Behind the Scenes with Rachel Toalson

Looking for your next great middle grade read? Don’t miss The Colors of the Rain, a “poignant look at how families are torn apart by personal and historical tragedies, and the ways they continue to endure” (Booklist). We went behind the scenes with author Rachel Toalson to learn more about what inspired her to write this challenging and important book!

 

1. When did you first realize you wanted to be an author?

It sounds trite to say that I have always wanted to be an author, but it’s true. From the very moment I was introduced to a book, I knew stories were magical. When I was five, I told everyone in my life that I wanted to write my own books. My aunt believed me and bought me a kids book about how to write stories. My mom kept stapled computer paper “books” in stock for me to write and illustrate. Those early stories and the reaction from the adults in my life–people who loved me most–were formative and encouraging. 

My journey to becoming an author was a somewhat circuitous one (with a decade spent in journalism first), but writing books was always the ultimate dream and goal.

2. How did you come up with the idea for Colors?

The idea for The Colors of the Rain came from the voice of a character. Authors enter their stories through many different entry points, and for this particular one, Paulie was my entry. He spoke in what seemed like a very audible voice and said, “I heard the gunshot from nine miles away.” I was writing on another project at the time and jotted down the words, thinking I’d get to them later. Paulie was very persistent. He told me more and more of his story, and the more I heard of it, the more I recognized pieces of myself, pieces of my family’s history, pieces of humanity’s search for hope in trying circumstances, or, as I like to call it, the color in the rain. I knew it was a story I needed to tell–the story of a kid coming to terms with who he is in the aftermath of tragedy and abandonment and a family falling apart. For the kids who are like Paulie–the kids who have lost or been left by a parent–this story could mean a way forward.

3. Which part of Colors was your favorite to write? Why?

I really love writing reconciliation scenes, because they are so hopeful. There are many passages in The Colors of the Rain that still make me cry, even though I’ve read the book more than 20 times. Authors often put a lot of their hopes and maybe even things they wish they’d said or things they wish someone had said to them in their books; it’s a very therapeutic thing for us. In my stories for children, I always have my eye on identity, hope, courage, love, affirmation–the things that can change a kid’s world. And the places and scenes where those things shine are my favorite passages to write. 

I also really, really love Paulie. He reminds me so much of people I have known and loved in my life, and the way he approaches the world–with wonder and innocence and this everlasting hope that, even when shaken, can’t be destroyed–was so very fun for me to write. He is a resilient, forgiving, curious, artistic kid, and he was a pleasure to write and get to know.

4. What do you like to do when you’re not writing?

I lead a very busy life! I’m the mom of six young sons (ages 3 to 11) who still need a lot from me (I’m okay with that; I’m not ready for them to grow up just yet). It might seem strange for a mom to say this, but I really love hanging out with them; they are sweet, quirky (sometimes strange), hilarious, imaginative boys. I write often about them and the things they teach me. We paint together, draw together, read stories together, go out on the town together, write songs together–we’ve even written picture books together (one of them wants to be a picture book illustrator when he grows up, and how could I deny him practice?)!

My husband and I, once upon a time, led a band together and toured the midwest playing shows and sharing our original music; we still write songs and record together, though it now takes us six months to release a single. I play bass guitar and perform lead and backing vocals. Our music can be described as folk rock.

I also am a director’s assistant for my husband, who is a documentary filmmaker. We get to tell the stories of some remarkable people through film, which is a powerful medium.

In my “spare” time (!) I read anything I can get my hands on (favorites: middle grade literature, Jon Klassen’s picture books, memoirs, and National Geographic magazine), attempt to make progress on sewing projects (until one of my sons interrupts me with an “emergency”), and run through the hills of my neighborhood–for pleasure.

5. What was your favorite book to read as child?

I am an obsessive person, so when you ask about my favorite book, I have to turn this question into my favorite author; when I find an author I love, I will read everything they write. So when I was first began reading chapter books on my own, I adored Laura Ingalls Wilder and the Little House on the Prairie series as well as the Babysitter’s Club series, by Ann M. Martin. 

In middle school, Scott O’Dell (I still love his novels), Mary Downing Hahn, Elizabeth George Speare, Jean Craighead George, Judy Blume, Lois Lowry, and Madeleine L’Engle were favorites, along with L.M. Montgomery’s Anne of Green Gables series and anything written by Louisa May Alcott. I read these books over and over and over again and own them all, now, as an adult, so my sons can also experience them. We’ve read many of them together.

My favorite picture books as a child were The Story of Ferdinand, by Munro Leaf; Alexander and the Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Day, by Judith Viorst; Where the Wild Things Are, by Maurice Sendak; and anything written by Mercer Mayer.

 

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