Literacy Daily

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  • Wendy Mass is the NEW YORK TIMES bestselling author of THE CANDYMAKERS, the ALA Schneider Family Award winner A MANGO-SHAPED SPACE, LEAP DAY, JEREMY FINK AND THE MEANING OF LIFE, HEAVEN LOOKS A LOT LIKE THE MALL, and EVERY SOUL A STAR. Her most recent novel, PI IN THE SKY, was released earlier this week.
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    5 Questions With... Wendy Mass (PI IN THE SKY)

    by Wendy Mass
     | Jun 14, 2013
    Wendy Mass is the NEW YORK TIMES bestselling author of THE CANDYMAKERS, the ALA Schneider Family Award winner A MANGO-SHAPED SPACE, LEAP DAY, JEREMY FINK AND THE MEANING OF LIFE, HEAVEN LOOKS A LOT LIKE THE MALL, and EVERY SOUL A STAR. Her most recent novel, PI IN THE SKY, was released earlier this week. Wendy lives in New Jersey with her husband and their twins. Her website is www.wendymass.com.

    The protagonist of PI IN THE SKY, Joss, exists in dark matter and joins Annika in trying to put Earth back in the space/time continuum. This instantly gets into some complicated astrophysics. What was your scientific background before this novel and how much research was required?

    Some people idolize movie stars or rock stars. I idolize scientists. I hang on their every word. Ever since I was a kid I’ve been fascinated by how things work, and why things are the way they are. This interest extends from the earth and how it can sustain life, all the way to wanting to know what’s going on at the far reaches of the ever-expanding universe.

    Besides one honors chemistry class in high school (where I mostly copied the answers from my lab partner…shh), and an astronomy class in college where I only got an “A” because the teacher graded on a curve, I haven’t had any formal education in the sciences. But I can research the heck out of a topic, and that’s what I did for PI IN THE SKY. I wanted to know everything, from soup to nuts. I started by re-reading A SHORT HISTORY OF NEARLY EVERYTHING by the amazing Bill Bryson, which I had read while researching JEREMY FINK AND THE MEANING OF LIFE. I then gobbled up pretty much any book in my local library system that presented the fields of physics, astrophysics, astronomy, chemistry, and biology in a way that my liberal-arts brain could understand. I watched documentaries, I attended lectures, I contacted scientists online and asked them questions. Eventually I felt qualified enough to build a fictional story around real scientific knowledge.

    Humor abounds in PI IN THE SKY, but you’ve also included quotes from scientific heavyweights like Stephen Hawking and Carl Sagan. How did you manage to have so much fun while making space for these major figures (pun intended)?

    After I’d done the bulk of the research, I pulled out about 25 quotes from various scientists that truly fascinated me. I put them all on Post-It notes, and then kept rearranging them on my bedroom floor, hoping they would help me organize a plotline. My husband came in at one point and said, “Oh, so you’re planning on putting those quotes at the start of each chapter. Cool.” And I looked down and realized that of course these quotes had to go into the book. I think it gives the book a real structure, and explains these scientific concepts in a way I never could. Thanks, hubby!

    As for the humor, I think the wackiness of the story itself sets the stage for it automatically. And scientists—at least the ones who have become public figures—are generally a wacky, funny bunch, so it was easy to feed off of their energy.

    Many reviewers noted that they were first introduced to the sensory condition of “synesthesia” in your award-winning novel, A MANGO-SHAPED SPACE, which recently celebrated 10 years in publication. What fresh facts about the universe might a reader discover in PI IN THE SKY?

    I know how much I learned while writing [PI IN THE SKY] (a ton), and if the reader comes away with even a fraction of that, I’ll be thrilled. My hope is that it leads them to explore aspects of the story later on, like synesthesia did in MANGO. There are so many concepts in this book—dark matter, wormholes, evolution of planets, stars, galaxies, life on other planets—to name just a few, so it depends on what strikes that particular reader.

    You’ve said that you find a topic (i.e., space, synesthesia, candy) that interests you and then build the story around it. What are some of the benefits of starting with a topic rather than a character or plot?

