Local author and SCBWI member M.G. Hennessey’s new middle-grade book, The Echo Park Castaways, addresses LA’s child-welfare system. The four main characters share the same foster-care home and the story is told from three viewpoints.
CHRISTINE VAN ZANDT: Welcome to Kite Tales! This is such an important topic but you convey the issues in a way a middle-grade reader can understand. Did you write it in an alternating fashion as it’s published, or did you write each character’s piece separately?
M.G. HENNESSEY: Thanks for the kind words! This book was really special to me, so that means a lot. I wrote in alternating fashion so that the story unfolds linearly. I found it easier to switch between POVs than to try to write all of one character, then the other. Plus it was fun going back and forth between their heads, especially since they’re all so different! Vic’s sections were particularly fun, since he’s extremely charming and has such a vivid imagination.
CVZ: Your book includes viewpoints beyond your own, did you use beta or sensitivity readers to assure characters from other perspectives were accurately and compassionately conveyed?
MH: Since I volunteer as a Court Appointed Special Advocate (CASA) with LA foster children, a lot of the book came out of my experiences working with them, and from specific kids that I’ve gotten to know. Additionally, Nevaeh was partly based on a friend of mine who grew up in foster care and shuttled between eleven different foster homes in as many years.
To write Quentin accurately, I relied partly on personal experience since I have an autistic nephew. I also spoke to a lot of friends whose children are on the spectrum. Then, after it was written, my publisher hired three sensitivity readers to vet the manuscript. It was really important to me to avoid stereotypes, and I hope that I succeeded in that. Nevaeh is really bucking the odds in aspiring to become a medical doctor, since less than 3% of foster kids even end up attending college. Vic inhabits this rich fantasy world where he’s a superspy, which helps him cope with the less glamorous reality of his life. And in reaction to being separated from his mother, Quentin is exhibiting signs of a child further along the autism spectrum, which according to a lot of my research is very plausible.
CVZ: Was volunteering as a CASA what you expected it to be?
MH: When I first trained as a CASA, some of the realities of the system shocked me; I’d always sort of naïvely assumed that, by and large, children in the system are well cared for, and that there weren’t really that many of them. The fact that there are 30,000 children in foster care just in LA County was eye-opening, as was the fact that a lot of the homes they’re placed in are far from ideal. I learned fairly quickly that, in most cases, your goal is to find the best out of some less-than-perfect options. Plus, the system is so overburdened that something as simple as getting a foster child an eye exam can take months.
When my editor first read the story, she questioned whether or not a foster mom as negligent as Mrs. K would be allowed to continue fostering, why Quentin wouldn’t have been assigned to a foster home that specialized in children on the spectrum, and why he wouldn’t have had a classroom aide … all legitimate questions, because in a perfect world, all of those things would happen. Unfortunately, the sad truth is that there’s a desperate need for more foster homes, especially for children with special needs; and it can take months to get an aide. My hope in writing this book was to lay bare some of the problems with the system in an age-appropriate way, while still showing the incredible resilience of the children who are in it. I also wanted to make sure that the main takeaway is a message of hope.
CVZ: It worked. The Echo Park Castaways opens your eyes to the problems but also shows how kids get by, making their way as best they can. Kids are amazing. Beyond reading and supporting books such as yours, what can people do to help kids in the foster care system?
MH: So many things! Any adult can volunteer as a CASA (a national organization that helps foster children with whatever they need.
If you do volunteer, after training you’re matched with one child for the duration of their journey through the system (around two years on average). You’ll attend court hearings with them, take them out for fun activities, and figure out how to help them with things that the social worker or foster parent might not be able to do. It can literally change the course of a child’s life. Here in LA, there are currently around 1,000 CASAs, which means that 29,000 foster kids don’t get that extra support.
If you don’t have time to serve as a CASA, donating to one of their many funds is also incredibly helpful; these kids need everything from hoodies to shampoo. There’s even a special fund to donate toward new prom gowns and suits for job interviews; those outfits can sometimes be the first nice, new thing any of these kids have ever owned. A lot of CASA organizations also accept book donations, to see if yours does, contact your local branch through the national database.
CVZ: That’s great information. I think people want to help, but don’t know how.
This is your second middle-grade book (The Other Boy, HarperCollins, 2016). Can you share any bits of wisdom for aspiring writers?
MH: My advice is to take your time and don’t rush to sign with the first agent who offers to represent you. My personal preference is a midsized agency, ideally one with a legal department and a great track record for foreign sales. It’s amazing what a difference that has made for my contracts—being able to have some input on titles and cover design is a huge benefit.
In terms of writing, different processes work for different people, and I believe that there isn’t any one “right” way to do it. I write without outlining, and I don’t edit at all until an (extremely) rough draft of the story is finished, typos and all. I also don’t subscribe to the old saw that you should write every day; while that would be nice, few people can actually manage it. I have two kids, I run a family camp, I volunteer as a CASA and as a mentor, and there are all sorts of other demands on my time. So I write when I can, and don’t beat myself up about it when I can’t. Sometimes a book takes a few months to write, sometimes a few years. The important thing is to continue working on your craft whenever you can.
CVZ: Thank you so much for your time!
M.G. Hennessey is the author of THE ECHO PARK CASTAWAYS and THE OTHER BOY. She’s the Dean of Camp Transcend, a CASA for the LA foster care system, and a mentor at LifeWorks LA LGBT Center. You can connect with her on Instagram, Twitter, and Facebook.
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Book covers from HarperCollins. Author “photo” by Sfé Monster.