When Rain Turns to Snow by Jane Godwin

Inside the CBCA Shortlist

“I’m a good writer, but I don’t get great marks because I don’t follow the formula like in Naplan. And I read books about words that are meant for adults, but I can never think of the right words to say when I’m speaking.”  (When Rain Turns to Snow)

When Rain Turns to Snow by Jane Godwin (Lothian Children’s Books) is thoughtful, heart-warming fiction for middle readers. Both protagonists, 13-turning-14-year-old Lissa and 13-year-old Reed, are caring young people who are prepared to take on responsibilities beyond what should be expected of them. This takes them into difficult and even life-threatening circumstances.

Thank you for speaking to PaperbarkWords, Jane.

Thank you for the opportunity.

Your characters, in particular Lissa and Reed, are extremely well crafted. They seem to be quite ordinary (in the most positive way), real young teens living lives that are messy and authentic.

What are their character traits?

Thanks, Joy, I really did try to portray them as real kids with lives that other kids would recognise. Okay, to their character traits:

Lissa is a non-conformist and I’d say she’s more introvert than extrovert. She’s a typical nearly-fourteen-year-old in that she’s mature in some ways, and less so in others. At this point in her life, Lissa is at a crossroads – her friend Hana has moved interstate, her mum has a new partner, her brother Harry has become distant, and she feels a bit lost. She’s loyal, so she feels it deeply when at different times she perceives that Hana, Harry and her mum seem to desert her. Her actions in the story bring the elements of her family together.

In many ways Lissa is strong, but she is also socially insecure and not as engaged with social media and the social life of the other girls at school. She finds it hard to make new friends. She likes words, and tries to use words and lists to make sense of the world. But words are nuanced, they have many definitions and meanings. Lissa comes to realise that life is nuanced and complicated, too, and maybe that’s okay.

Reed is more introverted than Lissa, and he too is naïve in some ways; wise in others. Like Lissa, he is literally half child, half adult. Reed feels he has to carry the world on his shoulders. He’s a big worrier. He’s anxious about things close to home, like his brother Eliot, and he’s anxious about big things he feels he can’t change, like global warming. He’s also very gentle and caring. Reed is sometimes the voice of conscience in the story.

Both Reed and Lissa become overwhelmed by responsibility as the story progresses.

They also each carry a feeling of not quite knowing who they are. This is because although they’re not aware of it, they both have origins that are different from what they believe. For me, this represented a metaphor for every young person who is questioning, exploring their identity and values. I think this is a universal feeling when you’re on the cusp of adulthood.  

Why isn’t Lissa getting on well with the other girls?

Lissa is the type of girl who has only ever needed a best friend, not a large group. Since she’s started secondary school, that best friend has been Hana. Then when Hana leaves, part way through Year Eight, Lissa loses her footing and her place in the social order of things. From my own anecdotal observational evidence (!), Year Eight can be a very difficult one socially for girls. I wrote an ending where Lissa found a new group of much nicer friends than the ones she’s in with, but it went on and on and I felt as if I ended the book about six times so I left it open in the end. But I hope I show that Lissa has the confidence by the end of the story to stand up to some of the girls who bully her, and also to seek out more appropriate friendships. And she has Reed. He will be her friend for life.

What catalysts change your characters’ lives?

I think the main catalysts for changing their lives would be: finding out that they are not who they thought they were; understanding that their parents had – and still have – lives that are separate from their children’s; realising that as young people they can’t take responsibility for everything, and understanding that people are complex and they have complex motivations. Nothing is simple.

Names are significant. Could you tell us why you have chosen one of more of your characters’ names?

Lissa is very interested in words – their sounds, and their meanings. Reed and Lissa are words that have long sounds in the middle. They are gentle sounds, not harsh. Reed as a name also has added interest because it’s a homophone. I like to choose names that are also words with various meanings. Mercy is another character’s name, and that too resonates with meaning.

What is the importance of family in your novel?

I suppose I’m talking about what constitutes a family, and also family secrets. In contemporary society, the notion of a family is constantly changing and developing and broadening. I’m asking the question, Does a family have to consist only of blood relatives? What other connections can people have that we might see as familial? I think the most important part of an intimate network is a sense of love, obviously, but also a sense of belonging, of connection. I think this is tremendously important for teenagers in particular. Sometimes they give the distinct impression that they don’t want to belong, they push against it, but they need to feel somehow that they are still part of the group, and important to the group. That the group still values them.