    Starting with a topic allows me to play around until I find the best type of character and plot to really breathe life into the topic. I have to make sure the topic doesn’t overshadow the character, though, since it has to become the character’s story that the reader cares about. I spend a lot of time outlining the character first, before plotting out the book, to make sure they feel real. Doing it in this order makes it easier for me to put it all together.

    When asked why you write middle-grade novels, you said that “everyone has a voice in his or her head that stops at a certain age. With me that age is around twelve or thirteen.” How did you discover this?

    Basically whenever I’ve tried to write stories for “grown ups,” the character still sounds 13 even when they’re 30. The trials and tribulations of adults don’t interest me in the same way. I guess because I’m stuck living them!

    Plus, deep down, I think adults still feel like teenagers inside, like we’re trapped inside this adult life and have to pretend we know what it means to be a grown up.

    Or maybe that’s just me!

    © 2013 International Reading Association. Please do not reproduce in any form, electronic or otherwise.


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  • Acclaimed playwright and author Clay McLeod Chapman is the creator of the relentless storytelling sessions THE PUMPKIN PIE SHOW. He has contributed to several anthologies and authored two novels. Currently, he is writing a trilogy of children's novels titled The Tribe—book one, HOMEROOM HEADHUNTERS (Hyperion), hit shelves last month.
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    5 Questions With... Clay McLeod Chapman (THE TRIBE: HOMEROOM HEADHUNTERS)

    by Clay McLeod Chapman
     | Jun 07, 2013
    Acclaimed playwright and author Clay McLeod Chapman is the creator of the relentless storytelling sessions THE PUMPKIN PIE SHOW. He has contributed to several anthologies and authored two novels. Currently, he is writing a trilogy of children's novels titled The Tribe—book one, HOMEROOM HEADHUNTERS (Hyperion), hit shelves last month. Visit him at claymcleodchapman.com.

    THE TRIBE: HOMEROOM HEADHUNTERS features a shadowy group of students who are outsider figures, but also run the school in a mysterious way. How did you set out to avoid the stereotypical cliques and school-hierarchies found in pop culture?

    I write them out of my system, basically. I think the first draft of HOMEROOM HEADHUNTERS was steeped with stereotypes—something along the lines of a film adaptation of LORD OF THE FLIES as written/directed by John Hughes. My editor, bless him, helped kick the clichés out.

    But I also think there’s something to be said about taking a stereotype and putting your own spin on it. We’re dealing with archetypes here. It’s a fun challenge to take characters we’re all familiar with—the dunderheaded school bully, the stern principal—and subverting them somehow. Let’s muddy them up so that they’re not so black and white. That way, readers have to actively ask themselves: “Well—what do I really think of this character?”

    I think there’s a point in HOMEROOM HEADHUNTERS where you can sympathize with the school bully, even after all the mean things he’s done throughout the book. When something like that happens, the reader has a chance to stop and consider the complexities of actual people, that no one is ever truly Type A or Type B, and that sometimes it’s not so easy to put somebody in a box because they are “the bully” or whatever stereotype you can pin on someone else in real life.

    Reviewers have noted that amidst the spitball fights and toilet jokes there’s some serious relational conflict between Spencer Pendleton, protagonist of The Tribe series, and his mother. How do you balance the gross-out appeal and weightier subject matter?

    It was definitely a balancing trick that I hope I got right. I totally believe that humor is a wonderful tool that writers can use to explore weightier topics. Humor establishes a certain level of trust between reader and writer. If we’re laughing, we let our guard down a little—and now that we trust our author, he or she can throw something a little heftier our way. And we’ll catch it. Because there’s that trust, see? What’s the line from Mary Poppins? “A spoonful of sugar makes the medicine go down…”

    The topics I tackle in the book—finding your own voice within middle school society, bullying, struggling against that sense of isolation in school, being on the outside of its million-and-one cliques, feeling distant from your own family—are all issues that merit discussion. But I didn’t want my readers to feel like I was delivering some Message. So I gave them permission to laugh. That way, we acknowledge the complexity of the situation. I’m not suggesting that we crack a joke at inappropriate moments—but I do believe humor in all of its forms, whether it’s gross-out, satirical or punny, is a fruitful mechanism for helping us understand, for coping, for seeing things in all of their various raw details.

