Tuesday, November 13, 2018

'Breakfast Club' for Middle School in Dana Alison Levy's 'It Wasn't Me'

Picking up one of Dana Alison Levy's deftly written middle-grade novels, you know you'll find a satisfying balance of humor and earnest emotions. Author of the irresistible The Misadventures of the Fletcher Family, its sequel The Family Fletcher Takes Rock Island, and the rollicking This Would Make a Good Story Someday (all published by Delacorte Books for Young Readers), Dana is back with It Wasn't Me and what Kirkus Reviews calls (in a STARRED review, no less!) “A timely, introspective whodunit with a lot of heart.”

Jax Fletcher from previous books is among the five suspects of a hate crime perpetrated against a middle-school classmate — photos defaced with gay slurs and threats, another incident in the school’s darkroom. In an ode to the 1985 John Hughes movie The Breakfast Club, the six are rounded up to resolve the crisis, forced together to hash through complex feelings and complicated issues.

Publishing today, It Wasn’t Me has already been named a Junior Library Guild Selection, an Amazon Editor’s Best Book of November, and a Publishers Weekly Best Book of 2018. Dana was kind enough to take the time for a few questions:

Question: With your previous titles, you’ve shown you have a great sense for comedy as well as a talent for exploring relationships. What do you enjoy more — writing the funny stuff or digging into more serious topics?

Dana Alison Levy: Writing funny stuff is…well…fun! I really enjoy it and find it comes pretty easily. (Though it is always interesting when editorial notes include things like “What kind of noise would butter make hitting someone’s face?” or “Would she have time to think all of that while falling into the shower stall?”).

All of my books touch on some more serious topics, even while I try to make people laugh, but It Wasn't Me is definitely the most serious. And I found I wanted to dig in, to push my characters a bit more, to make things harder for them, so that they could struggle through and hopefully find a way forward. We are living in challenging times, when a lot of kids feel alone, certain that no one else can understand them. I hoped that by putting Theo and the others through some hard conversations and uncomfortable moments, readers could find their own truths.

Q: This feels like a nod to The Breakfast Club. Where did the inspiration come from for this story? What made you write It Wasn’t Me?

DAL: This was one of those books that sprung fully formed, Athena-out-of-the-head-of-Zeus-style. From the first moment I thought of it, I had the main characters, the story arc, the setting…it really hasn’t changed that much from that first spark. These characters and the premise are definitely based on the iconic Breakfast Club teen hit from the 1980s, but reimagined for middle school. And instead of spending a day in detention, they were spending a week digging into a restorative justice effort. It offered so many possibilities: a discussion of stereotypes, a deep dive into school communities and how they function (or don’t), and a lot of comedy. It was so clear in my mind, actually, that I spent a few days madly Googling middle-grade titles in case anyone had already written it, and I just didn’t know it.

The piece that I really wanted to explore, beyond the characters, was the idea of restorative justice. I am fascinated by this challenging and complex but ultimately really effective way of looking at crime, punishment, justice, and redemption. Restorative justice is used in schools, tribal courts, juvenile centers, and more. The process the students engage with in It Wasn't Me is a version of something far more complicated and sophisticated. But it dovetailed so neatly with my initial question of “Who are these kids, really? And what lies behind the stories they share?”

Q: Why do you write for middle-grade readers? What made you choose this audience?

DAL: I have always thought that books for elementary, middle-school, and high-school readers are some of the best books ever written. From picture books to YA novels, there are true literary gems in all these categories. I thought this as a kid, as a college student and young adult, and as a parent. And I believe it with all my heart as an author. Middle-grade readers (kids roughly ages 8-14) are going through such a challenging and interesting time. The world is opening up in both good and bad ways, and there are so many questions: huge questions about inequality and injustice, more personal questions about bodies and friendships. Books offer a vital way to get some answers. Or at least not to feel so alone.

Q: You’ve been publishing a book a year, give or take. What’s the deal there? Don’t you sleep? Can you talk about your creative process? What does your writing life look like?

DAL: Hah! Well, first of all, it’s more a book SOME years…I didn’t have a 2015 book, and won’t have a 2019 book. So the rhythm is a bit erratic. But the irony is that I write really fast, and I have plenty of ideas, but it still takes a looooooooong time to go from idea to actually writing. I can’t really explain it, often I feel like I’m wasting time, but I’m coming to realize it is part of the process. I liken it to a computer program updating in the background…it’s moving along, slowing everything down, and you can’t see anything happening, but it’s necessary. I think my stories deepen and develop in the back of my brain while I’m doing other things. Usually, once I start writing, it goes pretty quickly. I do typically outline my books, and then follow the outline, writing in a linear way. I am always gobsmacked by writer friends who write the climax, then go back and write some cool scene that takes place early in the book, then write another chapter that just begs to be written…and finally stitch it all together. I pretty much start at the beginning and write straight through to the end.

Q: What are you working on next?

