Christie Matheson, SHELTER

Christie Matheson, SHELTER

Zibby is joined by acclaimed picture book author Christie Matheson to discuss her first middle-grade book, Shelter, which tells the story of a young girl living in a homeless shelter with her family. Christie shares the moment she realized she wanted to help young readers develop a more empathetic perspective of the homeless community in San Francisco, as well as what she learned from her own experience volunteering in a shelter for families. The two also talk about how Christie’s experience of having children with severe food allergies found its way into the book, what she wants readers to take away from this story, and the number of projects she has coming out soon.


Zibby Owens: Welcome, Christie. Thanks for coming on “Moms Don’t Have Time to Read Books” to discuss Shelter and all of your other amazing work.

Christie Matheson: Thank you so much for having me. I am so happy to be here, Zibby. This is such a treat. Thank you.

Zibby: Elisa Strauss, of course, told me about you. I have had her on this podcast about her cookbooks, which you wrote and helped her with and did everything, The Confetti Cakes. Tell me first about that. Then I want to go into your middle-grade. I know you’ve done so much other stuff.

Christie: That’s right, I love that we both know Elisa. It’s so much fun. She is just happiness and joy personified, basically. Elisa and I first met in 2004. She needed a writer to work on her cookbook. At the time, I was living in Boston. I was a writer for Boston magazine. I did a lot of food writing. My new, then, literary agent said, “I have this person who has this amazing cake business.” I said, “Yes, yes.” She was thinking about doing a book. I went to New York. I had to be in New York for something else. We met. I just fell in love with her. We made two cake cookbooks, Confetti Cakes and Confetti Cakes for Kids. Yay!

Zibby: They’re so great too. We have them right in our kitchen down low, so the kids pull them off. We sit and go through them often.

Christie: My kids do the same thing. They always say, “Did you make this? Can you make this again?” I say, “No, I wrote it. I did not make it.”

Zibby: I know. They’re like, “Let’s try this one.” I’m like, “No, I don’t think so. We’re not going to try that, but let’s look at the picture again.” Let’s talk about Shelter. This is so good. This book was so good. I’m like, I can’t believe I’m sitting here on my weekend reading a full-on middle-grade book and loving every second. It’s so good. Also, it really put me in the frame of mind of what it’s like to be in a homeless shelter, to have such food instability, to be — maybe I shouldn’t jump in. Why don’t you tell everybody what Shelter is about, and especially how you decided to structure it over the course of a day, which I thought was so genius because you’re so immersed in the experience and all of that.

Christie: First of all, thank you for reading a middle-grade novel over your weekend. I appreciate that. Shelter is the story of Maya, who is a ten, almost-eleven-year-old living in San Francisco. She and her family, through a series of tragic circumstances, lose their home. She and her mother and her baby sister Gabby end up living in a homeless shelter. She also is on scholarship at an independent school in San Francisco. She is commuting to a pretty fancy independent school from her homeless shelter, so she’s really switching between two worlds. We’re following her for one day for a lot of reasons. That’s a great question. Thank you for asking. We do it for one day because I wanted to get really granular with it. I wanted to have the reader living the day along with her. When you’re a kid, a day can feel so, so long. I mean, when you’re an adult too, sometimes. The days can feel so, so long. I wanted people to feel that with her, feel those moments of pain, feel what she went through, feel her highs and her lows, a lot of lows, but also some really beautiful, wonderful highs, and just feel her friendships, feel her interactions, those small moments of human connection that she had throughout the day.

Zibby: Wow. First of all, her family is in this precarious situation for many reasons, but one is because her father’s been in this accident. You’re just sort of waiting to see what happens. Especially with somebody who’s a writer or an artist — her mother was a teacher. All these projects that you think are going to come to fruition and then if for some reason you get taken out of the workforce or you’re sick or this little thing happens, the whole house of cards just goes tumbling down. I feel like that’s happened to them in such a profound way. They were fine. They were getting by. Everything was not great, but okay until it absolutely wasn’t. The next thing you know, they’re literally at a shelter. It’s as if anybody who’s reading the book is all of a sudden now living in a shelter unexpectedly and waking up to what that reality is like and all of it. As I was reading it, I was thinking to myself, how is Christie — how does she know this so well? It felt like you lived this whole thing. Did you go and stay at a shelter? Do you know somebody who this has happened to? Is it just from lots of research? How did you get us to really live this experience?

