Fantasy helps navigating reality in young-adult novel
BROOKLIN — Once upon a time, Brooklin writer Ellen Booraem had a conversation with then Union 93 Superintendent Keith Hall. He said his dream was to have a gifted and talented program for children who are good with their hands — for those students who can take an engine apart and put it right back together.
“That stuck with me and that’s Donna,” Booraem recalled. “She’s not that great academically, but she’s a whiz with her hands. I started building Donna and that conversation came back to me. It’s always stuck with me because I thought he was right.”
The conversation sprang to mind when she was creating the main character of Donna in “River Magic” (2021, Dial Books for Young Readers/An Imprint of Penguin Random House, $16.99). Her latest work of fantasy for children will be released April 27. She will officially launch “River Magic” at 6:30 p.m. Thursday, April 29, in a Zoom event co-sponsored by the Blue Hill Public Library and Blue Hill Books. She will be in conversation with fellow Maine author Deva Fagan, whose latest book is the middle-grade fantasy “Nightingale.” The event is free, but registration is required.
Booraem, a former reporter and former Arts & Leisure editor at The Ellsworth American, is a writing coach at the Brooklin School.
“I’ve been a writing coach there probably 15 years, maybe,” she said. “Over time, there have been kids who never wanted to be writers, but they needed to tell stories.”
“I also just wanted, as the ‘River Magic’ story evolved, to capture the skill and creativity and glory involved in being a craftsperson,” the young-adult novelist said.
Incidentally, Booraem is surrounded by craftsmen and women. Her town of Brooklin is unofficially known as the boat building capital of the world. Her partner, the painter Rob Shillady, cut a tiny door in the wall of their home by the cellar stairs for the cat so she could get to her litter box. “It has a canvas flap painted like a door,” she said.
“This book started with the idea of a kid being angry about her life,” Booraem said. “As it turns out, Donna was not particularly angry.”
However, like all characters in good works of fiction, the middle-schooler has her share of trials, peril and losses. Her beloved aunt has died. Her mother is working three jobs, but there’s still not enough money to pay the car insurance and cell phone bills. Therefore, Donna keeps getting left out of weekend activities because there’s no way for her friends to text her. She can’t keep up with her favorite show, “Witcherly,” because there’s no money for premium TV subscriptions.
In addition, she has taken over grocery shopping and cooking and many of her family’s household chores. Also, some weird kid named Hippie Hillyard keeps hanging around her.
But, that’s just the start. There’s much more drama in store for Donna as the novel progresses.
“River Magic” is Booraem’s fourth fantasy novel for middle grades.
“All my life if I daydreamed, I daydreamed in fantasy,” the author said. “I spent more time on the Starship Enterprise than you could imagine.”
“Usually, what I get interested in first is the supernatural character,” she said. “In the case of ‘River Magic,’ there were these two kids who wrote dragon stories. They were so wonderful.”
Part of the work in creating this book was researching dragon traditions. “I found this Hungarian tradition of a garybancias, which is a wizard who rides a river dragon and creates thunderstorms,” she said.
Booraem doesn’t think of herself as an artist per se.
“I really think of myself as a craftsperson,” she said. “I just really like to put sentences together and create characters. To some extent I really am an editor still. What I love is revision. Drafting is my least favorite part.”
Born in Washington, D.C., Booraem moved with her parents to Massachusetts. She grew up in Beverly Farms, Mass. She lived in Providence, R.I., after graduating from Wheaton College in Norton, Mass. She and Shillady moved to Brooklin in 1984.
Booraem, Fagan and middle-grade fantasy author Leah Cypess will discuss fantasy heroines in a Zoom panel discussion at 6:30 p.m. Tuesday, May 4, at 6:30 p.m. for a Zoom panel discussion hosted by Portland’s PRINT: A Bookstore.
Signed copies of “River Magic” can be ordered at bluehillbooks.com/ellen-booraems-river-magic. The first ten orders also will receive a signed copy of Booraem’s first book, “The Unnameables.” To learn more about Booraem and her books, visit ellenbooraem.com.