Cynthia Kadohata and the Redemptive Power of Change

The Saucy author spoke with SLJ about perfect pets, seeking magical moments, and the capacity for growth at any age.

As a quadruplet, Becca is rarely alone; she's always been around her three brothers, all of whom have their "thing." But Becca isn't a hockey whiz or an aspiring choreographer or obsessed with sci-fi, so she doesn't know where she fits in. When she finds a sick piglet out in the woods, Becca finally thinks she's found her purpose. But Saucy won't be a small piglet for long, and raising a rapidly growing pig may just become a family affair. In her latest novel, Kadohata explores finding your purpose, and the potential for animals to change our lives. The Saucy author spoke with SLJ about perfect pets, seeking magical moments, and the capacity for growth at any age.

Photo courtesy of the author

You’ve written multiple books that center the relationship between humans and animals. Saucy the pig helps the people in her story connect, grow, and understand each other. What draws you to exploring these relationships?
Last year, when I had to put down my 13-year-old Doberman, Thunder, I was surprised how devastated my teenage son was. Thunder was always my dog, so I didn’t expect my son’s reaction to his death. To me, Thunder’s passing seemed like the sad, heartbreaking part of the circle of life. But to my son it was not like part of a circle, it was like falling off a cliff. He really didn’t start to recover until we got a new dog, a rescue Doberman named Wilson. The other day we were talking about Wilson. My son said he was magical. I’ve had a lot of agile dogs, but his agility and athleticism are unreal, and he has amazing peripheral vision. He radiates goodness and enthusiasm. He’s perfection in a dog. When my son’s macho, swaggering hockey-playing friends come over, I see them doing things like lying on the floor with Wilson, petting him and saying, “Wilson, I love you.” I promise you, there really are not many things that would cause a macho, swaggering hockey-playing teenage boy to lie on the floor cooing, “I love you.” Animals open us up to new possibilities of who we are and who we can be. If we don’t know how to love unconditionally, they teach us how. If we don’t know how to pull ourselves out of a funk, they show us by example. They have the capacity to change us as much as anything in our lives changes us, and they change us for the better. This is what I feel like I’m writing about when I write about animals, and why I love to write about their connection with us.

Becca faces some tough choices and hard truths in Saucy, and your writing often shows how complex, challenging situations are a part of life. Why do you think it is important to tell these stories, and to show the redemption in them?
Twenty years ago, I read a book review in The New Yorker, of a biography of Robert F. Kennedy.  There was a line in that review that evoked a tremendous response in me: “(Kennedy’s) most extraordinary accomplishment—and it was extraordinary—was to embody in himself, and create in others, a kind of transcendent yearning for the possibility of redemptive change.” 

I remember when RFK died, I was 11 years old. I knew nothing about politics.  But for some reason that night, I needed to sleep on the stone floor of a little room at the front of our apartment, and I cried all night and went to school exhausted. I never understood why, but when I read that line in the review, I finally understood. I was a torrentially bad-tempered young girl, ruthlessly competitive in chess or Monopoly or Go Fish, and the only thing I really, really, really wanted in life was a dog. I think for any of us, it’s a tortuous road to putting ourselves together as (hopefully) decent human beings living meaningful lives. My heart is at one with any young kid going through the process. Redemptive change is there!  Maybe it’s right around the corner, maybe it’s a decade away, but it’s there, and finding it is a big part of what makes life worth living.

During your career, you’ve won several awards, including the Newbery Medal and the National Book Award.  Is there an award that stands out to you as being particularly meaningful?  What made it special?
The Newbery was extremely shocking. Extremely! I often think about living in Arkansas as a little girl. My dad worked very long hours, and my mother would take us into the backyard so we could gaze at the Milky Way while she explained the mythology behind the constellations. On those evenings, I thought anything was possible. Getting that Newbery call at 4:26 a.m. was exactly the sort of shocking and magical thing a little girl sitting in her backyard in Arkansas thinks happens all the time in the world. You grow up, and you find that such shocks and magic occur only once in a great while. But they do occur.

In addition to human-animal relationships, your work covers a huge range of topics: custom harvesting, hockey, the Vietnam War, and animal rights, to name a few.  What does your research process look like, and how do you translate those facts into a story?
Usually my research begins with a lot of energy and optimism, then morphs into pessimism and a lot of flailing around (and dare I say also a lot of constructive criticism accompanied by slashing through entire pages by my editor). Oftentimes I end up searching for exactly the right person or even animal whose lived experience will inform the story. That is, I interview a lot of people, all of whom are immensely helpful, but then there is the one person whose story just goes ping. You have to kind of doggedly search for this special person, but then one day they appear as if out of the clouds. In terms of turning their information into a story, I kind of hate that I always say this, because it’s completely anti-intellectual, but it’s the truth: I feel like the story is already out there, in the ether, and I just get into the zone and see the story out there and pull it in and write it down. I really think it’s like baseball players facing a fastball. If they get in the zone, they will hit the ball. If not then…not. That happens too, unfortunately—sometimes a book comes out, and eventually I realize with some embarrassment that it really doesn’t work. That makes me feel quite gloomy. But then the gloom lifts and turns into humility, so in the end it’s helpful (or so I tell myself).

A big part of Becca’s journey is her finding her purpose, in a big family where everyone else seems to have one already. What do you think your purpose is, and when did you discover it?
I think my purpose is to raise my son. I discover this anew every day. 

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