2018 Young Readers Author Kara Lareau - Teaching Lessons with Books for Kids

Above, author Kara LaReau and her book, "The Infamous Ratsos: Two Heads are Better Than One," the 2018 Young Readers One Book South Dakota. Thanks to a collaboration between the South Dakota Humanities Council, United Way of the Black Hills, First Bank and Trust, John T. Vucurevich Foundation and Northern Hills Federal Credit Union, nearly 7,000 third graders will receive a complimentary copy of the book, a special edition bind-in of the first two stories in her 'The Infamous Ratsos' series.

Young Readers Author Will Speak to Third Graders this Fall

Editor's note: The 2018 Young Readers Festival of Books will celebrate five years of building enthusiasm for reading and writing among youth with school visits and public presentations in Sioux Falls September 19-20 and in the Brookings area September 21-22, led by 2018 Young Readers author Kara LaReau. To learn more, visit our Young Readers Festival of Books page. 

By Ryan Woodard

This fall, Kara LaReau will address thousands of elementary students. Some of those young faces will light up with recognition as they follow along; other listeners will drift into daydreams.

Many years ago, when an author visited LaReau's elementary school, she was one of the tuned-in kids. She credits that visit as her inspiration for becoming a writer. But her journey wouldn't have succeeded if she hadn't been one of the dreamers, too.

Now, she's also a survivor.

The 2018 Young Readers One Book South Dakota "The Infamous Ratsos: Two Heads Are Better Than One" is about listening to life's lessons and coming out as a better, stronger person. Young Readers will discover that LaReau's young Ratso brothers, much like her, are resilient. They welcome life's adventures and bravely face their darkest days.

LaReau's path was wrought with unexpected complications. But in the end, conquering the worst of what was to come developed the character she's living today. The little girl who dreamed of becoming an author after seeing one in real life has succeeded.

Now she's preparing to touch the lives of young people who, like the younger version of herself, dared to dream.

"I have to say, to know that so many kids in the state will be reading my book is a thrill to me," she said. "What keeps me writing is knowing that kids out there are reading my books."

An Inspirational Visit

LaReau vividly remembers the life-changing author presentation.

"I didn't realize that you could tell stories for a living," she explained in a phone interview from her home in Providence, R.I., an hour from the Cambridge press where she built her career. "When that author visited my school, it blew my mind."

Not only was her mind blown, but it was also made up. She decided to become an author. But as any author can attest, there's more to it than just deciding.

After graduating from high school in Connecticut, LaReau attended Fairfield University, then earned an M.F.A. in Writing, Literature and Publishing from Emerson College in Boston.

She landed in nearby Cambridge as an editor at Candlewick Press. It was an impressive leap that afforded her the opportunity to work with talented writers like Kate DiCamillo, a Newbery Medal winner who was the first Young Readers One Book South Dakota author in 2014.

"It's incredibly inspiring to work with such talented people," LaReau said. "When you are a creative person and you surround yourself with creative people who are smart and at the top of their games, it inspires you to be at the top of your game."

She edited DiCamillo's "Because of Winn-Dixie" (winner of a Newbery Honor), "The Tiger Rising" (finalist for the National Book Award), "The Tale of Despereaux" (winner of the Newbery Medal), "The Miraculous Journey of Edward Tulane" (winner of the Boston Globe Horn Book Award), and the Mercy Watson series, which featured 2017 Young Readers One Book illustrator Chris Van Dusen.

"She's the consummate storyteller," LaReau said of DiCamillo. "She's able to create stories that are really the perfect blend of humor and pathos." She developed lasting friendships with DiCamillo, Van Dusen and others, even naming her son "Camden" after the town in Maine where Van Dusen resides.

It was a satisfying position with a career track. Readers pay to read Candlewick Press books in their leisure time. LaReau was getting paid to read.

LaReau said she enjoyed her job for 10 years, until the day came that she simply "didn't."

Something was missing.

"I always in my heart have wanted to get back to my own writing, even when I was editing other people," she said.

A group of children in the audience of 2017 Young Readers Illustrator Chris Van Dusen's presentation at the 2017 Young Readers Festival of Books. As a young girl, 2018 Young Readers author Kara LaReau was inspired by an author presentation she attended.

A group of children in the audience of 2017 Young Readers Illustrator Chris Van Dusen's presentation at the 2017 Young Readers Festival of Books. As a young girl, 2018 Young Readers author Kara LaReau was inspired to become a writer by an author presentation she attended.

After editing children's books for Candlewick and Scholastic Press for 10 years, LaReau started BlueBird Works. Starting a new business is typically a risky move. But the gamble paid off, as LaReau built a steady stream of clients and began getting published as an author.

It wasn't easy, but LaReau endured the challenges she had expected. As an editor at two presses, she had learned that writers worked long and hard hours and often struggled to make livings.

But nothing could have prepared her for the far more extreme challenges that lie ahead. An unexpected opponent derailed her career.

An Awful Diagnosis

She was diagnosed with a rare type of cancer in 2010. Then, unbelievably, a 2011 diagnosis saddled her with a DIFFERENT kind of rare cancer. It was like surviving a car accident and riding home from the hospital in cab that careens off a bridge.

