Melissa Savage is a writer and a child and family therapist. Her desire to write purposeful, issue-driven books for young people, coupled with her interest in cryptozoology and the mystery of Bigfoot, inspired her to write Lemons. The following is a complete transcript of her interview with Cracking the Cover.
Why do you write?
I first knew I wanted to be a writer in the second grade. I had an amazing teacher, Miss Mahle, who introduced writing into our classroom. We wrote and illustrated our own stories and then they were put into book form with ironed on fabric covers. After my real debut book, The Lost Pony, was created I was hooked. Throughout elementary school I wrote stories for all my friends. I continued writing throughout my teen years and into my adult life. Although I didn’t know if I’d ever be fortunate enough to have one of my stories published, I continued to write and learn as much as I could about the writing process in my spare time. And in 2008, I started my Master’s Program in Writing for Children and Young Adults at Hamline University.
Why specifically for young readers?
I love working with kids. They have a quiet wisdom about them. They have an honest understanding of the world and a resilience that is so wonderful. Sometimes as adults we can lose that somewhere along the way. I learn from them every day. Working with children and writing for children reminds me how to stay focused on hope and resilience and that pure joy for the little things in life.
Where did Lem come from?
I knew I wanted to write about a little girl named Lemonade who would battle adversity and come across a life’s lemon that she would struggle with. The grief came from my own loss after losing our son in 2012 at nine months of age, as well as all the other children and families I have met along my journey of healing who have also struggled with a devastating loss of their own. So many people have a story of loss that affects them very deeply, yet we often feel isolated in our grief because people don’t want to talk about it or hear about it. I wanted to write a story about embracing the gifts we’ve been given despite a loss and how sharing beautiful memories together, rather than hiding from the memories, can be very healing.
I wanted to write a story about the adversity of loss and how healing can come in the form of the kindness and love and willingness to stand by another in their grief. Because it is with the support from others that can make a real difference in someone’s life when a difficult loss has occurred.
Although many people attempt to move past grief by shutting off from the memories of the past, we know today that for real healing we need to find a way to have a new kind of relationship with the person we’ve lost. Sharing memories and planning rituals is one way to celebrate our special people. Every year my husband and I take a trip over our son’s birthday, to somewhere very special that we would have wanted to share with him. On that day, we leave an angel coin for him in a place that has meaning for us. Of course, there are still tears, but these types of rituals help us to look forward to his birthday to be able to celebrate him instead of focusing on the sadness of our loss. I wanted to share this sentiment in the story to encourage others to find a way to share your memories or listen to someone else’s. And when someone feels comfortable enough to share their loss with you and you don’t know what to say, try asking them the name of their special person. It’s the best question I’ve ever been asked. And my answer, his name is Tobin.
Lem isn’t the only one with a story that needs to be told. How did Tobin and Charlie’s characters develop?
Of course Tobin is a very special character for me in the book because he was named after my son. And just like Lemonade wanting her mother to remain a part of this world, I want my son to remain a part of this world too. The character Tobin is what I imagined the real-life Tobin to grow up to be. Stoic and brave, as he was, but also scientific like his Dad and as big a fan of Bigfoot and cryptozoology as his Mommy! Losing someone you love is an extremely tough lemon, as Lem experiences in the story, and she struggles to find how to make lemonade again. For me, sharing my son’s name and spirit with children all over the world is one of the ways I’ve learned to make my own lemonade.
For Charlie and also Mrs. Dickerson, I wanted to include those wonderful adults that so many of us either had growing up or wish we had. Those patient and wise caregivers who support, nurture and love you through all your lemons. I also believe adding characters of all ages and level of life experience can add richness to a story.
I love science and history! I am fascinated when scientists discover unknown facts about our planet and beyond, including species of animals that were either thought to be extinct or they didn’t know existed. That makes the mystery of Bigfoot even more intriguing and fun. I wanted to share that with kids set in the very place where Roger Patterson and Bob Gimlin claimed to have filmed a real Bigfoot in 1967. I think the concept of grief can be a tough one, especially for children, and to provide a backdrop of adventure and fun is a nice balance when reading about difficult subject matter.
Why did you choose to set Lemons in the past rather than today?
I chose to set the story in 1975 to remove all the technology from the Bigfoot search. As wonderful as technology is, and as helpful as it is for all of us, including myself, I think it keeps us tied to screens more than we should be. I wanted this to be a fun mystery and intriguing adventure set outside in the very place where the Patterson-Gimlin film was originally created back in 1967.
Why do you think young readers will be attracted to Lemons?
Lemons is a fun adventure searching for the elusive Bigfoot, however it is also a story about friendship, acceptance, kindness and most of all hope. The life journey that Lemonade Liberty Witt must endure is not unlike a journey others may face, it’s full of hardship and sweetness, struggles and friendship, lemons and love. Lemonade learns in the end that the best way to endure her own lemons is to find gratitude in adversity and embrace new changes with optimism and courage while recognizing the gifts given despite the sadness loss can bring.
I hope that readers will find hope first and foremost in this story. There is hope and healing in the world even after dealing with tough lemons if you choose it and surround yourself with gratitude and people who love you. Also, I hope readers take away a renewed acceptance of those who are different than themselves. And of course, a newfound interest in cryptozoology!
You are a child and family therapist. How has this influenced your writing?
I’ve worked as a child and family therapist for many years and my writing has always focused on issues many children grapple with. Most recently I’ve worked with children and families who have struggled with the loss of a loved one. Although these subjects are heavy, there is always hope in healing from adversity and more than anything, I want to portray that in every story I create. When a child comes to me and tells me he/she has gone through the same thing or that they know someone who did, I know they are telling me because this aspect of the book resonated with them. And more than anything I’d like kids to know they are not alone in whatever they may be going through.
What are you working on now?
My next book is also a middle grade novel about two ten-year-old boys, Mylo and Dibs, who come upon the 1947 UFO crash site in Roswell, New Mexico. In 1947, the military announced to the world that they had recovered a real flying saucer and by the next day they had retracted the story, stating it was just a weather balloon. To this day, so many years later, many people still believe it was more than a weather balloon and witnesses still swear by what they believe they saw so many years earlier. Some even reporting to have seen the creatures themselves. Another interesting adventure! I thought it would be fun to write a story about kids finding the wreckage in the field, and even more importantly a story about who they find amongst that wreckage!
Is there a book from your own childhood that still resonates with you today?
I was introduced to reading at a very early age. I remember on long trips to South Dakota to visit family, my mom would have books on cassette tapes for my brother and me. We loved to be able to listen to great stories on the road. Two of our favorites on these trips were The Cricket in Times Square by George Selden and Phillip Hall Likes Me I Reckon Maybe by Bette Greene, both wonderful Newberry winners. Because these were such favorites growing up, I shared them in my own novel, Lemons, as two of Lemonade’s favorites as well.