Ten writers for children. All with something to say.
I have the pleasure of interviewing Bonnie J. Doerr, whose tween novel Island Sting (Leap Books) was released on January 6, 2010. Bonnie and I were first drawn together by our similar backgrounds in south Florida, Maryland, and North Carolina and by the fact that we now both live in historic log cabins! When we met in person last September, we formed an instant friendship that I’m sure will continue for many years.
1. Bonnie, tell us about your book.
Thanks for the opportunity, Edie.
Island Sting follows fifteen-year-old Kenzie Ryan’s dramatic transition from a New York City, girls’ academy life style to that of a casual, island existence in a Florida Keys wildlife refuge. Needless to say, Kenzie is nowhere near ready for the culture shock, but when she meets sixteen-year-old island native Angelo Sanchez, things begin to look much more appealing. As the two become more involved in an undercover operation to save the endangered Florida Key deer, more than the investigation heats up.
Reading Island Sting is like taking a vacation to the beautiful, fragile Florida Keys. It’s a tour of land and sea through the eyes of a first time visitor with the best tour guide possible— a savvy local who shares all the inside scoop.
Island Sting is classified as a “tween” book by Leap Books as it is appropriate for readers 10-14 or older.
2. The setting of Island Sting took me right back to my own childhood roots in tropical south Florida. Please tell us what you liked best about your life in the Florida Keys.
That’s an easy answer—the sheer, stunning beauty of sky and water. I had a one half hour drive to work each day filled with views that fed my soul, and my home sat a few yards off a quiet bay with the white heron refuge beyond. Osprey hunted outside my windows, dolphins danced, sharks swam, herons fed. I never knew what I’d see in the water next. And the sky! The colors and clouds and rainbows… awesome. Sun and moon rising and setting. It was all breath taking. And I had the time of my life fishing in both the back country (near waters off the Gulf of Mexico) and beyond the reef in open water. I could go on and on…
3. It’s obvious to me in your writing and in your life that you are dedicated to the environment. What are some ways that your teen readers can get involved in environmental issues, even if they don’t live right next to a wildlife refuge like Kenzie does?
It’s my belief that before one becomes involved in environmental issues, an individual must have experienced quality time outdoors. Today’s children, through little fault of their own, often spend their days inside a series of unnatural boxes. It is difficult to feel any sensitivity for mother Earth and her creation when one is completely separated from her gifts. So, first I say, get outside. Even if it must be in a city park or a vacant lot. Learn to see small wonders—worms, spiders, the incredible variety of plants—as well as the more obvious marvels. Look through a magnifying glass or binoculars. Visit zoos and aquariums if you can’t observe creatures in the wild. Once you begin to experience the connection between all living things, the sharing of air and water, the source of all life, then the caring begins.
Thankfully, each day more teens are becoming environmentalists. And it’s not all hard work. Swap parties are fun ways to lessen our footprint on the earth. Teens bring gently worn clothes to the party and trade for “new” clothing. After the swap, attendees can produce fashion shows to display their new looks. Super creative teens are deconstructing clothing and combining the pieces into brand new articles.
A simple thing to do is not to wear clothing that needs to be dry cleaned since most cleaners have not yet converted to green solvents.
As for Kenzie’s fury at all the trash marring the beauty of her new island home I’m pretty sure I know what she’d tell readers, “It may not seem like much but setting a good example without preaching is the best habit of all. If you see litter, pick it up. No matter who dropped it. It’s like you toss a pebble into the water. You make a ripple and it spreads and grows and maybe soon it’ll make a wave.” She’d tell you to keep a litter bag in your car for when you can’t find a trash can. Carry garbage bags to parties where friends don’t recycle. Encourage the partiers to stash their cans and bottles in the bag so you can haul it to a recycle bin.
Green Teen organizations are springing up everywhere. Google them, join them, start a group of your own. Be the change you envision.
Thank you, Bonnie! To learn more about Bonnie and her book, Island Sting, visit her website at http://www.bonniedoerrbooks.com/index.htm and follow her blog at http://bonnieblogsgreen.blogspot.com/.
Sometime in 1993, Donald R. Gallo (a champion of teen lit and compiler of several anthologies for teens) sent me a postcard inviting me to submit a sports story for a new anthology. I went upstairs in my brain and asked, “What do I know about sports?”
