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(How) Can we read? An interview with Laura Anne Bird
+ Micro review: Crossing the Pressure Line
You know how sometimes you’re aware of someone — maybe online, maybe through word-of-mouth, maybe some other cosmic way — and you just know in your bones that they’re wonderful?
That person was Laura Anne Bird for me.
A mutual friend introduced us last summer over Instagram with the assurance that we needed to be in each other’s orbit. Laura, kind soul that she is, left a copy of her middle-grade novel on her front porch for me to stop by and pick up on my way home from work. Then I showed up at an event at a local bookstore to meet her in person, and that was it: I joined Laura’s fan club right then and there. (Little did I know I was already a fan of the Bird family — her wonderful husband is my kid’s orthodontist 😂)
I was pretty sure things couldn’t get better — I’d met someone who I genuinely connected with, and then she became a friend who I adore; what more do I need? — but then I read her book.
To really understand the impact it had on me, let me tell you a short story:
Once upon a time there was a little girl, not yet school-aged, who was visiting her beloved grandparents in Milwaukee. Her grandfather, one of her favorite people in the world, was standing in his driveway one afternoon. The little girl, full of joy, came out of the garage door and ran at him at full speed, catapulting into his open arms as he leaned down for a hug. And she knocked him over. Onto hard concrete. Which shattered his hip and pelvis and bones in his leg.
Someone in the little girl’s family called 911 — she doesn’t remember who, only that when the EMTs arrived, she was so terrified by what she’d done, she’d wedged her body behind her grandparent’s garage refrigerator, a space perhaps six inches deep between the appliance and the wall, and refused to come out.
Emotionally she remained there for the next 25+ years, blaming herself for the accident and the nearly two decades of health problems it caused her grandfather.
It’s not a spoiler to say that Laura’s book (I can’t bring myself to call her Bird like I don’t know her, so you’ll just have to live with it), Crossing the Pressure Line, opens with a similar situation — 12yo Clare Burch has just lost her own grandfather under circumstances entirely outside of her control, but which she feels responsible for nevertheless.
Grandpa Anthony’s death sets in motion a series of events that will change Clare and her life in more ways than one: she and her family, including her little blind dachshund, head to the Northwoods of Wisconsin to live differently for the summer. She still faces challenges there — wherever you go, there you are, no matter your age — but as she works through dicey situations with friends old and new, works like crazy to meet her swim team goals, and confronts danger, she comes to see how resilient she really is.
I can count on two fingers the number of books that have ever made me cry, and let me just say that I bawled my head off reading Crossing the Pressure Line. I immediately texted Laura: “Thank you, thank you, thank you for the gift of your wonderful book.”
And I meant it. Crossing the Pressure Line is an excellent read for summer — it captures all the sweet parts perfectly. But it also portrays the experience of young grief — not to mention self-blame — with incredible accuracy, empathy, and heart. I absolutely loved it. And I absolutely love Laura Anne Bird.
Here’s more about her, in her own words:
A Milwaukee native, Laura Anne Bird graduated from the University of Notre Dame with a degree in English. She lives in Madison, Wisconsin, with her husband, three teenagers, and little blind dachshund.
When she’s not reading, writing, or reviewing books, she loves to exercise and explore the outdoors. Crossing the Pressure Line is her first novel. You can find her on Instagram @laura_at_the_library.
(Seriously, if you want lovely, thoughtful book reviews, follow Laura on Instagram — she never disappoints.)
I know middle-grade books hold a special place in your heart (mine too!) What about middle-grade fiction, in particular, speaks to you? Why do you love it so much?
Middle-grade novels get to the heart of a tender, pivotal time, when kids are figuring out who, what, and how they want to be. They long for independence, but they still want the reassurance of family. They want to stand out from the crowd, but they still want to fit in. Often, these competing values collide like furious little atoms, which is difficult in real life but fantastic for plotlines.
Middle-grade novels are geared toward kids ages 8-12, but their themes are universal and eternal — like what it means to belong, why it’s crucial to speak up against injustice, and how to become our own best cheerleaders.
Middle-grade novels encourage tolerance, acceptance, and compassion. They remind us that everybody struggles in different ways, so it’s good to be kind — always.
Onto Crossing the Pressure Line — can you tell us about the genesis of the story?
Fifteen years ago, when my three kids were toddlers and therefore climbing all over me like I was a jungle gym, an idea flew into my head from out of nowhere.
Clarification: I no longer believe the idea flew into my head from out of nowhere. In Big Magic: Creative Living Beyond Fear, Elizabeth Gilbert writes about how Creative Mother Universe sends ideas to us. They’re hot little balls of energy, and it’s our job to pick them up and do something with them, or they’ll roll along to someone else. That’s what happened when my kids were climbing all over me: Creative Mother Universe had just sent me an idea! How terribly lucky I was, and I didn’t even realize it at the time!
The image presented to me by Creative Mother Universe was of Clare, but of course I didn’t know it was Clare right then. She was simply a thirteen-year-old girl — small, hazel-eyed, with hair the color of acorns in autumn. She was wearing something … unexpected, and she was stepping through the door of a place that was … unique. (No spoilers.) This image would ultimately become the closing scene of Crossing the Pressure Line.
But remember, I had three babies and zero time or energy to write, even though my life goal was to publish a children’s book. So for many years — while changing diapers, folding laundry, making lunches—I thought long and hard about that girl in my head. I named her Clare Burch, I gave her a family, and I figured out what had happened in her life that had brought her to that very interesting moment in time.
When my kids turned into teenagers and I no longer had an excuse to ignore Creative Mother Universe, I finally sat down to write. I’d thought about the characters and story for so long, it was a relief to get everything on the page.
