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Claire Dean Interview with Claire Dean, April 2008
Girlwood by Claire Dean
Girlwood by Claire Dean
Young Adult

Polly Greene has always been considered strange, a girl who can see a person's true colors, a thirteen-year-old more comfortable foraging in the woods with her eccentric grandmother than hanging out with friends. But all that is about to change when Polly's older sister, Bree, vanishes into the woods. The only one who believes Bree can survive, Polly begins to leave food in the woods for her sister and finds a hidden grove she names Girlwood, where she believes Bree is burning a fire each night. Along with an odd but endearing group of friends, Polly clings to the hope that she can see her sister through the harsh, snowy winter. And, in the process, she discovers the cruelty, bounty, and magic of the woods. Will Polly save her sister? And even if she does, will Girlwood survive?
—Houghton Mifflin 2008

READER'S GUIDE/Discussion Questions

ETC: GIRLWOOD is your first young adult novel. How did the story come about?

Claire Dean: Author, Claire DeanI'd been a professional writer for many years when my daughter came to me and asked why I hadn't written a book for her. Everything changed for me at that moment. Suddenly writing no longer felt like a job--and a very difficult, unsatisfying one at that--but became the most joyful part of my day. I asked her what kind of book she wanted, and she told me it had to be about good stuff, about nature and fairies and hope and girls. I played with those ideas for a couple of years, starting and stopping and turning over different stories in my mind, until I finally hit upon the tale of Polly and her magical larch grove. In a way, writing GIRLWOOD was like writing a lullaby for my teenager. My main goal was to write a hopeful story, something that would bring strength and solace not only to my daughter, but to all my readers.

ETC: You open each chapter in GIRLWOOD with a description of the edible, medicinal, and even magical properties of different herbs, flowers and trees. Where did you get your knowledge of plants?

Claire Dean: There must be a gene for plant-lovers because a passion for gardening runs in my family. My older brother is a renowned landscape architect in California, my younger brother worked for years as a landscape designer, while I satisfy my need for greenery with a jungle of a garden surrounding my house. It was while writing GIRLWOOD that I discovered another passion of mine: foraging in the woods for edible and medicinal plants. The character of Baba, Polly's life-loving, plant-loving grandmother, must have taken over my spirit because I found myself buying field guides and bushwhacking through brambles and nettle-filled meadows, searching for all the astounding and, yes, sometimes magical herbs that grow in my region. Through that research, I was able to not only infuse GIRLWOOD with wonderful plant lore but to discover that yarrow is a great mosquito repellant, fireweed is delicious eaten raw, and that a sprig of juniper in the pocket is said to give protection from ill-willed fairies and bring the blessing of the nature spirits. Plants are magical things!

ETC: Protecting the environment is a strong theme in your book. How do you hope to get today's tech-savvy kids interested in nature?

Claire Dean: Nature is my passion. There is nowhere on the planet that soothes me as much as the woods. I grew up in Los Angeles, so believe me I know what it's like to spend a childhood surrounded by buildings, freeways, and concrete, to go weeks, in fact, without walking on bare earth! But I was lucky. My grandfather was a true cowboy, growing up on an isolated ranch in Arizona, and my dad is still an avid outdoorsman. Through them, I learned that mountains are not only beautiful, they give you strength, inspiration, and inner peace. I don't care what your problems are; if you go into the woods and sit a bit, you'll feel better. Kids today are technology-rich and nature-poor. So many have never gone camping, never sat under the stars, never smelled the deliciousness of pine-scented air or pushed themselves to climb a mountain. It is my hope that GIRLWOOD will inspire at least one child or teenager to go outside, to see how far she can walk, to find her unique gifts and strength in nature, to protect the last wild spaces that, in turn, will protect and nourish her. My generation has ruined much of this planet; I truly believe it's the young people who will save it.

ETC: In GIRLWOOD, Polly sees colorful auras around people, animals, and even plants. What are auras and can anyone see them?

Claire Dean: One of the loveliest things I discovered while writing GIRLWOOD is that each and every living thing shimmers in its own unique way. People, plants, and animals are different forms of energy, and auras are the electromagnetic or energy fields surrounding them. Everyone has an aura and, yes, anyone can see them. I've got a page on my website,, that describes auras and how to see them for yourself. Basically, you let your gaze relax into the space around a person, animal, or plant, the way you'd stare at a 3-D picture, trying to see what's hidden underneath. Or you stare at someone's forehead and, after a minute or so, you'll see something shimmering just beyond their borders. Most people will see a white glow around the living object, and some see colors and even shapes. Also on my website, I devised a quiz that will help you discover the color of your aura and what it means. Mine is violet, which means I'm creative, sensitive, and an old soul.

ETC: You used to write for adults, and now you write for teens and children. Is your writing style or technique any different?

Claire Dean: You know how, at a party, there's usually one adult who doesn't fit in with the other grown-ups and hangs out with the kids? Well, that's me. My only regret after switching from adult fiction to young adult fiction is that I didn't do it sooner! My writing style is essentially the same, yet the end product is completely different. My adult stories were complex, real, and sometimes discouraging, while GIRLWOOD and the two young adult books I'm working on now are real yet also magical and optimistic. Writing for young people is freer, more joyful, more surprising and hopeful. Teens and children are far more willing to suspend disbelief, to hate and love a book's characters, to throw themselves into stories the way they throw themselves into life. Young adults are passionate, engaging, enraging, and complex--great people to know and wonderful characters to write about.

ETC: Is there something you're dying to talk about that nobody's asked you yet?

Claire Dean: What a great question! I think I'd like someone to ask me my philosophy of life. Everyone has one, and I'm intrigued by the different ways we all navigate through the world. The basis for my life is pretty simple: I'm always working to slow down. Everyone these days is rushing here and there, climbing the corporate ladder, striving for bigger and better things, chowing down lunch in the car while talking on their cell phones and racing to the office or school or soccer practice. We all need to take a deep breath. Walk in the woods. Watch a tomato turn red. Have a long, slow meal with our families, look at the sky, laugh. In GIRLWOOD, Polly's grandmother, Baba, is the epitome of my philosophy--a woman who has never owned a car, whose life's work is to grow a garden and heal her neighbors, who has all she needs right outside her door. We should all be so lucky.