OAKLAND -- Joanne Rocklin has always been a reader and a writer, from childhood and writing for her own children through her years as an elementary school teacher and clinical psychologist.
And although she first tried her hand writing picture books, she found her calling with middle-grade novels, ones where memories of her 10-year-old self and her love of humor combine.
The Montclair resident now writes children's books full-time and has built up a personal library of three books for early readers and five novels for ages 8 to 12, with a sixth novel that she's has recently finished.
When asked what brought her to this specific age group, Rocklin replied that this is where her talent and voice lies.
"I have a huge detailed memory of myself at that age because I was reading a lot and also writing letters," she said. "I don't think I made a decision, I think it just happened and that's where I have the most fun."
The topics she covers are serious, things like dealing with loss, forming communities, growing and evolving. They are written about with humor, a surefire way to get through problems and a method that fits in with the mind of her main characters, usually around 10 years old, the age that hovers between understanding and not understanding.
Rocklin, who does a lot of school and library presentations, is often asked by children about where she gets her ideas for each book.
"For me, it starts with sort of a good idea or concept that leads to questions. A phrase or a thought and I want to know what I can do with it," Rocklin said. "Then questions start coming and after that a character who will answer the questions and lend itself to the story."
The novel, "The Five Lives of Our Cat Zook," came about after Rocklin rescued a cat who had a BB gun pellet embedded in her flank. One day, the author woke up with the thought that cats have nine lives and used this as the thread of a new novel -- a rescue cat, a BB gun pellet -- then the questions started coming.
The story revolves around a middle-grade girl, Oona, her brother Fred, and their injured cat, Zook.
"Oona tells her brother not to worry about Zook because he has nine lives and I'm going to tell you stories of Zook's other lives," Rocklin said. "The book is threaded with these stories who Oona learned from her own father who is deceased and she hasn't gotten oven his death."
Rocklin has no agenda in mind as she begins a story but as characters develop a message evolves that reflects back on the changes the characters have gone through. This message is one of hopefulness, a "now I understand and things can change for the better" message, an important feature of children's literature.
For her current book coming out this summer, "Flea Brain Loves Franny," Rocklin turned to historical fiction and a children's favorite, "Charlotte's Web." She discovered that the book had been published in 1952, after the summer of America's biggest polio epidemic. Then she heard someone say "you can stop reading messages in spider webs" and a story was born.
"A lot of people today don't know anything about polio, had never heard of an iron lung and how much of a savior the vaccines were to parents worried about their kids," she said. "I decided to write about a girl, Franny, who was in an iron lung and had a nun read 'Charlotte's Web' to her. When Franny gets home, she wishes for her own spider and she gets it in the form of her dog's flea, a brilliant flea named Flea Brain."
In middle-grade novels, Rocklin has found her niche, allowing her to feel attached to her characters and to use humor. The genre also gives her the opportunity to visit schools and talk to students about the writing process, often resorting to a cat puppet who is dealing with writer's block.
As a lover of children's literature, the author is a strong advocate for local, independent book stores including Montclair's A Great Good Place for Books.
"To be a writer, you need to read and I really want to plug these stores where the people there know and love books and can guide you as to what would suit your purposes," Rocklin said. "These stores are so great for the community and I'm just trying to support them."
For more information about author Joanne Rocklin and her books, go to www.joannerocklin.com.