In my mind I suddenly saw a big crowd of people (maybe about 20) of all ages, shouting loudly all in a bunch, and, just to my right of them, spring sunshine came gleaming through maple trees. I knew that down on the ground, underneath the yelling crowd, was first base on the playground of my childhood elementary school. I’d never seen such a crowd scene there, and I began to ask it questions. Because a huge answer would be overwhelming and I wouldn’t be able to cope with it, I made the questions small ones. And I asked them very quickly, so the answers would come fast, without pondering time. (I’d never done this kind of thing before.) I asked:
Happy or unhappy yelling?
Why unhappy? I guessed the obvious: Someone has been hurt at first base.
By accident or on purpose?
Answer: On purpose.
And at this point I left the scene. I would have nothing to do with a vicious, cruel incident on the sanctified ground of my childhood first base. But within days (maybe within hours?) I came back. What kind of crazy person would hurt somebody at first base?
Not getting any answer to that, I began to ask: Who saw it happen? Answer: The pitcher, the catcher, second baseman, probably the shortstop, the left fielder.... Lots of people saw it. Just as in a car accident, everyone sees it from his/her unique vantage point and may report it slightly differently from everyone else.
One thing that did flash across the screen of my memory was the return of the Japanese kids from the Internment Camps when I was little, and the vagueness of all that, the silences, the mystery, the grownups hushing us up.... There had been some hatred, but the kindly parents in our community wouldn’t talk about it in front of us kids; adults stopped their whispered conversations when we asked what they were talking about; mothers cried; fathers went about with that tight-lipped thing men do when they’re concealing something.
So I started with only the Where, and I had some good clues about the When. I had only the faintest idea of the Who. The Why was foggy but real, and the What was my task to invent. What had actually happened? (In A Separate Peace, what does actually happen up there on that tree limb? Can anybody say for absolute sure?)
I began by letting some of the nearby softball players tell what they’d seen. As they talked, I began to get a general image of the victim, and a much more filmy, indefinite outline of the perpetrator. I was also finding out that that one moment on a ball field was radiating outward, reaching way far into places I hadn’t expected.
The pieces came together slowly (I’m always slow), but with enough tension so that I felt it was worth continuing with.
Until that first morning, looking at Don Gallo’s postcard and lifting the lid on my brain, I’d had no idea that upstairs in my brain is a constant cineplex, movies always running. I had simply checked into the sports theatre that morning. (I’m not an athlete, so the sports films up there are limited.) Now, after all that, when I ask students about the movie theatre in their minds, many of them know exactly what I’m talking about. Some do not. I’ve learned to trust that cineplex up there, but I also know not to try to exploit it beyond reason. It’s there, but I must not loot it rashly.
For Don Gallo’s sports anthology I ended up writing a mediocre story about Scuba diving (one of the very few sports I’ve ever taken part in).
What I didn’t know until a few years after the book had been published: My granddaughter I were watching the lovely old movie National Velvet (Elizabeth Taylor, 1944). Just watching. Suddenly, someone fell off a horse in the bright sunshine and a huge crowd gathered round, a hubbub began.... Oh, good heavens: That was the source of my original scene of a crowd shouting in the sunshine, in reaction to something in a sporting event. I had loved that movie as a kid, and apparently that scene had stayed upstairs in my brain all these years. But that was a small discovery, compared to one I made about three years later:
The bigger discovery: Bat 6 had been out for about a decade when I was invited to see a group of 5th graders at an alternative school perform Edgar Lee Masters’ Spoon River Anthology (1914). I was glad to be asked, remembering vaguely that I had read the book years before with genuine literary pleasure. The shock that afternoon: In watching the kids in their noisy, sweaty auditorium, I realized that I had borrowed the entire form of Bat 6 from this very book. As you’ll recall, the
Worst parts (hardest parts) of writing it?
Several worst parts. The structure, of course, but I worked on that by making charts & graphs, moving little pieces of cardboard around.... The very worst part was trying to get inside Shazam. I know what troubles her, but because I’ve never been a sociopath I always felt I was feeling the elephant the wrong way round. But Mark Twain had never been a runaway boy on a raft; Natalie Babbitt had never met a villainous man in a yellow suit.... It’s my job to find character, burrow inside, and stop complaining about the task. My editor was not satisfied that Aki could be so “phlegmatic” (my editor’s word); I had to explain and explain and explain to her the way the Japanese-American girls (Issei, Nisei, Sansei) were, until some years after that time, brought up never to make waves.... I don’t know how I could have forced Aki to behave in a way that she was, culturally, not equipped for. She could not retaliate, she could not.... So: My editor wasn’t catching on to what I was trying to tell (because the early draft she saw was nearly as chaotic as the end of the softball game is in the book), couldn’t understand what the book was about, couldn’t understand why Aki was the way she was, and could not see clearly into Shazam’s mind-- And she kept asking me questions I felt ill-equipped to answer. For instance: Was the book about war or was it about softball? As I struggled to make the story ever clearer, the answer emerged, slowly and beautifully in my editor’s eventual decision to have a partial book jacket showing softball, the hardcover underneath showing war, and endpapers that focused on the Home Front, all coming together to illustrate the complex nature of the story. These aren’t visible in the paperback edition. Against these awful problems, the miles and months of library research were easy. (I was not yet using the Internet, and I’m kind of glad I wasn’t. I think the process should not have been efficient; I think I had to follow tortuous paths, some of them wrong ones and all of them putting tiny pieces in the mosaic.)
