If you read Macbeth and thought (like us) "less political scheming and more of those fabulous witches, please", you're in luck because teacher and writer Mark David Smith's The Weird Sisters: A Note, a Goat, and a Casserole (Owlkids, illustrated by Kari Rust) is inspired by the famous trio, and comes with more laughs and less bloodshed than the Scottish play.
The first book in a planned series, The Weird Sisters follows Hildegurp, Yuckmina, and Glubbifer as they settle in the small town of Covenly for a fresh start. They soon find themselves helping a young girl named Jessica, whose pet goat has gone missing, zooming her around on their broomstick in a madcap search. But not everyone in Covenly is as accepting of the sisters as Jessica, and soon threatening notes turn up, meant to intimidate the unusual sisters into leaving.
Rich with wordplay, allusions, and whimsy, the story is one of acceptance and expectations, and how things—and people—are rarely what they first seem. With the feel of a classic in the making, The Weird Sisters is an exciting start to a series that young readers will love.
We're incredibly excited to welcome Mark as our May 2022 writer in residence on Open Book, just as The Weird Sisters hits the shelves. Beginning next week, he will be sharing original pieces about his writing life on our writer in residence page, so don't miss out especially if you're a fan of or aspiring writer in the KidLit realm.
Today we get to speak with him about The Weird Sisters, and he tells us about why weirdness is both great and normal, about the only character in the book he doesn't relate to, and about some excellent lessons in writing and life that he learned from both his wife and the books of CanLit icon Gordon Korman.
Tell us about your new book and how it came to be.
Mark David Smith:
n a word: serendipity.
After my first picture book was accepted by Owlkids Books in 2019, I had a conference call with editorial director Karen Li to discuss the text. I ended the call with an Oh-by-the-way. I shared an idea about three naïve witches wanting to turn over a new leaf by solving mysteries: The Weird Sisters’ Detective Agency.
It just so happened that Owlkids was wrapping up a mystery series and was looking for a new one. Serendipity!
But it was just an idea. I hadn’t written a word.
Actually, that’s not quite true. I had a joke.
And when she asked for an outline a few months later, I scrambled to build a story around that joke.
I mean, the joke wasn’t that good.
But with Karen Li’s insights, my editor’s feedback, and Kari Rust’s brilliant illustrations, it has become something I’m really proud of: humorous wordplay, oddball characters, and references to Shakespeare’s Macbeth—all things I love! And best of all, I get to do it again! The Weird Sisters: A Note, A Goat, and a Casserole is the first book in the series.
Is there a message you hope kids might take away from reading your book?
The Weird Sisters are, well, weird. They dress funny. They misunderstand some pretty basic things that other Covenly residents take for granted. And then there’s that whole turning-people-into-frogs business. The sisters are not like you and me.
But then, we’re not like each other. We’re kind of weird, too.
That’s the point.
Everyone in Covenly is weird in their own way. And it’s our weirdness—our delights, our eccentricities, our tastes—that make us interesting.
WEIRD IS THE NEW NORMAL!
Is there a character in your book that you relate to? If so, in what ways are you similar to your character and in what ways are you different?
I think there’s probably a piece of me in every character in The Weird Sisters!
Like the sisters themselves, I’ve often felt like an outsider—a common experience for writers—and not always sure what the etiquette is. But also, like them, I care about people and tend to assume the best about them.
I suppose I’m also like the sisters’ 9-year-old friend, Jessica Nibley, in my sense of ethics—though she acts on her ethics more than I do. I usually just talk about them.
Like Cosmo Keene, the sisters’ grumpy neighbour, I can be resistant to change. And also like Cosmo, I love black licorice. A movie and bag of licorice allsorts? Yes, please!
The town’s lone police officer, Golsa Nazeri, wants to be a competent protector of her community. I, too, sometimes feel there’s more I could be doing for my neighbours.
Chelsea Oh, Jessica’s teacher, can be quite forgetful. Me? Guilty!
And then there’s timid Rupert Flinch, the sisters’ real estate agent. His day job is selling houses, but he is also an artist. I teach high school English, which I love, but I don’t think I could be happy if I weren’t creating something of my own.
The only character I really don’t relate to is the cat, Graymalkin. That snaggle-toothed feline is just up to no good! By the way, did you ever notice the similarity between the words “feline” and “villain”? Coincidence? I think not.
How do you cope with setbacks or tough points during the writing process? Do you have any strategies that are your go-to responses to difficult points in the process?
Perspective is everything. A rejection from a publisher means that I accomplished something: I wrote something, I submitted something. Those are the things I’m in control of. And if I’m stuck in where to go next in a story, then what? Is that a setback? That is the common experience of writers, which means I must be doing something right!
Writing is such a solitary pursuit most of the time. I must be my own champion. If I can’t encourage myself, no one else will do it for me!
What defines a great book for young readers, in your opinion? Tell us about one or two books you consider to be truly great kids books, whether you read them as a child or an adult.
The defining principle of great books for kids is “wish fulfillment.” Great books encourage kids to dream, to see themselves bigger, stronger, more resilient, more capable than they perhaps feel. And, seeing themselves in a character, they see a path toward making that dream a reality.
The first book I remember loving was This Can’t be Happening at MacDonald Hall, part of the Bruno and Boots series by Gordon Korman. Here were two well-meaning misfits who got into mischief because they insisted on seeking out—gasp in astonishment—fun. And they succeeded. Those characters showed me the value of a light heart, of not taking yourself too seriously, of putting interpersonal interests ahead of others’ expectations, of loyalty among friends. My wife, an elementary school teacher, has often extolled the virtue of “Relationships before Rules.” But I first learned that principle in Korman’s books.
What are you working on now?
I just got the green light for a third Weird Sisters book—I’m thrilled! (The second is already in production for Spring 2023.) And my agent and I are working on several manuscripts from picture books to middle grade sci-fi to YA historical fiction.
Also, I’m currently drywalling in my basement. Things are getting dusty.
And did I mention that I teach full-time?
I should probably work on working less.
[Long contemplative pause]
Mark David Smith is the author of The Deepest Dig and Caravaggio: Signed in Blood. A public school teacher, he lives in Port Coquitlam, British Columbia.