"These revelations led to two complicated surgeries, lengthy bouts of radiation and chemotherapy, physical therapy, phototherapy, and a lot of downtime, during which I decided to make some lemonade from the big ole pile of lemons I'd been given," she explained.

Although life had lashed out at LaReau, it turned out to be a pivotal career moment.

She became a "writing fiend" during her forced downtime. The dream was still alive, and so was she.

Following her recovery, LaReau was even more determined to succeed. Considering what she'd been through, writer's block seemed less challenging for her than it is for most people.

Literature critics often note that all fiction is based on some form of truth lived by its author. The trials LaReau endured had provided her with enough material to write many books.

But another twist was ahead. It would change her life - and her writing voice - forever.

Life-changing Purpose

The great Thomas Wolfe argued that fiction tells universal truths when it comes from writers who are "charged with purpose":

"Fiction is not fact. But fiction is fact selected and understood, fiction is fact arranged and charged with purpose," said Wolfe in his introduction to "Look Homeward, Angel."

LaReau had a son in 2013.

No purpose would charge LaReau like the birth of her little boy, Camden.

Childbirth is of course life-changing for all who experience it, but its impact on LaReau is especially noteworthy because it lives explicitly in her writing. It energizes her books just as her son, now five, has energized her life.

"Right around the time I was writing my first book, I was having my son. I was filled with this sense of responsibility," she said, noting that having grown up in a family filled with women left her with even more questions about her ultimate role in raising a son.

She asked herself: "How do I raise a son who is kind and respectful and empathetic?"

"I'm sure that a lot of other people who are reading my books are thinking the same thing," she said. "So that came into play as I was thinking about the series."

The Bland Sisters

Kara LaReau, the 2018 Young Readers One Book SD Author, was inspired to write by her son Camden.

Much of Kara LaReau's inspiration for writing comes from her son, Camden, pictured above. LaReau spent 10 years as a book editor before embarking on her journey as an author. 

Her new son and introspection combined to create "The Unintentional Adventures of the Bland Sisters: The Jolly Regina," the first book in a trilogy starring sisters Jaundice and Kale Bland. In "The Jolly Regina," the sisters "avoid excitement at any cost" until kidnapped by an all-female band of pirates who sweep them into "a high-seas romp that might just lead to solving the mystery of what happened to their parents."

The book, which LaReau followed up in January 2018 with the sequel "The Uncanny Express," was a hit, drawing comparisons to legendary children's authors like Roald Dahl. (The final book in the series will be released in January 2019). 

"Replete with puns, gags, and life lessons, this transgressive voyage may "ketch" fans of envelope pushers like Barry Yourgrau, Alan Katz, or Roald Dahl." (Booklist)

Ratsos - 2018 Young Readers Book

Then came the "Infamous Ratsos," a pair of wanna-be tough guy brothers inspired by the documentary film, "The Mask You Live In" that addresses "toxic masculinity." The theme struck her as a mother.

LaReau created the Ratsos to teach young readers like her son that kindness is easier to employ than toughness. She said pseudo-tough guy behaviors limit mens' personalities while closing them off from and marginalizing others.

"Just as girls can be limited by the definition of femininity, men are limited too," she said.

While the underlying theme is of a serious nature, it is also highly entertaining, and the whacky adventures of the Ratsos, as told in this special edition bind-in, "The Infamous Ratsos: Two Heads Are Better Than One," will have South Dakota third graders laughing out loud. The special edition contains the first two books in the series, "The Infamous Ratsos" and "The Infamous Ratsos Are Not Afraid." The third book, "The Infamous Ratsos: Project Fluffy," is due to be released in October 2018.

The action of the Ratsos is kept "high and completely appropriate for readers embarking on chapter books," according to Kirkus Reviews.

"First and foremost, I want to tell a good story, but underneath, I really hope that these stories inspire conversation," LaReau said.

Publisher's Weekly's starred review indicates that she succeeded in doing both, calling her first Ratsos story a "funny, thoughtful, and smart chapter book" packed with "substantial comedy and poignant emotion."

Poignant emotion and substantial comedy are a good recipe for writing children's books and surviving life's heartaches, "making lemonade out of lemons," so to speak.

Some little girls sell their lemonade from stands immediately after making it; others take their time and serve it when the recipe is just right. Little Kara LaReau spent half a lifetime preparing hers, but it's finally finished and ready to serve.

Find Out More About the Children's Books and Authors Featured at our 2018 Young Readers Event

Our 2018 Young Readers Festival of Books will feature some of the best children’s books and authors in the U.S., including the books below.

  • For young children – "The World Is Awake: A Celebration of Everyday Blessings" by Emmy Award-winning ABC News Correspondent Linsey Davis and South Dakota author Joseph Bottum
  • For middle graders – "The Girl with More than One Heart" by publisher/editor/author Laura Geringer Bass
  • For teens and young adults – "Born Criminal: Matilda Joslyn Gage, Rebel Suffragist" by YA biographer Angelica Shirley Carpenter

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