    You’ve mentioned that your own experiences of being bullied inspired the rogue group of anti-bullies in The Tribe series. Which anti-bully characters did you take solace in and relate to when you were in school?

    The movie STAND BY ME was a pivotal import into my subconscious. There’s no denying its impact on my creative life. I had to be, hmm, nine or ten when it first came out? It was Rated R, for sure—but that didn’t stop me from watching it on the VHS player in my friend’s basement over and over again. I still have distinct memories of Gordie, Chris, Vern and Teddy coming into contact with that pack of bullies by the train tracks. How clenched my throat was when Kiefer Sutherland’s character pulled out his switchblade.

    I’ll come clean and confess that the culminating moment in HOMEROOM HEADHUNTERS is a complete riff on a certain scene revolving around a pie-eating contest and a bottle of castor oil.

    The movie eventually led me to Stephen King’s novella “The Body,” which led to other Stephen King works, which led to Edgar Allan Poe, then H.P. Lovecraft. King was a total gateway book for me. By reading his work, I learned all about the authors who had influenced him—so when I ran out of King’s books, I read them, only to read their influences, and on and on up the literary family tree…

    I’m crossing my fingers that HOMEROOM HEADHUNTERS can be a gateway book to the novels it references, to those works of classic literature that changed my world when I first read them. If kids are tempted to pick up a copy of LORD OF THE FLIES or CALL OF THE WILD or CATCHER IN THE RYE after finishing mine—mission totally accomplished.

    On your blog you said this about your anxieties of reading in front of a writing class at Rutgers University, “Writing workshop students can smell your fear. They eat the weaker writers.” What are the top fears that surface when reading your work aloud to a crowd?

    I’ve been performing in the downtown NYC theater scene for nearly twenty years now, but I’ve never been more terrified then when I stood before 600 middle school kids in Idaho and read from HOMEROOM HEADHUNTERS for the very first time. I was petrified. Absolutely petrified. Middle grade is a totally new, completely unchartered terrain for me. Middle school was the undiscovered country as far as I was concerned. In the back of my head, I kept asking myself—What if they think I’m just some old dude trying to be hip and they see right through me? What if they don’t like the book? What if I make a complete fool out myself? (That last one wouldn’t be too-too hard, with or without the book.)

    But you know what? The craziest thing happened. The students got into it! Really into it. The teachers too. The book, just by the sheer nature of its first-person narrative, comes alive as soon as I read aloud from it—and Spencer, our narrator, gets to put his foot in his mouth for one and all. He becomes a palpable person for the audience to hear. They think of him less as a literary figment and more of a human being with a story to tell, not to mention a lot of faults that make him all the more real.

    Students tend to conflate me with Spencer, thanks to the first-person narrative. Which is kind of fun. I’ll admit—there’s a little bit of myself in Spencer. I think a lot of students will find a bit of themselves in him, too. Several have so far. Some have come up to me after a reading and confided—“That guy’s a lot like me.”

    I can’t stress this enough: It is so much fun to read from this book before a large crowd of middle school students. I will go anywhere and everywhere and I will read this book for anyone and everyone who is willing to listen. Have book, will travel—you know? What I’ve learned thus far is that sixth graders ask the best (and most) questions, seventh graders play their cards closest to the chest, and eighth graders will laugh the loudest.

    Your storytelling creation, The Pumpkin Pie Show, has been described as a mix of literature and theater. Teachers often find themselves at that intersection when performing read-alouds. What tips can you offer for a solid performance?

    I’ve always believed that first person narratives make great theater. MOBY DICK? “Call me Ishmael?” Get an actor behind that and—POOF: You’ve got yourself a monologue. A rather long monologue—but still. Shake and Bake Theater. How cool is that?

