In the mid-1980s, Cynthia Kadohata and Caitlyn Dlouhy were both aspiring writers, enrolled in the MFA program at the University of Pittsburgh. What transformed their relationship from roommates to lifelong friends—and eventually to editor and author—was the third person who shared their rented house south of the Monongahela River. “She was kind of a tricky character,” said Dlouhy, now v-p and editorial director of her own imprint at Simon Schuster Books for Young Readers. As a result, “Cynthia and I really bonded. We were all in the writing program but Cynthia and I really grew to appreciate each other.”
Their friendship outlasted graduate school, as Kadohata went on to write fiction, winning the Whiting Award, a $50,000 prize given to emerging writers, for her first novel (for adults) The Floating World (Viking, 1989). Dlouhy tried journalism before finding her calling as an editor of children’s books, but even before she made the switch Kadohata would ask Dlouhy to read her writing before she submitted it. “She had me editing her work behind the scenes in part because in graduate school, editing is a lot of what you do. You spend more time learning how to critique than how to write,” Dlouhy said. “But editing Cynthia’s writing is what got me to realize I really liked editing.”
Neither woman can remember when Dlouhy began her campaign to get Kadohata to write children’s books, but both agree the propaganda involved Dlouhy sending Kadohata books by other children’s writers that she had either edited or admired. The tipping point came when Kadohata received a huge box of books Dlouhy thought she should read.
“I think she sent me books over the years,” said Kadohata, “but it wasn’t until she sent me the big box, and I got through it, that I realized I might have something I wanted to write for kids. I didn’t really know much about children’s books but the narrators of my adult books were young. And it’s very easy for me to write in a young voice. I haven’t grown up a lot myself.”
Their collaboration succeeded beyond either of their expectations. Dlouhy edited Kadohata’s first novel for young readers, the 2005 Newbery Medal-winning Kira-Kira, and her 2013 National Book Award winner, The Thing About Luck. Kadohata’s latest, Checked (SS/Dlouhy, Feb.) is the eighth novel they’ve produced as a team.
Checked is set in a world Kadohata knows well. Her son, now 14, has been playing organized hockey for nearly half his life. “We took him to a makeshift outdoor rink put up for the holidays when he was six or seven and we could not get him off the ice,” Kadohata said. “I decided I would learn to skate at the same time but I fell on my butt hard and it hurt for a year. I never skated again.”
Instead, Kadohata has spent countless hours in the stands, cheering him on. She didn’t write or even take notes for the book as she watched him play. “It’s every weekend and it’s constant so you don’t forget the details when you sit down to write.”
Her main character, Conor McRae, gets his first name from one of her son’s teammates. Half-white, half-Japanese, Conor lives with his father, a cop, and his dog, a Doberman named Sinbad. His mother died when he was two, and he is estranged from her parents. There was a stepmother but she divorced his father recently, in part because she was tired of how much time Conor’s hockey activities took out of the weekly schedule. Kadohata says that hockey in temperate Los Angeles, where she lives, has become extremely popular—and competitive—over the past few decades. “Wayne Gretzky came here in the ’80s and that started hockey being big in California. There are thousands and thousands of kids who play hockey.”
Kadohata is already working on her next novel, a story about Japanese-Americans who were forced to renounce their citizenship during World War II and were deported to Japan, where some of them had never even been.
Though she has written 11 novels and won some of literature’s most prestigious awards, she still relies on Dlouhy’s guidance. “I just got an 18-page editorial letter from Caitlyn. Eighteen pages—that’s a record,” she said. “I deliberately didn’t read it because I was worried if I read it right before Publishers Weekly called I might say something incredibly mean and Caitlin would never speak to me again.”
Dlouhy, of course, is Kadohata’s biggest fan. “[She’s] as powerful a writer as there is; the key is she puts the work in,” Dlouhy said. “She just puts everything she has into finding all the details that bring a story to life.”