[COLD OPEN] There are tales of coyotes where people try to trap them and the coyotes will, like, not only find the trap, but they flip it over and then they'll poop on the trap. And sort of not only say, Hey, I know this is a trap, but also I am pooping on your trap. That's what I think about you and your trap.
[MUSIC, INTRO] This is The Book of Life, a show about Jewish kidlit, mostly. I'm Heidi Rabinowitz. Wayward Creatures by Dayna Lorenz is a heartfelt animal friendship story for middle grade readers, told from the point of view of both a troubled young Jewish boy and the wayward coyote he befriends after a forest fire changes both of their lives. Wayward Creatures takes place in the United States of America in the state of Vermont. During Jewish American Heritage month in May, I'll be posting a Jewish American kidlit title every day on Facebook. Get the scoop at BookofLifepodcast.com.
Dayna, tell us about Wayward Creatures.
Wayward Creatures is middle grade novel told from the point of view of Gabe, who is just entering seventh grade and Rill who is a yearling coyote, whose lives come together after Gabe, through some very bad choices, starts a forest fire, and catches Rill and possibly her family in the blaze. He then gets involved in a restorative justice program and part of his work to help repair the harm he caused is to clean up the forest, and therein their stories intertwine and move forward.
Talk about your choice to make Gabe identifiably Jewish but not too Jewish. He's a Hebrew school dropout, for example. So why was that the path you chose for him?
Well, it was the path that I chose for him because it was something that I don't remember seeing when I was growing up in books. There were books about very religious Jewish characters, there was sort of a Fiddler on the Roof picture of Jews being elsewhere and in the past, and, and I grew up in New Jersey, where there were a lot of kids who were Jewish, not many of them were very religious. And I certainly didn't grew up in a very religious household. I mean, I went to Hebrew school, I was a bat mitzvah, but it wasn't a part of my life in a religious sense. However, we celebrated Passover. And that was like a huge event for my family. We had apples and honey on Rosh Hashanah, and my family all got together, we didn't go to services on the High Holy Days, but we did that. And I never saw that in books. So I wanted to put in the book, a character who was Jewish in the sense that I was Jewish, you know, where they had these family traditions. I think the story will resonate for Jewish readers who have a connection to Judaism, which is not necessarily as much about going to temple or the sort of religious practice, but there is this holiday, traditional foods practice.
Yeah, I think it's great that there should be representation of all ways of being Jewish. So I'm not criticizing you at all. It's awesome to have a wide variety.
Oh, well, I just wanted to sort of add to that, like, I definitely have struggled with Am I Jewish enough? What is my relationship now coming back to Judaism as a parent? You know, I'm not able to answer questions that my kids have. So I've come back to Judaism to be the Jewish parent that I want to be for my kids. But it's backfilling a lot of knowledge that I wish I had had before. But yeah, I think that one of the wonderful things about becoming a part of Jewish Kidlit Mavens and talking to the Jewish writing community has been, you know, well, there is no one way to be Jewish, that you can identify as Jewish and not have to be performing in a certain way to be accepted within the community. And I've really appreciated that because it's allowed me to do things like write a book with a Jewish character who's Jewish in the way that I was raised Jewish and not feel like I have to put a caveat where like, "sort of Jewish," you know, or anything like that on on his label or his identity, right?
He's not "sort of" Jewish. He's Jewish. Yeah. That's just not the focus of the book, right? How did you come up with the title? What did you mean by "wayward?" And why use the word "creatures?"