I was also interested in exploring the idea of that first time you really see your parents as adults in the world apart from you. That you don’t know everything about them, they haven’t shared everything with you, that they have lived a lot of their lives without you. I think this is part of growing up, seeing your parents in this way. It’s part of letting go of the egocentricity of childhood.

The nature/nurture discussion is also touched on in the book. And all the implications of an individual’s actions – the way a secret held for a long time will always emerge in some way in a family, even if it’s a generation (or more) later.

How do you show us what Lissa’s older brother Harry is experiencing and feeling?

Harry is perceived mainly through Lissa’s template, through her observations and interpretations, and through anecdotes she hears. The reader also learns more about Harry’s world through the passages in italics between each chapter, where I was able to show the points of view of characters whose perspective is not revealed through the third- person subjective voice (Lissa’s) of the main narrative.

Which character developed further than you perhaps expected, or surprised you? Please explain.

That’s an interesting question, Joy. Each of them developed further in their own ways, as this happens when you really immerse yourself in a character and try to see each character as a three-dimensional, real person, not just an avatar you’re inventing for the purposes of a story. You want their actions to feel natural, even ultimately inevitable. If I had to pick one, I might say Troy, Lissa and Harry’s mum’s new partner. He isn’t a main character in the book, but he has his own story that I hadn’t intended to write, but it wrote itself into the novel in the end.

Jane Godwin

Social media is a key part of your story. What would you like your readers to understand about it?

Such a minefield! Don’t get me started!

Often in books for this age group, writers avoid social media because it’s just too hard to get it right. I have done this too – invented ways that characters don’t have access. In As Happy as Here they only had limited use of phones in a hospital ward, which is actually accurate but it was also lucky for me with the story.

Although the emotional landscape of childhood is not very different from when you or I grew up, in terms of social media it is. Sure, many of us are on Facebook and Instagram now, some of us are familiar with Snapchat or Tik Tok, but we weren’t when we were twelve, so the experience for us is vastly different. Bullying isn’t new, but it was much more contained pre social media.  

But I suppose the more I observed and interacted with kids and young people, the more I saw that I couldn’t avoid this anymore as it is so central to their culture. Having said that, there will always be a gap, because no matter how well I understand Instagram or Snapchat or Tik Tok now, I don’t understand it as a 13-year-old does. It’s a real challenge for writers for this age group, I believe – to come across as authentic and demonstrate an understanding of this part of our culture when we are not natives.

I observed a lot, I have my own limited use of social media, I have lots of teen nieces and nephews, (my kids are older) and one young person I know was the subject of a call-out campaign. As far as any book is a reflection of the author’s experience of the world, some of that has fed into the story. And when something like this happens to someone you know, you talk about it with other people, and they open up about their own experiences, and their own kids’ experiences with social-media bullying etc. I’m sure we all know someone who has been the target of this to some extent.

The narrative is complicated. I support #metoo and believe it absolutely has to happen, and keep happening, to address so many dark parts of our culture. Unfortunately, as happens sometimes with social movements, some aspects of this important and essential cause have at times been hijacked to suit other agendas, used for other purposes, and the result is a kind of lynch-mob mentality that can undermine the value of the whole movement, demeaning both men and women in the process.

I feel there needs to be books that explore these tough ideas for young people. Their culture is dominated by social media. Sure it can be used for good, as it has been recently during lock-down. But not exploring it in any depth because we’re too scared won’t help the problem. The cynicism, narcissism and dogma of social media is difficult enough for us as adults to make sense of, but for young people with limited experience of relationships, a world view that is commensurate to the time they’ve lived on the planet, and still exploring their identity, it’s dangerous. Just imagine if every stupid thing you did, said or wrote in your teenage and early adult years was now accessible to anyone who cared to look for it, edit it, curate it and present it in any way they liked. That’s the situation these kids are in. Nuance, humility, and empathy are rare in the online world, where identities tend to be polarised, simplistic, rigid. There’s a superficial affirming of one’s identity and a tendency to see the other party as some kind of projection, a cartoon character. Social media amplifies hate and shallowness. Nothing is nuanced.

