12.31.2010

Smile written and illustrated by Raina Telgemeier, 213 pp, RL 4



Smile, written and illustrated by Raina Telgemeier with color by Stephanie Yue, has been on the shelves since February of this year.  It caught my eye because it kept bouncing back and forth between the Young Readers section and the Graphic Novel section in the kid's department while corporate decided how to classify it and, while it bounced back and forth it kept selling.  Selling very well for a graphic novel, and a one with a girl main character at that.  So, I mentally added it to my To-Be-Read-Pile. Then Smile started popping up on book review blogs that I read.  Finally, Barry Deutsch, author of the superb graphic novel Hereville:  How Mirka Got Her Sword mentioned the book among his list of favorite graphic novels in an interview at books4yourkids.  One in December, as I snuck a few of my favorite graphic novels onto the Diary of a Wimpy Kid display at work (really, does this book NEED a second display in the bookstore???  It sells itself!! Let's get some lesser known books on the endcaps!) I decided it was time to buy  Smile.  That night I intended to only read a few pages but ended up reading it from cover to cover and staying up WAY past my bedtime...  It was well worth the loss of sleep.

Telgemeier got her start adapting Ann M Martin's beloved Babysitter's Club (which recently got an  update and prequel by Martin) into graphic novels now known as  BSC Graphix.  Her first original novel, Smile is an autobiographical comic.  As Telgemeier says on her website, the comic as "born out of a need to get the whole experience down on paper, since I spent so much time telling people about it."  Part of the reason that I put off reading  Smile for so long is that I was judging this book by it's cover.  I assumed that it was a graphic novel about a girl who gets braces and, while it is, it is so much more and so completely compelling, immediate and entertaining that I am going to be recommending Smile, along with another new favorite of mine, The Popularity Papers by Amy Ignatow to all the preteen girls and their moms I see reaching for Wimpy Kid and it's female cousin, The Dork Diaries.

Smile has a fabulous title page that shows the view from the top of a mountain overlooking San Francisco.  The next page shows cars zooming down the freeway, as we later learn, taking sixth grader Raina to her first orthodontist appointment where she'll get prepped for braces.  Later that night, running with her friends after a Girl Scouts meeting, Raina trips. When she pulls herself together, she realizes that she has knocked out her two front teeth.  Telgemeier does a fabulous job capturing the fear that she and her parents felt as well as their response to the situation.  One of the things that I love most about  Smile is the role that Raina's parents are given in the graphic novel.  They are calm and loving, sometimes make goofy jokes, and always there for Raina, whether it's her mom driving her to various doctors or chewing out the periodontist who, during a deep cleaning of Raina's gums, neglected to anesthetize her properly, causing Raina to faint on the way out of the office, or grudgingly allowing Raina to get her ears pierced on her thirteenth birthday.



What follows over the next four years is Raina's journey to regain her front teeth, cope with the pain of the procedures and the general pain (physical and occasionally emotional) of wearing braces and the accompanying gear while at the same time dealing with the usual middle and high school dramas from frenemies to crushes to finding something you love.


At first, the orthodontist thinks that Raina's front teeth can be jammed back into their roots and heal, leaving stumps to reshape into front teeth.  The stumpy front teeth make for an odd look.  However, the teeth don't take properly and have to be pulled. OW!!!  Then, with braces, the orthodontist begins to move Raina's remaining teeth to towards the center of her mouth to close the gap.  During this time, Raina wears a retainer with false teeth on it.  She also experiences the regular middle/high school experiences of getting crushes on boys, being socially awkward and not always being your best self.


Raina also sees the movie The Little Mermaid and, despite her initial belief that it will be boring, is wowed.  I love the graphic for this section of the novel and am sorry I couldn't find a copy of it to share. It's very cool to see an inspirational moment of origin for this wonderful author & artist's career!  By the end of the novel, we see Raina at her final orthodontist visit, painting a giant poster for a sophomore school dance and smiling for a picture with her friends and it all feels so amazing when you think about what she has been through.  I just can't imagine Telgemeier telling her story any other way - the experience of having no front teeth, or abnormal front teeth, during one's adolescence is such a  visual one.  The graphic novel format takes the edge off of some of the gore and pain that must have been an intense experience for Telgemeier, and her wonderful, crisp, detailed and, ultimately cheerful (I really couldn't think of a better adjective) illustrations make the story and images in Smile so easy to read and lose yourself in right from the start.  Above all else, I think that Raina's story is the kind that girls will read and think, "Maybe I can do this, too?" and, "Maybe this thing that seems horrible that I am dealing with right now won't be the end of me." There is a smile at the end!




