Questions and Answers for author Kara Casanova
You’ve instilled social values into the storyline of Elvis the Penguin. What are they?
There are many; the storyline is literally laden with wholesome and social values, which is one of the reasons I’m so proud of the book.
The most obvious social value in the book is anti-bullying. From the beginning of the story, Elvis is bullied and ridiculed because the feathers on his head are unlike the rest of the penguins’. The flamingoes are very disdainful of him because of it, and even Mario, who eventually becomes one of Elvis’ allies, initially makes fun of Elvis’ hair, too.
Lucy, Elvis’ best friend, has a very strong sense of right and wrong. She immediately defends Elvis, and unhesitatingly puts others in their place when they try to bully him. Lucy has Elvis’ back, and I think it’s important for children to understand that it’s okay for them to stand up for others who are being bullied. That’s one of the most important strategies for ending bullying.
I think most children will intuitively understand that making fun of Elvis’ hair is unfair and unkind. And, too, I hope they’ll come away with the understanding that what could have been a real deterrent to Elvis’ success, his hair, is actually one of the things that makes him unique and successful. Each of us has some characteristic that some could say was a flaw, but others could say is an asset. Let’s hope children will extrapolate that concept into a form of self-acceptance of their own characteristics, and further, turn those particular characteristics into assets instead of liabilities.
Accepting others from different cultural and socio-economic backgrounds is another value implied by Mario and his Gang, and is an extension of no bullying. When the Gang was transferred to the Habitat from the Bronx Zoo, the penguins and the flamingoes ostracized them because they were different. Their cultural differences instilled distrust and fear in the other animals; hence they didn’t feel welcomed into the general Habitat population. In response, the Gang lived alone in a secluded area of the Habitat, and stayed to themselves.
In the process of helping Elvis, the Gang is made to come out into the open, and begin integrating into the Habitat. Lucy and Elvis certainly begin accepting them, and even begin to form friendships with them. This infers the high value of cultural diversity into the storyline as well.
The other values that I hope children will intuit from the story are goal setting, determination and perseverance. We see Elvis almost give up on his goal of performing on stage. But then we see him pull himself up by the bootstraps, and make a plan to reach his goal.
He garners the support of his friends, and they work together to overcome the obstacles impeding Elvis’ success. And the value of that is being unafraid to ask for help when you need it, something many of us struggle with. I certainly do. So the flip side of asking for help brings into the story the value of faithful, enduring friendship, and the service of others.
Are there any other messages you hope children will take away from Elvis the Penguin?
Yes, there is, and it’s a very important one. I believe that many of today’s children don’t know very much about Elvis Presley, or about the tremendous contribution that he made to music. Except for those children who’ve grown up in a family of fans, for many children today Elvis the Penguin may be the first time they’ve ever really heard of Elvis Presley. For children raised in a fan family, I hope the book will give their parents and grandparents another means of sharing their love of Elvis with the children in their lives. But for the rest, I’m hoping the book will expose Elvis’ legacy to those children who might not otherwise hear of him.
I didn’t grow up in an Elvis household, but I had the benefit of growing up in an Elvis Presley world. When I was a kid in the 60s and 70s, Elvis was alive, and he was just everywhere: in the news, on the radio, doing TV shows, etc. Like most kids at that time, I knew who he was and knew the words to some of his songs. But it wasn’t as though I ever gave very much thought to him. He was just always there.
I visited Graceland three times in my 20s during my first career as a travel agent. I escorted two tour groups there, and later went back with one of my sisters. I enjoyed visiting Graceland, but honestly, I didn’t come to an awareness of Elvis’ enormous contribution until after I had written Elvis the Penguin. I hope that future generations of fans won’t have to wait as long as I did to gain an appreciation of him.
Then do you consider yourself an Elvis Presley fan?
I’ve been asked that quite often, and my answer is that I feel a tremendous reverence for Elvis Presley and his legacy. I find it staggering that this young man came onto the world scene, and literally changed the course of music forever. I mean, think about it; truly stop and think about what this man accomplished. The impact of Elvis’ life and work has affected not only music, but so much of our culture, and on such an unfathomably world-wide scale, that it’s simply awe inspiring.
When I think of the impacts that he made in his lifetime, I’m deeply amazed by it. I simply can’t imagine one person having such a range of abilities – the talent, the charisma, the sex appeal and the ambition – to affect the world on so many levels.
And because of the reverence that I feel about Elvis, I also feel a very great sense for honoring the legacy that he left us, and to be respectful of him for the extraordinary human being that he was.
I certainly have a sense that Elvis did something so remarkable that no one else will ever be able to duplicate it. And I like to hope that Elvis the Penguin will touch a few children’s hearts and imaginations enough that they’ll look into this remarkable man and his music, become lifelong fans, and keep his legacy going strong for future generations. It’s a legacy worth honoring and perpetuating for the future.
So in this context of being completely in awe of Elvis Presley and his legacy, then I guess that makes me a fan. Perhaps not a traditional, “die-hard” fan, but certainly someone who wants to see his legacy thriving for generations.
How did you come up with the idea for the story, Elvis the Penguin?
It’s a crazy story actually.
I was just being a mom.
You were just being a mom?
Yes, I was just being a mom, baking cookies for my children.