DAL: I have my first young adult novel coming out in 2020, which I’m really excited about! It’s a contemporary YA called Above All Else, about two teens who have been planning for years to climb Mount Everest the spring of their senior year. But now that they are in Nepal and starting the climb, they have to face the realities of who they are now, what dreams they really carry, and how they feel about each other and the mountain they're climbing. It’s definitely an adventure story and a friendship story and a love story all wrapped up together. I’m also working on a few different middle-grade ideas…some further along than others. The ideas are always the easy part. It’s getting them out of my brain and onto paper that’s the challenge!

Monday, March 26, 2018

Stepping Up to the Plate With Heather Lang's 'Anybody's Game'

In celebrating Women's History Month, we've heard about bold women who changed society through their ground-breaking actions, from astronaut Mae Jemison to marathoner Bobbi Gibb to "dangerous" activist Jane Addams. Through the #31Women31Books campaign, we have stacks and stacks of picture book biographies ready to introduce us to even more historical figures who upended traditional roles and set women on entirely new and exciting courses.

One of those figures is Kathryn Johnston, who broke barriers for young baseball fans in the 1950s. In Heather Lang's exciting Anybody's Game: The Story of the First Girl to Play Little League Baseball (Albert Whitman & Company, March 2018), illustrated by Cecilia Puglesi, we see how this dynamic girl changed Little League forever.

Heather is no stranger to topics like this, offering up an impressive list of titles spotlighting barrier-busting women: Swimming with Sharks: The Daring Discoveries of Eugenie Clark, Fearless Flyer: Ruth Law and Her Flying Machine, The Original Cowgirl: The Wild Adventures of Lucille Mulhall, and Queen of the Track: Alice Coachman, Olympic High-Jump Champion. She took a few minutes to talk to us about her fascinating books.

Question: Who is Kathryn Johnston, and how did you learn about her?

Heather Lang: Kathryn Johnston was the first girl to play Little League Baseball. Back in 1950 girls weren’t welcome on Little League teams. Kathryn loved baseball more than anything and wanted desperately to play on a real team. So she cut off her braids and tried out as a boy!

As a child, I adored baseball. I didn’t go anywhere without my mitt and played catch constantly with my father and brother. I played on a travel softball team in fifth grade, and I continued to play throughout middle school and high school.

When my kids began playing Little League, those special memories came flooding back. I decided to see if there was a story there. When I read about Kathryn’s struggle to play, I tried to imagine what my childhood would have been like without baseball and softball, and that was the spark for Anybody's Game.

Q: What is your creative process like? How do you find ideas, and how do you take them from spark in your mind to bookshelf?

HL: Sometimes I go looking for ideas, and sometimes they find me. When I go looking for a person to write about, I usually start with a subject that interests me. One day I made a list of my top five fears, and two picture book biographies came from that exercise: Swimming With Sharks and Fearless Flyer. Exploring and researching personal fears (like sharks and flying) is challenging, but so rewarding!

I read widely to identify the right person to write about, but I always have a gut feeling when I’ve found them. Next the treasure hunt begins, and I dig into the research. No two research experiences are alike. One of the things that surprised me most is how generous experts are with their time and knowledge. And I try to do experiential research for every book, which can be a little scary sometimes. I have been paragliding, scuba diving, and horseback riding all in the name of research! My favorite research moments by far are meeting with the women I am writing about. I was so fortunate to spend time with Alice Coachman, Eugenie Clark, and Kathryn Johnston.

I don’t start writing a first draft until I have done a lot of research, thinking, and free writing about the book. What is the story going to be about? How am I going to enter this story? What’s my angle? Is it going to be focused on an event or cover a larger time period? What are the themes? What narrative style suits the story? Will I incorporate quotes? What’s the narrative arc? There are so many choices, false starts, twists, and turns. I am fortunate to be in an awesome critique group who supports me every step of the way.

Q: Your stories spotlight remarkable women from history who many people might never have heard of.  What are you trying to accomplish with your books?

HL: I always try to create a book that will teach and inspire kids. There are so many lesser-known women from history who have accomplished extraordinary things. I hope kids will see how these brave women from the past made things better for us today. Nothing makes me happier than when kids want to dig deeper into a topic or person. And I hope my books will inspire kids to follow their own dreams and persevere through challenges.

Q: Who has been the most fascinating woman you’ve written about?

HL: Yikes that’s a tough one. If I had to choose, I’d say Eugenie Clark, who was the first scientist to dive in and study sharks in their natural environment. I was amazed at her courage and the depth of her knowledge and passion. I got lost in the research. I read dozens of her scientific publications, even though I knew I didn’t need to for the book, and I have become a huge shark fan. I began the project with an intense fear of sharks and could never have anticipated that journey from fear to passion—all inspired by Eugenie Clark.

Q: Who’s next?

