Originally published in Island Ad-Vantages, August 20, 2015
Authors among us
Anica Mrose Rissi: from library violinist to children’s book writer
Writer Anica Mrose Rissi at her family home in Deer Isle. Rissi has had two children's books published by Simon and Schuster—Anna, Banana and the Friendship Split and Anna, Banana and the Monkey in the Middle.
by Elke Dorr
On a recent August afternoon, Anica Mrose Rissi opens the door at the rambling family home in South Deer Isle, where she grew up, her father then an Island doctor and her mother a violin teacher from whom she learned to love music and to play violin and viola. The home and Island figure significantly in what Rissi clearly recognizes was an idyllic childhood for her and her brother, Jeremy. Now, when she returns, she feels more like “a summer person than an islander,” she said during a recent interview. “Strange…,” she mused, “that feeling.” But even so, “as soon as I drive over the bridge, I’m home.” And home is where many of her fondest memories lie, in this place that allowed her “time and space to become,” she said, and that “encourages the individual to emerge.”
Those rich, indelible memories reflect a childhood set in the unique place she began to describe as one “where Mary Cousins and Mrs. McKay were like honorary grandparents.” It is where her frequent visits to the Stonington Library occurred and also where her early reading experiences transported her, she said. The library steps—conveniently—also served as her stage, she recalled, where she felt at liberty to play her violin with her friend Heidi Powell, when the schooners came in, their passengers rewarding the girls with change from their pockets. Moreover, the Island was, according to Rissi, a place with an abundance of “good storytellers.” That amalgam of early experiences wasn’t lost on her and, in fact, has influenced her and the writer she has become. Now, with the publication by Simon and Schuster of the first two books of her four-book series for young readers—Anna, Banana and the Friendship Split and Anna, Banana and the Monkey in the Middle—Rissi is about to join the ranks of those Island storytellers as well as the writers whose works made such lasting impressions when she was a young reader herself.
Although raised on the Island, Rissi has spent most of the last 14 years living in Brooklyn and New York, and working as an editor for publishers that include Scholastic, where she edited the Princess School series, Simon and Schuster and Harper Collins. And while she was familiar with much of the literature for middle grade readers (8- to 12-year-olds), she was “not an expert in the young reader genre,” she said, the very group her own books are intended for. In any case, she emphasized, she never intended to write for publication, but during a difficult time in her life, she said she “needed a creative outlet,” so she began “just writing for me.”
She was walking her dog one day and got an idea, “an epiphany,” she said, when the title of the book came to her, Anna Banana. The details would come later. At first there was no comma, she said, but then she realized that Anna Banana was not one character, but two, a girl and her dog, a comma separating their names in the title. And so her first book was born. She even knew how it would begin—with a birthday cake holding nine candles. She could visualize the time of year too—October—and she knew Anna would speak for herself, the narrative would be written in first person and not in third person point of view, as are many books written for this age group. Rissi emphasized that she really “wanted to let Anna tell her own story.”
And that story turns out to be much more than just a lighthearted one about a young girl. While in many ways Anna is a typical 9-year-old, contending with a pesky older brother, excited at the prospect of going to an amusement park, it is a tear in her friendship with her best friend, Sadie, which drives the book’s narrative. Anna must find a solution to the rift between herself and Sadie, following the latter’s inexplicably hurtful behavior at Anna’s birthday party. In the process, and with the help of her family and her dog, Banana, Anna develops a growing sense of self-confidence and learns a great deal about being a “true friend.”
Commenting on that discovery and Anna’s evolution, Rissi said she wanted to “empower her young female character” for readers, at the same time she noted that Anna is “much sweeter than I was. I was bossy and liked to take charge,” she laughed. She included a dog in the story, because animals have always played a large role in her life, she said, and she gave Anna a loving, modern family—a stay-at-home father who is a writer and a mother who goes out into the working world—because “family relationships are important to me,” she noted.
Also among the book’s characters is Chuck, Anna’s older brother who delights in playfully teasing her. Regarding the siblings’ relationship, Rissi noted that “sometimes the people you love can drive you crazy, but you still love them.” As a writer, you have to “find those true moments,” the ones that make a book come alive for the reader. “Readers have to be able to relate,” or you lose them. Regarding the illustrations for her book, to her great satisfaction, she said, her publisher chose Meg Park, an illustrator from Scotland, whom Rissi has yet to meet, but whose illustrations for the books have genuinely pleased her.
While some people may have romantic notions of how writers work, Rissi offered a reality check about those often unfounded ideas. Once her book was sold by her agent to a publisher, she said she realized that she had to “find the discipline” to continue the stories. Suddenly she had pressing deadlines and with her full-time job she found little time for the writing she was now bound by contract to accomplish. So she got up very early in the morning in order to write before going to work. “When you have to write three books in a year and you work full time, it’s exhausting,” she said, even though she’s a person who “needs to have several projects going at once.” Finally, she said, she made the difficult decision to write full time and leave her editorial job behind.
Now living in Princeton, N.J., a move prompted by her husband’s new job at the university, she still begins her morning by writing, at last able to immerse herself in the work. She’s also learning about her new home, albeit still missing Brooklyn, where she could “walk everywhere, or ride the subway,” where restaurants and book shops were steps, not car rides, away. “I was a country mouse turned city mouse,” she quipped, referring to the two places where she’s loved living—Deer Isle and Brooklyn. In Princeton, she said, she misses the energy of the big city, its vibrant pace. And as unlikely as it seems, she sees both places—Deer Isle and Brooklyn—as ones that “shift my heart into place.” Yet Princeton is beginning to grow on her too, with its public library under whose spell she’s already fallen, and with her discovery of “three amazing ice cream shops,” she said, her face lighting up.
When she’s not writing her own books for children, Rissi is nevertheless still writing: essays for adults published by The New York Times and one forthcoming for The Writer magazine; the text for “picture books,” as they are known in the trade, with the illustrator Zachariah Ohara; and country music—yes, country music—with her musician husband, Jeff. As if that weren’t enough—remember, Rissi loves juggling simultaneous projects—she also bikes, walks daily with her dog, Ruga (Arugula), reads widely, gives writing workshops and makes school visits as a storyteller. She enthusiastically remarked that she had no idea just how much fun those visits would turn out to be. Stories influence how we see, she said, suddenly serious. “We can see other worlds in books,” and, she added, “perhaps find ourselves in stories.”