by Joni Astrup
Mary Casanova is an award-winning children’s author with several dozen published books to her name.
But as a child, reading didn’t necessarily come easily to her.
In an appearance Tuesday, April 19, at the Elk River Library, Casanova said she struggled with her attention and there were a lot of stories that she simply couldn’t stay with to the end.
“I couldn’t understand why I couldn’t finish books cover to cover the way most of my friends did,” Casanova said. “Now I know it’s not that I wasn’t smart enough, but the way my brain worked I really needed something with a hook to hold my attention.”
When she found books like “Charlotte’s Web,” she said she could finish them because she cared about the characters and wanted to find out what happened next.
“You just have to do the very best right where you’re at, and just keep working at it and not give up,” she told the audience of children and adults.
A Minnesota native, Casanova grew up in a large family with two sisters and seven brothers, one of whom is Minnesota gubernatorial candidate and state Sen. Paul Gazelka.
Casanova is a middle child and she thinks that’s a big reason why she became an author.
“It’s a way for me to have a voice,” she explained.
Becoming a published author took perseverance. Before her first book was published 25 years ago, she had more than 200 rejections. But she knew she wanted to be a writer and didn’t give up. Her persistence paid off in the end and she feels fortunate to be able to do what she does.
“It’s the perfect job for me,” she said.
Canoe experience inspires story line
Every story has a story behind it, Casanova said, and she never knows where an idea will originate.
Take her book “One-Dog Canoe,” for instance. The idea for the children’s picture book came to her while she was canoeing on a lake with another author. Casanova said when she looked behind them, she saw a little dog swimming after their canoe. Worried that the dog would drown or get hit by a boat, they paddled over to some rocks and waited for the dog to get closer. The dog hopped into their canoe and they paddled away.
Around a bend was another dog on the end of a dock.
“I knew if he could talk he would have said, ‘Can I come too?’” Casanova said. She remembers saying, “No way. This is a one-dog canoe,” and told her friend that sounded like a picture book title.
Casanova later wrote a little silly, rhyming story about the experience just for herself, never expecting to sell it as a book.
But the story went on to become the “One-Dog Canoe” picture book, with illustrations by Ard Hoyt.
“It has become the most popular book, probably, of all my books,” Casanova said.
“One-Dog Canoe” was made into a musical at Stages Theatre in Plymouth and the Minnesota Orchestra commissioned a composer to write music to go with it.
“And so I found myself at Orchestra Hall, sharing this very story with the audience there, and then the orchestra played its music. So you just never know where your life is going to go. You take a little risk, a little step, and all kinds of things can open up,” she said.
During her appearance at the Elk River Library, she read “One-Dog Canoe,” with audience participation, and another one of her books, “Wake Up, Island.”
A native of the Twin Cities who now lives near International Falls, Casanova said she’s written a lot about Minnesota because writers are told to write what they know.
Some of her stories, however, have taken her to places like France and Norway for research.
It was after she wrote a novel set in 16th century France called “Curse of the Winter Moon” that Casanova got a call from American Girl, looking for an author to write a story set in France for a series called “Girls of Many Lands.”
That began her collaboration with American Girl.
Some of the American Girl books Casanova has written have been made into movies.
She also has written a series of “Dog Watch” books, based on a town on the Minnesota-Canada border where dogs are allowed to roam free. Her own dogs star in the series.
In all, Casanova has had nearly 40 books published, with more forthcoming. Her latest is a novel called “Waterfall.”
Casanova has more appearances slated
Casanova will be at several additional area libraries in the coming days, including:
• Saturday, April 30, 10:30 to 11:30 a.m. Grey Eagle Library, 118 State St. E., Grey Eagle.
• Monday, May 2, 4:30 to 5:30 p.m. Buffalo Library, 18 Lake Blvd. NW, Buffalo.