How badly did I want to quit? And why I didn’t quit?
Quitting really did seem like an option, and on many, many days it looked like a good one. My editor found the manuscript nearly impossible, and she took an unconscionably long time to get back to me at every stage but the last. I felt she didn’t understand the book. (See above.) I felt enormously alone, out on my ice floe left to starve.... But I could always have applied for a job at McDonald’s; nobody was forcing me to do this work. My literary agent very wisely said, “If you don’t finish this book, you’ll always wonder.” So true, so true. I had several reasons for not quitting. One was to prove to my editor that I could make the story happen. Another was the ferocious loyalty I was developing toward the girls and their well-meaning communities. During the writing of that book, school violence across
Another of the things that helped me not quit writing Bat 6 was a Faith Ringgold quilt I saw in the High Art Museum in Atlanta. You can see a poster of it online. It’s called Church Picnic. I remember standing in the museum, reading every bit of the small print story that goes around the quilt. On the top layer, the story is of a nice church picnic, everybody dressed up with pretty food and all the cozy stuff we like on picnics. The underneath layer tells a quite different story: of sadness, hurt, rivalry, meanness of spirit....
And I realized that that was exactly what I was trying to do with the novel: Small town, pretty on top, ugly underneath. It was so encouraging to see that quilt.
I don’t know if I ever mentioned it to my editor, but I’ve told about it in speeches, sometimes toting along with me the great big poster to show. Often, the questions from the audience don’t even begin to get there; I’ve carried the poster hundreds of miles in my car and sometimes not shown it at all.
I first met Lisa through her hilarious middle grade novel, Milicent Min, Girl Genius, winner of the SCBWI Sid Fleischman humor award. When I had the opportunity to meet Lisa in person at the LA SCBWI conference, I was delighted to discover that she was not only funny, but also friendly, thoughtful, and down-to-earth. She's the kind of person you'd like to have for a friend, and I'm honored that she is one of mine. If you want to be entertained, check out Lisa's blog, but first, here are her answers to a few interview questions:
* Your books are known for their humor. Do you have any special strategies you use when writing humor for young people?
Be true to your characters. I don't tell jokes, but rather let the humor unfold within the story. What is funny for one character to say or do, should be unique to him or her. I strive for poignancy when I write, and then use humor to diffuse intense or tragic circumstances. And sometimes I write about farts.
*Along with being a talented writer, you are a wizard at promotion. What is one of the most helpful things you have done to promote your books?
Well, I travel with a Peep. Her name is Peepy, and she's a yellow plush bunny. I blog twice a week and never run out of things to talk about because Peepy is such a diva. She's been photographed with celebrities like Julie Andrews, and a whole slew of famous authors and illustrators .
Peepy is desperate to have her epic memoir/fashion tips published, and I've chronicled her journey including meetings with well-known editors and agents. In fact, she once followed agent Ginger Knowlton into the bathroom and slipped a manuscript under the stall .
Recently, I heard from Just Born, the company that manufactures Peeps. At first I thought that maybe I was in trouble, but quite the contrary. They had been following my blog and Peepy and I received a VIP invitation to the grand opening of the first Peeps store .
* What question would you like someone to ask you in an interview, and what would the answer be?
The question would be: "Would you rather have Colin Firth as Mr. Darcy or Johnny Depp as your personal assistant?"
The answer would be: "Yes, please."
After our lively round of posts centered on the theme of collaboration, I wanted my critique group member, Heidi, to share about the collaborative process that lead to her upcoming debut YA novel.