    I believe book readings carry a certain stigma. Most folks think of them as arid affairs. But it doesn’t have to be! After several weeks of reading from the same chapters from HOMEROOM HEADHUNTERS, the text has ingrained itself into my system. The more I read it, the more it’s memorized, until I’m not even looking at the pages anymore. For listeners, that creates an interesting sensation: The guy said this was a book reading, but he’s not even looking at his book! He’s talking directly to us!

    It blurs the line between what we as an audience think a book reading is supposed to be and something a little more theatrical, something a little more alive and in-the-moment. And real! Almost real. It’s happening in the here and now. No two readings are the same because no two audiences are ever the same. That’s what makes theater so special. It’s raw and in the moment. It’s not a movie. It’s now and never again.

    © 2013 International Reading Association. Please do not reproduce in any form, electronic or otherwise.


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  • Jennifer Berne is the award-winning author of MANFISH: A STORY OF JACQUES COUSTEAU and CALVIN CAN'T FLY: THE STORY OF A BOOKWORM BIRDIE. Her most recent book is ON A BEAM OF LIGHT: A STORY OF ALBERT EINSTEIN.
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    5 Questions With… Jennifer Berne (ON A BEAM OF LIGHT)

    by Jennifer Berne
     | May 31, 2013
    Jennifer Berne is the award-winning author of MANFISH: A STORY OF JACQUES COUSTEAU and CALVIN CAN'T FLY: THE STORY OF A BOOKWORM BIRDIE. Her most recent book is ON A BEAM OF LIGHT: A STORY OF ALBERT EINSTEIN. Jennifer grew up in New York City where she was active in dance and theater as a child. She studied art and design, and worked for Andy Warhol at "The Factory." After a successful career in advertising, Jennifer began writing for NICK JR. MAGAZINE and writing books about the subjects she loves most—our amazing universe and the people who discover its secrets. She lives in a house she designed in the rolling hills of Columbia County, NY. She and her husband spend their summers aboard their sailboat, cruising the coast of Maine.

    Your new book, ON A BEAM OF LIGHT, tells the story of Albert Einstein. What originally sparked your interest in him as a subject?

    Some people are just superstars to me. Einstein is one of them. His combination of being one of the most curious, brilliant, imaginative people ever, with his unpretentiousness, humor and eccentricities… How could you not love that? Even more, his favorite subjects of time, space, light, motion, energy, gravity, the infinitely large and the infinitesimally small are, to me, some of the most exciting and mysterious wonders of our world and our universe.

    No matter how much research and reading I did about Einstein, he continually fascinated me. Still does.

    Which aspects of Einstein’s personality did you most want to include in your story?

    I wanted to show the path his mind took. Starting with him as a curious little child, watching that curiosity become deeper, developing into a passion to know, a quest, and then ultimately leading to the remarkable discoveries he made by following that path. I also wanted to show how imagination and creativity are key elements in his process of working out a problem and how they guided him to insights, ideas and realizations that no one had ever had before.

    I hope that, from reading this book, children will realize that curiosity is enough to launch them into their life’s direction. That by following their passions, they too may discover whole new parts of our world and our universe.

    The characteristics that I feel are the essence of Einstein are those that are repeated—almost like a refrain—throughout the book: wondering, thinking, figuring and imagining.

    Your first picture book, MANFISH, focuses on Jacques Cousteau. Like ON A BEAM OF LIGHT, it spans a large swath of Cousteau’s life. What are some of the challenges of encapsulating the lives of these well-known figures in the picture book format?

    Well, obviously the greatest challenge is the small number of pages and telling the story in as few words as possible. It’s really a great exercise in writing and editing. It forces me to dig deeply and to discover what I feel is the essence of the person, the life, and the story.

    The next challenge is to express that essence in a way that flows smoothly, painting a picture of the person, making every page interesting and relevant, and that is written as beautifully and lyrically as possible.

    It’s not very different from writing poetry.

    A children’s book author doesn’t have the luxury a writer of adult books has, to go on and on for hundreds of pages. Luckily, my years of experience in advertising—writing single-page ads and 30-second commercials—comes in very handy in the process of drilling down to the core and expressing that narrative concisely and in an interesting, entertaining manner.