HL: My next picture book biography is about tree canopy biologist Margaret Lowman, and it is near and dear to my heart for so many reasons. Meg was one of the first scientists to really climb up into the canopy and explore its enormous biodiversity. She has done such important work to protect our trees, and she works tirelessly to mentor girls and women interested in the field. Last summer I spent an incredible week with Meg in the Amazon!

She is a phenomenal person and scientist.

Monday, February 19, 2018

Cynthia Grady on a Librarian for Japanese Internment Children

On this date in American history—on February 19, 1942—President Franklin Roosevelt signed Executive Order 9066, which authorized the forced relocation and incarceration of more than 100,000 people of Japanese ancestry into camps located in the the western interior of the United States. Specifically targeting Japanese residents living along the Pacific coast, an estimated 60 percent of those rounded up and imprisoned were American citizens. 

History is fascinating but also useful. Crucial. Essential. If we don't know it and learn from it, we truly are doomed to repeat it. 

That's why stories like Cynthia Grady's Write to Me: Letters from Japanese American Children to the Librarian They Left Behind (January 2018, Charlesbridge) is such an important book. Illustrated by Amiko Hirao, it tells the moving story of Clara Breed, a librarian in San Diego who corresponded with her young Japanese American library patrons during World War II when these children were locked up in internment camps. 
It's a a hard story for kids to understand, but it's useful, crucial, essential for them to know. And to realize that even in the United States, a shining beacon to the world of the principles of tolerance and freedom, that an entire population could be so cruelly treated and see their individual rights as American citizens so heartlessly and systematically trampled.

Author Grady (Like a Bird: The Art of the American Slave Song, I Lay My Stitches Down: Poems of American Slavery) pulled powerful direct quotes from the children's letters, which are archived at the Japanese American National Museum in Los Angeles. I reached out to her to find out more about her creative process in bringing Miss Breed's story and those of her young friends to a new generation of readers.

Question: How did you come across this story? 

Cynthia Grady: I first learned of Clara Breed's story in about 2002. I had read a review of a documentary that had been put together by the Japanese American National Museum in Los Angeles. The film featured her work on behalf of Japanese Americans during World War II and long afterward, and the children she knew and corresponded with during the war.

I had been a librarian for about three years by then, and I was learning quickly how many librarians, past and present, have worked for social change. I wanted to be that kind of librarian. I wanted to know more about Clara Breed, but I couldn't find anything published—I did find articles written by her and a book she had written, and I learned more about her life by digging into some pretty old documents, but nothing that satisfied my curiosity about her. So, I decided to try to write a book about her myself.

Q: Everyone has a different way of going about gathering information. What was your creative process like?

CG: I began my research with secondary sources—reading all kinds of books about the war against Japan. Then I read published memoirs and poetry written by those Japanese Americans who lived in the prison camps. I visited museums and attended historical society lectures. I read government reports and I listened to congressional hearings that took place decades later.

Finally, I read the letters that the children wrote to Clara Breed. More than 250 letters are held at the Japanese American National Museum. While I knew I wanted Write to Me to be a picture book, I was mistaken, at first, to think I should only use the letters from the youngest children. The teens and young adults detailed the experience of their confinement in a way that the younger children weren't able to, and I'd wanted the letters the children wrote to tell their story as much as possible.

Q: This book is deeply researched, which takes so much time. Did you have some hiccups along the way?

CG: Unfortunately, at that time (about 2006 by now), the letters had not been digitized, so any further research would require me to return to LA. I was living and working in Washington, D.C., at the time, so that wasn't going to happen any time soon.

Like so many stories you hear, this book had a long road to publication. I began sending it out in 2006 and it was promptly returned with kind notes of "this is too slight" or "It feels more like a magazine article than a book." That sort of thing. One publisher asked me to expand it in very specific ways, which I appreciated. I worked on it for another year and resubmitted it. That editor kept it for a year and a half, but finally decided against it, another year later.

In the meantime, I re-worked it as a picture book biography in poems. I'm more comfortable with poetry than anything else, so I decided to play to my strengths. But I heard more of the same from still more publishing houses: "This should be a verse novel rather than a picture book of poems..." "The writing is lovely, but . . . ."

I'd all but given up on the Clara Breed manuscript, and I had expressed my exasperation about the whole thing at a writing retreat in 2014. An editor eating lunch at the same table overheard my conversation and asked me to send the manuscript to her. She had me cut, cut, cut the manuscript so it was back to nearly what I had written in the first place! Then over the following two years, we reworked it, especially the back matter.

Q: Writing teaches us many things as we see a project through. What did you learn along the way?

CG: I discovered through this whole process that I love doing back matter! Writing nonfiction still terrifies me, but I might try it again because I loved writing the end-notes so much.

Each project I've taken on comes together differently, so it's hard to comment on my creative process. I do have regular (almost daily) writing sessions that always begin with poetry, and then afterwards, I dig in to my current project. When the creative juices stop flowing, I usually need to stop, go for a long walk, and begin work on a new quilt, so my writing output is slow going, and my quilting progress even slower.