Sandy Stark-McGinnis has written a poignant and beautiful book about 11-year-old Cassie Rodrigues, her mother who has early-onset Alzheimer’s, and a bucket-list adventure they take together. Stark-McGinnis takes on the challenge of Alzheimer’s without being sentimental or simplistic, allowing young readers to see how Cassie copes in the language of art, math, and even dolphin!
“A sensitive exploration of an unusual problem.” —Kirkus
Thanks, Sandy, for writing such an important book in this time when cases of Alzheimer’s and dementia are on the rise. From your first book, Extraordinary Birds, to this one, you’ve demonstrated you don’t shy from taking on difficult subjects. What motivated you to tell this story now?
What motivated me most was framing my own experience with a parent who suffered from Alzheimer’s through the eyes of a young person. What would that look like? How would a young person navigate through a situation like this?
Cassie uses math and art to express her feelings. Along with being a writer, you teach fifth grade. How much of the inspiration for her coping mechanisms did you take from your students? And how much inspiration did you take from observing them, in general—and did you check in with them as you were writing? What has been the feedback from your class?
A lot of the inspiration from Cassie using math and art to process what’s happening to her mom came from my own experience growing up. I was a competitive swimmer and spent a lot of time in the water. I’d spend three and a half, four hours a day practicing—essentially staring at the bottom of a pool. This gave me a lot of time to “talk” to myself and pay attention to my own thoughts. I processed and dealt with a lot of my emotions and angst as I was swimming laps.
I didn’t have an opportunity to get a lot of feedback from my class. When the book was released we had been out of school a month due to shelter-in-place. However, I did have one of my students who read the book email and say, “Mrs. McGinnis, the scenes in the classroom reminded me of our classroom.” This made me smile!
Landscape plays a large role in your work. You contrast the desert, where Cassie and her family live, and the ocean with all the freedom and flow (and dolphins!) it represents. Can you speak about that?
One of the elements of writing I love most is reflecting on setting and how it’s connected to character. The Space Between Lost and Found gave me a perfect opportunity to explore how setting would influence Cassie’s point of view and help her process what was happening with her mom.
In your book, you have four segments of flashbacks to show how Cassie’s mother was before things changed, and the early stages of her illness. These are visually differentiated from the rest of the text with a designed frame. How did you land on this particular structure for your book?
Actually, this idea was suggested by my editor, Allison Moore, and it works really well, I think! The chapters show the relationship between Cassie and her mom and how much joy and wisdom her mom shared with her. It also gives readers some relief, emotionally, from the sadness and grief of Cassie’s life in the present.
How was it to write about the experience of having a parent with Alzheimer’s, considering you’d lived through it with your own father?
It was cathartic! My father passed away in 2010, so there was some distance, but when you lose a loved one or someone close to you, their absence is always there. There are still small, consistent moments when I miss him so much. This is a good thing! These moments are an opportunity to reflect on my own fragility and allow time for realization, reminding me of what in life matters most.
Can you tell us about the path to writing and selling your book?
My first book, Extraordinary Birds, took about five years to write. During that time, I moved three times, got married, had children and went back to work. In 2016, I signed with an agent, Patricia Nelson (who is amazing), and we took another year to revise. In October of 2017, we sold Extraordinary Birds to Allison Moore at Bloomsbury in a two-book deal.
What were your book-launch plans pre-Covid?
I was scheduled for school visits sponsored by some independent bookstores and I was set to have a launch party with family, friends, students and colleagues at my local Barnes & Noble.
What are you writing now?
Currently, I’m working on another middle-grade novel based on a real-life experience that happened to me when I was eight-years-old.
Who are your influences, and who are your favorite middle grade authors?
One author who has had a great influence on me is Louise Erdrich. The way she writes about family and relationships is so nuanced. My favorite middle-grade authors are the authors who debuted with me in 2019—too many to list. Besides being amazing authors, they are amazing human beings.
Any advice for budding middle grade writers?
Read. Write. Repeat. Also, when I was growing up I was not a reader. It wasn’t until I went to college that I became interested in literature and writing. I was a film studies major and it was through film that I came to love story telling.
Where can we buy your book?
Also, you can order The Space Between Lost and Found from your favorite independent bookstore!
Sandy Stark-McGinnis was born in California. Early childhood dreams: play quarterback for the Los Angeles Rams or work as a forest ranger. Instead, she became a teacher, a job she found deeply fulfilling. Currently, she teaches fifth grade, and is amazed and inspired by her students every day. She spends her time reading (of course), and traveling with her husband and two children. Sandy believes her thirteen years as a competitive swimmer trained her to have the discipline and perseverance to journey through a writing life.