The Creation of SEA
by Heidi R Kling
My debut novel SEA was inspired by my husband’s volunteer efforts in Indonesia after the 2004 tsunami that devastated the region. He was a young psychiatrist fresh out of residency and wanted to do something different. He tried to recruit other likeminded psychiatrists, but in the end they all had an excuse why they couldn’t go—at the last minute, a member of the faculty went along instead. The two of them, this young guy, and a more seasoned doctor, headed to Jakarta, Indonesia to an orphanage where many survivors from the epicenter, Banda Aceh, were relocated after they lost their families to the rush of water that devastated their home.
After two long weeks, he came home. I was working on another book (I earned my MFA in creative writing from the New School) and he looked at me and said with urgency, “You should write about this.”
He’s not one to be emphatic like that, so I took it to heart and tried to figure out a way I could make his story my own. I created a character named Sienna, a fifteen-year old California girl who suffers from her own version of post-traumatic stress, experiencing recurring nightmares about her mother’s plane crash into the sea three years before her story starts—and had her father be the volunteer psychiatrist.
So while SEA is inspired by my husband’s experience, it is told from a teenage girl’s eyes.
Daryn read the multiple drafts and would help me if I had a cultural detail or logistical fact wrong. Because the characters and story are fictional, he only helped me with things like details of the earthquake etc. Indonesian young people and volunteers from the orphanage helped me correctly translate the language, which I use a bit of in dialog. The character of Deni (Sienna’s love interest) was largely inspired by a mix of several boys whom Daryn met and generously shared their stories with me.
We helped support a group of boys after they left the orphanage and had no money for rice or rent. Such goodhearted and brave kids, they are all in school (or have graduated) and we are so happy we were able to help get them through that incredibly tough transitional time. It’s amazing how well they are doing considering the obstacles they have faced. They are a true inspiration, as is my husband who continues to do incredible cross-cultural trauma work in Africa, Cambodia and will soon in Haiti.
SEA is an adventure-love story about hope after disaster set in the aftermath of the devastating 2004 tsunami. It debuts June 10, 2010 with Putnam/Penguin.
For more on the back story of SEA please visit my website at http://heidirkling.com
My timing for this couldn't be better, because I woke up this morning to find Publisher's Weekly had done a terrific piece about YA dystopian novels, which features both my forthcoming novel The Gardener as well as Teri Hall's debut novel The Line. http://www.publishersweekly.com/article/CA6719039.html
And I am very happy to have Teri Hall with us today for a brief interview about The Line. The book is slated to release in March, but I pre-ordered it online and just learned it has shipped. So it seems it is available now and I cannot wait until my copy arrives. In The Line, a physical barrier encloses the United States. A young girl works with her mother on The Property in a greenhouse. She can see The Line from there... If you want to read the first chapter, Teri has a link on her website http://www.terihall.com/ And now, to the interview.
Stephanie: Your first novel The Line is about to be released. What excites you most about your debut going out into the world?
Teri: Just about everything. I mean, I never expected to have a novel published, so every bit of the experience is like a huge bonus. I think one of the very best parts is when someone reads The Line, and understands what I was trying to talk about in it. Courtney Summers, a writer I much admire (her newest novel, Some Girls Are, is out now) reviewed The Line and mentioned that it asks questions about “the reality of being brave juxtaposed against desire to be brave, reconciling what you can do with what you should do.” Questions like those, along with explorations of how we define beauty, and how fear blinds us, and most especially how unfortunately easy it is to dismiss and even persecute the “Other,” the one we don’t know or understand, are things I wanted to talk about. Hearing from other writers and readers that they see these questions in the story I wrote, and that these questions stir their interest, and prompt discussions, that is a huge thrill.
Of course, I also wanted to write a fun, fast adventure. And hearing from readers who appreciate that is equally as great.
Stephanie: Let’s go back. Can you tell us how you got the news that The Line had been accepted for publication? And who was the first person you told?
Teri: I heard the news from my wonderful agent, Kirby Kim. We knew that there were offers, but finally hearing that the one I was hoping for was a done deal was a great moment. And the first person I told was my mom.
Stephanie: What was your absolute favorite novel when you were 15?
Teri: Maybe A Separate Peace by John Knowles.
Stephanie: What is your absolute favorite novel as an adult?
Teri: I have no single favorite. I love A Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood, and The Road by Cormac McCarthy. The Cage by Audrey Schulman. A Fairly Honorable Defeat by Iris Murdoch. And many, many others.
Stephanie: Favorite “writer’s block” food or beverage?
Teri: Red wine and white cheddar. Generally, of course, this is for when writer’s block has won for the night.
Thanks for joining us , Teri. We potatoes wish you the best of luck with The Line!