so much.

Are you working on another book?

Yes - but I think it would be bad luck to talk about it. It's not finished.

Is there anything else you would like to tell our readers?

Yes. When I visited a fourth grade class, a boy asked me, before I read, if I had exaggerated. I said that I hadn't; that many novels make things better or worse than they are in real life, and I wanted to show what everything really felt like to me.

Many children have asked me about the title; it's a good question and hard to answer. It comes from the poem at the end of the book—the one about the girl being made to blow out the lamp (the kinds of lamps they had then were gas or kerosene and you did blow them out to put them out). In the poem, she blows so hard that she blows out the moon—her feelings are so strong and so powerful that she has the power to put out the moon. My title is encouraging kids to do that—to have those strong feelings and the energy and power that goes with them (many people lose this as they grow older). So, I wasn't saying that someone did blow out the moon but saying to do it: "Blow out the moon!"

How would you like teachers to use your work in a classroom setting?

This answer comes from my one (so far!) school visit. I was surprised and impressed by how well the teachers listened to the children. They led the discussions, but made everyone (including me) feel heard and feel important whenever we spoke, all the while maintaining discipline: quite a feat!

When I came into each class, the children seemed to have the attitude—before I had said a word—that something interesting and even exciting was about to happen. Only happy children who like school have that eager curiosity and excitement about learning.

That was an inspiring atmosphere to be in. One teacher had read the book herself and her enthusiasm came through. She asked really interesting questions about the chapter I read: questions that encouraged the children to imagine what it would be like to go to boarding school themselves and to think about how the characters felt and what they were not saying. When the children spoke, the teacher really listened. It was both comfortable and exciting to be in her classroom. She made everyone (including me, the visitor) feel heard and feel special—and her questions made you think: I've been thinking about this book for a long time, and she even made me think of new things!

"How does it feel to be reading it to us?" she asked at one point. This is one way I haven't changed: When I'm in the middle of something interesting, I don't notice how I feel; but her question made me stop and think.

I responded, "Wonderful! Writing is usually such a solitary thing—it's an amazing feeling to be here, looking around at all of these interested faces."

If she hadn't asked, I might not even have noticed that until later; it was fun to stop and feel it as it was happening.

To visit the Libby Koponen's Web site go here: http://www.ifyoulovetoread.com