Author Interview and Book Review: Owl’s Outstanding Donuts by Robin Yardi

Please Note: I received an electronic review copy and was monetarily compensated in exchange for a book review and an interview with the author. I promise that this compensation in no way affected my opinions or review.

Title Owl’s Outstanding Donuts
Author Robin Yardi
Pages 232 Pages
Target Audience Middle Grade
Genre & Keywords Contemporary, Realistic Fiction, Fabulism
Publication Date September 3rd 2019 by Carolrhoda Books
Find It On GoodreadsAmazonChaptersThe Book DepositoryBarnes & NobleIndieBound

Robin Yardi, author of The Midnight War of Mateo Martinez, tells a story full of mystery, feathers, and sprinkles.

After Mattie Waters loses her mother, she goes to live with her aunt, the owner of a roadside donut shop in Big Sur, California. When an owl taps on Mattie’s window one night, Mattie looks out to see something suspicious taking place nearby. With help from her friends ― and from Alfred, a stuffy but good-hearted owl ― she’ll set out to find the culprits, facing fears that have followed her since her mother’s death.

1. Hi, Robin! Thank you so much for joining me on Pop! Goes The Reader today. First, I’d love to learn a little more about you! Did you always know you wanted to be a published author? What books and/or authors do you feel have inspired or influenced your life or your writing in a positive way?

Yay, I’m so happy to be here — thank you for having me!

I’ve always been a proud bookworm, but didn’t admit to being a writer until I was thirty. My eventual writing owes a great debt to my elementary school librarian, Charlotte DeFirmian, who took me to meet Madeleine L’Engle in the sixth grade (I still have my signed copy of A Wrinkle In Time) and kept me supplied with books by Louisa May Alcott, Beverly Cleary, and Ursula Le Guin.

Jacqueline K. Ogburn’s The Unicorn In The Barn absolutely influenced how I wrote Owl’s Outstanding Donuts. It satisfies one of my biggest writing and reading pet peeves: if there is a magical animal on the cover I want to read about it in the first chapter!

And Erin Entrada Kelly’s Hello, Universe, with its collection of lovingly rendered and unique characters, was absolutely something I wanted my book to live up to. I think each character in Owl’s is like a donut, amazing in it’s own way, unique, and flavorful.

2. Owl’s Outstanding Donuts is your second middle grade novel, following the publication of your middle grade debut, The Midnight War of Mateo Martinez, in 2016. What about writing for this particular age group do you find special and inspiring?

Gosh, my deepest self may still be about ten. I have great sympathy for how difficult and wonderful it can be to begin to understand yourself and the world at the same time. I love how middle grade readers are ready to understand and take on responsibility for the world, but still know how to stare at the clouds, and indulge in donuts, and find ways to communicate with outstanding owls.

3. A significant portion of Owl’s Outstanding Donuts involves Mattie’s compelling investigation into the mysterious substance being dumped near Aunt Molly’s donut shop and identifying the individuals responsible. Can you share a little about your writing process for this particular book and how drafting a mystery might differ from your previous writing experience? Did you know the identity of the perpetrator at the beginning of the novel, or was this something that was revealed to you or changed over time? Are there any mystery-focused narratives, either in books, television or film, that helped inspire or influence this book?

Oof, the mechanics of writing a mystery are very precise! There are rules. That you apparently can’t ignore. More about that later…

I did know who was behind the dumping as I drafted (I’m generally a plotter), but the details, accomplices, and motivations for that dumping got fleshed out along the way. I attended a great workshop on writing mysteries with C.M. Surrisi just after I pitched the idea for this book to my publisher. I learned about Scrivener mystery templates, and three-act structure, and a bunch of other amazing detailed information…that I kind of ignored for my first draft.

In order to make my story a functioning mystery I had to go back in and add lots more active investigation and seed suspects and culprits into the narrative along the way. I find that stuff easier to do after I’ve created the emotional template of the book. It’s my process. That’s my story and I’m sticking to it.

4. As the beginning of Owl’s Outstanding Donuts, Mattie is scared of cars, buses and the highway, largely as a result of her mom’s death because of an unsolved hit-and-run accident. Over the course of the novel Mattie is challenged to confront this fear, both in order to help solve the mystery that threatens her Aunt Molly’s beloved donut shop and so she can take the bus and join her friends at Pacific Valley Elementary when school begins. Is there something that scares or intimidates you and have you ever conquered a fear?

I conquer little fears everyday, because I live in a pretty constant state of anxiety. I’m afraid of parties, roller coasters, Ferris wheels, driving on winding roads, parking, public speaking, small talk, ordering at restaurants, and rooms with too many people.

But…I ride Ferris wheels for my kids, I plan (and attend) their birthday parties, and drive them around all dang day. I do most things out of love. I’m a brave chicken just like Mattie, doing what I think is important even when it scares me. If you see me at a bookish event, it’s love driving me out of safe seclusion. Love of books, love of kids, love of trees, love of owls, and even love of donuts.