Christie: Thanks for asking that. I went and spent some time at a shelter. There’s a shelter in San Francisco called Raphael House, which is an amazing, beautiful family shelter. I went and spent time there. I was just blown away by how warm and welcoming it is. They’re very respectful of their clients’ space and their clients’ privacy, as they should be. I just toured it and got to see behind the scenes. They have an art room. They have story time. They really nurture families. Is that to say it’s the place where someone would want to be? No, but it’s really amazing. I wanted to just look into — actually, I’m going to back up, if it’s okay, and talk about why I wrote this book.

Zibby: Okay, back up. Yes, I should’ve asked that. Let’s start this whole thing again. I’m sorry.

Christie: It’s such a very specific topic. I was coaching my daughter’s soccer team. My older daughter, Ellie, was playing soccer on a San Francisco youth soccer league team. You get assigned to fields all over the city. We were playing a lot of games that year at a field where there was a homeless camp set up right near the perimeter, tent camp, and where we parked usually because where there was the most parking was right by the tent camp. We’d get out of the car and . Sometimes it was very early on a Saturday morning. There would be people not yet asleep, waking up. It wasn’t always comfortable. In fact, it was very uncomfortable sometimes. Whenever we had a game there, my soccer girls used to say, “I don’t want to go there. I hate going there. It’s scary.” I’d say, “I understand. Let’s talk about that. Why is it scary?” They’d say, “Because of the homeless people.” One girl said, “I’m scared of homeless people.” I thought, hmm. “Are you scared of all homeless people? What is that about?” She said, “Yeah, homeless people are scary.” I said, “Okay, we’re really going to have to back this up because we can’t generalize about a whole group of people. Would you be scared of a family who’s homeless, a child who is homeless?” They said, “No, of course not.” I said, aha, we’re going to write about that because I want people to think about a child who is homeless, what that child is experiencing, and to engender some empathy, hopefully. That’s where that came from. Then I did the research. My family and I started volunteering. We’d go make Valentine’s crafts and things like that at Raphael House. It’s not a lived experience, but I did as much research as I could. That’s where it came from.

Zibby: Oh, my gosh. I feel like part of the issue with homeless people seeming scary is that there’s such a confluence with mental illness now. Many people are unpredictable in that situation because they’re not getting the care that they need and the treatment and all of that. More and more mental illness facilities are being closed, and so they’re on the streets. Yet more and more people have met up, so now you don’t know. It’s just unpredictable, the cross-section of people. I hear what your kids are saying, but of course, just being homeless, that’s not the scary part. The scary part is, how do you determine who is there who is also a criminal? Who is there because they’re down on their luck? This is an obvious statement. Especially from the point of view of a child, how do you determine just from looking? It’s easier to be like, this whole category, I’m going to stay away from, which is why it’s even more important to highlight what the experience is like.

Christie: Yeah, I think that’s right, having some understanding. I really wanted the book to go beyond that and get into Maya, the character, as a person. As I say in one of the chapters, homeless is not all she is. She is many other things, as we all are. We all have so much going on. We are all complex. We all have just so much happening beneath the surface. That was one of the points. You can look at someone and think, oh, she’s fine, she’s happy, she’s great, and not understand that we’re all going hard things. We may be struggling. We may have had a bad morning. We may have had a bad week or a bad month. You can’t see all of that on the surface. We should all — we can all be better at this. We should all approach everyone with some empathy because you don’t know. You don’t know what’s going on beneath the surface.