But life is nuanced. At its worst, social media rids us of our humanity.

I don’t want to preach, I’m not interested in being didactic, but we live in a world where the internet has eroded the credibility of all information; as the cliché states, a post-truth world. I’m exploring that as honestly as I can, as I am now, and the young person inside me is exploring it too.

All we have is each other. And if everyone turns on each other, then we don’t have anything.

Enough of the rant! Okay I bet you wished you hadn’t asked me that question now, Joy!

(On the contrary, Jane. I am very moved by your response. Thanks for your thoughtful reply.)

Why have you included parts in italics?

I did this to add dramatic tension, to reveal aspects of character that I couldn’t reveal through the third-person subjective voice, and as a technical challenge or exercise. With each new book, I try to tackle a different aspect of technique, be it voice, structure or an element of style.  

Lissa loves words. One of her favourites is ‘saudade’ (page 157). Could you tell us about this word?

Yes, Lissa does love words! I’ve been trying to remember where I came across the word ‘saudade’. I think it was in a poem. I had never seen it before, so I read a bit about it. It’s a Brazilian Portuguese word. There’s no equivalent word in English, but maybe ‘bitter-sweet’ might be similar. It describes a state of longing for something absent that you may never have again. A kind of nostalgic longing for something that has passed, be that a time, a place, or a person. A presence of absence. I think each character in the book feels a sense of saudade, and I recognise that feeling, as well.

Why have you chosen the title When Rain Turns to Snow?

The title comes from one day last winter when I was at my son’s place. He lives near Daylesford, in Central Victoria, on the edge of the Wombat State Forest. His house is in a clearing surrounded by forest. (I based the old house and clearing in the story on my son’s place.) I was standing on his deck and it was raining hard, loud on the tin roof. It was a very cold day, and as I was standing there, the temperature dropped that couple of degrees, and all of a sudden everything was quiet, there was no more loud rain on the roof, and the rain itself slowed down, became soft and gentle because it had turned to snow. And it was like this magical moment in time, when all that was harsh and loud transformed into something graceful. There’s a scene in the book when this happens, and it corresponds with a sad but poignant, gentle discovery for Reed.

What most appeals about the cover?

I feel that the brilliant Allison Colpoys has perfectly captured the moment in the story when the rain turns to snow. I love the way Allison has drawn the figures so that we don’t see all of them, so can fill in the gaps with our own rendering. The cover to me feels kind of magical, which I guess is like the moment in the story, too. And I love the silver matt snowflakes. I really love the cover!

I love that you have a chapter called ‘Joy’. What embodies joy in the novel?

It’s such a pure, short, sweet, unambiguous word. As Lissa says in the book, it means only joy. And it’s a great name! I’ve always thought that a baby’s laugh embodies joy, and a close second to that would be a baby’s smile. Mercy’s smile gives Reed and Lissa moments of joy throughout their ordeal, and by the end of the book, there’s a sense of hope, a sense that even though many aspects of life are challenging, our characters will emerge with integrity, and joy will endure. I often think that a baby is literal living proof that life goes on, a quiet revolt against all that is difficult and harsh and nihilistic in the world. A baby is evidence that we’re keeping going with life, that we’re all still growing. Hope, love, connection, belonging, true friendship – they are all part of the joy in this story.

What is the significance of Bruce Springsteen in the book?

Well, I have to say that I find Bruce Springsteen almost unbearably nostalgic because he’s one of my husband Michael’s favourite musicians, and whenever I hear Springsteen’s voice I think of the time when Michael and I first met, in our early 20s. Our son, who’s a musician, also loved, and still loves, Bruce Springsteen. The name of our son’s band is a kind of homage to the E Street Band. So Bruce holds a special place in the collective heart of my family.

But Bruce Springsteen is also employed in the book to explore the idea of understanding aspects of your world when you’re a child, and how a child makes sense of nuance. A friend of mine has a little boy who is a donor child and has always loved Bruce Springsteen. Not your average musician of choice for a toddler! For a while when he was around four, this little boy really thought that Bruce Springsteen was his father. His mother had no idea of this, until one day the little boy was watching a TV documentary about Bruce Springsteen, and I think Bruce must have mentioned the names of his children. The little boy went to his mother and said, ‘So Bruce Springsteen is not my father?’

