I am so thrilled to have had the opportunity to talk with author Megan Freeman about ALONE, her debut middle grade novel in verse which celebrates its book birthday today! I was blessed to read an ARC of ALONE and am so excited that Maddie’s story is published and available for all to read.
BB: Hi Megan! Welcome to Beagles and Books! Congratulations on ALONE! How did you get the idea to write this compelling novel?
MF: The genesis for the story came from a mother-daughter book club gathering when my daughter and her friends were in fifth grade. We read Island of the Blue Dolphins by Scott O’Dell and the girls were fascinated by how Karana could survive alone on an island. I pointed out that the island was her home, and she was already comfortable there. The greater challenge was being alone for eighteen years. I asked them to imagine what it would be like for them to come home after school to find everyone in the entire town gone. What if they couldn’t reach anyone for help? What if no one came back? What would they do? How would they survive? I couldn’t get the idea out of my head and it became the seed of the story.
BB: Did you plan to write ALONE in verse or did that evolve as you were in the writing process?
MF: The writing of the book went through many iterations and took many years. I first wrote the book in prose, third person voice, and past tense. After many rounds of revisions, submissions, and feedback from multiple sources, I began again, this time tapping into my experience and skill as a poet. I rewrote the story in verse, using first person voice and present tense. This allowed me to get inside Maddie’s head and explore the solitary and sensory nature of her experience. The prose had served the plot, but the poetry freed the story.
BB: In ALONE, Maddie’s town is evacuated but it is never explained why. Is there a reason you kept the evacuation a mystery?
MF: The entire story is told through Maddie’s point of view, and so the reader can only ever know what Maddie knows. As a seventh grader in the beginning of the book, she’s not paying much attention to events happening beyond her friendships and her life in school. When she’s left alone, she becomes concerned about possible threats to her safety, but she doesn’t have much information so she can only imagine what might be safe or dangerous. By the time she’s finally reunited with her parents (spoiler alert!), she’s been alone for so long and she’s so relieved, that the cause of the evacuation is secondary to being with the people she loves and has been craving for three and a half years. The final poem in the book gives the reader some information about the nature of what happened, but it isn’t Maddie’s primary focus, so it can’t be the reader’s either.
BB: I was in awe of how resourceful and resilient Maddie was surviving on her own. Did her skills come from your personal knowledge or did you do research?
The ideas for Maddie’s skills came from a variety of sources. I spent a lot of time looking around my house and my town and speculating on what would be helpful if I were trying to survive alone. I also asked myself what I might do and how I might think if I were in Maddie’s situation at her age. And of course I asked my friends and my daughter’s friends what they might do in different scenarios. I did have to research certain things, like what happens when the electrical grid shuts down and what the impacts would be on other utilities like water and gas.
BB: The poem, “The Summer Day,” by Mary Oliver really struck a chord with me especially the question “Tell me, what is it you plan to do with your one wild and precious life?” Can you share what the poem means to you and why you included in ALONE?
MF: I grew up hearing Mary Oliver’s poems read often, and “The Summer Day” packs a wallop of a punch, especially with that last question you quoted. At first, the intimacy of feeding a grasshopper in the palm of one’s hand and then reflecting on one’s mortality may seem incongruous, but it’s at the heart of what it means to be fully present and awake in one’s life. The speaker in the poem is entirely concentrated on the specificity of the grasshopper eating, and it’s the speaker’s ability to be so present that connects her directly to the miracle of her own life and her place in the natural world. It’s impossible to grasp the miracle of one’s life without being keenly aware of the inevitability of one’s death. To be truly present means coming to terms with the fact that every life is finite, including our own. When we stop taking our lives for granted, we realize there is no greater gift than to be present and alive to the beauty of each moment. The question at the end of the poem, “Tell me, what is it you plan to do/with your one wild and precious life?” is an invitation from the speaker to the reader to become fully present in the world and to manifest a life worthy of the miracle it is before death takes it back.
In ALONE, Mary Oliver’s poem becomes the catalyst that helps Maddie think differently about her situation. Her close reading of each line leads her to become fully present to the truth of her life and to stop living in the future of hope or the past of regret. It allows her to let go of the longing that causes her so much suffering, and only then she is able to come to terms with her present reality. Once she does, she finds a measure of peace she hadn’t previously known, and she is able to move through her days with a lighter heart, despite her grief. ALONE is a book about physical survival, but it’s also about psychological and spiritual resilience. The existential angst that Maddie endures is no less a challenge than the life-threatening situations she finds herself in. To triumph in the story, she needs to overcome existential hurdles as well as physical ones, and this poem helps her do that.
BB: Are you working on any new projects you can share?
I have a few things in the pipeline that I hope to share more about soon, and I’m currently working on a new middle grade novel that I’m really enjoying. It’s completely different from ALONE, but I love the characters and the world they live in. It’s a pleasure to greet them at my desk every day.
BB: Thank you so much Megan! I really appreciate you taking the time to answer my questions providing a window into your process of writing ALONE.
Maddie and her two best friends secretly plan a sleepover at her grandparents’ empty apartment. At the last minute, both friends cancel. Since Maddie has already lied to her divorced parents, she decides to stay there alone binging on old black and white movies and junk food. When she wake up the next morning, she had no idea how truly alone she would be. Her whole town, including her family, have been evacuated overnight. Because of her lie, her mom and dad each think Maddie is safe with the other leaving text messages that they will reconnect at the embarkation point. With no cell phone connection, Maddie returns home but it isn’t long before she realizes not only is she on her own but also she will have to survive without electricity and running water. On her search for supplies in her neighborhood, Maddie rescues George, her neighbor’s rottweiler who becomes her most precious and loyal companion.
Narrated by 12 year old Maddie, Alone is a riveting novel in verse by debut author Megan Freeman. I was completely in awe of Maddie’s resourcefulness and resilience. She takes turns living at both parent’s houses depending on weather, recalls her dad’s advice of staying put and how to flush a toilet that won’t refill, scours the neighborhood for food and solar lights, gets lake water to wash clothes, and drives her mom’s minivan with her bike helmet (better safe than sorry). She survives looters, a tornado, and a wildfire. My heart also hurt for Maddie because her loneliness is acute. As I read, I was so grateful she had George for company as well as books. I love the verses when Maddie went to the Millersville Public Library to get books to teach her things as well as provide an escape. And when she discovers poetry, something awakens in Maddie’s soul. Realizing that while her situation seems bleak, Maddie realizes she has to do something with her one wild and precious life which is to live as completely and fully as she can.
Alone teaches us great lessons about the power not only to survive but also to believe in the power of new beginnings. Thanks to the author for sharing an ARC of Alone with my #bookexcursion group. Alone publishes on January 21, 2021.
This review was originally published on November 23, 2020.
Meet the Author:
Megan E. Freeman attended an elementary school where poets visited her classroom every week to teach poetry and she has been a writer ever since. She writes middle grade and young adult fiction, and her debut middle grade novel-in-verse ALONE will be published in January 2021 from Simon & Schuster/Aladdin. Megan is also a Pushcart Prize-nominated poet, and her poetry collection, Lessons on Sleeping Alone, was published by Liquid Light Press. An award-winning teacher with decades of classroom experience, Megan is nationally recognized for her work leading workshops and speaking to audiences across the country. Megan used to live in northeast Los Angeles, central Ohio, northern Norway, and on Caribbean cruise ships. Now she lives in northern Colorado.