5. One of the many things I appreciated about Owl’s Outstanding Donuts is the novel’s subtle message about environmental conservation and care. Mattie is concerned about the mysterious ‘gloop’ being dumped near Owl’s Outstanding Donuts not only because it threatens the future of Aunt Molly’s donut shop, but also because it will potentially pollute the local water supply, rivers, and ultimately the Pacific Ocean. Mattie’s awareness of this issue felt particularly timely and important given our growing concerns about climate change and the future of our planet. Can you speak a little about what inspired you to include this particular element of the story and what you hope readers will take away from Mattie’s journey and the novel as a whole?

I find kids to be so valiant. They are growing up in a time when the connection between human action and the natural world is startlingly clear. And kids care. They care about plants and animals. They care about water supply. They care about their own backyards and places they will never go, people they will never meet.

I hope reading a story about Mattie and her tiny town and the way she cares will empower kids to do the same. To know it is possible to protect what they love, even if they are afraid like Mattie and me.

6. One of the many fun and creative aspects of Owl’s Outstanding Donuts is Alfred, the inquisitive, enterprising, anthropomorphic owl with a fondness for strawberry donuts who helps Mattie solve the mystery of who’s dumping the mysterious ‘gloop’ near the donut shop. You touch on this a little in your acknowledgements, but for those who haven’t had a chance to read the novel yet, can you share a little about the inspiration behind Alfred and the novel as a whole?

The image of an owl loving pink-frosted donuts was something from a dream…just not my own. Teagan White, who created the glorious cover for my first novel, posted about it on Twitter. They wrote, “I dreamt an owl broke into my home and ate pink-frosted donuts until his feathers were pink?” I replied that it sounded like my kind of story, but I didn’t think about it much after that.

About a year after I saw Teagan’s post I was on a walk with my daughter. We were on a windy road with a view of the sea and that owl, it just showed up. It landed on a scraggly redwood tree in my mind. It was eating a donut and covered in pink frosting, but something was drawing its attention away from that delicious treat. Something suspicious. Something dangerous!

By the time I got home most of the elements of the story had arrived in my mind. Mattie, my sleuth and her new home in Big Sur. The nature of the gloopy roadside crime. Alfred, the great horned owl and his midnight watch. I wrote the opening chapters…then paused and panicked. I remembered where that owl had come from. I wrote to Teagan and asked if they happened to be writing about that donut-thieving-pink-icing smeared owl and if not…would they mind if I did.

I’m so glad they were happy to share the image!

7. Let’s have some fun! Each chapter of the novel begins with absolutely delicious descriptions of the donuts Aunt Molly sells at Owl’s Outstanding Donuts, including The S’More Bomb, The Velvet Vampire and The Golden Galaxy. If you could eat only one of Molly’s donuts for the rest of your life, which would you choose and why? (I call dibs on The Blue Moon!)

I love the way the Blue Moon looks, a cute little donut moon hanging on the page! Emily Harris designed the amazing chapter heading illustrations and I’m so grateful and pleased to have her work in the book. There is something so pleasing about the way that one looks. I’ve baked my own version of the Golden Galaxy and have talked to a baker friend who is sure he can create a Banana Slug Bar (It’s going to happen).

That said…I’m all for the Old Fashioned Owl, a plain cake donut. Simple, sweet, predictable and perfectly paired with whatever strikes my fancy. I could have it with coffee, I could have it with hot chocolate, or I could have it with sparkling water on a hot afternoon. I’m a simple girl!

8. One of the central themes of Owl’s Outstanding Donuts appears to be an exploration of the meaning of home and how this can evolve over time and mean different things to different people. While Mattie clearly misses her mom and her old home in Monterey, she also feels guilty because she’s beginning to feel comfortable in Big Sur and enjoy her new living arrangement with Aunt Molly. Aunt Molly and Mattie’s grandmother make reference to the fact that their home, the Airstream trailer, doesn’t currently go anywhere, but it could and that they could theoretically make their home anywhere. Sasha and Beanie, Mattie’s best friends, live at the Little Family Campground, which is their home, and which also offers a temporary home to campers and others looking for temporary shelter. What does home mean to you?

My home, and I think Mattie’s, is the mind. I carry inside myself all of my memories, my love, my friendships, and my community wherever I happen to be. The scene in the aquarium at the open ocean exhibit was maybe my favorite to write, because I could feel Mattie coming to understand this about herself and I knew she would be all right however her story turned out.

Your home is your soul, which means you can be happy anywhere once you realize you can take everything you love with you, like you’ve got a shiny airstream travel trailer hitched to your heart!

“…Wishing was halfway to believing it was possible.”

