Kerry Madden-Lunsford first met Ernestine Upchurch more than a decade ago.
It was just after the 2005 release of “Gentle’s Holler,” the first of three young adult novels (the others are “Louisiana’s Song” and “Jessie’s Mountain”) that Madden-Lunsford would write set in the Smoky Mountains in North Carolina.
Turns out that was Upchurch’s territory, and she wanted to meet the woman who was writing about her beloved Maggie Valley and the mountains surrounding it.
“I met her at the pancake house in Maggie Valley, and she became my mountain mother,” says Madden-Lunsford, associate professor and director of the creative writing program at the University of Alabama at Birmingham. “She let me use her cabin to write the other two novels.”
She also told Madden-Lunsford the story that is the basis of her newest book, “Ernestine’s Milky Way,” a children’s picture book with illustrations by Emily Sutton.
“She told me about her mother asking her to take a mason jar of milk to neighbors in the other holler when she was 5,” Madden-Lunsford says. “I just thought to be 5 years old and have that kind of responsibility. I thought now that’s a story. I just started thinking about this little girl taking a journey.”
It wasn’t an easy task for the author, who in addition to her young adult novels had written a biography of Harper Lee, “Up Close: Harper Lee”; “Nothing Fancy,” a children’s book about the friendship between storyteller Kathryn Tucker Windham and folk artist Charlie Lucas; and “Offsides,” a novel loosely based on her own story, growing up the daughter of a well-known football coach. (Her father, Joe Madden, coached at the University of Tennessee and Iowa State University, among other places.)
“I had been teaching picture books to my students, and I thought, how hard could it be?,” Madden-Lunsford says. “And it turns out it’s the hardest form. There are so few words. I must have written it a hundred times.”
Her agent sent the book out, and an editor at Penguin picked it up. That editor also found Sutton in York, England, an unlikely residence for an illustrator of a book about the Smoky Mountains.
“She’s terrific,” Madden-Lunsford says of her collaborator. “She contacted me and asked me to send her pictures of the mountain. I sent her about 200 pictures, and the illustrations are beautiful.”
Ernestine Upchurch died last year, but Sutton was able to send her a few of the illustrations before she passed away.
“She sent me four beautiful pictures,” Madden-Lunsford says. “Libby, Ernestine’s daughter, said she had the biggest smile on her face when she saw them.”
And while Upchurch was her mountain mother (and Libby now calls the author her “mountain sister”), Madden-Lunsford has real family in the mountain area, too. Her husband, Kiffen Madden-Lunsford, has family in both Ashville, North Carolina, and Nashville, Tennessee, and “Ernestine’s Milky Way” has gotten their thumbs-up.
“They’ve all been so supportive,” the author says.
In fact, her husband – who lives in Los Angeles and is a tenured teacher in the Los Angeles Unified School District – is a clogger and will clog at some of her signing events. She kicked off her book tour this week at the Alabama Booksmith in Homewood. The tour continues Saturday in California, and then she’s back in Alabama for a March 23 book signing at the Homewood Public Library and an April 13 appearance at the Alabama Book Festival in Montgomery.
In the meantime, Madden-Lunsford is working on two new projects – a teen novel set in Birmingham and an adult novel set in Manchester, England.
Because of their jobs, Madden-Lunsford and her husband have lived apart for a while. They travel often to see each other, and they spend summers together. They’ve also raised children Norah, Lucy and Flannery.
“We’ve done this two-state thing for about 10 years and will be doing it about four more years so it doesn’t mess up his retirement,” Madden-Lunsford says. “We’ve been married 33 years and Skype every night.”