Raina in Smile and today.  




This photo, which I love, is from an interview with Raina at NYCgraphicnovelists




Don't miss Raina's long awaited new graphic novel that is every bit as fantastic and wonderful and memorable as SMILE: DRAMA.


12.16.2010

Interview with Barry Deutsch, creator of HEREVILLE!

  
I am just so completely in love with Mirka and entranced by Hereville that, after checking out Hereville.com and discovering that Barry Deutsch looks like a pretty friendly guy, I sent him some fan mail.  He is a very friendly guy AND he agreed to answer a few of my questions about his amazing first graphic novel!  Also, at the end of the interview Barry recommends graphic novels and webcomics that he (and some young listeners) are currently enjoying with links to all.  A sheynem dank, Barry!





Obvious first question:  Why an Orthodox Jewish girl?






Why not an Orthodox Jewish girl? 

A decade or more before I created Hereville, I read the book Holy Days, by Lis Harris, which includes a lot about the daily life of a Hasidic Jewish family. I read that and thought it was fascinating -- an entire society, embedded in modern-day society but in many ways so separate and distinct. When I create a comic, my imagined audience is always me -- "what would I find interesting to read about"? Since I found that society so interesting to read about, it was natural for me to put it in a comic someday.

I'm not sure why a girl, as opposed to a boy. But I've always liked writing and reading about female characters.

Plus, it's always nice to be doing something that not everyone else is doing. There's not exactly a huge number of fantasy adventure comic books about 11-year-old Jewish girls out there!

So true!  That makes the tagline for the book all the more brilliant and funny. As someone who knows almost nothing about the religion, I have to admit that setting your graphic novel in an Orthodox Jewish community was almost as foreign as setting a book at a school for wizards. Because of this, I think that the appearance of magic and magical creatures is almost even more of a surprise and delight.  Did you know from the start that your book would have elements of fantasy in it?  How did you decide what magical aspects to include?






I always intended for Mirka's story to include magical, fairy-tale elements; I never even considered another approach. 

As for which magical elements to include, sometime after I started, I got the image of the big battle at the climax of the book -- without giving away spoilers, I'm talking about the two double-page spreads in which Mirka has an unexpected duel. Once I knew she was going to be having the duel, I could work my way out from there -- who was she fighting? What kind of a monster would have the right personality to fight her in that fashion? How would she get into that situation? And eventually the story is pieced together that way.

Wow!  That is so interesting to know that you envisioned the climax at an early point in your writing of the story.  But it all fits - the climax is perfect and brings all the threads together, no pun intended. Mirka has to be my favorite new heroine of 2010. While I loved the plot of your book, I really just enjoyed following Mirka throughout her days.  She is brave, a little bit impulsive, smart, thinks outside of the box, doesn't give up, loves her family and follows her passion.  Frankly, I'm a little bit put out that a GUY created such a cool girl character.  How the heck did you do it???






Thanks! I'm glad you like Mirka. I like her a lot, too.

This is something I talk about when I do my Hereville slideshow. :-)  I just don't see it as a big problem. Mirka has a lot of differences from me -- she's a girl, I'm a boy, she's devout, I'm atheist, she's brave, I'm a big wimp. But we also have so much in common. She gets afraid, she loves her family, she sometimes acts badly, she doesn't fit into the gender role people expect of her, and she's got this big dream that really doesn't seem very practical. Those are all things I have in common in Mirka, that I can draw on to tell her story.

Good point - we all have similarities and differences that come out the same in the end, sometimes.  I think, though, that as a female, I am still used to boys ruling the pages of adventure stories, so that makes Mirka all the more wonderous to me.  I have to say, I really came to love Fruma as well.  I love books where a young adventurer also has a wise, strong adult figure to turn to, and Fruma is definitely that, even if her arguing does seem exasperating.  Can you tell us how/why did Fruma made it into your story (without giving too much about her past away - clues seem to indicate that she has some secrets to divulge to Mirka at some point...)?






