Book Review: ‘Drawing with Whitman’

Book Review: ‘Drawing with Whitman’

Author Kristin McGlothlin. Photo by Ron White
Novel for kids 8 to 12 explores art, growing pains, and Long Island native Walt Whitman

Reviewed by Melissa Arnold

Author Kristin McGlothlin. Photo by Ron White

Kristin McGlothlin’s greatest passions are art and writing, and as a longtime art historian, she was able to enjoy the best of both worlds. But the desire for something more continued to tug on McGlothlin’s heart, and she ultimately left museum work behind to pursue a writing career.

Her debut novel for middle-schoolers, Drawing with Whitman, is the first in a collection called Sourland Mountain Books. Inspired by a rural, mountainous region in central New Jersey, the books explore art, music, family dynamics and coming of age through the eyes of the neighborhood kids.  

Drawing with Whitman finds 13-year-old Catalynd Jewett Hamilton on a journey of recovery after a car accident leaves her badly injured and her mother battling depression. She finds solace in art and literature, encouraged along the way by the kind neighborhood painter, Benton Whitman — a descendant of Huntington native Walt Whitman. 

What was your childhood like? Were you interested in writing early on?

I was born in Detroit, and then we moved to Toledo, Ohio — we stayed there until I was in high school, and then we ended up in Jacksonville, Florida. I’m an only child, so I’ve always enjoyed being by myself. 

I loved both art and writing from a young age. Art was a huge part of my life — Detroit has an incredible art museum — and I loved to write letters to pen pals and friends. As a preteen, I got to take art classes in Toledo and spend time at their art museum as well. I grew up in a standard suburban neighborhood, but we also had a cottage near Lake George in Michigan. I loved to explore in the woods and go swimming in the lake.

It was around the age of 13 that I really felt that writing was what I wanted to do. I even came up with two of the characters from a later book in the Sourland Mountain series at that time. 

What was your favorite book as a child?

My favorite book was From the Mixed-up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler by E.L. Konigsburg.

Did you go to college? What did you end up doing for work?

I did my undergrad at the University of Delaware. They have an amazing art history program there, and my mom suggested I would enjoy it because it combined both writing and art. I learned so much from the Northeast, getting to visit museums in D.C., Philadelphia, and New York.  

After graduation in 1992, I moved back down to Florida and got a job as the assistant curator of education at the Norton Museum of Art. I learned a lot, and I’m so glad I went on that journey, but after a while I realized it wasn’t where I wanted to be. The desire to pursue writing was still there. I ended up going back to school at Florida Atlantic University and got my master’s in English literature in 2013.

How did you start writing professionally? Was it hard to take that step? 

I had a strong belief in myself, and I really wanted to introduce kids to art through writing, so I left the museum and began writing full-time. I went to a lot of writers’ conferences to learn everything I could about the profession.

Why did you decide to write a middle- grade novel? 

When I first started working on the book, I actually wrote for a general audience. But as I began to formulate Cat’s character, and the ins and outs of being 13, I was really drawn to that age. You’re not in high school yet, and a lot of people that age still have a more childlike curiosity. It’s an interesting time. The stories I want to tell don’t have any violence or sex, so that also fits in well with middle-grade readers. 

When did you first come up with the idea for the Sourland Mountain series? What inspired it?

Sourland Mountain is a real place in central New Jersey — my parents moved there around the time I went to college. It started with the idea of incorporating art lessons into a narrative. I

In graduate school, I took a class on Walt Whitman and read a lot of his work. There’s a book of his called “The Wound Dresser,” a collection of journal entries and incredible letters written to his family that I really enjoyed, and I wanted to find a way to incorporate him into the book somehow. 

He was a great patriot and his work is still relevant today, and I want to share that with kids to hopefully inspire them. So that’s how I developed Benton Whitman, a landscape painter who is a descendant of Walt Whitman.

Your characters have very unique names. How did you decide on them? 

It’s funny, because Cat’s name is Catalynd Jewett Hamilton, but then her brother is named Buddy! I sat down and started playing with names, and for Cat it started with the name Caitin, and the word “catalyst.” Jewett comes from a favorite author of mine from the late 1800s, Sarah Orne Jewett, and Hamilton is honestly for the Broadway musical. I saw a commercial on TV and it just fit!

As for Benton, he gets his name from the American painter Thomas Hart Benton, and of course his ancestor, Walt Whitman.

This book deals with a lot of tough issues. Why did you decide to write about injury, depression, and loneliness? 

It feels like an act of service to address the tough things that kids can go through. When I was researching the kind of books that were out there for middle grades, I had trouble finding books that featured a parent living with depression. It can be hard for kids to understand what’s going on when someone they love has a mental health issue, and I wanted to write something that made them feel understood and supported. For Cat, who is in casts and a wheelchair after an accident, she finds that art is an outlet for her to figure things out and make sense of her experiences.

Is this your first book? 

I wrote a picture book called “Andy’s Snowball Story” about the contemporary artist Andy Goldsworthy. But this is my first chapter book, and my first book for middle grades. 

How did you go about getting published? 

It’s incredibly difficult to get an agent, especially as an unknown author who’s never been published before. Self-publishing has gained a lot of respect in recent years, and I knew I wanted to publish my first book quickly, in time for Walt Whitman’s 100th birthday. I found an amazing self-publishing company called Girl Friday, and they helped me put the book together and connected me with the cover illustrator, Kristina Swarner, who did a beautiful job.

Working with Kristina was such a cool experience. I had an idea of what I wanted — to have a mountain and a barn in the background, and for Cat to look a certain way. Even the most basic pencil sketch she sent me was so sweet and detailed. There were very few changes in the final version. I was really happy.

What message do you hope kids take away from the book? 

I want them to know that, sometimes, there’s a lot that can happen to a family unit, and that they don’t have to go through difficult times alone. It’s important to express what you’re going through in a healthy way, whether that’s through therapy or talking to a trusted adult.  

What’s next for you? 

I’m working on the next book in the Sourland Mountain series, called “Listen.” The main character is Cat’s next-door neighbor, Gwilym Duckworthy, a 13-year-old boy who loves jazz music and plays the trumpet. His mother left the family behind to pursue a career in music when he was very small, and now she’s returned. There will eventually be a total of four books in the series.

The recipient of the 2019 Moonbeam Silver Medal Award for Pre-Teen Fiction, Drawing with Whitman is available online at Amazon.com, BarnesandNoble.com and Target.com. Keep up with Kristin McGlothlin at her website, www.sourlandmountainbooks.com, and on Instagram @McGlothlinKristin for updates and live readings.

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