When we first meet Clare, we learn that she has recently experienced the devastating loss of her grandfather. Did you know from the beginning that this would be Clare’s struggle, or did the theme of grief (and resilience and recovery) develop over time?
All along, I knew that Clare’s “errand” would be to deliver her grandfather’s ashes to his (and her) favorite place on earth. The opening of the book is tough because it centers on her trauma of losing Grandpa Anthony, but children everywhere face loss and grief, and I wanted them to know they’re not alone.
Once Clare’s character development ramps up, she experiences significant growth and ultimately finds a new sense of purpose, which is something we’re all forced to do in life. But to be honest, Clare ended up being more resilient than I envisioned, and there were a number of moments that I literally cried when I was writing because I was so moved by her courage. She just turned into this little bulldog for me—small, mighty, and so brave. She gives me faith.
This book captures Northern Wisconsin incredibly well. (I'm sure there are at least a few readers out there who think some of your more outlandish details are made up, but I was born and raised here, and I can attest to the utter truth of it all.) Was it challenging to try to do justice to such a unique place and people?
I wouldn’t necessarily say it was challenging to do justice to such an inimitable place; rather, it was deeply rewarding, because the people, landscape, and beauty of the Northwoods have taken up residence in my soul.
I worked diligently to research and nail all the quirks of “up north,” especially with how folks talk, fish, and interact. To date, I haven’t been told by anyone that my story is unrealistic. (Whew!)
My publisher wanted to have exquisite little black-and-white sketches at the start of every chapter in case a reader had never been to a meat raffle before, or seen a musky, or paddled a canoe. My amazing illustrator, Jayden Ellsworth, did a stunning job of capturing these particular objects, and we partnered closely to ensure that every single detail of every sketch was accurate.
How much of your own story is in this story?
Crossing the Pressure Line is fiction of course, but I borrowed liberally from my own life.
First of all, I feel most whole and alive when I’m in northern Wisconsin, swimming, biking, and getting lost in the woods. In the area that inspired my town of Alwyn, I’ve seen otters, eagles, hummingbirds, and a slew of other gorgeous creatures. (No spoilers, but there’s a certain run-in with an animal that occurs in my book that happened to me a few years ago. Remembering it still makes my legs shake.)
My three children were adopted internationally, just like Clare’s new friends, Lola and Theo. I continue to be fascinated by my kids’ quests for self-identity, even as they occasionally wrestle with the empty spaces inside of them. I can’t provide my daughters and son with many helpful details about their respective birth families, but they aren’t cut off at the knees by this. They are courageous, and I’m in awe.
My husband is an avid angler, and he taught our kids everything about fishing when they were little. Even now, I love to watch them choose their worms, leeches, or fancy-looking lures, and then wait patiently for a tug at the end of their line. The countless hours we’ve spent on the water inspired Clare and Grandpa Anthony’s own love of fishing.
Finally, I adore books, art, and dogs—especially blind dachshunds. (I’ve been a dog mom to two of them!) I had to incorporate these precious things in my novel.
What is the pressure line, exactly?
The first time I took a trip to the Northwoods, I was dating my now-husband, Chip. We were heading north on Highway 51, and just past Tomahawk, we crossed over State Highway 8.
At this point, Chip rolled down every window in the car and started hollering, "We're crossing the pressure line!" I had no idea what he was talking about. He explained that Highway 8 represented an imaginary latitude of sorts, and as he crossed it, he intentionally left behind all that he didn’t need.
His words on that trip became Clare’s grandfather’s words in my book: “Feel it? Breathe it in! The air’s got more oxygen now! Be present right here, right now!” I’m a sucker for a good visual, so I love the idea of crossing from one place into another to gain a fresh perspective. Fortunately, Chip didn’t mind that I stole all of this from him.
On a side note, I’ve found a lot of joy talking with kids who live in the Northwoods about the concept of the pressure line, because obviously my pressure line isn’t theirs. When I ask where they go to search for peace and comfort, they tell me things like: the road in Colorado where I can finally see the mountains; the ocean in Florida; the steps going up to my grandma’s front door. These responses make my heart swell.
Do you have a few middle-grade fiction titles you'd like to recommend to us?
Yes, I do!
A Place to Hang the Moon, Kate Albus’s delightful debut, kicks off in London during the early days of WWII. Three orphaned siblings devise a plan to secure a forever family after being sent to the British countryside during Operation Pied Piper. Albus writes beautifully about the ties that connect us—and how gestures of human kindness can make all the difference in the world.
The gripping and relevant Nowhere Boy by Katherine Marsh centers on fourteen-year-old Syrian refugee Ahmed, who ends up hiding in a cellar after a perilous journey to Brussels. In a clever plot twist, Ahmed meets Max, a thirteen-year-old American whose family has relocated to Belgium. Although cultural and language barriers persist between the two boys, their friendship is one of empathy and acceptance.
In Christina Soontornvat’s The Last Mapmaker, twelve-year-old Sai lives in squalor, thanks to her world-class pickpocket father. She works hard to support herself financially, so she’s thrilled when an esteemed mapmaker hires her to be his assistant on the journey of a lifetime. Sai climbs aboard a ship named Prosperity and crosses the stormy seas to the Sunderlands, where dragons may or may not exist.
I want to offer the biggest thank you to Laura for not only taking the time to do this interview but also being the sweetest friend.
Crossing the Pressure Line is truly special to me and I can’t recommend it highly enough.(The book trailer below captures only a smidgen of the beauty of this story — and Northern Wisconsin!)
Thanks for reading today, and always,
P.S. Bookshop.org links in this post are affiliate ones — meaning I get a tiny commission if you use any of them to make a purchase. I appreciate your support!