Originally, I was just playing with the fairy tale trope. There are so many fairy tales with an evil stepmother, so I thought it would be fun to include a stepmother who was conventionally unattractive and sometimes aggravating to Mirka -- but who was nonetheless a really positive character who readers would like.

And there is a lot more for Mirka, and the readers, to learn about Fruma's past. I won't be getting into that in the next Hereville book, but I do plan to reveal at least some of Fruma's secrets someday.

Well, you did a great job of twisting the trope!  I have to admit, even after two readings I didn't fully catch this until I read Betsy Bird's review of Hereville at School Library Journal back in August, but I love the way that Mirka gets her sword and how much it has to do with Fruma, who is always trying to teach her domestic arts and in the end teaches her the intellectual art of the argument.  You said that you worked out the climax early on in the process, but did you have this all figured out as well?






It just developed! I certainly knew how I'd end the book well before I got around to drawing the ending; but when I originally drew page 4, where Fruma is arguing with Mirka about dragons, I had no idea how key that page would be to the story.

What is it about arguing?  It is a great theme in your book but one that I have to admit I don't see too often (unless it is in the sassy, annoying kid way) in kid's books.






Arguing is a very Jewish thing. In the Talmud -- as Wikipedia puts it, the Talmud is "a central text of mainstream Judaism" -- a great deal of time is spent with a form of argument in which the rabbis examine questions from every possible side of an issue. It's like the old Jewish saying, where there are two Jews there are at least three opinions.

For me personally, I've always enjoyed argument, and was on the debate team in college.

That shows in your book!  I know that Hereville (like Diary of a Wimpy Kid, among many others) was originally a webcomic.  Can you tell those of who have no idea what one is, how does a webcomic work?  Where do you post it, who can see it, how do you draw it?






A webcomic is just like a regular comic book or comic strip, except instead of being printed on paper you can view it on the web. They're just posted on websites, like any other content on the web, and anyone interested can view them. But because there are almost no barriers to publishing on the web, many more comics get published on the web then get published on paper. As you'd expect, many webcomics aren't very good, but there are some webcomics that are just wonderful.

If your readers are interested, they can find a list of just some of the webcomics I enjoy at http://www.hereville.com/links/ .

As for how you draw webcomics, you draw them the same way you'd draw any comic. Some webcomics are drawn on paper and then scanned; some regular comics, like Hereville, are drawn on computer and then printed on paper.

As time goes on, the distinction between webcomics and paper comics has become fuzzier and fuzzier, because so many comics are published both ways.

How is the webcomic of Hereville different from the book?  The illustrations for the webcomic look a bit rougher that the book.  How did you decide what to change and keep the same?  Did you work with an editor at Abrams?






The webcomic and the book both end the same way, with only small differences. But there are big differences in the story leading up the ending -- the new book has many new characters, such as the pig, and Mirka's sisters Gittel and Rochel. And even where the story is similar, I redrew all but the last 25 or so pages, because over the five years I drew the webcomic my drawing style changed a lot. Overall, the graphic novel has over 100 pages that are either new or redrawn since the webcomic.

When I started Hereville, I had very little idea where I was going, and made it up as I went along. But while I was doing that, I was also doing a lot of research about daily life in a Hasidic community, and also discovering the story. So by the time I reached the ending, I could see a lot that I wanted to change -- things like having Mirka come from a large family, instead of  a small family, because Hasidic families are often pretty large.






I did work with an editor at Abrams, Sheila Keenan, who is fabulous and cares almost as much about Hereville as I do. She and I had a lot of long arguments about things, but it improved the book in the end, which is what matters.

Wow!  I did notice differences in style between the webcomic and the book.  The arguments paid off!  I really appreciated the watching the video of you drawing a page of Hereville.  For thos of us who know nothing, can you talk a bit about how drawing on a computer works and why do comic book artists work with another person who adds the colors - Jake Richmond in the case of Hereville?


 






 I draw on the computer using a device called a "Cintiq," which is a special monitor you can draw on with a special pen, just like you'd draw on a piece of paper. (You can search Youtube for "cintiq" to see videos of the Cintiq in action.) (Or watch the above clip of Barry drawing!) So the physical act of drawing is very similar, on computer or on paper. The big difference is with a computer, you have a lot more ability to edit your drawing once you've made it.