Well, initially, the idea for the story was I wanted to write a book about characters that are not necessarily the most likable when you first run into them. So I have here an angry, frustrated teen boy who is feeling quite out of sorts with everyone in his life. And I wanted to write a story basically about what happens when you make some bad choices in response to some hard and strong feelings, and how you can sort of deal with that going forward. The original idea actually was a little bit smaller. I had Gabe breaking a window of what turned out to be the Humane Society in his town. And he ended up doing community service and meeting a dog that was really unadoptable. That was my original idea. And it was actually my editor who was like, let's make this bigger, the stakes of this book really need to match the emotional stakes of the story. And she was like, how about a forest fire? Maybe they set off fireworks and I was like, YES! and sort of ran with that idea. And moved it from an ASPCA to having a wild animal and finding the coyote is really the perfect analog for my teenage boy. Originally, the title was Vicious Creatures. And so I actually looked for animals that were not animals that we like, I think there are lots of cute and fluffy animals and then there are animals like coyotes, which apparently according to my research, are the most hated animal, even more so than rats or cockroaches. According to one study, they have been persecuted across the landscape, they were part of the same extermination effort that went against wolves in the West. However, while all of those measures really worked to exterminate the resident wolf populations, the coyote somehow kept on surviving and springing up other places. And part of that was their migration now into places that they weren't before, like the Northeast. So the story is set in Vermont, and we do have a native coyote population here. So I wanted to bring together this idea of a animal that society doesn't look fondly upon, and then a kid who certainly is not finding a great place in the community and is not in the groove with everything that's going on, and makes some bad choices that really puts him at odds with his neighbors. But in terms of what I meant by "wayward," we moved away from Vicious Creatures because it sounded a little too sort of old. And it was not really capturing what the story ended up being. And we chose "wayward," basically to describe the fact that these were characters who kind of lost their way in some way. It's not that they were undeniably evil or bad to the bone. But these were characters who had lost their way and could be brought back and could be rehabilitated.
I loved that Gabe and Rill had parallel emotional journeys, I felt like that added an extra layer. You could have gotten away with the coyote being just an animal, just a symbol of the damage done by the wildfire. But instead, she is a well rounded character. So talk about why that was important to you.
I love writing animal characters, I just love animals. But I also think that having an animal character can draw in a reader in a different way into the story, it allows me to talk about some of the emotional themes in the book in a more direct way that would feel a little heavy handed I think if I was writing it through the human narrator. So I think there's kind of a practical side of that, for me as an author, in terms of giving me more range to explore topics in a different way from a different angle. But I think there's also just a fun aspect, writing from an animal point of view gives me the opportunity to look at the world in an entirely different way, and to describe the world in a different way. So there's actually a chapter where you have Gabe experiencing this fire exploding all around him. And then the next chapter is Rill, experiencing the fire exploding all around her. And having those two different experiences of it, Gabe's being much more visual and visceral, and Rill's being more about the scent and the taste and the feeling of the animal world response to the fire. I hope that that gives readers a new way of thinking about things and a new way to approach the world. I think there's one way that human visual experience that Gabe has hopefully is enriched then by that animal perspective and a different sensory description of what's happening. And I think it also allows kids to connect with the natural world, helps kids to look out the window and be like, Oh, wow, you know, like that creature, what are they thinking? How are they living their life? and hopefully connecting them to their natural environment in a new and more meaningful way.
Yeah, not only is she a well rounded character, she kind of gives us a more rounded view of what's happening. So let's talk about coyotes. What interesting facts did you learn about coyotes that people should know?
Well, I think the most interesting facts that I learned about coyotes is that they have this incredible pack and family structure. They have not just a mom and dad and a litter of pups, but generations of coyotes can be living together in a pack all helping to raise the pups and defend the territory and bring in food, so they have a community that they develop. And I think there's also learning how smart they are. There are tales of coyotes where people try to trap them and the coyotes will like, not only find the trap, but they flip it over and then they'll poop on the trap. And sort of not only say hey, I know this is a trap, but also Oh, I am pooping on your trap. That's what I think about you and your trap. And so I think that idea of intelligence and problem solving and the fact that coyotes really have survived these huge all-out efforts, centuries long efforts to rid them from the American West, and they managed to find a way around that, was really compelling. And also the fact that they are a natural part of the environment, but they're not a part of the environment I think that a lot of people want. There are tales of them wandering city streets, you know, they've ended up in urban environments and suburban environments. And I think there's a lot of fear built around coyotes. And so this idea of introducing them to the reader is Okay, yes, these are true things. They are a predator, but they're actually a part of our ecosystem, and trying to come up with a way to live with the parts of our ecosystem that aren't as cute and fluffy, as, say, a bunny rabbit or a squirrel, which, you know, are menaces to the bird feeder but not necessarily menaces to you personally or to your pets.
How much anthropomorphizing did you do? And for instance, could a coyote actually make friends with an opossum, as happens in this story?