    You’ve had a remarkable string of careers—everything from a gig at “The Factory,” Andy Warhol’s iconic studio in New York City, to one as an award-winning copywriter, whose achievements include penning the famous slogan “When E.F. Hutton talks, people listen.” So what, exactly, drew you to want to become a picture book author?

    When I moved on from my advertising career, I looked for what I would do next. I knew it had to have something to do with writing, because I love the process of writing and I had been a writer for most of my life.

    After working on print ads and TV commercials, I couldn’t imagine words without pictures. To me, the synergy of the two has an incredible power and magic. So I knew that whatever I did would have words and pictures.

    Then I turned to the subjects I had always read about, the subjects that fascinated me the most: nature, its creatures, our planet, and our universe.

    It just fell into place. Writing picture books about what I loved in a beautiful image-rich format.

    Best of all, by writing picture books I get to write to the most curious, interested, appreciative, spontaneous, open-minded audience any author can write for: children.

    I followed all these currents and they lead me to a wonderful place!

    Typically, we try to shy away from “what’s next” questions. But for someone with so many talents and interests, who has followed such an unconventional path, we can’t help ourselves: What’s next for Jennifer Berne?

    Just like the people I write about, I let my interests, curiosities and passions lead me. I never really know where they will take me until it happens. Right now I’m getting so much pleasure from writing children’s books about the people and subjects that fascinate me, I can’t imagine a change at this point.

    However, my husband and I will be moving up to Maine for the summer, to live aboard our sailboat and cruise the coast. So, although I will continue to write, it will be from a very different—and far more nautical—setting. Unconventional? Perhaps, slightly. But definitely fun!

    © 2013 International Reading Association. Please do not reproduce in any form, electronic or otherwise.


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  • Deborah Lee Rose is an internationally published author of bestselling children’s books including three brand new titles—SOMEONE’S SLEEPY, a lullaby, JIMMY THE JOEY, a true koala rescue story, and THE SPELLING BEE BEFORE RECESS, a funny school story inspired by “The Night Before Christmas.”
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    5 Questions With… Deborah Lee Rose (THE SPELLING BEE BEFORE RECESS)

    by Deborah Lee Rose
     | May 24, 2013
    Deborah Lee Rose is an internationally published author of bestselling children’s books including three brand new titles—SOMEONE’S SLEEPY, a lullaby, JIMMY THE JOEY, a true koala rescue story, and THE SPELLING BEE BEFORE RECESS, a funny school story inspired by “The Night Before Christmas.” Her classic THE PEOPLE WHO HUGGED THE TREES has been included in major school language arts anthologies and translated into seven languages, and her ocean literacy book INTO THE A, B, SEA: AN OCEAN ALPHABET has sold more than a quarter million copies. As a professional science writer she helped create and blogs for Howtosmile.org, the NSF-funded STEM activity collection for all ages, named a Best Website for Teaching and Learning by the American Association of School Librarians.

    You’ve said, “It takes work to capture complex concepts in simple words, and to find new ways to present what is familiar.” What new ways have you found to approach the traditional spelling bee in your upcoming picture book, THE SPELLING BEE BEFORE RECESS (Abrams Books for Young Readers, August 2013)?

    Because children and adults both have loved my school story THE TWELVE DAYS OF KINDERGARTEN and its two sequels, all inspired by “The Twelve Days of Christmas,” I decided to jump off from another beloved rhyme, “The Night Before Christmas,” for a longer school story. The air of intense expectation and surprise and the rollicking rhythm in “The Night Before Christmas” all lent themselves to creating a funny readaloud about a down-to-the-wire school spelling bee. The most fun of all was choosing the words for the bee in the book that could be called out just the way Santa calls out his reindeer names in the classic poem. (The book also includes four full spelling lists.)

    I put a new twist on the traditional spelling bee by having the school principal throw in a tiebreaker. In the book, it’s “One minute to recess, and no one was winning!” The principal announces that for the next word, the two finalists will spell AND tell what the word means. The tiebreaking word I chose—SESQUIPEDALIAN—I learned from Grammy-winning singer/songwriter Tom Chapin’s song for kids titled “Great Big Words.” (I first heard him sing the song in person at a reading conference.) I picked this particular word because it was so big, I myself didn’t know what it meant for years until I finally looked it up! The meaning turned out to fit the story perfectly, and this word in fact helped a former champion clinch the National Spelling Bee prize.

