Rigel’s big heart made my own heart ache. A funny and poignant fish-out-of-water tale with all the right feels and an important reflection on how we can all find our way home.
—John David Anderson, author of Ms. Bixby’s Last Day
Rigel’s suspenseful journey toward finding a home for her brave and wild heart is one that will help us all discover the beauty and uniqueness of where we are.
—Francisco X. Stork, author of Marcelo in the Real World
Readers will want to travel alongside Rigel as she struggles to survive the halls of middle school as well as she did the Alaskan bush. 365 Days to Alaska is a wonderful debut novel about compassion, belonging, and finding your way home when you feel lost in the wilderness.
—Lynne Kelly, author of Song for a Whale
I thought it might be fun to run this interview on the 365th day of the year. Cathy, could you tell us about your book?
365 Days to Alaska is about an 11-year-old girl named Rigel Harman, who’s grown up in a remote, off-the-grid cabin in the Alaskan Bush. She loves living there, but her parents’ marriage has split up, and at the beginning of 365 Days, Rigel’s mom announces that she’s taking her daughters—Rigel and her two sisters—and moving back to Connecticut, where the mom grew up. Rigel’s sisters are excited about this, but Rigel wants no part of it. The only thing that makes the news bearable is a secret deal she’s cooked up with her dad—their agreement that he’ll bring her back to Alaska if she can stick it out in Connecticut for one year. A lot can happen to a middle-grade kid in a year, and Rigel’s beautifully simple plan doesn’t end up going the way she expected. Over the year, she learns a lot about change, acceptance, friendship, and discovering beauty where you can find it.
What inspired you to write this story?
The most direct inspiration was a magazine article I read years ago about a girl in Rigel’s position. The article was really about the girls’ parents, who had raised their daughters off the grid in the Canadian Bush. The parents’ marriage had split up, and the mom took her daughters and moved south to a large city in western Canada. Two of the girls had made a good adjustment to city life, but one of them hadn’t. She missed the wilderness, and she missed her old life. But there wasn’t any going back to it. I couldn’t stop thinking about that girl. In some ways, kids have so little control over their own lives. It’s one of the hardest things about growing up, and I think it’s a great subject for middle-grade fiction. That girl who missed her old life was the one who inspired Rigel Harman.
Could you share with readers how you conducted your research or share a few interesting tidbits you learned while researching?
Research is like an iceberg. You know you’ve done enough of it when only 10% of it is visible to your readers. I read a lot about modern Alaskan life in the Interior, both fiction and non-fiction. I even subscribed to the Anchorage Daily News. And I had to learn a lot about crows and ravens, because the behavior of Rigel’s crow friend, Blueberry, had to be right.
One thing that surprised me was just how intelligent corvids are. I knew crows were smart, playful, and social. But did you know that they can learn how to use a vending machine? Or that they’ll turn a jar lid into an improvised sled so they can go sledding down rooftops? They also like to play fetch and they’ll bring gifts to people who feed them regularly. I really enjoyed learning more about them while researching this book.
What are some special challenges associated with introducing a setting or lifestyle your audience might be unfamiliar with?
This is going to sound like Writing Advice 101, but the details have to be right. They’d better be correct (that’s where the research comes in), and you’d better choose them carefully. Good details can really make your work come to life.
Since Rigel moves from Alaska to Connecticut, you don’t see much of Alaska in 365 Days to Alaska (despite the title). But much of the book portrays average suburban life from Rigel’s point of view, and I think readers can learn quite a bit about off-the-grid life just from seeing her reaction to the new things around her. (One of the reviews called this aspect “an informative peek into different lifestyles.”) For example, to Rigel her grandmother’s comfy suburban house is almost freakishly luxurious. Why does it have so many bathrooms? Why does Grandma need two sets of dishes? And, when it comes to school, what’s the deal with chicken nuggets? Rigel thinks they’re disgusting. And why are some of the kids making a big deal about her wearing the same shirt two days in a row? If they ever had had to do laundry using a wringer washer, they might wear a shirt more than once too.
You need to have good accurate details, you need imagination, and you need some sharp observation of human behavior. David Sedaris said something once that I love: “If you write about people, you have to be interested in people.”
What topics does your book touch upon that would make it a perfect fit for the classroom?
Family relationships, divorce, friendship, change, and personal challenge are big topics. It’s also a book about nature, our place in nature, and our relationship with it. There are teaching and student discussion guides available on my website at https://www.cathycarrwrites.com/docs/365-Days-to-Alaska-Educators-Guide.pdf and https://www.cathycarrwrites.com/docs/365-Days-to-Alaska-Student-Guide.pdf.