I think what's amazing is they absolutely could! There are all these little videos where they found on trail cameras, coyotes working with badgers and other animals to hunt together, which I think is hilarious. Badgers dig into burrows and the coyote will work with the badger. The badger will be on one end digging into the burrow, and then the coyote will be on the exit of the burrow and will catch the animals that the badger scares out. So this is definitely something that could happen that they would have some sort of arrangement with another animal that they're hunting and working together. So I thought that was kind of a cool piece to put in there. And I think an opossum also, I personally have a visceral reaction when I see in a possum, where, you know, they just kind of look like a very large rat, and they have these strange kind of human paws, they look like hands and they have these bristly teeth and, and that reaction you have to them is so out of touch with what they really are, which is actually a very nice animal. They don't carry rabies. I know when we had an opossum that was found in our yard, my mom was like, Don't touch it, it could have rabies, but they actually are not rabies carriers primarily. And they're one of the few animals that eats ticks, they eat like 6000 ticks a day. So they're a huge benefit, actually, to the ecosystem. And again, so that ties into that Wayward Creatures theme of something that looks kind of like No, no, do I want that in my community? but it actually is a hugely helpful part an integral part of the community.
All right, cool. So Gabe learns a lot about forest fires, as he deals with the consequences of what happened. And it seems like you must have learned a lot about forest fires in order to write this book. So what should we know about forest fires that we probably don't already know?
I spoke with a forester, our local forester here, and in Vermont, we don't have the kind of forest fire problems that exist in other places in this country certainly, but one thing that he told me is that forest fires, and I think this is true everywhere, are actually a natural part of the forest lifecycle. He actually had said, Well, if this forest fire happened, I don't know that I would clean up all these trees, because that deadfall and those trees that are burned, would all go into the soil and enrich that soil sort of life and bacteria and algae. And that would be important for regrowing the forest. I changed that a little bit, I have them clean up the forest. And partly that was an aesthetic choice. He did say that the reason why you might clean up a forest is if the neighbors were like, This is really ugly, I need you to clean this up because I don't want to look at it anymore. So that was in the background of what happens in the plot. You know, the other piece of forest fires is that they're scary. And they travel incredibly fast. You have the fire increasing in size. I forget what the statistic was, but it multiplies within a matter of seconds by size. So the experience for Gabe of watching that happen in front of him is pretty intense. And I think the other piece was just discovering that a forest fire affects not just the trees and the top layers of the forest, but it impacts the soil. You can have a fire actually in a root structure so it looks like there's fire underground. Yeah, it was incredibly interesting to research but also very scary. I would find it very scary to be in the presence of a forest fire.
Tell me about restorative justice. It seems like it is totally based on the concept of tikkun olam, repairing the world. So what is restorative justice and how does it work?
I actually worked with our local community justice center to research and put exactly how it would work in terms of this plotline in the book. It basically is an alternative to traditional justice, which is really defendant focused and punishment focused. There's matters of proof versus restorative justice being an entirely different modality, where the whole premise is that the offending party is coming forward and saying, Here's what I did. And they're meeting with the victim and hearing Well, here's how it harmed me. And then together, they work to come up with some way to repair that harm. And so actually, in anticipation of this interview, I looked at Jewish interpretations of the ways in which Jewish law and practice and halacha would go with restorative justice. And it's interesting, I didn't expect there to be as many connections as there were in terms of Jewish law. I think you're right, I think in terms of the idea of tikkun olam and restoring the world, that is right in the groove of what restorative justice is doing, it's looking at problems and saying, How can we fix this together as a community? I found it very interesting that there were connections, though, to ancient Jewish legal texts that there is this idea of restoring what has been stolen. For example, in apparently, Talmudic and, and even in the Torah itself, in terms of like, well, if you steal something, you have to give back what you've stolen, or at least give them the value of what was stolen. And I think a lot of those principles carry forward from that time through to modern restorative practices. There's also a piece where the person has to come forward, and make that confession and ask for forgiveness. And I think that ties into the Jewish concept of if you've sinned against God, God can forgive you. But if you have sinned against another person, you have to go to that person and have that face to face connection and seeking how can we make this right?
The impression I get from reading the book is that this is a wonderful program that should be practiced everywhere. And yet, it seems like most justice systems are more punitive. So is it a fairly new system? Or is it, why is it not more widespread? What, what context can you give us?
