Author Spotlight: Caroline McAlister

Please joing me in congratulating Caroline on her newest release John Ronald’s Dragons: The Story of J. R. R. Tolkien!

Caroline is a children’s book author. To date she has published three picture books, Holy Mole!, Brave Donatella and the Jasmine Thief, and John Ronald’s Dragons: The Story of J. R. R. Tolkien. She lives in Greensboro, North Carolina with her husband, Clint Corcoran, her two daughters, Abby and Allie, and a disgusting dog named Buddy.  For the last 18 years, she has taught at Guilford College. Visit her website at .

  1. What lead you to become a children’s book author?

It wasn’t just one thing. I grew up in a very bookish household. We didn’t have a television. We read books aloud together up through high school. I have very vivid memories of my father, an English professor, sitting in his rocking chair and reading us The Hobbit. I went to graduate school and wrote a dissertation about John Milton, but only landed unfulfilling part time teaching positions. Then, reading to my own daughters reminded me why I loved books. I couldn’t get over how beautiful the illustrations of children’s books were. I also enjoyed the rhythms of what I was reading aloud. I decided to try my hand at writing one myself. My first attempts were embarrassing, but I kept at it.

  1. Your delightful book Holy Molé was inspired by an exhibit of Mexican folk art at the Crocker Art Museum in Sacramento, California. Can you tell us about your process of putting such a fun spin on the legend of how the dish molé came to be?

I grew up in Sacramento, and was visiting my folks with my daughters. We went to an exhibit of Mexican folk art. A really nice docent took the kids aside and showed them a ceramic candelabrum, or tree of life, entitled Homage to Mole by Alfonso Castillo Orta. On the candelabrum were little figures holding platters of chiles and chocolate and other foods. The docent told us the legend that the candelabrum illustrated. I figured that if the story could be told visually in this beautiful ceramic piece, it would also make a beautiful picture book. I came back to North Carolina and started researching molé. That fall I took a class on writing for children from Ruth Moose at Chapel Hill’s community extension program. Ruth taught us to include the child’s point of view. In the original legend, there is no child who makes the priest trip and drop the spices; the priest just does it on his own. I loved to cook with my girls when they were little so I know what happens when kids are around in the kitchen. When I thought up the ending, with the boy hiding in the rafters, I knew I had a really satisfactory final twist.

  1. What was your inspiration for Brave Donatella and the Jasmine Thief?

When I started writing for children I worked with folktales and legends. I was looking for a legend about a flower, because I thought a flower legend would lend itself to illustrations. We had a large jasmine vine growing in our yard in Sacramento, and I have very strong memories of the smell. I had also been to Florence when I was twelve years old and my father was on sabbatical. I remembered being enchanted by the city. My memories combined with my research on Duke Cosimo de Medici. He was a very fun villain to bring to life.

  1. What is your educational background? Do you find it advantageous to pursue degrees in the field you wish to make your career?

As a kid, I loved learning foreign languages. I studied French and Spanish as well as English in college. I received a doctorate in Renaissance literature, and I have taught writing and literature, sometimes full time and sometimes part time, first at Salem College and then at Guilford College. Overall, my career track in academia has been hugely frustrating. A few years ago I decided to dedicate myself more fully to the writing part of my career and made a commitment to return to school and get my MFA in writing for children. I wanted to learn how to write a middle grade novel as well as picture books. I am glad I have made the leap, even if it has been difficult financially. I love being immersed in the children’s literature world at Hollins University during the summer. I have met wonderful professionals in the field. I have benefitted from the structure of classes, and from the excellent faculty.

  1. Congratulations on your newest publication John Ronald’s Dragons: The Story of J. R. R. Tolkien! The cover is stunning. Tell us about your inspiration for the book, and the process of writing it.

Guilford was starting an experiential Jan term program and an Oxford representative came through and suggested that Guilford offer a course on the Inklings, Tolkien and Lewis. The dean asked if I would be interested in teaching it. I didn’t know very much about these authors, but I said yes because I wanted to go to Oxford. I threw myself into researching their lives and works to get ready for the course. In 1938 Tolkien wrote an essay entitled “On Fairy-Stories.” This essay is his attempt to defend his hobby to all the snobbish academics. He was a professor of Anglo-Saxon at Oxford and was supposed to be doing serious philological research, but he kept getting side-tracked by his love of fantasy. The essay is rather dense and difficult, but also enchanting. The passage that grabbed me was when he talked about his childhood love of dragons. He writes quite passionately:

I desired dragons with a profound desire. Of course, I in my timid body did not wish to have them in the neighborhood, intruding into my relatively safe world, in which it was, for instance, possible to read stories in peace of mind, free from fear. But the world that contained even the imagination of Fafnir was richer and more beautiful, at whatever cost of peril.

