Talking to National-Book-Award Winner Cynthia Kadohata About "Checked," Her New Novel for Young Readers

Sarah Harrison Smith on February 19, 2018

ypl_kadohata_hs.jpegWhen Cynthia Kadohata writes a book for young readers, it's always a cause for celebration, and this month, Kadohata publishes Checked, a new novel for kids in grades 5 through 9.

Thematically, Checked is a departure for Kadohata, who won a Newbery Medal for Kira-Kira and a National Book Award for The Thing About Luck. Whereas her earlier books took on subjects like the Japanese-American immigrant experience and international adoption, Checked is about one boy's passionate love of sports. 

Conor MacRae, the narrator of Checked, lives in California with his dad, a cop, and his best friend, a Doberman named Sinbad. But the big thing about Conor is that he’s obsessed with hockey. “Hockey is in my soul,” he says, and his schedule bears that out: he's got some kind of hockey training almost every day of the week. But when his dog is diagnosed with cancer, it turns out that his soul has more in it than just hockey, and he has to make some difficult decisions about where his priorities really lie.  

Cynthia Kadohata, can you tell our readers a little about your book?

It’s about a 12-year-old hockey boy. He wants to make the jump from a really good team to a super elite team. But his dog, that he’s really close to, gets sick, and he has to decide which is more important, and he has to decide how important his dad is to him.

It’s not really a conflict, exactly. He knows his dad is struggling with some personal issues. He also has financial issues, because hockey is very expensive and his dog has cancer and treatment is very expensive. So he doesn’t push, but he wants these things so badly at the same time.

Did you write Checked from personal experience?

This is my first sports-oriented book, so in that respect it's really different from my earlier books. My son plays hockey. Now I’m an obsessed hockey mom.

Especially with this book, being a parent has helped me to understand boys better. My son is a very active boy and he’s very passionate about things. I expected to have a very writerly type of kid. But that’s not what he’s like. It’s really good research for sure. I never could have written this book without him.

Also, this current book has a Doberman in it and I have a thing about Dobermans! 

What is it about Dobermans?

They’re very alert and they bond to you very strongly. I have another dog that just likes to lie in my lap. I walk them separately. When I walk the little one, I can hear my Doberman howling with sadness. He’s very, very bonded to me. 

How does being a parent effect your writing?

I have one child. I get so consumed with his hockey sometimes. So I would say it makes me a lot more busy for sure. I always write late at night. I write later once he’s in bed or I will fit it in.

Did you read middle-grade or young-adult books as a kid?

I didn’t know kid lit existed! I think around 7th grade, everyone in my class went to adult books. I don’t think I realized there were children’s books for kids that age.

What's your relationship with your editor like? 

My editor at Atheneum, Caitlyn Dlouhy, is really great. She may have an idea I sent to her and she literally won’t send me a response if she doesn’t like it. Once in a while she’ll send me an email back and say, “That sounds great! Go ahead.”

I signed with her in 2002. I was roommates with her at the University of Pittsburgh, when I was in the M.F.A. program there.  She became a children's book editor, and then I learned about that world.

Do you think a lot about the age of your intended readers when you're in the midst of writing a new book?

I don’t think about the age of the readers that much. My editor definitely does. If I’m going off course, then she corrects.

I had to rewrite Half a World Away a lot because my editor thought it was too grown up. She had me set it aside because I couldn’t get out of this more adult mind-think.

I definitely get really, really mad at her and probably insult her over the phone and then I apologize and get to work. She’s very, very smart.

Do you think going to an M.F.A. program helped you as a writer?

I dropped out of two M.F.A. programs! I was at the University of Pittsburgh when I sold my first book and decided to drop out.

How did publishing that first book come about?

I had been sending out stories to The New Yorker for a few years. They finally started buying some.  That became The Floating World, about a young Japanese-American girl growing up in the South. 

Did winning the National Book Award for The Thing About Luck change your career?

I would say no. I went to New York and went to the banquet and nothing had really changed.

Now that Checked is out, what are you working on?

I’m working on another internment-camp book. It’s about the people who were in this camp called Tulelake.  About 70 percent of the grown-ups living there renounced their citizenship. They were American citizens. It was a crazy camp. It's where the ones who were protesting the camps were placed. There were arrests and beatings by camp guards. There was martial law instituted at one point. It’s about a young girl who was sent to Japan after the war. My father was not in that one. He was drafted out of Poston [Colorado River Relocation Center]. 

I’m also working on a book about two little pigs that were saved by a rescue group from a factory farm. I also extremely excited about that. It’s told from the point of one of the pigs.

Is it fair to say that you follow your own interests when you're writing?

Yes, that's very fair to say.

Thanks so much for talking to us, Cynthia, and congratulations on Checked.  

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