This is not your school's summer reading list

Valerie O. Patterson

The world of children’s book authors is filled with generous and surprising people. Valerie O. Patterson is one of them. We met through the Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators (midAtlantic), where we are both members. Valerie is a quiet force, an intellect, and a careful and thoughtful writer. It was such a joy to lose myself in her novel, and I am especially proud that she was part of the Girls of Summer live launch on July 28. I had a chance to ask Valerie about mothers, daughters, and the real mystery between them.  ~MM

Color is essential to this story, and I know that you have an interest in pigments.  Please tell us a little bit about your choice of blue as the central symbol in this story.

To me blue in this novel encompasses the sea and the sky.  It represents horizons and what lies beyond. It is both hope and faith. It symbolizes calm and strength and yet it can also be the darkness before the light, sadness before a lifting up of the spirits.  While as a scientific matter, Goethe’s theories on color have been roundly criticized, his descriptions of the impact of light on color and on color and perception remain intriguing to me.  In writing The Other Side of Blue I kept being drawn back to color and its effect on us and how it could be used as a way of relating to characters.  Of course, the main character’s name is Cyan, a blue.

The Other Side of Blue received an Agatha Award for its merit as a mystery novel. Did you consciously want to write a fine mystery or did the recognition in this area come as a surprise?

In essence every novel is a mystery.  But I had not thought of the book as a mystery in the traditional Agatha Christie sense.  Cyan’s father’s death is a backdrop to the book and an event that compels much of the current action. Certainly it drives Cyan to push boundaries because she is convinced there is more to his death than she understands. She tries to uncover what really happened.  During the writing of this novel I worked in a writing group of mystery authors, so perhaps some of the mystery elements in the novel came to me subconsciously.

Cyan goes to great lengths to irritate her mother, raising unspoken suspicions about her father’s death. Some of her actions even border on cruel. What were the challenges of depicting their awful dance in this novel?

One of the difficulties was maintaining the voice.  Another was keeping taut the tension and making the dance, as you call it, between mother and daughter realistic.  I have never written a character with as much anger in her as Cyan, so for me that was a personal challenge.  I do believe, however, that people bound to each other in familial relationships can also be quite hard on each other in ways that they would never subject others to outside the family.

Kammi and Cyan represent such different kinds of strong girls. What can you tell me about the strengths of each?

Cyan’s strength is in her determination and perseverance.  She continues to dig into the mystery of her father’s death, even though it costs her emotionally. She sticks to her own artistic endeavors, despite her mother’s subtle and sometimes not-so-subtle criticism.

Kammi, whose color is pink, is strong in a different way.  She is brave to come to Curaçao and spend a month alone with her step-mother and step-sister to be.  When rebuffed by Cyan, she does not give up, either on Cyan or in trying to connect to her step-mother-to-be through art.  Unlike Cyan, Kammi is comfortable in her own skin, which is a type of strength.

Cyan’s encounter in the cave with Mayur is disturbing – definitely not the way we’d hope girls to have their early sexual experiences.  What are readers to find in Mayur as a character? Why was this scene so important to include as Cyan unravels the events surrounding her father’s drowning?

That scene came to me unbidden, and is unlike anything I have written before or sense. Yet when I looked back at the manuscript, I saw clues for it had been left along the way like breadcrumbs.  Clearly, the interaction between the two characters is not ideal; it does not comport to our aspirations of mutual respect and tenderness in our romantic relationships. Yet sexual relations do involve power between people. That’s what is at play in the scene. Power and submission.  Ultimately, I find Cyan is the one with the power, though it might look casually that Mayur is in charge.

To what extent did you draw on your experiences growing up in Florida for the setting and overall feel of this novel?

I drew from the Florida of my childhood for the feel of the heat and the sand, for the bright colors.  I researched information on Curaçao itself, and I kept the lens on the island through Cyan’s eyes as an outsider.  Her impressions are her own and almost certainly do not reflect the realty of life on Curaçao from someone who lives there.

Are there new projects in the works that you would let to tell us about?

I’ve been working on a novel about the unintended consequences—in this case tragic—of trying to do something positive for others.  In the face of those results, what then are we to do?  Maybe I am still wrestling with that fundamental question and so that is why the voice has been elusive to me.

What are some of your favorite books for young girls?

Several of my favorites that involve strong girl characters:

Rules of the Road by Joan Bauer; A Wrinkle in Time by Madeleine L’Engle; Graceling by Kristin Cashore; Make Lemonade by Virginia Euwer Wolff; Hattie Big Sky by Kirby Larsen

Finish this sentence for me:  Strong girls… forge their own paths.

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