Seattle kids’ author Mark Holtzen interviewed Seattle kids’ author Kim Baker about her upcoming middle grade novel, The Water Bears.
Where did the idea for The Water Bears come from? What was the original grain of sand that led to this pearl? (If you have better ideas for jokes or puns in questions, I’m all ears.)
I needed to have 50 pages of a new manuscript finished for a writing retreat. I’d been thinking about kids starting a rock band with a found guitar that somehow brings good luck. I wanted to call it Power Chord. I’m not a musician myself, so it wasn’t really a sustainable idea, but it worked for the retreat. What I think I’m writing is never what I’m actually writing, and I need to trust the process. I kept working on it, and the story morphed into something really different about bears, community, and finding wonder in the world around us.
Yes. Earlier drafts were too dark and I had a hard time balancing a kid recovering from trauma with a story that’s also light and entertaining. Newt is attacked about a year before the story even starts, so the inciting incident happens off the page. I really tried to balance the story so that it never felt too heavy for the reader. It’s hard to gauge when you’re immersed in the writing process, but beta readers and my editor helped me to find the balance.
I love how Newt’s “transportation” lands in his lap. He’s a thirteen-year-old driver before we know it. How did you come to that idea? As a child driver, did you make any of your childhood friends’ eyes go “buggy” and “skin look pale?
Ha, well, when I was thirteen we were very poor and I needed to work to help sustain the family. My mom went to college during the day and worked nights tending bar. I got a job waiting tables at a local Italian restaurant. Our town was kind of rough, so she decided it was safer if I drove our old VW van to work instead of walking. That kind of thing was semi-normal there because everyone was just doing what they could to get by. But unlike Newt, I wasn’t allowed to have passengers. I’ve always been charmed by food trucks, so I thought it would be a fun extra challenge for a nervous new driver.
Some of my favorite scenes are between Newt and Izzy and Newt and his little sister, Leti. Did you draw on any personal experience between boy and girl relationships?I love Newt and Izzy’s dynamic so much. Their friendship starts out cautiously and morphs into a solid bond, despite the differences. Growing up, a lot of my best friends were boys so it seemed like a natural fit.
You have some hilarious references to islanders not being “normal.” At one point, Newt finds comfort in the words, “I can’t explain my family.” Can you talk about why Newt finds that shared thought comforting?
I think one of our most universal experiences is feeling like oddballs. That’s the funniest, loneliest thing about humans. I’m bicultural, and a common feeling with that is that you always feel a little like you’re on the outside looking in— never really wholly part of a group. But that’s true of everybody at one time or another. You can change the variables, but most of us feel distant from the norm in some way. It’s such a big part of growing up to figure out when you’re going to lean into that or not.
The tone in this book is quite different from your first book, Pickle. How does it feel to put something like this into the world?
A writer friend with a successful career writing adventure stories was having a hard time placing a great historical novel with a publisher because it wasn’t what people expected from her. I want to have a lot of flexibility in my career and I want to keep challenging myself. I made an intentional choice to write something different this time. It was daunting, and I worried that people might feel disappointed that The Water Bears isn’t more similar to Pickle, so I’m relieved that people have been connecting with it.
Newt has an interaction with a man named Musky about talking about and sharing our personal struggles. That it’s important to talk about your hurt. Was that an important theme in this book from the start?
Absolutely, it wouldn’t be right to write about a kid dealing with hardship without dropping some coping tools into the story. Most kids don’t have to deal with surviving a bear attack, but all kids need to learn how to deal with hardship and pain. Talking through things and sharing stories with others is one of the best ways I know.
Various bears enter the story, each to various effects. Were they all planned from the start or were some happy accidents?
I don’t remember which came first now, but Newt is recovering from a bear attack and later they find a bear statue. It felt right, but I worried it might be too on the nose. I can be stubborn and so I leaned in to test if I could make it work before changing course. I’d been brainstorming a story about tardigrades before it clicked that I was already writing their story. Kids learn to adapt in a strange world and there was a parallel.
