Flying High! An Interview with Deborah Kerbel


By Anita Daher

When you were adolescent, did you dream of flying? I did. I remember the very first time. Twelve years old and living in Baker Lake, NU (then NWT), I dreamed I was running in the schoolyard, then sort of…jumped and forgot to fall (a variation on Douglas Adams’ “throw yourself at the ground and miss” for the absent minded). During slumbers that followed, I perfected my style in the sky, under bridges, through hallways, into rooms, anywhere I wished, though power lines continued to give me trouble. All of this to say, when I learned of Feathered, Deborah Kerbel’s most recent novel, I was transported.

And then I began reading and was brought right back, into the skin and heart and hopes of a lonely eleven-year-old girl. Finch is special. She knows this because of the feather her mother plucked from her neck when she was three, which left a scar she often touches, dreaming of the day her feathers will come in fully and she will fly away.

To say she’s unhappy is an understatement. Her father passed away from cancer nine months previous, and her deeply depressed mother does little but stare out the window. In addition to this her brother’s friend bullies her to the point of physically hurting her, her former best friend has abandoned her, and she struggles horribly at school.

But then, a change. A family from India moves in next door, and hope blossoms with the possibility she might make a new friend.

Set in the ’80s, steeped in references to Little House on the Prairie, and Terry Fox’s cross-country journey, Feathered is a glimpse of what it was like to be a kid before social media and cell phones, fascinating for young readers, nostalgic for the young at heart. It gracefully entwines threads of love, family, and friendship with darker themes of bullying, abuse, racism, and parental abduction. Light and dark, like life.

Kerbel is known for writing memorable characters immersed in the struggles of growing up. Her earlier works include Girl on the Other Side (Dundurn), which was short-listed for the CLA Young Adult Book Award, and Governor General’s Award finalist, Under the Moon (Dancing Cat Books). Though born in the UK, she jokes that she left there before she was “old enough to cultivate a posh accent or a love of marmalade.” She was raised in southern Ontario, where she still lives—different town—with her children, husband, and a “schnoodle” named Alfredo.

I caught up with Kerbel in between a flurry of family celebrations, and she graciously agreed to answer a few questions.


Finch is such a strong character, so alive with her insecurities, hopes, fears, dreams. Which came to you first—Finch, or what her journey would be?

Finch came first. Absolutely. I started writing this book armed with nothing but a bit of inspiration from a news clip I’d saved about a little girl who’d found a feather in her neck. From the moment I typed the very first sentence, Finch came alive in my head. Her voice was so strong and clear, it was almost like I was channeling a spirit from a Victorian séance. I honestly had no idea where the plot was going to go…I just focused on her voice, followed her lead, and let her reveal the story to me page by page (while I typed like a maniac to keep up). It was one of those mythical unicorn-esque experiences every writer dreams about. You know, the one where sparkly characters come to life on the page and basically write their own story while you sit back and watch in silent awe? Yeah. That.

The story is set in 1980, and Finch is 11 years old. You were just a few years younger than your main character during that time. Do you have any favourite or otherwise distinctive memories of the ’80s you can share with us?

I have lots of great memories from my childhood in the ’80s: waking up early to watch Charles and Di’s wedding with my mom, birthday parties at the roller rink, 10 cent popsicles from Becker’s, and saving my allowance for a Cabbage Patch Kid (with the unfortunate name of Yetta Irena). Regardless of the season, I remember spending much of my free time outdoors—playing in the forested ravine behind my house, riding my bike everywhere, hanging out with other kids in my neighbourhood. I guess what strikes me as the biggest difference between the ’80s and now is the freedom kids had to play, explore, and roam around our world with very few limits. It was a leisurely time to grow up. I think childhood hung around for a little bit longer in those days.

Did you wear toe-socks, or would you wear them now?

Were those an ’80s thing? Tragically, I’ve never owned a pair although I’m not sure why. Maybe I was too busy saving my pennies for that Cabbage Patch Kid.

Finch’s fear of her brother’s friend, and her inability to speak up about his bullying her feels very real. Did you have any experiences with bullies growing up?

There were definitely a handful of older boys in my neighbourhood you wanted to avoid. Those gangly, mean boys who seemed to enjoy harassing smaller kids (girls more often than not) when they had nothing better to do with their time. But it was the era of ‘boys will be boys’ and ‘don’t be a tattletale’ and nobody ever called them out for teasing, chasing, and harassing. Sadly, it was just the way it was. In Feathered, the character of Matt is a compilation of those boys.

How did your series of books written with your father come about, and what is it like to co-write with a parent?

My dad’s always been a writer. When my parents were young and starting out, he used to tell my mom that as long as he had a typewriter, they would have food on the table. Fortunately, he was right! (Although the typewriter eventually became a computer.) Co-writing with him (we’ve published five books together) was a brilliantly smooth process. It’s all about strategic division of the work, establishing a rhythm, and bringing your two distinct voices together in a way that flows. That was easy with my dad. Of all three kids, I’m probably the most like him.

Fave writing snack?

Strawberry Twizzlers. No. Contest. Chewy, sweet, classic. Best snack ever when you need to work out a difficult scene.

Your earlier novels were for teens, while your most recent two are for middle grade readers. What do you feel is the most significant difference, if any, in your approach to writing for each age?

Aside from word count, I don’t find there’s a huge difference in my approach. These ages are all about self-discovery, growth, epic milestones, and strange new hormones (can’t forget those!). For me, the key is picking an intriguing subject, something that my readers and I will both connect with. Also very important is pinning down strong, authentic voices that ring true for the age of the characters, whatever those ages happen to be.

If you woke one day to find you’d grown feathers, and could travel anywhere on earth to any time, past or present, where would you go, and why?

Oh gosh, that’s hard. I’ve always been fascinated with ancient Egyptian civilization, so that would probably be my first choice. I’d fly to Cleopatra’s Court, because…why not? Considering the ibis was revered as a god in those days, it would have been a fortuitous moment in history to be sporting feathers.

What’s next for you?

My debut picture book will be published in fall 2017 with the lovely folks at Pajama Press. I can’t say too much more about it at this point but there may or may not be more birds and feathers involved. Following that, I have two other picture books coming up the pipeline with Fitzhenry & Whiteside, as well as another middle grade novel in the works.


Learn more about Deborah Kerbel and her books through her website:


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Youthful Appetite

Anita Daher

Anita Daher has lived in Summerside, PEI, Yellowknife, NT, Churchill, MB, Baker Lake, NU and Sault Ste. Marie, ON, making her an expert on the geographic location of YA writers. She is a prolific and successful YA author herself and the associate teen book editor at Great Plains Publications in Winnipeg.