McDaniel prof's latest book probes the big questions of fourth grade

Lisa Graff, an author who teaches children's literature at McDaniel College, can't read a map to save her life.

She's terrible at crossword puzzles, has trouble telling her left hand from her right and uses far too many exclamation points. While she was growing up in California in the 1980s in the shadow of a brilliant older brother, young Lisa became convinced that she had no special talent. She thought of herself as utterly, unspectacularly average.

But Graff must have been good at something, because she grew up to become a respected author of children's books: six for younger students and a seventh for teens under the pseudonym Isla Neal. And she channels those feelings of being not quite gifted enough in her newest book, "A Tangle of Knots."

The novel is set in a magical world in which most people, though not all, are born with a talent for something — whether it's for whistling, or spitting, or knitting.

The story's heroine, 11-year-old Cady, is a lonely orphan who can look at people and immediately identify the flavor of their "perfect cake;" the book contains several recipes that she concocts. Meanwhile, Cady's friend Marigold has almost more family than she can handle and is still searching for the special ability that sets her apart.

The 31-year-old Graf, who says she's not a half-bad baker, devised the cake recipes herself.

One of your readers pointed out that the heroes of your books all are in the fourth grade. What appeals to you about that particular age group?

I've noticed that people who write for children and teens tend to focus on an age when they were going through a really significant time. When I was in fourth grade, I had a lot of upheaval in my life. Both of my parents remarried, and we all got new houses. That was also the year my older brother got very sick. He had kidney disease, but he's totally fine now.

I started to figure out the world when I was in fourth grade. I realized that big scary things could happen, but also wonderful things.

And at that age, kids hold their books to a high standard. You have to grab them from the very beginning. They'll turn a book down because they don't like the jacket or the character's name or the first sentence. So it's fun to write for them.

How did you get the idea for "A Tangle of Knots"?

The spark of this idea came from a piece I saw on television about the Unclaimed Baggage Center in Scottsboro, Ala. I love the idea that there's so much stuff hanging out in one place that was supposed to belong to someone else.

I knew there was a story there, but I didn't know what it was for two or three years. I kept trying to figure out what someone could be searching for in a suitcase. Finally, I thought that maybe it was the suitcase that was trying to bring something to a particular person. Once I had that idea, the rest kind of fell into place.

Why did you include recipes in the book?

I really, really love baking, so I thought it would be fun to bring it into the story in one way or another. I tinkered with standard recipes and made them my own. They had to be simple recipes that kids that age could theoretically bake by themselves.

What would be your "perfect cake," the one that encapsulates your personality and delivers bliss with each forkful?

A lemon layer cake. I love the combination of tartness and the sweetness. My love of baking might have originated with my grandmother. She had a lemon tree growing in her backyard, and one of my favorite memories is of picking lemons together and then baking lemon bars.

It's clear that you've thought a lot about talent: who has one, who doesn't, talents that enhance our lives, and those that we'd just as soon do without.

Kids worry a lot at that age about who they are and what makes them special. I wondered what it would be like to live in a world where most people (but not everyone) have a magical ability — how wonderful that would be, but also how stressful.

Kids are always told that they can be anything that they want. But what if you want to be a ballerina and you're terrible at ballet? Or what if you're gifted at ballet, but you don't like doing it?

Our talents end up defining us in ways that aren't always great. I thought that would be an interesting idea to explore.

How did you first start writing fiction?

I was the typical little sister who wanted to be just like her older brother. When I was growing up, my brother wrote phenomenal stories, so I wanted to write them, too.

And yet you're the one who ended up with a writing career.

[Laughs.] I kind of stole his talent.

One of the best things that ever happened to me was having an older brother who quite literally is a genius, while I'm just smart. Everything comes naturally to him, while I'm a typical overachiever. I think it really was a gift that I've always had to work very, very hard to master the skills I want to learn.

So if writing isn't your true talent, what is?

Packing suitcases. I used to joke that if I was ever in the Miss America pageant, I'd pack a suitcase for the talent competition. I can pretty much pack anything. Before I start, I pile everything I'm taking on my bed. I like to get a visual. I figure out what is the bulkiest thing and what can go into corners and the toes of shoes, and what can go on top of what.

I hear you also have a very talented cat.

Henry. He's completely nuts. Probably his most impressive skill is that he can turn lights on and off from the switch. He likes to do it in the morning if he thinks he's not being fed on time.

It took me a while to figure it out. I'd leave in the morning thinking that I'd turned off all the lights, but when I came home, they'd be on. Then one day, my roommate caught him in the act. She heard this thump, thump, thump, and saw him leaping up against the wall and flicking the switch.

Luckily, in the apartment I have now it's very difficult for Henry to reach the lights, so my electricity bill has gone back down.

About the book

"A Tangle of Knots" by Lisa Graff was just published by Philomel Books. Recommended for ages 8 and up. 240 pages; $16.99.

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