You could see this as a sweet but ultimately ridiculous, childish thing to think, or you could see it as comprehending at some level something deep about the mystery of his origins. At some level he understood something way beyond his comprehension. I thought this was a beautiful metaphor for the deep and mysterious way that children make sense of complex aspects of their lives.

There’s also a wonderful side note to this anecdote. My friend had difficulties getting pregnant and maintaining a pregnancy, and it was at a Bruce Springsteen concert that she had this overwhelming feeling that her pregnancy was going to be successful, and it was. Did she somehow communicate something of this to her child? Carl Jung called this ‘synchronicity’ – an unexplainable causal relationship between things connected by meaning. There are a few moments of synchronicity featuring Bruce Springsteen in the story, and a little epilogue that suggests who Lissa may have met later in her teen years. I can’t say any more or I’ll give the story away!

You have written wonderful books across genres and age-groups. Could you tell us about a couple of them?

Thanks, Joy, that’s very generous. Okay, I’ll tell you about the most recent two, which are picture books Tilly and I’ll Always be Older than You.

Tilly is based on true events.  I grew up with three siblings. The youngest, Cait, had a bedroom that was a converted attic up in the roof of our old house. There was a wooden step up to Cait’s bedroom, which we all assumed was fixed to the wall and floor. Only five-year-old Cait knew that the step was freestanding and movable. She used to hide all her special treasures in the step, and none of us ever knew about it.

Then one day we had the house re-carpeted, and unbeknownst to Cait, carpet was laid over the step so that there was no access to it. Cait’s treasures were trapped!

She never told anyone about this until about eight years ago when she was in her early forties! Thinking about kids today, it may be surprising to them that Cait didn’t tell anyone, or seek help from our parents etc. But in the 1970s, when the story is set, this seemed perfectly normal. We didn’t expect to share everything with our parents then, and we didn’t expect that our parents would solve all our problems! I have asked Cait why she didn’t tell anyone, and it was partly because she felt embarrassed. I also believe it was something about not wanting to share her secret world, her inner life, even when it was being threatened. It was easier for children to have an inner life back then – when people had ramshackle houses and overgrown back gardens that you could lose yourself in, when children weren’t photographed and videoed every day of their lives, when parents weren’t hovering over them so much. I think it’s important for children to be able to have secrets, in fact I think it’s the beginning of creativity. That’s why the story resonated with me when Cait told us about it all these years later when we were all middle-aged adults. That there’s something in her actions about the importance and sacred nature of one’s inner life. And of maintaining the integrity of that.

I’ll Always be Older than You is a picture book about a little girl who delights in reminding her little brother than no matter how old he gets, she will always be older than him. She is in many ways a caring big sister, but it’s all pretty much on her terms! I remember when I was about four years old realising that even when my little brother got to my age, I would still be older than him. I remember thinking this was quite remarkable, and it made me feel very important of course, and that clearly I would need to mentor him his whole life! When I look back now, I’m not sure that I gave him any guidance at all – but we remain great friends.

What are you working on now or next?

I’m currently working on some new picture books and another novel for the same age-group as When Rain Turns to Snow, set in forest in the Otways in Victoria.

What else are you reading and keen to recommend at the moment?

I’ve just finished Davina Bell’s miraculous book The End of the World is Bigger than Love, which I think is so rich in ideas and original and prophetic and just magical really. Before that I read The Friend by Sigrid Nunez which I found such an intelligent and wonderful book – a meditation on writing and creativity, and literally how we turn our lives into fiction, and at the same time an exploration of our relationship with animals. I loved both these books and would recommend them.

How can your readers contact you?

You can find me on Instagram – @janiegodwin, or through my website – janegodwin.com.au

Thank you, Jane. Your responses are so generous, and they open up further layers of thought and meaning. They are a work of art in themselves.

When Rain Turns to Snow is a multilayered story that can be read quickly for its engrossing plot, savoured for its insights into young teens and their friends and families – or both!

It is an excellent companion to Jane Godwin’s other novels for young secondary and mature upper primary readers, As Happy as Here and Falling from Grace.

When Rain Turns to Snow by Jane Godwin Lothian Children’s Books

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