TORONTO — Celebrated Irish-Canadian novelist Emma Donoghue turned to a pair of trusted advisers for her first foray into children's literature: her kids.
Donoghue's son Finn was seven and daughter Una was three when she began working on "The Lotterys Plus One" six years ago, and she now says "it feels almost like I've written this with my kids."
"I've drawn on so many of their insights and comments about what goes on in the world as children," Donoghue said in a recent interview from London, Ont., where she lives.
"In fact, each of them has been highly amused to mark up a copy of the book with all the bits they feel that are stolen from them."
The acclaimed fiction writer, whose work includes the international bestseller "Room" and 2016 Scotiabank Giller Prize finalist "The Wonder," said she didn't underestimate the task of writing a novel for children.
"I've really tried to study the genre and figure out in what ways you can bend it, and in what ways you really do have to satisfy the child reader," said Donoghue.
"I think there's nothing worse than an adult author kind of flouncing into children's fiction and thinking she can master it immediately."
"The Lotterys Plus One" (HarperCollins) invites readers into the world of a thoroughly modern family: two same-sex couples raising a multiethnic group of kids in Toronto.
The colourfully named parents are a man from Delhi known as PapaDum who fell in love with PopCorn of the Yukon, alongside MaxiMum of Jamaica and a Mohawk woman named CardaMom.
The couples are best friends who have a baby together. After winning the jackpot, the four parents give up their jobs to move into a home they dub "Camelottery," along with a brood of seven kids and five pets.
"In a way, the Lotterys are just an ordinary loving family, but just writ large," said Donoghue, who grew up the youngest of eight children.
"I wanted to honour the fact that every family is its own mini-culture with its rituals. So, I thought the Lotterys would have a lot of slang specifically to their house and family members, and I thought specifically the parents should have fun parent names."
Donoghue said she wanted to find a way to "stretch the traditional family unit" beyond just having a grandfather suddenly move in, and saw having two sets of parents as the way forward.
The story is not without real-life precedent. Donoghue pointed to a landmark 2007 Ontario Court of Appeal ruling that stated a boy could legally have three parents: his biological father and mother, and his birth mom's lesbian partner.
"I was trying to write a story that epitomizes Canadian liberal values and set it in Toronto. I think it's perfectly plausible, yet it's still at that slightly extreme edge which gives the story an idyllic, magical feel."
The issue of gender identity is also addressed; the youngest daughter, Briar, announces at age three that she now identifies as Brian.
"He kind of represents that very big group of children who are in some way gender-variant in their childhood, and don't necessarily grow up to identify as trans," said Donoghue. "I think being uncertain of how the gender categories fit is really common in childhood, so I wanted to honour that and honour the undecidedness of Brian.
"She doesn't mind going by 'she,' but she doesn't like the word 'girl.' And so many people I know — in particular as small children — they have that rebellion against what they perceived as the split into Barbie culture and Transformers culture; the awful gulf between the pink aisle and the blue aisle. I think Brian is a really useful character to gently question gender for everyone in the book."
Donoghue said she was quite taken by the work of New York-based illustrator Caroline Hadilaksono in the novel, saying her images lent "a lovely sense" of the characters and their interpersonal relationships.
"I like the messy angles. There's lots of awkward elbows and knees in her illustrations. It's not too pretty or neat and it captures that slightly ramshackle, shambolic quality of life in this household."
Donoghue said she has never been "snobby" about novels geared towards younger readers, having "lapped up" "The Hunger Games" books among others. She hopes her debut literary offering for kids will also have cross-generational appeal.
"I think these are rather false distinctions that we put in place. These are just publishing labels. I hope this finds readers of all ages."
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Lauren La Rose, The Canadian Press