I had an amazing time reading GABRIEL FINLEY & THE RAVEN’S RIDDLE! Published by Schwartz & Wade Books, an imprint of Random House Children’s Books, GABRIEL FINLEY follows twelve-year-old Gabriel on his journey to find his missing father with the help of his riddle-loving raven, Paladin. Set in Brooklyn, New York, this story was full of magic and plot twists; I didn’t know if Gabriel was going to make it until the very end! Author George Hagen shares what inspired him to write GABRIEL FINLEY and his experience writing for children for the first time. Anne Schwartz, the editor of GABRIEL FINLEY, shares what’s it like when a book clicks for her.
Janet Umenta: Your two previously published books were written for adults. What made you decide to write a children’s book? How would you compare writing for adults with writing for children?
George Hagen: My younger daughter Lola challenged me to write her a book. She was 10 and specified that it should be both exciting and magical. I loved stories like that at her age, but my adult books were quite realistic in tone. Every weekend we took family walks across the Brooklyn Bridge to Chinatown for lunch, and I had to invent a story engaging enough to keep Lola walking. I learned quickly what kept her interest. Her favorite situations were a) when magic goes wrong, b) when children are more competent than adults, and c) when children have the power to communicate with animals. So, I followed those rules.
JU: Gabriel and his friends have a better sense of right and wrong than the adults! Is that something you did purposefully to relate to your intended audience, or do you believe that kids don’t get enough credit?
GH: As a child, I traveled from a mining town in Zimbabwe to England’s London suburbs to the semi-rural housing tracts of central New Jersey. So I was always looking for cues about how to fit in. English and American ideas of right and wrong have interesting differences. That theme has always fascinated me. Also, most of the middle-schoolers I meet have a powerful moral compass matched by a sharp eye for when adults contradict their own rules. It’s rich material!
JU: The riddles in your book were great! I spent a couple of minutes trying to solve the riddles on my own before reading on to find the answers. In your book, we see Gabriel battle against the evil Corax in a duel of riddles. What inspired you to use riddles as a plot device?
GH: Thank you! I like the notion of riddles being powerful things, first of all. There are lots of myths about heroes who use their wits to fell the mighty—Odin, for example, and Odysseus. Second, I really wanted my hero Gabriel to have a skill that wasn’t sword fighting or something requiring physical strength because he was only a twelve-year-old. A knowledge of riddles, along with intellectual bravery, seemed an appealing and believable talent for a child hero.
JU: While reading, I was impressed with the way you delved into mature themes such as abuse, jealousy, and death while still keeping it a children’s book. Did that come naturally to you, or did you have to think about how to approach it?
GH: It’s funny that you mention these as mature themes; I think they’re pretty universal. As a child, I remember situations of abuse, jealousy and death. Adults try to distract children from these things, but they process them in different ways. In contrast, most fairy tales shock me. Take Hansel and Gretel or The Little Mermaid. Incredible violence and cruelty! One of the most terrifying stories I ever read was Bluebeard in an ancient book from my mother’s childhood. The pictures were by Arthur Rackham, I think, and I still get the chills thinking about it. As a storyteller, I feel rather toothless by comparison!
Janet Umenta: What does it feel like when a children’s book clicks for you?
Anne Schwartz: When a book clicks for me, I really feel something when I read it. I’m transported somewhere different—either to a place I’ve never been before, or to territory that may be familiar but is presented in a new, unexpected light. I generally prefer character-driven stories, because I seem to be able to enter them more completely.
JU: What excited you most about GABRIEL FINLEY when you read the manuscript?
AS: On the surface, GABRIEL FINLEY is not the kind of story I would be drawn to. Before GABRIEL I had never edited a fantasy novel…and hadn’t even read very many. But from the get-go, George’s book didn’t feel like fantasy to me—it had complex, funny, thoroughly engaging characters that I cared about immediately, along with a story very much grounded in a world I could easily believe in. And there was a richness and subtlety to it all that felt rare and special. Quite simply, George is a wonderful writer, and he had me in his thrall very quickly.
JU: Why did you think kids (and adults!) would be able to relate to Gabriel and his ordeal?
AS: Everyone, of course, wants to be loved. Everyone recognizes the basic need to have a parent who loves you and takes care of you. And though Gabriel is loved by his aunt, his search for his missing father (and mother) is something with which I was sure readers would be able to connect with.
About George Hagen
GEORGE HAGEN is the author of two novels for adults. THE LAMENTS—a Washington Post bestseller and recipient of the William Saroyan International Prize for writing–has been compared to the work of John Irving and Ann Tyler and described by Publishers Weekly as “a funny, touching novel about the meaning of family.” TOM BEDLAM was called “a Victorian three-decker novel [that] shines with contemporary clarity and moves at the speed of ‘The Sopranos'” by the Los Angeles Times. Hagen had lived on three continents by the time he was twelve. The father of three children, he now lives in Brooklyn. This is his first book for kids. For more information, visit georgehagen.com.
About Anne Schwartz
ANNE SCHWARTZ is the Vice President and Publisher of Schwartz & Wade Books, an imprint of Random House Children’s Books. Schwartz & Wade was established in 2005. Follow Schwartz & Wade Books on Facebook.