Why do comic book artists sometimes use colorists? Mainly, as a way of speeding up production! It takes a really long time to make comic book pages, and splitting up the work is one way of speeding that up. That said, Jake did a wonderful job coloring Hereville, and I loved sometimes being surprised by the choices he made (which were often better than the choices I would have made).




One last thing, I know that Will Eisner, father of the Graphic Novel, was your instructor while you were at the School of Visual Arts in NYC. What graphic novels to you love to read?  And, for those of use new to graphic novels, can you give us a few directions to read in - for both kids and adults?





There are way too many to list! But some of my favorites include almost anything by Jamie Hernandez , Stuck Rubber Baby by Howard Cruise,  Castle Waiting (review with sample pages) by Linda Medley, and George Sprott by Seth. (No last name, just "Seth"). And about a zillion others. Online my two favorite ongoing graphic novel-style webcomics are Family Man by Dylan Meconis, and Dicebox by Jenn Manley Lee.

 And, for those of use new to graphic novels, can you give us a few directions to read in - for both kids and adults?

Well, for anyone interested reading about the comics medium, Scott McCloud's "Understanding Comics" is a must-read, and folks who want to create comics should also read his follow-up "Making Comics." Those are not only great books about comics, they're great comics themselves.

For all-age graphic novel recommendations, if you're at all open to liking epic fantasy, you can't do better than Jeff Smith's Bone series. American Born Chinese, by Gene Yang, is simply a must read, and blows me away every time I read it.  
I'm currently reading Larry Marder's wondrous Beanworld graphic novels to my friends Sydney and Maddox, who are 7 and 5 years old, and all three of us love it.  I've really been enjoying the Courtney Crumrin series, by Ted Naifeh. Other all-ages I'd recommend are Smile (found on the shelves in the kid's section at most bookstores!) by Raina Telgemeier. I Kill Giants (review) by Joe Kelly and J.M. Ken Nimura, the already-mentioned Castle Waiting (review with sample pages) by Linda Medley, and the Usagi Yojimbo series by Stan Sakai. Any kid who enjoyed Hereville would probably also like Jane Yolen and Mike Cavallaro's Foiled, which I hope is the first of a series. And for an online all-ages graphic novel, I'd recommend Tom Siddell's Gunnerkrigg Court and Kevin Moore's Wanderlost. Plus, there are a zillion others I could recommend. (I always feel guilty answering these questions because there are so many comics I'm leaving out!)

And of course, I'd recommend comic strip collections: Anyone of any age would love Peanuts, Pogo, and Calvin and Hobbes!
 
 Finally, what kid's books left an impression on you as a child and do you still read kid's books, and if yes, which ones?

I was obsessed with Pogo a a kid, and re-read the collections I had a bunch of times. I also remember loving Harold and the Purple Crayon. As a slightly older kid, I still read Pogo, and also loved the Great Brain series of books by John Dennis Fitzgerald, which had great illustrations by Mercer Mayer that I can still picture! Other novels I reread about a thousand times as a kid included The Pushcart War by Jean Merrill, The Hobbit by Tolkien, The Golden Key by George Macdonald (the edition I read had stunning illustrations by Maurice Sendak) and A Wrinkle In Time by by Madeleine L'Engle.

And of course I read endless comic books! I really loved superheroes back then -- my favorite was Spiderman, which at the time was written by Roger Stern and drawn by John Romita Jr.

Most kid books I read nowadays are graphic novels. The two most recent I've read are The Popularity Papers  by Amy Ignatow (review at books4yourkids), and Crogan's March by Chris Schweizer, both of which were terrific. I think I might be one of the only adult men who's ever read The Popularity Papers, but it was really funny! As far as prose goes, I recently read an advanced copy of Lauren Myracle's Shine, which I really enjoyed, and I'm currently in the middle of Eishes Chayil's Hush(review at  the blog Velveteen Rabbi) which so far is both amazing and heartbreaking.



I LOVED The Popularity Papers, which I reviewed (after avoiding for a long time because of the title) last August.  Amy Ignatow is amazing!  You may be the only grown man (who is not a librarian) to have read it...  Lauren Myracle is great and Hush looks incredible.  I'm going to try to get my hands on that books.  All the books you mentioned as influences and current reads are spectacular!  You have a great literary canon to draw from.



