SALT LAKE CITY — Brigham Young University grad Amy Makechnie initially wrote her debut novel for adults from the perspective of a grown-up looking back on her childhood. Then, one reader suggested the book felt better-suited to middle grade readers.
It took a lot of cutting, but once Makechnie changed her book to fit a younger audience, literary agents started showing interest in it. Thus was born "The Unforgettable Guinevere St. Clair" (Atheneum Books for Young Readers, 336 pages, ages 8-13) — a book that combines tragedy, humor, mystery and a child's spirit of adventure into a sort of mashup of "Harriet the Spy" and "To Kill a Mockingbird."
The story follows 10-year-old Guinevere St. Clair, whose father, Jed, moves the family from New York City to a small town in Iowa where Guinevere's parents grew up. After a heart problem caused Guinevere's mom, Vienna, to lose oxygen to the brain for too long, Vienna woke up not remembering anything past the age of 13 — including her children. Jed hopes his wife will remember more if she's back in a familiar setting.
When someone from their new town disappears, Guinevere — a lawyer-in-training — puts her sleuthing skills to the test.
As a health and human performance major at BYU — and now a part-time science teacher in her current New Hampshire town — Makechnie enjoyed writing about the brain in "Guinevere." When she made the switch from writing for adult readers to a middle grade audience, it was the scientific details that she had to cut or change.
"I had to write it in a way that children would understand and I hope that I did that," she said. "But I find in almost any story that you can bring in things about the amazing human body. … It's so resilient and yet it's so fragile and I find that line very, very interesting."
But science isn't Makechnie's only interest. She's harbored a love for books since she was young and minored in English at BYU, but didn't start writing seriously until her youngest was 3 months old and she found she craved a creative outlet in her life. She said she made sure to find at least an hour every day to write, often squeezing it in during nap times. "Guinevere" is the direct result of that habit.
As the mother of four children, a lot of the humor in Makechnie's story came straight from them.
"That age group is always saying something really funny and I'm constantly taking notes," she said. "My oldest especially likes to take credit for a lot of what happened in this book."
She calls her children both her biggest fans and her biggest critics. They're quick to point out aspects that aren't true to the age group and are honest if they don't like something. She also knows that if they laugh or cry, she's onto something.
Makechnie grew up in Nebraska, and some aspects of "Guinevere" came from her own childhood, including an incident when, like Guinevere, she also tried to float down a river on a piece of styrofoam. She said that part of the fun of writing the book was getting to go back to her childhood memories.
But Makechnie didn't pull "Guinevere's" storyline from her life; rather she was inspired by a couple she knew who went through the same thing as Guinevere's parents — the mother suffered brain damage and forgot everything after age 13.
"It was very heartbreaking," she said. "Watching her husband especially, it was really the greatest love story I've ever seen. He was so incredible, but it was very devastating."
The tragic background of Guinevere's story combined with the book's mystery culminates in its very last line: "Not everyone comes home. But sometimes they do." This, Makechnie said, is the theme of the book.Comment on this story
"There's a lot of sad things for kids that happen in your life," she said. "Not everything works out the way that you expect it to. … You sometimes have to change … your expectations about how you think life is going to go, but you can still be happy; you can still find hope in any sort of circumstances."
If you go …
What: Amy Makechnie book signing
When: Friday, July 27, 7 p.m.
Where: The King's English, 1511 S. 1500 East
Note: Places in the signing line are reserved for those who purchase a copy of the featured book from The King's English.