    Last month, the Scripps National Spelling Bee (which airs on ESPN May 28-30) announced a new rule: in addition to spelling a word, contestants must now be able to define it as well. So, we have to ask: were you writing with a crystal ball?

    The announcement of the new Scripps National Spelling Bee rule—that henceforth all contestants must be able to tell what the word means—came as a total surprise. I only learned about it a week before I spoke at IRA in San Antonio, when the spelling bee book was already printed!

    If I did write THE SPELLING BEE BEFORE RECESS with a “crystal ball,” it was the lens of raising my own children. My daughter read all the time and understood the nuances of word meaning. My son memorized the required word list at top speed the night before each spelling test. So I had the idea of setting two characters, Smart Ruby, who’d “read at least ten zillion books, maybe more,” and The Slugger, who memorized word lists and “never struck out,” in the nail-biting final round of a school spelling bee.

    What has been your personal experience of school spelling bees? Any chance we’re interviewing a spelling champion?

    Sigh…I wish that were the case, but in fact it was just the opposite! (This did come in handy for emotional authenticity when I was writing the book.) In fourth grade, I “got out” in the very first round of our school spelling bee. My hopes were dashed when I misspelled the word similar as though it rhymed with familiar. I’ve never forgotten that misspelled moment to this day, and it was the beginning of my lifelong love affair with the dictionary and thesaurus.

    Let’s move beyond spelling and talk about math (and science). Can you tell us about your work with Howtosmile.org?

    You’ll notice I tucked some spelling words about math and science, like equate, brain, and pollution, into the bee in THE SPELLING BEE BEFORE RECESS. I have been a science writer for UC Berkeley’s Lawrence Hall of Science for a long time. In helping build the collection of 3,500 online STEM activities for Howtosmile.org, I became aware of different aspects of the activities, including links to children’s literature.

    Many Howtosmile.org activities were created with specific children’s book connections, and even more have the potential to be used with both nonfiction and fiction books. One of my favorite activities is “Lupine and Butterflies,” because it starts with learners reading MISS RUMPHIUS by Barbara Cooney. Reading MISS RUMPHIUS to my own children instilled in me a desire to inspire young readers with the wonder of the natural world.

    Your latest book, SOMEONE’S SLEEPY (Abrams Books for Young Readers, 2013), isn’t just a “literary lullaby”—it will soon be available as an actual MP3. How did that come to pass?

    When my son and daughter were little, they could stay awake through countless bedtime stories (while MY eyes were closing) but a lullaby song always seemed to work. When the possibility came up of turning SOMEONE’S SLEEPY into a song, I knew I wanted to ask Tom Chapin to set the text of the book to music. His songs for kids, from laugh-out-loud ballads to lullabies, have been our family favorites for years. As a children’s author who loves music, it is truly extraordinary for me to now be an official lyricist through this creative collaboration.

    © 2013 International Reading Association. Please do not reproduce in any form, electronic or otherwise.


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  • Lisa Jahn-Clough has been in the field of children’s literature as author, illustrator, and professor since 1994 and has published over a dozen picture books and three young adult novels. She has an MFA in creative writing from Emerson College and currently teaches at Rowan University.
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    5 Questions With… Lisa Jahn-Clough (NOTHING BUT BLUE)

    by Lisa Jahn-Clough
     | May 17, 2013
    Lisa Jahn-Clough has been in the field of children’s literature as author, illustrator, and professor since 1994 and has published over a dozen picture books and three young adult novels. She has an MFA in creative writing from Emerson College and currently teaches at Rowan University. Lisa lives with her husband and their two dogs in a little yellow house in Portland, Maine in the summer and across from a cornfield in southern New Jersey in the winter.