Christmas was coming and I was making packages of sugar cookies for my two youngest children to take to their friends at school. Each package was going to have a snowflake, a polar bear, and of course, a penguin inside.
My oldest daughter, Fifi, arrived home for the holidays from university. We put the two little ones to bed, and stayed up late into the night icing cookies.
Long about the wee hours of the morning, I got around to icing the penguins. I’d saved them for last because black icing can be tricky to work with, and I was nervous about icing them. Finally, I started icing them, and sure enough, every time I’d come around their little heads, the black icing would do this really weird thing. It wanted to flip up in this really bizarre way, kind of like a pompadour. I just couldn’t get it to work right. I kept trying and trying, but every single time, it just went cuckoo.
I finished the last one, stepped back to take a look, and couldn’t believe what I was seeing.
I busted out laughing and said, “Fifi, look at these crazy penguins! They look like a bunch of Elvis Impersonators!”
Well, we just rolled. We were laughing so hard, we were literally falling off our stools. I don’t know if we were just punch drunk from tiredness, or what, but those penguins were hysterical! I had a whole flock of Elvis Impersonators roosting on my kitchen counter. They were so ludicrous, I grabbed my camera and took pictures.
It took us forever to stop giggling. But after a while, I turned to my daughter and said, “Fi, if you were a penguin, and you wanted to be an Impersonator, I wonder what you would have to go through to make that happen.”
All through the holidays, I’d get tickled every time I thought about those Elvis Impersonating penguins. I don’t know why, but I just thought penguins being impersonators was the funniest idea!
So the holidays ended and I got everyone back to their school and work routines. And still, I’m thinking about those silly cookies.
Finally, I decided to just write it down, mostly just to get it out of my system, but also I was worried I’d soon get busy and forget all about it.
Is Elvis the Penguin your only work of fiction?
Yes, it is. Just prior to writing the book, I worked as the editor of a local, parenting magazine for a short time, and then spent a year writing parenting articles freelance. However, the predominance of my writing has been marketing and branding collaterals, public relations materials, and business proposals. I also have a series of foreign language books for very young children which I’d like to see e-published in the near future. And I’m currently formulating ideas for the second Elvis the Penguin book.
What children’s books inspired you as a child?
It’s a funny thing about books – the first one you read that completely captures you is the one you’ll never forget. And for me, I was profoundly changed by one my moma gave to me the summer before fifth grade, A Lantern In Her Hand by Bess Streeter Aldrich.
The story of Abbie Deal affected me tremendously; in fact, viscerally. I’ve read it countless times. I think in many ways, Abbie Deal and my moma, Cookie, were the two women most responsible for my becoming the kind of mother and woman that I am. They were both strong, loving women who endured great difficulties in life with grace, dignity and heart, and I like to believe that I’ve emulated the spirit in which they lived their lives.
Abbie Deal was a very honorable woman who deeply appreciated the people, blessings and gifts in her life. I think her story was the first time I became aware that being an honorable person was a trait I wanted to acquire, and my first thoughts for choosing to go about living my life with a measure of gratitude and joyfulness.
White Mother by Jessie Bennett Sams was another book that deeply affected me when my sixth grade teacher read it to our class. It’s the story of a set of orphaned, black twins whose lives were changed when a white woman quietly goes against societal norms by becoming their de facto mother and tenderly shepherding them to adulthood. While I was vaguely aware of the racial connotations of the book in the sixth grade, it was the relationship of the woman and the girls that stayed with me over the years. I couldn’t forget about the story, and found a copy once I was an adult.
In reading it from an adult’s perspective, it began to shift my internal perceptions so that my definition of compassion and being a decent human being grew over time to encompass all people, of all races and ethnicities. The book was the beginning of taking race and ethnicity out of the equation for how I saw myself as a person, and the way I wanted to live and interact with others. It didn’t cause an immediate change in the sixth grade, but it planted a seed. It was more that I knew this book was out there, and that I needed to get a hold of it so I could read it again and really begin to understand its deeper message. It was the very beginning of my becoming color blind in regards to other people.
My Side of the Mountain by Jean Craighead George is the book that developed my sense of boldness and courage. I desperately wanted to live the independent, self-reliant life and adventures of Sam Gribley, and spent most of sixth grade trying to work out the logistics of how I could make that happen! I had a plan all laid out in a notebook, but ultimately, it was the tree that was the snag – after months and months of searching, I couldn’t find a tree large enough to lay down in.
Ester Forbes, who wrote Johnny Tremain, fed my patriotism. Johnny’s exploits, combined with the stories of my grandfather Casanova’s acts of heroism during WWII, were the childhood stories that instilled in me a deep love for my country.
Rebecca by Daphne du Maurier was the first book that had me breathlessly turning each page to see what it held. It was absolutely spellbinding, haunting and spectacular. We read it in eighth grade, and the entire class was caught up in its magic. And at that unsophisticated age, I never saw that stunning conclusion coming. I was every bit as unsuspecting and unprepared for the story’s ending revelations as the innocent and naïve Mrs. de Winter!
There were many, many books of my childhood – Little House On The Prairie, Nancy Drew, Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret, to name a few. I still have the copy of A Lantern In Her Hand that Moma gave me, but I purchased copies of the rest of my childhood books as an adult. From time to time, I will take up any one of them and re-read it again.