Zibby: It’s absolutely true. It’s so true. Whether or not she had this homeless shelter element to her, there was still the mean-girl situation in middle school going on. Her name was Sloane, right? It’s the ultimate mean-girl name. It’s a great name. My kids have lots of friends named Sloane. I love the name. It’s one of those — like Blair or something from Gossip Girl. Anyway, you have to deal with that no matter what’s going on. Then you don’t know what’s necessarily going on in her life. Still, it doesn’t excuse the way that she now treats Maya and the mean things she does, but I guess it’s true, you don’t know what’s going on with her. Obviously, her family life is really difficult. Who has the right to get away with this stuff at school? Then you get into all of those politics.

Christie: First of all, apologies to all people named Sloane.

Zibby: I’m sorry. I didn’t mean anything by it. I love the name Sloane.

Christie: I do too. I think it’s a great name. As you said, it works in this situation. Actually, I feel badly because I wrote this — you know, the book publishing process can take a while. I wrote this before my younger daughter started kindergarten. When she got to kindergarten, she had a classmate named Sloane. I just feel the need to apologize. Sloane is not based on a real person, but she is a mean girl. None of my kids or no kid that I know has experienced something as extreme as what Sloane did, thankfully, but stuff like that does happen, just the meanness and the disregard for other people’s space and property and feelings. I needed Maya to have conflict in her day that was outside of what she was going through. She had a rough day. This day that we’re taking her through is really rough. Stuff goes on. There are school politics. There’s homework. There are tests that you forget to study for. I wanted to show the full range of the experience, difficult though that could be.

Zibby: And the impact of food allergies too. Gabby, her sister, has really horrific food allergies which require the mom to basically not work or have to have a job in which the toddler is nearby for her survival. She tried a few times, and it didn’t work. There was an episode. Tell me about food allergies and how that factored in.

Christie: That is a little bit based on a lived experience. My oldest, Ellie, has food allergies. They’re not as severe as Gabby’s, but they’re pretty severe. Unfortunately, as hard as they try, no one is as careful as a mom when dealing with food allergies. We had a few incidents when she went to preschool. We love her preschool. It was amazing. They were so careful. Yet they forgot because it’s easy when someone is allergic to egg and gluten and tree nuts. It’s very easy to slip unless you’re that person’s mom and you have it lasered onto your brain. I needed a reason why it was extra difficult for her to get a job and why she had left. I like sharing the idea that food allergies are very real because people can make assumptions about food allergies too, which seems like such a simple thing, but not everyone takes food allergies as seriously as they might. I can speak to the fact that they’re pretty serious. It occurred to me. I didn’t go into this with an agenda of talking about food allergies. It unfolded organically. It’s how it worked.

Zibby: Two of my four kids have food allergies. I don’t know the severity of your daughter. Whenever I’m not with them, I think to myself, oh, this little thing at this restaurant that just — there are risks everywhere. I’m like, oh, that would’ve been so easy to miss. I hope that they’re not going to just pick that up. You would just do it without thinking. There just seems risks everywhere.

Christie: There are risks everywhere. I have three children. My oldest has the allergies. Then my younger two don’t. I didn’t appreciate, until my younger two came along, how much easier it is when they don’t have food allergies. You know. It’s just, there’s no stress. Eat what you want.

Zibby: My younger two also don’t have food allergies. I know. I’m like, you can just eat a nut like it’s no big deal. Every time, I’m waiting, but still, they’re fine.

Christie: I do the same thing. My son loves those Kind bars with all the cashews and pecans in them. Every time he eats one, I’m like, what’s going to happen?

Zibby: I know. I’m just waiting.

Christie: But he’s fine, always, every time. It’s stressful.

Zibby: It is stressful. First of all, how do we get this book into every school? Are you working on this plan of selling it into schools or something? They’re doing a whole thing on food insecurity at one of my kid’s schools right now. I’m like, they should be reading this book right now. I’ll give it to them. I hope you have some sort of marketing plan to get it into lots of schools.