    Your new young adult novel, NOTHING BUT BLUE (Houghton Mifflin, 2013), doesn’t fit neatly into any subgenre. Shadow, the telepathic stray that acts as your main character’s companion, doesn’t help clarify one, either. How would you characterize the book?

    I suppose I am still waiting for someone to tell me what type of book NOTHING BUT BLUE is. In my mind it is a mostly realistic story about a character who survives a tragedy, with occasional magical elements. One reviewer labeled it as survival fiction, and yes, Blue is a survivor, so that could be right. Another reviewer said it has touches of the spiritual, which probably is a reference to Blue’s connection to nature as well as to the stray dog.

    The lack of obvious subgenre may have been a risk, and it may very well confuse and annoy some readers, but it was a risk I was willing to take. I’ve never liked labels to begin with, so a part of me is pleased that you find this novel difficult to pigeon-hole. My goal has always been to write the story that works, and not have to define it as a certain type of story. I leave that to my readers!

    However, there were things I wanted to attempt in this novel that may help clarify a genre. I wanted to eliminate all superficial materialism, which is why Blue has literally lost everything she owns. I wanted my character to live in the absolute present, which meant attempting a style of present-tense that had little to no reference to past or future. I wanted my character to go on a journey—every story takes a character on a metaphorical journey, but I wanted mine to go on a literal journey as well.

    I also wanted to exaggerate feelings of isolation, which is why Blue is (mostly) alone. She walks approximately 500 miles with no money, no food, no phone, no memory, in a state of shock with limited resources. At first she is completely alone, but that is not sustainable for a novel, so I had to give her something to interact with. She runs into a motley collection of characters, but she needed something more constant, even if only to give her some dialogue to break up the monotony of narration. I was wondering who that would be, when I looked up to meet the gaze of my dog lying on the couch in my office. He raised his head at me, and I said, “Of course, a dog!” My dog seemed pleased with that and went back to sleep.

    That’s where the telepathic stray dog comes in. It’s not clear if Shadow (the dog) is literally or figuratively speaking to Blue, but Blue needs companionship so badly that she believes he is. This is what gives the novel its possible otherworldly element.

    The dog-human bond is really quite magical, especially if you spend a lot of time together—you begin to read one another’s moods and desires, so the level of communication can sometimes feel very real. I mean, I talk to my dogs all the time and often get a sense that they are communicating back to me. I wanted to try to capture this type of relationship between Blue and Shadow, yet make it somewhat surreal. But it really depends on how the reader interprets it.

    NOTHING BUT BLUE is told in dual narrative—sections alternate between Blue’s past and her present. What were some of the challenges of writing in such a complex POV?

    A major tragedy occurs just before the novel opens. I wrote most of the present-tense “now” scenes first, not necessarily in order, where Blue has no memory of this event and can only focus on the absolute present. When I’d written twenty or so scenes, all in present tense from the point of view of a girl suffering from Acute Stress Disorder, I realized the reader would need more clues to sustain interest and to have an understanding of who Blue was in the past in order to compare her to how she is in the present. Blue is in the dark, but the reader shouldn’t be.

    So I started writing sections in Blue’s past voice in the three months prior to the tragedy. Originally I thought they might be flashback scenes interwoven with the present, but for the sake of clarity I made them separate chapters. The story of the past and the story of the present eventually come together but not until the very end when Blue regains her memory in a final chapter titled, “Before and Now.”

    One of the most fun challenges was to never reveal Blue’s real name in the entire novel. Blue is the name she gives herself in the present, but even in the “before” chapters I never once wrote her name. I do know what her real name is, but I won’t ever tell. In my mind, she leaves the past behind and transforms into her much stronger present self—named Blue.

    Your previous YA novel, ME, PENELOPE (Houghton Mifflin, 2007), was the target of a 2009 book banning in Orlando, Florida. What’s the most valuable lesson you took from that experience?

    In ME, PENELOPE, the protagonist wants to lose her virginity before going to college and ends up having safe and emotionally healthy mutual sex with a very dear friend. The thing that the banners took issue with was not so much that she has sex, but that she has a desire to have sex, and that when she finally does have sex it is enjoyable. Honestly, I think if sex was forced on her, or she’d ended up having a bad experience and “learned her lesson,” it would not have been banned. There’s nothing graphic in the book at all.

