Mary Casanova and I bonded over weddings and second hand shops when we first met in Warrensburg, Missouri, several years back. I doubt that Mary has ever met a stranger: we became fast friends in an instant. She is warm, and kind, has an infection laugh and a grand gift for writing. One of my favorite WWII historical novels is her The Klipfish Code. She is a talented novelist and picture book writer but she is also well known for writing Girl of the Year books for American Girl. I asked if she’d shared about that experience and, good egg that she is, she said yes.
This is my season of Grace. I’m in the middle of a 16-city tour for the 2015 “Girl of the Year” doll, GRACE, my three books, and the new movie. At American Girl stores, coast to coast, I’ll meet enthusiastic fans and based on earlier books (and dolls), I expect I’ll hear these three most commonly asked questions:
How did you get started writing for American Girl?
Though I write a wide range of books for other publishers, I’d never planned on writing for American Girl. They first approached me years ago via a phone call. They were looking for someone to write a book for a series called “Girls of Many Lands” and needed someone to write a story set in the l700s in France. (I’d written a gritty novel set in 1500s Provence called Curse of Winter Moon.) I wrote CECILE: Gates of Gold, followed by eight more books and four “Girl of the Year” characters: JESS, CHRISSA, McKENNA and now GRACE.
Does American Girl tell you what to write?
From the start, I’ve never been interested in writing from someone else’s outline. As the author, I want to discover a story! But the initial concepts come from within American Girl. When that phone call comes, I’m given a few, small bits of information for my writing journey. For example, for Grace’s three books, they might include: a girl who loves baking / a trip to Paris / a return home with the desire to start a French baking business.
That’s it. From there, I start finding ways to make the developing story my own. Research is my first step. In this case, I went to Paris for a week with my adult daughter, Kate, and we made it our work to explore Paris by bike, sample its delicious pastries and treats, and take a baking class at the home of a French chef. While there, I imagined experiencing Paris through the eyes of a 9 year old girl whose aunt is having a baby, whose uncle owns a patisserie, who comes across a stray dog at the Luxembourg Garden.
Which comes first, the story or the doll?
The story comes first. As I research and write, my character begins to live and breathe. Her story—her family, her dreams, her struggles—become mine. I must live and breathe this character. I must care deeply about her if I hope readers to care.
I don’t choose the doll’s hair or eye or skin color. Though I have input on her name, I don’t have the final say. That’s fine with me. I’m most concerned with who she is on the inside and how she navigates in the world.
As my character’s stories develop, I recognize that products will be created hand-in-hand with the story. When I wrote the black and white stray dog into GRACE, the first book, I knew product development would have fun turning it into a small plush toy dog. When, on the other hand, product development asked if I might weave a charm bracelet into the story, I found their request easy. Grace’s mom gives her a charm bracelet eon their plane flight to Paris, and Grace fills the bracelet up while she visits the Eiffel Tower, and receives goodbye gifts, etc. If the request is one that feel natural to the story, I’m happy to work it into the books. But as an author, the story always comes first.
Mary Casanova is the author of 33 books, including three books for American Girl’s 2015 “Girl of the Year,” Grace (Grace, Grace Stirs it Up, Grace Makes it Great) all of which inspired the movie, Grace Stirs Up Success from Universal. Visit her at www.marycasanova.com or facebook.com/mary.casanova.fan.page.