I recently reviewed Here Where the Sunbeams are Green, novelist Helen Phillip's first book for middle grade readers. Phillips' book is a stand-out on the shelves, both for the fantastic, complex relationship between the main character and her younger sister as well as the uncommon setting of a jungle in Central America. I was lucky enough to as Phillips some questions about how she came to write this wonderful book.
Helen, I have to start by telling you how impressed I am with your debut novel. It is so richly detailed and well written, from the characters to the setting to the plot. I read on your website that Here Where the Sunbeams are Green took eight drafts and four years to write and that the Lava-Throated Volcano trogon was originally an earthworm. Can you tell me a few other things about how the book changed over the various drafts?
Thank you—I’m honored to hear that you enjoyed the book! Yes, it was quite a voyage to arrive at the final draft of Here Where the Sunbeams Are Green. The ending in particular changed quite dramatically along the way. Originally, Mad was with her family and her friend Kyle during the final climactic scene at the La Lava gala. But then I realized how critical it was to Mad’s journey as a character that she be on her own in that scene. For the first time, she has to be brave all by herself, without the help of her younger sister Roo or anyone else. Another major change was the addition of Kyle’s grandparents. Now I think that Señora and Señor V are at the heart of the book, but in the first draft, they didn’t even exist.
I think you made the right choice with that change - the climatic scene with Mad on her own (no spoilers!) is one of my favorites. What developed first? The characters or the plot?
Definitely the characters. Mad’s voice came to me loud and clear right from the start, and the dynamic of her relationship with Roo remained consistent throughout all the drafts (perhaps because it’s based on my relationship with my own younger sister!).
That makes sense since their relationship feels like the backbone of the book and is an aspect of the plot that stands out when compared to other books. Which was harder for you to write, the characters or the plot?
Definitely the plot. It was a challenge for me to build a plot rich with mystery, since it wasn’t something I’d ever tried to do in my writing for an adult audience. Thankfully the characters were so vivid and real in my mind that they helped lead me toward the plot.
One aspect of your book that I especially love is the way you flirt with magic in Here Where the Sunbeams are Green. Can you talk about that a bit - did you want more magical things in the book? How did you get your ideas for these magical things? I have to tell you, my one of my favorite parts of the book is when Roo wakes up with flowers on her toes!
My goal with the magical elements of Here Where the Sunbeams Are Green was to have them walk the line between possible and impossible. I think it’s more interesting if there are lingering questions hanging over the book--is this jungle actually magical, or does it just seem that way? Are the myths of the volcano true, or are they merely myths? Are there flowers that can turn into umbrellas and grow on toes, are there mushrooms that can glow when you blow on them? It’s all just believable enough. I had a lot of fun coming up with these quasi-magical elements. As someone who grew up in the arid foothills of Colorado, the rain forest environment already seems fairly miraculous to me, so I just took it one step further.
What was it like writing about Madeline and her romantic feelings about Kyle? I think you balanced her age and her emotions very well, which is a very fine line to walk. I also felt like you had a direct line to tween/teens when you were writing about Mad and her feelings about Ken/Neth and the behavior of her parents.
I still remember so vividly the timid yet intense feeling of those early crushes, when you’re too shy to even label them as crushes. I really wanted to show that Mad is drawn to Kyle because she genuinely admires him as a person. It’s not just a superficial attraction—she’s intrigued by his intellect and his boldness and his passion for the jungle. Because Mad’s voice and character came through to me so strongly right from the start, the development of the crush on Kyle felt quite natural, as did the development of her mixed feelings about Ken/Neth and her mother.
What were some of your favorite books as a kid?
A Wrinkle in Time by Madeline L’Engle. All the Little House on the Prairie books by Laura Ingalls Wilder. On Fortune’s Wheel and Homecoming by Cynthia Voigt. Five Children and It by Edith Nesbit. Anything by J.R.R. Tolkein, Lloyd Alexander, C.S. Lewis. The list goes on and on, but I’ll stop there.
What kid's books have you read and found to be really amazing as an adult?
The Hunger Games is a fascinating portrait of a post-apocalyptic society with implications for our own world.
Did you read any middle grade novels to help you while you were writing your book?
It was helpful to read Rebecca Stead’s marvelous book When You Reach Me, which incorporates magical elements in an otherwise realistic narrative. I also admire that book because it’s not written down to children in any way. It’s a very smart book and respects its readers’ intelligence.
Congratulations on becoming a mom this year! Do you have any favorite books you like to read to your daughter?
Thank you! Motherhood is proving to be a more wonderful adventure than I ever could have imagined. One of the great pleasures of being a parent, and something I’ve always looked forward to, is revisiting my old beloved books with my child. Already my husband and I have introduced our five-month-old daughter Ruth to some of our classic favorites, including Where the Wild Things Are, In the Night Kitchen, Goodnight Moon, The Runaway Bunny, Make Way for Ducklings, and The Snowy Day, among others. She likes to stare at the pages, and then chew on them. I’m pleased to see that she’s already hungry for literature.
I'm sure you are very busy being a mom, but can you tell us anything about what you might write (or are already writing) next?
I’m working on a collection of short fiction for adults that will include monsters, aliens, and magic. I have the idea for my next project for young readers, which will be set in a post-apocalyptic world.
Thanks so much for taking the time to answer these questions and, thanks especially for adding such an out-of-the-ordinary, wonderful sibling story to the shelves! Can't wait to read what you do next!