Matilda Woods is the author of the middle grade book The Boy, the Bird, and the Coffin Maker, a Winter/Spring 2018 Indies Introduce debut and a Summer 2018 Kids’ Indie Next List pick. Woods hails from a small town near Canberra, Australia, holds a master’s degree in social work from Monash University, and now splits her time between being a youth worker and writing middle-grade fiction.
Sam Miller of Carmichael’s Bookstore and Carmichael’s Kids in Louisville, Kentucky, was a member of the bookseller panel that chose Woods’ book for the Indies Introduce program. The Boy, the Bird, and the Coffin Maker, says Miller, is “a gentle tale — with a healthy dose of magic — about friendship, hope, and looking to the future; sure to delight questing readers of all ages.”
In Woods’ book, the coffin maker in the town of Allora makes a coffin for a poor woman who has passed away, even though there is no one to pay him for it, and soon discovers she had a child no one knew about. The friendship between the coffin maker and the boy, Tito, and the secret of why Tito is determined to remain hidden are central to the story of The Boy, the Bird, and the Coffin Maker. Here, Miller asks Woods about the inspiration behind the author’s debut and the research that went into writing it.
Sam Miller: Allora is a unique and wonderful place. What inspired it?
Matilda Woods: Allora was inspired by the Italian cliffside cities of Vernazza, Manarola, and Riomaggiore. I’ve never been to Italy, but I love the photos I have seen of these bright towns that sit right on the edge of the water. In the original version, there was no magic in Allora. But as I developed the story, I realized it might be too dark if there wasn’t a little magic in the world. That’s where the flying fish and Tito’s magical bird, Fia, come from.
SM: Did you do any special research for this book?
MW: I researched specific things, like the types of fish found off the coast of Italy, common types of wood used in Italy, and common names in the 19th century. I also read the original version of Pinocchio by Carlo Collodi, is set in the same time and country as my story and helped me to understand what life was like during this time. From Pinocchio, I got a better understanding of the types of food available to people in the country, the objects that filled their homes, and how people spent their days. It also helped with the language of the story and making the prose fit with the time period.
SM: The book reads like a folktale; do you have a favorite folktale?
MW: Growing up, I always loved folktales. When I was younger, my parents would read me the westernized versions of many tales, like Hansel and Gretel, Cinderella, and The Little Mermaid. Now, I like to read the original versions. They have a much darker side, and sometimes it’s the bad guys who win in the end. I hate it when this happens in real life but, for some reason, when it happens in a book I find it very satisfying!
SM: When you were writing the book, how did you describe it to others? What was your elevator pitch?
MW: I had a lot of trouble developing an elevator pitch for this story. At the time I was querying agents, it didn’t fit into the middle grade market. “Quiet” stories were not selling well and a lot of agents were not comfortable with a coffin maker as a central character. Another aspect that made this story hard to pitch was that it is primarily told through the voice of an old man rather than a child. In the end, I didn’t describe the story using the plot. Instead, my “hook” was an image I tried to paint in the reader’s mind: two people, an old man and a young boy, sailing toward a new life in a coffin. This seemed to intrigue my agent, Polly Nolan of Greenhouse Literary Agency, enough to sign me up!
SM: What book did you enjoy most as a child?
MW: The first book I remember falling in love with was The Twits by Roald Dahl. Our librarian at school read it to my class. We only had one library lesson a week, and I remember how impatient I was for the weekend to finish so I could hear what happened next. I was horrified by how awful the Twits were and found a lot of aspects of the story very funny. I love that combination of disgust and humor that is so unique to Roald Dahl’s work.
The Boy, the Bird, and the Coffin Maker by Matilda Woods (Philomel Books, Middle Grade, 9780525515210, $16.99) On Sale Date: 5/15/2018.
Find out more about the author at matildawoods.com.
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