Today we welcome to The Winged Pen the author of one of my all-time favorite picture books, THE MAGIC NESTING DOLLS. Jacqueline Ogburn is the author of ten picture books and, in just a few short days, the world will be able to read her beautiful debut middle-grade novel, THE UNICORN IN THE BARN.
… the presence of the unicorn and other magical creatures adding just a touch of whimsy to a story about very real emotions. A sensitive, moving debut.-Kirkus reviews
Eleven-year-old Eric Harper lives on his family’s farm in Chinaberry Creek. Due to his grandmother’s illness, they’ve sold her home to a new veterinarian in town to help pay bills. The veterinarian takes care of the many wild and unusual animals that live in the area around the Harper’s land. One day, Eric spots a lame unicorn and the veterinarian invites him to work with her and her young daughter to treat the animals. As Eric learns there are magical creatures that live in their woods, he also discovers family secrets that will change his life forever.
THE UNICORN IN THE BARN is both deeply imaginative and real at the same time. It deals with family death in a tender way for young readers. It is a coming-of-age story fully of whimsy, appropriate for ages 9-12 and would make a great read-together book. Rebecca Green’s black-and-white illustrations beautifully compliment the simple and heartfelt prose.
Welcome to The Winged Pen, Jackie! Reading THE UNICORN IN THE BARN was like a walk down memory lane for me, hanging out on the farm and playing the mysterious woods near my home. Does the fictional Chinaberry Creek represent an actual place from your childhood?
JO: Yes, the setting is based on my grandparents’ farm in Cabarrus County, in-between Concord and Albemarle. I would spend at least week there every summer. When I was little, they still had cows, chickens, barn cats and for while goats, as well as several Chihuahuas that were house pets. Several of my cousins lived in houses and land that used to be part of the original farm. The house is a rambling two story and there are lots of smaller buildings clustered around it—the tractor shed, a couple of chicken houses, a potato house, corn crib, and of course, a barn. I moved things around a bit, as the barn was in a pasture down the hill, not next to the house. There are still a lot of woods around and a creek and a pond in the pasture. I named the nearby town Chinaberry Creek, because my mother loved Chinaberry trees.
It’s interesting how the story seems so simple and innocent, yet deep and moving. I think this may be related to your experience as a picture book writer. How was the process different for writing a middle-grade novel different from writing a picture book?
Novels have so much middle! A picture book I could figure out the structure and characters in my head, then write a draft that would be very close to that. I tried outlining this, but as I wrote, the number of scenes and chapters kept expanding. I knew the beginning and the end, but the rest of the novel, all the middle, kept growing, as I realized more things had to happen to get to the end. Novels also require a lot more description of the setting and action. Even though this book ended up with a lot of illustrations, I couldn’t count on the art expressing those things.
While I love fantasy, I wanted this story to be a contemporary fantasy, for it to be as realistic and matter-of-fact as possible. Moonpearl isn’t a rainbow sparkle unicorn, she needs someone to muck out her stall and pick the burrs out of her mane.
To achieve that, I did some interesting hands-on research. For six months, I was a volunteer at the Piedmont Wildlife Center, and did most of the same chores Eric did – sweeping, mopping, cleaning out cages, washing dishes, fixing food and water. That’s how I met Bobby Schopler, the vet who read the manuscript for me and now works at the Duke Lemur Center. I read dozens of books by vets and visited a couple of horse barns to make sure the physical details were well grounded.
I knew early on that if I was going to have a story about healing, that there also had to be loss. At one point, I called a writer friend nearly in tears because I realized that I had to include the death of an animal for the story to be properly grounded.
From the story, it’s obvious that you care deeply for animals. Can you tell us about your how your real-life experiences turned into this beautiful story that is partly a love letter to animals?
The book is a lot of wish fulfillment for me. I did love animals as a kid and read tons of books about them, especially horse stories. We only had one dog, Rusty, when I was growing up. He was a sweet red-brown Chihuahua. I also kept lots of caterpillars and grasshoppers in jars, and had goldfish and guppies. Fish are nice to watch, but not very cuddly. My mother had enough to do with raising five kids, and as a farm girl, she was less sentimental about animals. Her brother, my Uncle Jackie, adored them, and there is a lot of him in Eric.
Now I am a cat person. Our tuxedo cat, Java, likes to sit on my chest, just under my chin while I read in bed. I spent about a year in between cats while working on the book and it made me realize how much I like having a nonhuman companion. They deserve attention, affection and respect as much as people do.
What can you tell us about what you’re working on now?
I have a few chapters on a sequel, where Allegra is the main character. She’s more complicated and prickly than Eric. Timothy the Cheshire cat and Prissy the goose are still around, but there will be other magical creatures as well.
Lightning round (hands Jackie a cookie, for strength)!
If you had a superpower, what would it be? Flying
Wooden pencil or mechanical? Wooden
Coffee or tea? Hot coffee, but ice tea
Sweet or salty? Salty
Dog, cat, or other? Cat
Plotter or pantser? Both. Even when it’s tightly plotted, like a picture book, there are surprises and detours along the way.
Any advice for all those aspiring authors out there?
Read widely, not just in the genre that you love, but other things, including nonfiction. Curiosity is an important trait for a writer, to wonder “what if” and then to be driven to find out the things that could and would happen after that.
Excellent advice and thanks so much to Jackie for stopping by to talk with us! Want to see unicorns in the real world?. Follow Jacqueline Ogburn on Instagram, and you can also find out more about her here!
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MICHELLE LEONARD is a math and science nerd, a chocolate biscotti baker, and a SCBWI member who writes middle-grade and young adult fiction. Her young adult sci-fi short story IN A WHOLE NEW LIGHT will be published in the BRAVE NEW GIRLS ANTHOLOGY: STORIES OF GIRLS WHO SCIENCE AND SCHEME releasing August 2017. Connect with her on Twitter.