I realized there were no picture book biographies of Tolkien and I decided to make one focused on this desire for dragons that began in his early childhood. Tolkien did not lead an exciting daily life, but his internal, imaginative life was thrilling. I wanted to capture the development of his imagination from his earliest childhood and ignite the imagination of the child reader.

  1. I can imagine it took a great deal of research to piece this story together. What were your main focuses of research? Did you find the information easily, or did you spend many hours digging for just the right data?

This was one of those lucky times when my teaching and my writing came together. The research I did for teaching the class was also the research for the book. Of course, going to Oxford was also part of the research, and I don’t think the book would have the depth or texture without my actually having spent some time there.

  1. Do you hope to continue writing picture books like this where you provide insight into other authors’ works/lives?

The same editor at Roaring Brook who acquired John Ronald’s Dragons, Katherine Jacobs, has also acquired my book about C. S. Lewis and his brother. Jack and Warnie’s Wardrobe should be out in 2019 or 2020.  I have a couple of other non-fiction picture books I am shopping around. I would also like to write and publish a middle grade historical fiction set in the Elizabethan era. I teach a course on Shakespeare so I know a lot of weird things about the time period. I have started to write two different books, one about a girl and one about a boy, both half finished. This is why I went back to school.

  1. In your blog, you mention the anticipation of sending the book off to be illustrated. What do you find are the pros and cons of an author not being able to work directly with their illustrator?

When you’re starting out and aren’t very well known and are working with small publishers, they may not want to spend a lot on an illustrator.  Some of my friends in my critique group have been really disappointed when illustrations have come back that don’t honor the story they have told. This is the downside.

I just feel extremely fortunate to have been paired with Eliza Wheeler, who not only paid attention to what I wrote, but invested a big chunk of time and money to go over to England and do actual visual research for her drawings. She has a blog post on the picture book builders site about the research she did.

I am always trying to create opportunities for illustration when I write. When I wrote John Ronald’s Dragons, I created a refrain that begins with “but only.” In my head I had imagined that this refrain would be a page turn each time, but I did not include any illustration notes suggesting this. Eliza did not make the refrains into page turns because the page turn would have just revealed a disappointing scene with no dragons—not much fun visually. What she has done instead, drawing wisps of dragons into every scene is just so rich and evocative. And I would never have thought of it because I am not a professional artist. An artist may not follow your lead or do what you expect, but that can be a good thing.

When I attend SCBWI meetings I always try to go to the art director lectures. The first time I did, I was blown away by all of the thought and planning that went into the production of a book. Who knew it was so complicated? This taught me a lot of humility and to leave the production and illustration up to the pros. It takes a leap of faith, but it is also just a really exciting multi-media collaborative creation when it works out.

  1. What advice do you have for hopeful authors and illustrators trying to publish and make a name for themselves?

I get a lot of inspiration and support from my family—my sister, my parents, my kids, my husband; his parents, brother, and extended family. Stay close to your family and their stories.

Love the process and keep learning and growing in your craft. Take classes. Go back to school. Attend SCBWI Conferences. Join a critique group. Don’t get all hung up on getting published. Of course, this is much more easily said than done. We all have egos. We all want to make some money. But you’ve got to love the books and the pictures. You’ve got to love the writing. And you’ve got to grow a thick skin and be dogged and persistent.

  1. Tell us something fun about yourself!

Gosh! I don’t know.

I’m a terrible housekeeper. I’m a nervous driver. I stop for yard sales and thrift shops.

I had kids so that I could do crafts with them. I saved toilet paper rolls and bottle lids and candy wrappers to make Christmas ornaments and collages that I got much more excited about than my daughters did. They still tease me about it.

As a child, besides wanting to be a writer, I wanted to be a professional tennis player. I played on my college team and worked at tennis camps in the summers. I have gotten to play tennis with some famous people, Merv Griffin and Joe Biden when he was a senator. I still play two or three times a week.

I am a member of the Society of Friends and attend Quaker meeting regularly. Some of my best ideas for books come to me out of the silence.

What are your thoughts?