When fifth-grader Mattie Waters’ mom is killed in an unsolved hit-and-run accident, Mattie moves from Monterey to Big Sur, California to live with her Aunt Molly in Molly’s Airstream trailer. There, Mattie splits her time between Aunt Molly’s cozy shop, Owl’s Outstanding Donuts, and the Little Family Campground, home to her best friends Sasha and Beanie Little. As Mattie struggles to come-to-terms with her mother’s death and adapt to her new home with Aunt Molly, her life is quiet, if a little uneventful. Everything changes, however, when an inquisitive owl named Alfred notices two shadowy individuals dumping a mysterious substance across the street from the donut shop and brings it to Mattie’s attention. Dodging the interference of meddlesome neighbours and an overbearing real estate agent, Mattie must solve the mystery of who’s dumping the strange, shiny ooze while her newfound home and the safety of the environment hang in the balance.

As a young reader, some of my most cherished and lasting literary memories revolved around food. From Marilla’s raspberry cordial in Anne of Green Gables and Amy’s pickled limes in Little Women to the White Witch’s Turkish Delight in The Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe and Willy Wonka’s Whipple-Scrumptious Fudgemallow Delight in Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, there’s something both comforting and magical about the detailed gastronomical descriptions that often populate children’s literature, and Robin Yardi’s sophomore novel is no exception. Much to my delight, each chapter of Owl’s Outstanding Donuts begins with an adorable illustration and accompanying scrumptious description of one of the treats Aunt Molly sells at Owl’s Outstanding Donuts. This includes (but isn’t limited to) ‘The Boysenberry Beauty’ (“A lime-zest-sprinkled donut with bright boysenberry icing and pistachio crumbles”), ‘The Squirrel Special’ (“A petite peanut-encrusted éclair filled with fluffy salted caramel cream”) and ‘The Velvet Vampire’ (“A bloodred buttermilk cake donut laced with fang-white cream cheese icing”). This speaks to one of Robin Yardi’s numerous strengths as a writer. Yardi is able to bring everything in the novel to life in vivid and evocative detail, from a single sprinkle donut or a homemade meal (“Lentil soup and coconut rice, salty hot focaccia bread with herbs, and homemade macaroni with bubbly cheese”) to the deep-rooted fears and insecurities of a young girl.

In Owl’s Outstanding Donuts, Robin Yardi crafts a compelling mystery with momentous repercussions. While the puzzle Mattie is attempting to solve appears deceptively simple (What is the mysterious substance being dumped and who is responsible for dumping it?), the outcome of this investigation could have very real consequences for both Aunt Molly and Mattie. As a potential suspect, Aunt Molly is initially implicated in the disposal of the suspicious ooze and is held responsible for its cleanup, something she doesn’t have the financial means to do. This threatens both Molly’s business and Mattie’s newfound home in Big Sur and because of Mattie’s mother’s unsolved death at the hands of an unknown driver, Mattie has little faith in law enforcement and other formal institutions and therefore feels she must solve the mystery herself. (“She knew now that grown-ups weren’t always able to fix things. Even when they wanted to. Even when they tried.”)

In addition to its captivating mystery, Owl’s Outstanding Donuts seamlessly blends elements of fabulism and realistic fiction in order to adeptly address important contemporary issues such as coping with change and learning to navigate both grief and survivor’s guilt. Yardi handles these and other issues with subtlety, care and, ultimately, hope. At the outset of the novel, Mattie is plagued with guilt both because she feels at least partially responsible for her mother’s death and because she’s conflicted about her growing comfort and happiness in her new home in Big Sur. (“A part of her wondered if it was okay to be happy about something even though her mom was gone. Maybe she wasn’t supposed to want anything. Not donuts, not friends, not new pencils and a new school.”) In exploring these and other necessary topics, and in illustrating Mattie’s ability to both confront and conquer the fears and insecurities that result from them, Robin Yardi reminds young readers that there is always hope, even in the face of painful or difficult challenges, and that ‘home’ is not something you find or leave behind, but rather something that lives forever in your heart.

Owl’s Outstanding Donuts by Robin Yardi is a charming and heartwarming contemporary middle grade mystery about a determined young girl who, along with the help of her best friends and an adorable owl with a fondness for strawberry donuts, helps to save her home and the environment while conquering her own fears and insecurities along the way. Young readers will love the fun, creative adventure complete with a puzzle to be solved while teachers, librarians and older readers are sure to appreciate the understated, valuable lessons about finding peace and hope in the face of sadness and loss. Yardi’s sophomore novel is every bit as sweet as the donuts Aunt Molly bakes each day and, as I’m sure Alfred would agree, this book is a hoot!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Hi! I’m Jen! I’m a thirty-something introvert who loves nothing more than the cozy comfort of home and snuggling my two rescue cats, Pepper and Pancakes. I also enjoy running, jigsaw puzzles, baking and everything Disney. Few things bring me more joy than helping a reader find the right book for them!