Christie: Thank you. I think it is. It was a Junior Library Guild selection, which is great. One thing that was fun was that the librarian at my son’s school emailed me maybe a month before the book came out. She said, “I just heard about your book from –” I think she read about in School Library Journal or maybe seen in the Junior Library Guild selections. They’re hearing about it. That’s definitely something that my publisher is working on, getting it out into schools, and has been working on. I think it’s in a lot of schools. To the extent that it can be in more schools, it’s great because it is something — at my kids’ schools, they do work around community engagement. At my daughter’s school, they do actually go volunteer at the very food panty that I describe. That’s a real place. We talk about a field trip that they take to go volunteer at the food pantry. That’s real. It’s an important topic. I hope it does get into schools. This has been so exciting. I’ve done some live, in-person school visits, which is so nice. I love, love, love meeting with kids and answering their questions. It’s the most fun thing. That’s been great, actually talking to kids. You know what they always ask? They always ask, is there going to be a sequel? It’s so interesting. There’s not going to be a sequel. I’m not planning a sequel to this one. It’s just fascinating that they attach to this character and want to know what happens next to her. That’s good.

Zibby: I want to know what happens next. Think about it. What are your next projects?

Christie: Thanks for asking that. I have a new middle-grade novel that is done. I’m going through rounds of edits with my editor, same editor who I worked on this one, Tricia Lynn at Random House. She’s fantastic. That one is about soccer. It’s called Select. It’s about a girl who ends up playing for this select soccer team in San Francisco. It’s also set in San Francisco. She’s playing for a select soccer team and coming to understand that all the pressures and the — how do I explain this? The focus on the soccer and the insane way that people think about soccer is not very healthy. She has a verbally abusive coach. It ultimately is a great girl-power novel. That is fun. That’s coming out in the spring of ’23 right before the Women’s World Cup, which is exciting.

Then I have a bunch of picture books that I’m working on right now. I am obsessed with collective animal nouns, which is a really strange thing. I also really love fall books. I’m doing a fall picture book called A Mischief of Mice. It’s a mystery. A mischief of mice disappears in the woods. We have to figure out what happened to them. There are a whole lot of other animals that are searching for them. We learn all their collective names, a gaze of racoons, a parliament of owls, an unkindness of ravens, and a clutter of spiders. Anyway, I could go on about this for too long, so I won’t. Then there’s a follow-up book to that called A Fluffle of Bunnies that’s a springtime book. Then I have a book that’s really, really personal to me that is a collection of mom and baby animal art, portraits of mom and baby animals and information about that. It’s called Mamas and Babies. That’s fun. Then I’m working on a middle-grade mystery. I’m really excited about that.

Zibby: Wow. When do you do all this? When your kids are at school? What’s your work life? What does it look like? Do you work at home? Do you go out?

Christie: Before they wake up, like now. You also get this. You have so many projects going on. You have four kids. You have to find time to work. While they’re at school is the main time, in the morning before they wake up, at night after they go to bed, whenever I can find time. When do you do it? How do you do it?

Zibby: I don’t know. Also, though, I’m divorced and remarried, so I do have every other weekend without the kids.

Christie: Every other weekend, oh, sure, so that’s all the time you need.

Zibby: I feel like that’s my hack. At least I have that. Most people are married with their kids. I don’t know, not most. I just want people to know I do have some time where I’m not with them. I don’t know if I could do it, honestly, all of it, if I didn’t have the time to regroup. Maybe I could. I don’t know. This is the way it’s been set up.

Christie: It’s amazing. By the way, may I say, I’m so excited for your memoir that’s coming out. I’m so excited for it. It’s going to be great.

Zibby: Thank you. I’m really nervous. The galley link just went up. Now I’m like, oh, gosh, people are going to read it. I’m really open about everything. I’m ready. Obviously, I want it out there. I’m just like, oh, gosh. It’s a little nerve-racking. That’s all.

Christie: When something is so personal, to put it out into the world — even when you’re putting out anything that you’ve written, people are going to read it, and they’re just going to pick it apart. Most people are very kind, but some people are not.

Zibby: I know. I heard I should prepare that at least thirty percent — in general for any book that comes out, about thirty percent of people will like it and thirty percent of people will hate it. Then there’s the plus or minus in between. You should just go in preparing for that, which I don’t like because that’s like you’re preparing for a C-, basically. You’re already down to a seventy. Thank you for saying that. There’s no going back. It is what it is.