    I feel as though I went through a rite of passage and have joined the ranks of those who have a banned book—it is quite good company. But in the scheme of things it was not that paramount. It was just one county, and although I have received several “hate” emails it is nothing like some YA authors receive.

    The main thing I took away was to not engage with readers who yell at you. Do not defend your work to those who approach it with an ideology already in mind. At first I wanted to explain to the parents and school board why I wrote ME, PENELOPE the way I did, but after several attempts at unsent responses it became very clear that I would never be able to explain my character’s choices, and nor should I have to, no matter how tempting it may be. I wanted to retaliate by defending by explaining free speech and intellectual freedom, etc., but when someone is so mad at a book, the writer’s defense will be useless.

    You’ve said that you’ve built your writing career around “a lonely character finding companionship through love or friendship”—and that falling in love with your now-husband derailed you for a few years. How did you move past the fear that “there was nothing else to write about”?

    I am one of those writers that started in childhood. I liked people fine, but I never needed a lot of friends and I never liked superficiality (I still don’t). When it came to my work I was a complete loner. I need quiet in my brain, which means not being distracted or attending to anyone.

    But the irony is that so much of my work, even as a young child, was about loneliness and finding connection. My melancholy drove my work. I wanted to connect with someone, but there was always this fear that if I did I’d have nothing left to write about. I thought if I ever had a serious partner I’d lose my creative self. I was also incredibly driven to have a career as an author and professor and a relationship was not my priority.

    However, love is a strange thing in that it hits you at a time when you are both ready and not ready, and it happens both incredibly fast and painfully slow. And it wasn’t just falling in love that derailed me, although that was definitely a big change in my life and any big change, good or bad, causes a shift. At the same time, my editor retired after I’d been working with him for fourteen years. My now-husband, then boyfriend, took a job down south. I left my job and we moved together. [This] was a lot of transition. In fact I probably felt a bit like Blue—lost, confused and unsure of where I was headed and what I’d left behind. (Without the tragedy, of course.)

    I was writing, but everything I wrote was crap that had no spark and no one wanted to publish. Was my biggest fear true—did love leave me with nothing left to say? Was it the relationship, or was it all because of my editor retiring?

    Inevitably, after writing crap for a year, something decent will emerge. So I suppose I found my way back by writing. It just took longer than usual. The next picture book that found a publisher was FELICITY AND CORDELIA: A TALE OF TWO BUNNIES, about two characters who are friends from the get-go; their problem is how to balance being happy together with maintaining independent desires. It was definitely a different approach to my writing and it felt right, and it reopened the door to my career and paved the path to write NOTHING BUT BLUE.

    In addition to a robust career as an author and an illustrator, you’re an assistant professor of creative writing at Rowan University, in Glassboro, New Jersey. Which idea or concept do you find the most difficult to teach?

    I teach both undergraduate and graduate level courses in creative writing and writing for children and young adults. In the undergrad classes the hardest thing to teach is how to be imaginative. I can go over craft issues such as tense, point of view, character, dialogue but those are basic necessities. Those are all things that can be taught and learned. But my ultimate desire is to allow students to feel free enough to let go of their preconceptions of what writing should be, and especially of what writing for children should be, and to take risks and be a bit absurd. I think I’ve been getting better at finding ways to inspire and getting them to find ways into the absurd. But it is still a challenge.

    Voice is also a challenge to teach, and this is often where originality and quirkiness begins. Some students have a very natural, easy style to their writing that is very much from themselves, even if the writing has nothing to do with themselves. Others are clearly trying too hard. It is very difficult to explain “trying too hard.”

    So more and more I want them to be playful. Having them write in-class, having them write outside of class, and having them read interesting books is the best way to do this.

    I think writing is a lot about being comfortable and confident—two things that can be hard to force—and it comes with practice, trust, and faith.

    Download the discussion guide for NOTHING BUT BLUE here.

    © 2013 International Reading Association. Please do not reproduce in any form, electronic or otherwise.


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