Restorative justice as an idea is actually something that existed in ancient cultures, in non western cultures, it certainly existed in Native American cultures, as we were just talking about existed even in ancient Jewish culture, though our criminal justice system is based on the British system of courts and lawyers and sort of an adversarial model in America, moving things to like, you're innocent until proven guilty, versus you're guilty until proven innocent, which was sort of a more European model. There are aspects of the American justice system, which are innovations, but that idea of being defendant focused, that idea about proof and about punishment, those principles were carried over from that European heritage. But restorative practices are becoming more common in a lot of communities. They're certainly more common in schools now, where you have students fighting, or you have graffiti or something like that, the harm is to the community. And repairing that harm as a community is so much more powerful and meaningful than Oh, well, we're gonna suspend you. You know, it requires a shift in mindset to come over to the restorative justice place. And it was definitely part of my research process, since I'm an attorney, and I work in the criminal courts actually here in Vermont and the family courts. Possibly that's why you don't see it more widespread is that you need to have a community and a sense of community to have this kind of restorative justice be meaningful. Yeah, I remember when I was in college, there was that really famous book Bowling Alone, right, talking about that breakdown of that feeling in communities. You can sense it in recent years, like the fracturing of the polity, that moving in this restorative justice direction could be one of those ways that we as individual communities, as as a nation could try rethinking our relationship to one another. That kind of vulnerability does require some level of trust. And so I feel like restorative justice is is a way to get there. But it also requires some work to get even to that place.
Well, actually, I want to talk about that work. When Gabe starts the restorative justice program, and he meets with the people who were affected by his actions, he's not really taking responsibility. He's shows up but in his head, he's making all these excuses why It's not really my fault and it wasn't really such a big deal. And it takes a while for it to really sink in and for him to take ownership of it. So a lot of what's happening in the book is his coming to terms and actually admitting what happened and accepting responsibility, but also, for instance, learning anger management techniques, and he gets a lot of support from the people in the program. So is that kind of psychological support also a regular part of these programs?
I included some role for the people in the community justice center that they wouldn't necessarily provide in a more real world setting. They would be connecting an offender with mental health protections, but that's not necessarily the job of the Community Justice Center, but in an efficiency of narrative move, I brought some of that into what the people at the Community Justice Center do for Gabe. And I also think it was really authentic that Gabe comes to this process kind of unwillingly. He has a moment where he was like, Well, here come the rotten vegetables and pitchforks. Part of this is also, he feels terrible. Part of his resistance and reaction is, he recognizes that he's done something huge, he can't even quite comprehend it. And he doesn't want to let himself comprehend how huge this is out of fear of that punishment dynamic. So that experience of having a community is the beginning of him realizing, Okay, I don't need to be quite so defensive, I don't need to be so closed off, I can be vulnerable to this process, I can allow this process to change me.
It's Tikkun Olam Time.
This is your opportunity for a little bit of activism. So what action would you like to invite our listeners to take to help repair the world?
I would ask that anyone listening to this podcast, take a moment to look into their day or their week, and find some time where they did something that they're not proud of, where they had an interaction with a friend or a colleague, a fellow student, that they really felt bad about, and possibly left some bad vibes in the air, that you take a moment and think about, Could I reach out to this person? Is there a way that we could work this out by trying to connect and admitting, you know, Hey, I did this kind of boneheaded thing. And seeing if there's a way that you can come together and repair that harm, because I think that the more we can reach out to one another, and try and build connections and build community, that's a positive part of our life, especially after this pandemic, when we've all been so isolated. To have that opportunity to try and restore those human connections. I think it'd be really powerful.
Year round Yom Kippur.
Exactly. Mini Yom Kippurs for your every day conflicts!
All right. Is there anything else you'd like to talk about that I haven't thought to ask you?
The only thing I would want to bring up is that another important part of this story is about family dynamics.
Yeah, that was interesting that both for Gabe and for Rill the coyote, they were both having family troubles, not getting along with their parents, aggravating siblings. So it was interesting to see that it's not necessarily just a human problem. I think that that really made it feel more universal. And they both ended up reunited and figuring out a way to make it work. And that it is work, it takes work.
Yeah, and that it wasn't just sort of a capitulation on anybody's part, that it took work and connection and building some trust and some vulnerability from each party. But that by doing that, they have a stronger place to come to. You know, you had asked about the forest fire. The other thing that I thought was really cool about forests is that forests are themselves a whole system. But forest fire is part of that system. But there's this way that trees can communicate with each other through different fungal connections through the soil, they can pass nutrients to one another. And forest fire can disrupt that whole system and then needing to help restart that system. That was another metaphor that sort of lent itself into the restorative justice piece, into this family piece, into the community piece, into all of his friends' interactions, into Rill's interactions, this idea of systems that break down, but can we put them back together?