Christie: It’s coming. It’s like a train rolling. You can’t stop it now.

Zibby: I know. It’s too late now. What advice do you have for aspiring authors?

Christie: A great question. I’ll speak to all authors, but especially aspiring children’s authors. One, I will say, a lot of people will come to me and say, I have this children’s book idea, and if I just had an hour, I could get it done. I think, well… Children’s books take time. Give yourself time. Whether it’s a picture book or a novel or whatever form someone is writing in, give yourself time. If you stick to it and sit down and write every day, it can feel, at the beginning, very daunting. I have this kernel of an idea. I’m not quite sure where it’s going, but I want to get there. Then the first day you actually stare at the blank page and get something down there, you think, wow, I have so far to go. That’s true. You do. You have a long way to go, but if you do a little bit each day, it will come. It’s amazing if you give yourself — I do this thing. I give myself a word count every day. Depending on how busy it is and how much time I have with my kids, my number’s either five hundred or a thousand words, which is not that much, but you have to do it every day. It seems like you’re not making progress, but then a month later, wow, you have however many words you have. There’s progress. I would say, do something every day. Even more important than that — I don’t think this will shock you, what I’m about to say. Read, read, read. Read everything you can get your hands on in the genre that you’re writing in, in other genres, really good writers who have such an amazing way with words. Just read. Just fill your head with words. I now warm up every day by doing Wordle. That’s my first thing, like every other writer out there. Wordle’s a fun way to get yourself thinking about different words and letters. There you go. There’s my plug for Wordle.

Zibby: My daughter just told me she’s doing that now, my teenager. She’s like, “Now I’m starting my day with Wordle.” I was like, “Oh, okay, great.” Better than TikTok. Not that she’s not doing TikTok too.

Christie: My kids do it too. My older two, they text me the blocks. For someone who’s done Wordle, you get that. If not, don’t worry about it. It’s addictive, but it only takes up like three minutes a day, so it’s fine.

Zibby: What’s your go-to genre when you’re not reading for work stuff?

Christie: That’s a great question. It varies. I’ll get on kicks where I love reading mysteries. Especially during the pandemic when we’re all like, I can’t deal with reality, I find mysteries to be cozy and comforting even though they’re murder mysteries, just escapist. I love that. I do love reading memoir. When someone is that vulnerable on the page and shares so much and is open, it’s beautiful. I love realistic fiction. There are just so many authors, especially women authors, who are writing such beautiful, beautiful stuff. Nonfiction at times. I’m reading the — this isn’t exactly nonfiction, but this is a great writers’ book to read, the George Saunders book, the new one about writing where he unpacks the short stories by Russian writers. He’s such a compelling writer. I kind of got into that — I should read this. Then it turns out I really want to be reading this. It’s great. Then I love reading children’s books. I love reading picture books. Whenever my kids read a middle-grade that they love, I grab it and read it when they’re done. I love reading in my own genre.

Zibby: How old are your kids?

Christie: My kids are twelve — although, she’s almost thirteen. We’re about to have a teenager. Then my son just turned eleven. Then my little one just turned seven.

Zibby: Awesome. This has been so fun, Christie. I hope we meet in person at some point. I’m hoping to get all over the country and go this summer. I don’t know. All to say, I love how you write. I love your whole sensitivity and the way you make the reader feel and learn. I’m excited for my kids to read this, and everybody else’s kids. I can’t wait for what’s next. I’d be really up for the sequel.

Christie: Thank you so much, Zibby. This was so much fun. You are so wonderful to talk to. Thank you for this and just for doing what you’re doing and telling the world about so many books in such a fun and relatable and wonderful way. Thank you. Thank you so much. This was great.

Zibby: You’re welcome. Buh-bye. Thanks so much.

Christie: Bye. Thank you.

Zibby: Have a great day. Bye.

Christie: Thanks. You too.

Christie Matheson, SHELTER

SHELTER by Christie Matheson

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