Cathleen Young had lost her passion for the written word.
The reporter-turned-TV-movie-and-series-writer was a mainstay in the writer-for-hire scene, a scribe for TV movies and popular shows such as MacGuyver, Dr. Quinn Medicine Woman and more. Despite the high-profile gigs, Young became burn out; the too-many-cooks in the kitchen environment of television and film writing meant Young’s true voice was often muddled or altered in a way that her work hardly resembled her original intent.
She became a mentor for young writers at the non-profit Humanitas where she could help nurture the careers of younger writers. On a day off, she was nurturing other future storytellers, her daughters. She was telling them a bedtime story one night when she realized she still had the urge to write.
She soon set off to write a manuscript in a writing field she hadn’t tackled before, one where she would be the voice from beginning to end, an area she had some expertise in after being a career writer and raising two daughters: children’s book author.
Her manuscript was a hit. Penguin/Random House bought the book after a 3-day bidding war, awarding Young $200,000 for a two-book deal.
Young’s first book, a middle grade (just below the young adult age range) novel “The Pumpkin War” was recently released this summer. The novel is a coming-of-age story that revolves around a pumpkin race but more importantly, explores issues of young adults and their exploration of friendship, loss and feelings they aren’t yet prepared to deal with.
The reporter-turned-TV-movie-and-series-writer-turned-children’s-book-writer recently talked with the Daily Press and discussed “The Pumpkin War, process and how her children helped her write her new book.
When did you know you wanted to write for children?
I was a guest editor at Mademoiselle magazine when I was 21. In that magazine they did a pictorial of us and in the end they interviewed us and I said, I want to write a kids book. I’ve been wanting to do it since then.
Why didn’t I do it until now? Well, I didn’t believe I had anything to say when I was 21. It took me a long time to find my voice writing this book. And I’ve been publishing since I was 16. (laughs)
I did about two dozen TV movies with few exceptions, each one of those was about a broken family in some way but I was always a writer for hire. In all of that, I don’t think I had ever written a child.
How difficult was the transition from TV writer to book writer, let alone a children’s book writer?
Writing a TV show or movie is a completely different format and structure from kids books. (laughs) I never once even had a child character I had written! If I did, it was a baby that didn’t talk.
When I started this book, it was all kids, the main characters are 12. When I first started, I thought, What the hell am I gonna write when they’re not talking? (laughs) In movies and TV, it’s just all dialogue!
So, it took me three years to get this right. Writing a children’s book, what’s vastly different is capturing that voice and feeling.
The voice that came through was my expression as a writer, an expression of my development. Writing for hire was a different experience because I had to adopt other voices including the producer’s vision and voice. I was a technician and a sponge.
This process was more expressing my voice and creating a world, mood and feeling.
As a parent of two kids and the executive director of a nonprofit, when did you find the time to write this?
My writing was four-thirty to six-thirty in the morning. A very concentrated time, everyone’s asleep. I’d get a latte, walk the dogs, go out front, let them give their gift to the world, then I’d sit and write. A lot of the time writing this was spent at Cafe Bolivar. I spent at least 85% of the book writing there. Put in my earbuds to ocean sounds and just drift off to my own world.
What was the impetus of the book’s creation?
I have two kids, 15-year-old twin girls. Initially, it was written chapter by chapter for them, an adventure I’d read them every night about the [The Pumpkin War] characters Billie and Sam. Just a labor of love for them. The impetus was wanting to entertain my children and through that, I rediscovered my passion for writing. Hollywood had crushed that for a bit, but in telling this story, I’d see their eyes light up. I thought, okay, I think I have a book here. The joy for writing immediately came back.
Why should someone pick this up?
Sam and Billie are great friends, kids growing up in Madeline Island, Wisconsin. Billie has a giant apple orchard, her best friend raises llamas and Sam has a rural existence. What happens is that they have a fracture in their friendship due to a pumpkin race and Billie doesn’t have the tools to repair the fracture.
The book speaks to any and all middle-grade kids, ages 9-12. What I’ve seen as a mother is kids don’t know how to handle bad feelings such as shame and guilt.
We live in a culture that says failure is something to be avoided at all costs. But those failures are important things in life. Failures in life, jobs and personal failures teach us the most.
So this is really about a young girl listening to her moral compass and doing what’s right, looking at herself in the mirror and saying, maybe I have something to learn here. Taking responsibility for emotions, cleaning your side of the street in order to keep relationships healthy and thriving and fun.
What I see in today’s world is by the time kids are in 7th, 8th, 9th grade and you see who has developed the skills to navigate life and deal with what’s happening inside themselves. The kids who don’t, they turn to activities that make them feel better: alcohol use, drug use, promiscuity, risky behavior. A pivotal thing kids need to be taught and what I hope this book helps with is, what is this bad feeling? Maybe I need to do something, but with no shame.
Society is all winning, getting ahead but life is much more complex than that.
For More information on Cathleen Young and “The Pumpkin War”, visit https://www.cathleenyoungbooks.com/