Writer’s Daughters Inspire Tales About a Princess and a Revolutionary

  • Author Emma Wunsch, of Lebanon, has a new book out, the first in a series for young readers. (Courtesy photograph)

For the Valley News
Thursday, September 06, 2018

Lebanon author Emma Wunsch’s second book, Miranda and Maude: The Princess and the Absolutely Not a Princess, is the first in a series for readers ages 7 to 10.

Wunsch sat down recently to talk about her new book and her writing life. An edited transcript of that conversation follows:

Valley News: You mentioned you work at Dartmouth Hillel in donor relations and have two girls, Dahlia, 8, and Georgia, 10. How do you find time to write?

Emma Wunsch: I’m busy, but I work better when I’m busy — I work more efficiently. Nothing helps me more than a deadline. I’m a happier person when I’m working both the regular job and writing. I don’t have a set time to write, but when I’m really in it, I’ll be working in the morning early, I’ll be staying up late — when I’m really in the zone. But that’s usually short term.

VN:The Princess and the Absolutely Not a Princess is very different from your first book, The Movie Version, which deals with a sibling’s mental illness and is for young adult readers. How did the idea for this series come about?

EW:Miranda and Maude was definitely a product of having children. When my daughter Georgia was 3 she was really into Disney princesses. One night, to get her to go to sleep, I said, “I know a princess!” And I called her Miranda Rose. The first week of telling this story was wish fulfillment: “How many tutus does she have?” “Oh, she has a whole closet full!”

But I got bored. So one night I said, “I’m going to tell you about Miranda but I’m also going to tell you about this other girl named Maude who hates pink, she likes brown,” which for a 3-year-old is shocking. That was the impetus for the Miranda and Maude stories.

And as my daughters got older they would say, “Tell me a Miranda and Maude story.” We have family in New York, so we’d drive down to the city and I’d tell these stories in the car. That’s really how it happened, but I didn’t write them down.

Meanwhile, The Movie Version was in the publishing process, which takes a long time. And I stared thinking, maybe I should write these Miranda and Maude stories down. And when I wrote it down it became this whole other thing. My first book was heavy — it’s about mental illness — and I really wanted to do something lighter.

My first version of Miranda and Maude was about 90,000 words long and meant for older readers, but it went through some changes and became a chapter book series. I really trust my editor’s judgment and they know the marketplace. It really does lend itself to a younger audience. Kids are grappling with these issues younger.

VN: The book is about a budding social activist and an actual princess going to school together. Why did you decide to mix hard reality and high-flung fantasy in this way?

EW: Ultimately I wanted enough of a story that my daughter would do the steps necessary to go to bed! I wanted to get into my daughter’s world. And then I wanted her to step into my world. I really wanted my kids to be part of crafting the story, so I would talk to them about it — even little things, like the name of a candy. Bigger issues, too: Things will happen in my daughters’ school and I’ll wonder how I can use it. In the third book of the series, because I noticed that there’s tension between boys and girls, I wanted to include that. My 8-year-old looks over the edits.

It’s not that everything I write has to be about them, that would be pretty limiting, but the Miranda and Maude series was definitely for them. I really believe if I didn’t have a kid who didn’t want to go to bed, I probably wouldn’t have come up with it at all.

VN: You have a natural way of weaving in history, vocabulary and difficult issues such as the death of a parent in The Princess and The Absolutely Not a Princess. You have a keen grasp of children’s inner lives. How do you come by these skills?

EW: I think kids live in the world. Especially now, when they see so much stuff in the media; kids see things and hear things that are upsetting and hard. That’s reality for some kids, some kids my kids go to school with. My penchant has always been factual, as a parent and a writer. I don’t want to shy away from the truth that kids know. Certainly there are age-appropriate things, but it’s surprising what a kid can handle. You can’t predict their reactions.

I’ve never been into fantasy or sci fi, so it’s kind of funny that I wrote about a princess, but the real aspects balance that. I really tried to make it set not in any particular time or place. There’s no mention of cellphones or technology, or even where they live. I even took out references to real products. I was really pushing for that universal aspect of kids and friendships.

VN: Is it difficult to write about the death of a parent?

EW: No, for the kids in the story, it’s just what they’ve known. In that chapter where the death of a parent is addressed, I end by saying, “they went on to think about different things.” Kids have a different process: they mourn, they move on. If I died, I would want the same for my kids. So it’s just one aspect of the book, just one part of who Maude is.

VN: This story takes two polar opposites and shows they have commonalities and can even be friends. What do you hope kids will gain from Miranda and Maude’s growing friendship?

EW: One, I just hope they like the story. Then, if it can give them pause to consider that we really don’t know what’s going on in someone else’s head, in their house, that it’s about giving people the benefit of the doubt. I think that’s all we can do, as people. And if we can help kids in some way as they’re growing up — they’re going to be the leaders one day — then that’s essential.

VN: In a way, this book is covering new ground by introducing the concept of social justice in fictional format to kids at a time when our country is at one of its most divided points in history. Do you see yourself as a revolutionary?

EW: I definitely try to be civic minded. Like a lot of people, I’m upset by what I see. I do like the idea of a child who’s interested in social justice, but she’s also funny. She really came about as a foil for the princess, but they both become their own people. Not everything Maude fights for is worth fighting for. You don’t always have to have the biggest sign and chant the loudest to make a stand and make a point.

I’ve grown to see people as more nuanced. The world that they’re in is humorous — the message just emerged. I didn’t go in saying I was going to write a book about empathy. Kids have read enough message books. I want a good story! A story that the kids would like and the parents would like.

VN: What do you hope for today’s kids? Where do you hope to see them in 20 years?

EW: My goal for my kids is to make good choices, to be kind. You don’t need to be rich or famous, just try to be a good person. There’s a lot out there in the world that’s scary. That’s why I love reading and writing, when we have those moments of escape into a fictional world — as a family we really got in the Penderwick series and had that feeling of the whole family being absorbed, of making references to characters and events in the books. I love that experience of taking from these fictional worlds and bringing them into our own. It’s a richness that we haven’t experienced in the same way from, say, television.

VN: Do you think you’ve influenced some budding social activists?

EW: Not yet, but I’m waiting. My own daughters can definitely recognize sexism. It’s hard to stand up to injustice, but I think recognizing it is the first step.

Emma Wunsch is available for school visits and signings. Visit her at EmmaWunsch.com. The second book in theMiranda and Maudeseries,Banana Pants!, will be published in February. She has just completed the third volume, as yet untitled.

Kate Oden is a writer and translator who lives in Hanover.