Adding a goat to a scene is an unfair advantage. Do you own goats? Wish you had goats? And how do you choose to name your goats—real or imaginary?
I wish I had goats! Some kinds are legal to keep within Seattle city limits and I am very tempted. My husband is not. In my heart I know we have enough animals cohabitating with us, but I can dream. I researched goats and got to use my magic writer credentials to go to a goat rescue and learn about keeping goats. I got to visit during the spring while there were lots of babies. They’re like magical puppies with hooves. I love them. I would probably name them after the Gomez goats, if I ever got some in real life. We did have chickens a few years ago and my favorite was named Margie, so I named Newt’s favorite goat in her honor.
I tell kids at school visits that one of the absolute coolest things about being a writer is that you can research anything you’re interested in and people will usually try to help. It’s amazing.
“Just remember—nobody’s okay, and we’re all okay.”
I love that line. It’s not a question. I just wanted to say that.
Thank you. 🙂 Me, too.
Anything you wish you would have seen in a book when you were a kid?
I wanted to see more experiences that reflected my own. Latinx and bicultural families, divorced parents, working class settings. There wasn’t a lot of that in middle grade in the 1980s. I read anything I could get, and I especially remember the rare book that felt familiar. It wasn’t something I thought about a lot as a kid, just a longing. Now when I see books like that it hits me in the heart and I realize how much I missed. I’m so happy for today’s readers to see themselves reflected more in our (growing) diverse shelves.
I found my younger, introverted self relating to Newt as he searched for connections, validation, and squirmed through change. Anything you hope kids might take from his story? Anything you got from writing it?
Just that feeling that we’re never alone and we can make it through some awful things. The world can be scary right now, and kids look to books for escape. All three of the kids have to navigate their own unique struggles, but they adapt and rise. And it helps to remind ourselves that the world really is full of wonder and magic, down to the mud puddles.
Wishing on a magical bear seems like a risky thing to base an entire book. How many times did you doubt that you could pull it off?
Every. Day. I’m not a confident writer. And a wish granting bear might not even be the weirdest thing in this story. It’s not my story, but it’s really personal to me. It hasn’t always been easy to write in the last few years, so I filled it with things that I love about the world that haven’t changed much since I was a kid. My big wild family, looking for treasure, making something new out of something old, and always, always, the possibility for magic.
I’ve been holding my breath for months, wondering if the story was too weird, if I did it justice, if people will love Newt as much as I do. It’s been such a relief to hear from early readers that are connecting with these kids, and for it to be receiving such positive reviews. I doubted myself constantly, but I’m excited for The Water Bears to be out in the world.
I’m working on how to launch a new book when the stores, libraries, and schools are all closed. I’m not sure how it’s going to go. We’ll see, I guess. It’s not ideal, but others have greater struggles. Writing-wise, I’m drafting another middle grade novel with some more maybe-magic and working on something else new and different again. So far, each of my books has started with entirely different plots, themes, etc. and have required a lot of discovery writing to find the real story. These things will probably have morphed into something completely different by the time I’m done, but we’ll see.
Coffee or tea?
With all the recent stress, my body can’t handle a lot of coffee anymore so I’ve slowly been morphing into a tea drinker. I still love the occasional latte though. Love.
Hardcover, paperback, or audiobook?
My book budget would go farther if I said paperback, but it’s hardcover. I’m impatient and I like the longevity for keeping or donating.
Horchata or agua fresca?
Agua fresca, preferably jamaica/hibiscus.
Feed or be fed?
Favorite place to write?
With friends, or in my tiny, quiet office.
Bears or goats?
I love both, don’t make me choose.
Island or mainland?
Both. I can’t give up the city but spend as much time on islands as I can.
The Water Bears will be available Tuesday, April 21, 2020. You can preorder with your local bookstore now, and you can see what Kim Baker is doing for her launch at www.kimbakerbooks.com. Spend time with her on social media, too: Twitter and Instagram.