Now that you're pointing out all of those layers that echo each other, I'm realizing why I like this book so much. It's just very satisfying. Everything fit together beautifully.
Oh, well, thank you so much.
Are you working on anything else?
I'm working on a larger environmentally themed middle grade fantasy, which takes place in a different world, but also another younger middle grade book, really talking about this idea of what are the consequences of avoiding conflict? What happens when we all just sort of turn away from dealing with our problems? That's the theme that I like to work with. It may seem scarier to approach one another but sometimes it's actually worse to not.
All right, interesting. Do any of your other books have identifiably Jewish characters?
I actually have not put identifiably Jewish characters in my books, I think because of this personal anxiety about Am I really Jewish enough to write a book with a Jewish character? I have a manuscript that I've been working on that is much more about Judaism and much more about Jewish ethics. It has a bat mitzvah in it, but that's a draft that I've been working on for years. It took this whole Introduction to Judaism class with my with my rabbi, with Rabbi Edelson. I'm in a Jewish Book Club now and I think I'm enriching myself in the knowledge that I'll be able to put into writing Jewish characters in meaningful Jewish books, I'm sort of in awe of the books that I read that have deep Jewish themes. I read The Way Back, and now I'm forgetting who wrote that book.
Gavriet Savit, I interviewed him as well.
Oh my gosh, that book was just so complex and strange and wonderful, I loved it. When I get to a place I hopefully will be incorporating more of those Jewish themes into my writing and having more Jewish characters as I become more comfortable with me taking that identity on affirmatively.
Well, I just want to say that I felt that Wayward Creatures was a very Jewish book, despite the fact that Gabe is a Hebrew school dropout. And there's no you know, Jewish practice occurring during the story, but the themes and the feelings and the intentions, I think, are all extremely Jewish. So I think you've already written a very Jewish book, and you don't have to worry about learning more before you can do such a thing.
That's been the biggest piece of coming back to Judaism now as an as an adult learner. I mean, I remember in Hebrew school, there being a lot of talk about the Holocaust, a lot of talk about the immigrant experience, I think that was a very 90s Hebrew school kind of thing. It was more sort of like you're Jewish, and here's the burden that is on you, as opposed to saying, you're Jewish and here's what's joyful and life affirming about being a member of this tradition. And that's what I've come to more now as an adult is finding joy in Judaism. One of the biggest things for me has been music. I sing with the temple, I actually sang on erev Yom Kippur, I sang the Kol Nidre, with the cantor and the rabbi, just an amazing experience to touch this ancient song that's been sung forever. So that's been a big piece for me and then learning about all these different things like the importance of social justice, like the importance of tikkun olam, like the importance of B'tselem Elohim, you know, this idea of we're all made in the image of God. I think that's part of restorative justice, as well as seeing the human in each one of us, and treat one another better, seeing that.
Dayna Lorentz, thank you so much for speaking with me today.
Thank you so much, Heidi, for having me on the podcast. I really appreciated getting to talk about Wayward Creatures with you.
[DEDICATION TEASER] Hi, this is Deborah Caldwell-Stone, Director of the American Library Association's Office for Intellectual Freedom. I'll be joining you soon on The Book of Life podcast, and I'd like to dedicate my episode to the brave librarians of Texas who are fighting book banning and censorship every day and persevering in the face of really impossible odds.
[MUSIC, OUTRO] Say hi to Heidi at 561-206-2473 or firstname.lastname@example.org Check out our Book of Life podcast Facebook page, or our Facebook discussion group Jewish Kidlit Mavens. We are occasionally on Twitter too @bookoflifepod. Want to read the books featured on the show? Buy them through Bookshop.org/shop/bookoflife to support the podcast and independent bookstores at the same time. You can also help us out by becoming a monthly supporter through Patreon. Additional support comes from the Association of Jewish Libraries, which also sponsors our sister podcast, Nice Jewish Books, a show about Jewish fiction for adults. You'll find links for all of that and more at BookofLifepodcast.com Our background music is provided by the Freilachmakers Klezmer String Band. Thanks for listening and happy reading!
[MUSIC, PROMO] If you are a fan of smart, strong Jewish female characters who wrestle with comics, major ethical choices, and time travel, then join me as I speak with Rachel Baronbaum about her new book Atomic Anna. I'm Sheryl Stahl. Tune in at www.Jewishlibraries.org/niceJewishbooks.