Thanks so much for taking the time to fill us in on how Mirka and Hereville came to be.  Can you give us any little tidbits about what to expect from Mirka and you in the future?





Abrams has asked me to do two more Hereville books (and if these do well, I hope there will be many more Hereville books after that!). In each book, Mirka will be a little older, and eventually we get to see what Mirka's like as a young adult.

For the next book, though, Mirka's only a little bit older. One of her older sisters is getting married, and that gives Mirka a lot to deal with -- plus, of course, there's monsters and magic things happening. I'm just getting started on this story, but I think it'll be a lot of fun.




Excellent!  I can't wait to see where Mirka and her family are headed!  I just wish I didn't have to wait a year or more!!  Thanks again for taking the time to share with me and my readers!

************


12.10.2010

Dinosaur vs. The Potty written and illustrated by Bob Shea



Bob Shea is clearly a father.  There is no way you can read his two most recent books, Dinosaur vs. Bedtime and Dinosaur vs. the Potty and think anything else.  Ok, maybe you might be thinking that he remembers his own childhood really, really well.  However, if you read the dedication in Dinosaur vs. the Potty you will learn that he IS a dad (he thanks his son for remembering to use the potty) and that he has a great wife (whom he thanks for reminding his son to go to the potty.)  Kids love dinosaurs and kids, when they are just learning to use the potty, like to wait as long as possible to go.  If you have potty trained a child, you know what I am talking about.  Shea takes this theme and turns it into a high energy, past paced book that is actually a little bit suspenseful!  In  Dinosaur vs. Bedtime, you knew the end was inevitable. Dino WOULD go to bed.  But, in this new book you're never sure until the end if Dinosaur will hold out too long and have an accident or if he will make it in time...  Getting to this conclusion is hilarious as Shea lists the many challenges that Dinosaur faces throughout the day, accompanied by Shea's bright, colorful illustrations that are a little bit primary and a whole lot of playful.

The book begins with Dinosaur roaring and insisting that he doesn't need to use the potty!  He drinks lemonade, he romps in the sprinklers.


And, my favorite, a THREE JUICE BOX LUNCH!!!



Then, there is the wading pool where Dinosaur waters his pretend whale!!


Finally, splashing in the rain puddles it appears that Dinosaur is doing a victory dance, but NO!  It's a POTTY DANCE!!  Will he make it to the bathroom in time?


THE POTTY WINS!!  The book ends with the line that many of us have uttered over and over, "Close one, Dinosaur! Real, real close."




You can watch Bob read Dinosaur vs. Bedtime, enhanced by some nice animation.






The Butt Book written by Artie Bennett and illustrated by Mike Lester




I am a firm believer that there is a book that can address any issue, any concern, any dilemma.  Books can show, books can teach and books can help kids to understand the way the world works.  When I had my first child, I couldn't wait to buy Taro Gomi's essential Everyone Poops.    While there isn't too much that needs to be learned about the subject, Artie Bennett's The Butt Book does do the service of showing kids that everyone has one, what the various names for it are and what it is good for.  I know that this word is off limits in many home and considered crass by others, but in my house it is the most expedient way of getting to the bottom of the issue, no pun intended.  And, knowing that this is a somewhat sensitive issue, I thought I'd give this book a test run before deciding wether or not to review it.  Every Monday I volunteer in my son's kindergarten classroom.  Besides the usual tasks, I have the pleasure of reading one or two books to the kids each week.  I had the teacher, a 27 year veteran who has taught all grades, approve the book and then I read it to the kids.

It was great! I showed the kids the front and the back of the book and told them that we were going to read a book with a silly word in it.  The The Butt Book rhymes and I have to say, Bennet does a fabulous job with the rhyme scheme and meter.  He has said that his inspiration for this book was Dr Seuss's body books - The Foot Book, The Ear Book, The Eye Book, The Tooth Book - and his writing is definitely comparable to Seuss's rhymes.  I read a few pages and, when we got to the couplets that read:

Some names for butts have foreign flair:
tuchas, keister, derriere!

In England where they call moms "mums,"
people call their buttocks "bums."

I discovered the perfect place to take a break from the book and talk to the kids about all the different names we use for this anatomical aspect.  It was amazing how many different names there are.




