Sunday, May 24, 2020

Jenny Chou has Five Questions for Michele Weber Hurwitz

From Jenny: Today on the Blog, I’m happy to welcome middle grade author Michele Weber Hurwitz, author of Hello from Renn Lake, a novel set right here in Wisconsin! Michele was one of a group of authors who visited Milwaukee-area schools virtually this spring when she chatted with a group from the Spanish Immersion School about creative writing, water ecology, and how kids can make a difference in their communities.

The main character in Hello from Renn Lake, twelve-year-old Annalise, lives with her family on a lake where they run the kind of lakeside cabins that families love to rent in the summer. My own family rented a cabin on Long Lake in Phelps, Wisconsin every August for a week of canoeing, sailing, and catching our own fish for dinner. One summer, Annalise’s beloved lake is closed due to a harmful algae bloom - an effect of climate change that can hurt plants, animals, and disrupt entire ecosystems. Kirkus Reviews called Hello from Renn Lake “An earnest and disarming tale of human and environmental caring,” while Publishers Weekly wrote that “Hurwitz’s book intersperses scientific facts about algae blooms and pollution with a story of activism and nature appreciation.”

Jenny Chou: Reading nonfiction about science can be fun and interesting, but I’ve always thought that novels can help us learn by providing an emotional connection to a character readers want to root for. In the case of Hello from Renn Lake, you have what I’d call a truly unique point-of-view character. Since I think you know who I mean, can you tell readers about this character and why you chose to write from this perspective?

Michele Weber Hurwitz: Thanks so much for having me on the blog! I took a leap of faith with this novel and chose to have a lake narrate the story along with Annalise. I loved how Ivan narrated his own story in The One and Only Ivan, although I wasn’t sure if an element of nature could do the same. But the idea took hold and wouldn’t let go, and at some point while I was writing, I realized that the only way to fully tell this story was to include the lake’s perspective.

I kept thinking about the phrase “body of water,” - that lakes, rivers, and oceans are living beings as much as plants and animals. Once I gave Renn Lake a voice, the story flowed (pun intended) from there. I had such a strong scene in my mind for the opening chapter - one moonless night, a baby girl was abandoned near the back garden of a store in a small Wisconsin town, and across the street, an ancient lake that had been part of people’s lives for eons, was the only witness. Because of that experience, the girl and the lake develop a unique, mystical bond, and when Annalise is three years old, she discovers she can sense what Renn is thinking and feeling. To her, it’s the most natural thing, and she’s surprised to learn that not everyone can “hear” a lake. But when the lake has the harmful algae bloom, the connection is gone. Renn’s descriptions of how it feels to be covered with the toxic algae bloom and not being able to breathe could not have been told by any other character.

JC: I think the idea of Renn Lake telling the story along with Annalise is brilliant. And speaking of Annalise, she’s not exactly having the summer she was looking forward to and expected. What sort of challenges does she have going on in her life, and how is she making the best of the sudden changes in her plans?

MWH: Annalise’s supportive parents celebrate “found day” every year - the day she was abandoned - and while their intent is to turn something bad into something positive, the yearly reminder is upsetting to both her and her little sister, Jess. In addition, the local shopkeeper who found Annalise and took care of her before she was adopted has recently died. Annalise is struggling with some unresolved issues - things she should have done and said - and now she doesn’t know how to fix them. And, the algae bloom causes a ripple effect of problems, from cancellations at her family’s lakeside cabins and ensuing financial worries, to a sense of loss and concern that the lake’s viability is in jeopardy. When the authorities decide they should wait to see if the bloom dissipates, Annalise gathers her friends and insists they must find a way to help. She doesn’t want to abandon Renn the way she was abandoned. Her friends Maya and Zach get involved, even as they’re dealing with issues of their own, and there are some big surprises at the end with who comes through for Annalise.

JC: What do you hope readers will take away from Hello From Renn Lake?

MWH: I hope readers will feel inspired to take action on the climate crisis, whether in their communities or on a larger scale. It makes me incredibly sad that our actions are tipping everything out of balance, and I have this weird sense that nature is reacting, almost lashing out in a way, with all the extreme weather events we’re seeing - fires and floods and hurricanes. But I take heart in what has happened during our shelter-in-place. Polluted air in several cities cleared up, and the emissions from China’s factories fell so dramatically, the change could be seen from space. In Hello from Renn Lake, the kids read about an innovative, nature-oriented solution for algae blooms, and then take a risk to implement it. I think kids possess an urgency and passion that adults sometimes lack, and there are some amazing things that happen in this story because of their determination and unwillingness to give up. I believe we will find creative ways to address our climate problems, and nature can help us find answers. This story has an uplifting, positive feel for the current challenging times we’re living in, highlighting the message that if we all work together, we can change things for the better.

JC: I always like to ask authors for some insights into the world of publishing. If you could give your naive and unpublished past self any advice on writing, revising, marketing or any other aspect of being a published author, what would it be?

MWH: One big thing is to trust my instincts, my internal voice, more than anything else. I think the old proverb “too many cooks spoil the broth” is so true. The writing world is filled with advice, much of it terrific and helpful, but when it comes down to it, the best advice is to write your story, your way, the way you envision it and feel it in your heart. I’ve found that when I listen too much to others’ opinions, it takes me out of my head and I begin to question myself. Another piece of advice would be to focus first on the writing and not the publishing. I submitted a couple of manuscripts way too soon (they were all rejected LOL), so I think I would have studied craft more early on. Third, revising is key. Get down that awful first draft, then make it beautiful. Just like molding a lump of clay into something of substance, you need that lump to work with first. And lastly, embrace the joy in writing. It’s something we writers tend to forget as we listen to advice, study craft, and slog through revisions. Always remember why you write in the first place - you have a gorgeous story to tell. 

JC: Let’s imagine you get to be an Indie bookseller for a day! Are there any new releases you’d suggest to middle grade readers?

MWH: The One and Only Bob, by Katherine Applegate, is next on my TBR list, because I loved Ivan so much. I’m also looking forward to reading Every Missing Piece by Melanie Conklin, The List of Things That Will Not Change by Rebecca Stead, and The Lonely Heart of Maybelle Lane by Kate O’Shaughnessy.

JC: Enjoy The List of Things That Will Not Change! I thought it was a terrific book on creating new families and all the questions and misunderstandings that go along with the joy. Thanks so much for answering my questions, Michele! For book suggestions and all of Michele Weber Hurwitz’s publishing news, follow her on Twitter at @MicheleWHurwitz and on Instagram at @micheleweberhurwitz. Visit her website at

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