Monday, April 14, 2014

Michele Weber Hurwitz and 'The Summer I Saved the World'

“It is very often the ordinary things that go unnoticed that end up making a difference.” This bit of wisdom imparted from a history teacher to 13-year-old protagonist Nina is the inspiration behind Michele Weber Hurwitz's sweet new middle-grade novel The Summer I Saved the World. . . in 65 Days. Nina plans to do 65 small, anonymous acts of kindness for her family and neighbors—one for each day of her summer vacation. And along the way, she learns about her neighbors, her family, as well as herself. Publisher's Weekly says it's a story that should "give hope to those who think one person can’t possibly make a difference."

Question: Where did you get the idea for The Summer I Saved the World. . . in 65 Days? What made you want to write this story?

Michele Weber Hurwitz: I had several thoughts that I wove together for this story. First, we hear so much about paying it forward and random acts of kindness, but sometimes the amount of problems in our world overwhelms me, and I wondered – does doing good really do any good? Is it making a difference?

Second, I read an amusing little item in my local paper's police blotter about a woman who called the police when a girl she didn't recognize was delivering cookies around her neighborhood. Something else besides chocolate chips could have been in those cookies, you know! Anyway, I thought, wow, how do people really react when random good comes their way? Perhaps it's not always in a positive way.

Third, I worried about how technology has altered family life and neighborhoods, and how we live in this era of a sort of "disconnected connection." Lastly, I read about a class at the University of Iowa where the professor had students write down each day three positive events or experiences – no matter how big or small – and how this changed their perspectives. I started doing that too. We tend to focus on the negative, or what goes wrong, instead of recognizing small, good things that go right every day.

Q: As with your debut novel, Calli Be Gold, you show ordinary kids being extraordinary in their own quiet way. Do you feel like you're building on a theme in your writing? Do you feel like you're doing your own good in the world, in having kids think about the nature of our day-to-day interactions with each other and the world?

MWH: I am a big fan of ordinary kids, and I think they're sometimes overlooked because they may not stand out in a crowd. My heart also melts for quiet kids, because I was one myself, and we live in such a "loud" world. When you think about it, ordinary is amazing. Quietly, sneakily, understatedly, wonderfully amazing. Ordinary is warm blueberry muffin. Ordinary is birds flying in a V and a favorite pair of jeans and a baby's first smile. Ordinary is everything!

Both Calli Gold and Nina Ross, the main character in The Summer I Saved the 65 Days, are contemplative, understated, ordinary girls, so yes, there is that connective theme in the two books.

Just as we admire a character for her bravery or confidence, I hope when kids read my books, they get the sense of how important kindness and being considerate are. I received an email from a girl named Lucy after she read Calli Be Gold. She wrote: "Calli inspires me to be open and kind to everyone. She makes me want to be myself. I love her honest thoughts and good heart."

I have that pinned up on my wall above my computer because letters like that are my inspiration.

Q: Sometimes books can be classified as "quiet" and garner little support from their publisher. But your editor, Wendy Lamb, introduces the book with a warm message for readers. Did you feel like your publishing house was behind your efforts? 

MWH: Definitely. Wendy is such an intuitive editor and has been a joy to work with. In the early drafts, I think she knew more about the story than I did! She gently encouraged me to go deeper into the story at points where I was skimming the surface. The publicity department at Random House also has been extremely supportive. But, I have to say, I'm much more knowledgeable this time about promotion. It's like your second baby – you know so much more what you're doing the second time around!

Q: In the book, your main character comes up with 65 "little things" she can do for others in her sleepy cul-de-sac. Was it hard to come up with all those ideas? Can you talk about your creative process for writing and organizing the book?

MWH: It wasn't hard to come up with the 65 things. There are a lot of characters in the book, and their situations and antics kept providing me with ideas. One reclusive neighbor never comes outside, so Nina bakes brownies and leaves them on his doorstep. Another, a widow with grown children, has broken her leg, and Nina thinks of many small but significant ways to help. I had a lot of fun writing about how some of Nina's anonymous good deeds go awry and a suspicious neighbor
(with an overactive imagination) takes them the wrong way.

As for my creative process, I start with a character and his or her voice, and that drives my story.
I have a basic idea for the plot, but that seems to define itself as I write. I definitely edit as I go along. And I need time away from my computer to mull things over. I try to walk every day. I don't take my phone or listen to music; it's my thinking time. I live in Chicago and I really missed walking outside this winter! It's just not the same on a treadmill.

 Q: How much do you believe in the power of stories to shape young readers? What are the books that helped shape and influence you? The books you remember reading when you were young?

MWH: I think stories have enormous power to shape young readers. I hear from a lot of kids when I visit schools and the sentiments they share with me are thoughtful and perceptive. They get things so much more than we realize.

There are many talented authors whose books I love, including John Green (of course, who
doesn't?), Rainbow Rowell, Lois Lowry, Sarah Weeks, Linda Urban, Rebecca Stead, Jennifer Holm, and Tom Angleberger. When I was young, I was obsessed with Island of the Blue Dolphins by Scott O'Dell and must have read it a dozen times. I loved the story, but I also fantasized about the idea of escaping my suburban house and living on my own island, away from my two annoying younger brothers.

Q: What do you hope young readers take away from your books?

MWH: I hope kids will realize that small good things are much bigger than they seem. And, that doing good doesn't have to be about raising tons of money or spending a Saturday cleaning up a park (although those efforts are certainly wonderful). But more just about being a good person. Cliché, I know, but ask kids what they like best about their teachers. Invariably, they'll say: "she's nice." Ask yourself what stuck with you from your day. Maybe someone held a door open when your arms were full of grocery bags, or shared tomatoes from their garden, or made you laugh. We all know these kinds of gestures resonate, we just have to do them!

Q: What are you working on next?

MWH: After writing two middle-grade books in the voices of girl main characters, I wanted to explore writing in a boy's voice. I'm having some fun with that! I've also been working on an idea about two girls whose chance meeting during one winter break changes both of their lives. I need to do some walking to think more about these ideas, and hopefully, this spring's weather will cooperate!

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