They thoroughly enjoyed the rest of the book as well.  The discourse on animal butts, the importance of human butts and a few other asides make for a fun read and a great story time.  I had twenty little people, butts planted firmly on the floor, eyes on me with full attention for the time it took to read this book, and I can tell you, I usually lose the attention of one or two kids no matter what I am reading, but The Butt Book proved the exception!




Written by comedian, actor and writer Michael Ian Black and illustrated by a longtime favorite of mine, Kevin Hawkes (Weslandia, written by Paul Fleischman), Chicken Cheeks is really funny and fun.  The text is simple, yet creative and alliterative and the illustrations tell most of the story.  As the book begins, we see a bear on a step ladder staring up towards the top of a tree.  The text begins with, "Duck tail," and we see a duck go up on top of the bear's head.  On top of the duck comes "moose caboose," followed by "chicken cheeks," "penguin patootie," and "polar bear derriere."  Hawkes' illustrations of the animals are both realistic and humorous and the bright color palette is appealing.  The totem pole of animals continues until we reach the last one, "duck billed platypus, gluteus maximus," when we see that the bear is trying to reach a bee hive.  "Bumblebee bum" leads to the toppling of the tower and a pile of disgruntled animals.  The build up to the top, the suspense and the funny animal butt names make this a fabulous read out loud and a great companion to The Butt Book.


And, if you can spare three minutes of your day, there is a very funny video of the author reading his book...



12.03.2010

Interview with Donna Gephart

Donna, thanks so much for taking the time to answer a few questions for me.  I think you are a fabulous writer and the stories you tell are somehow both very unique and universal.  I read both of your books and they had so many similarities and differences that I just had to ask you how you came to write them.  For those of you who have not read Donna's books yet, Vanessa is the main character of  as if being 12 3/4 isn't bad enough, my mother is running for president  and David is the main character of  How to Survive Middle School.




Thank you, Tanya!  I appreciate your generous reviews and kind words.


I made the bold pronouncement in my review of your newest book that I felt like you were superbly qualified to take over the mantle that Judy Blume has long held in the world of young readers.  Did you read Judy Blume as a kid?  What books from your childhood made a lasting impression on you?


I don’t know how to respond to such generous praise.  Thank you.  Judy Blume had such a profound impact on so many because she wrote with utter honesty about being a kid and teenager at a time when that wasn’t happening. Readers saw a true version of themselves in her words.  They knew they could count on her to capture the truth of their feelings.  I love how in addition to providing a safe place for young readers to explore their feelings in her books, Ms. Blume fights against censorship so young readers may continue to have safe places – books! – to explore difficult experiences and emotions.   

While I don’t remember reading Judy Blume’s books as a child, I certainly devoured them as I got older and knew I wanted to be a writer. 

A Hundred Dresses by Eleanor Estes resonated with me when I was young, because like the main character, I felt lonely and somewhat isolated.  It’s a beautiful little book that remains relevant after all these years.

I also read and loved Mr. Popper’s Penguins by Richard and Florence Atwater, which, incidentally, informed the mother’s obsession in How to Survive Middle School.   Ben and Me:  An Astonishing Life of Benjamin Franklin by His Good Mouse Amos by Robert Lawson also made an impression on me.  So imaginative! 

When I was a kid, I loved reading ghost stories, puzzle books, comic books, world record books, etc.  Reading was so much fun.  That’s why I’m a big fan of allowing children to choose what they read.   When those Book Club order forms come home, let your child choose.  To celebrate a birthday or special occasion, take your child to a bookstore and let her choose.  There’s power for that young reader in being able to make that choice.


I love that!  I can't tell you how many times at work I hear a child begging for a book that a parent won't buy for whatever (usually valid, I'm sure) reason.  But, it's such a thrill to be able to choose any book you want from the shelves.  What young adult authors and books impress you today?

Books:  A Crooked Kind of Perfect by Linda Urban, Granny Torrelli Makes Soup by Sharon Creech, Swear to Howdy by Wendelin Van Draanen, The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian by Sherman Alexie, The Wednesday Wars by Gary Schmidt, Counting on Grace by Elizabeth Winthrop, The Underneath by Kathi Appelt, Peeling the Onion by Wendy Orr, Make Lemonade by Virginia Euwer Wolff, etc.

Authors:  Jerry Spinelli, Christopher Paul Curtis, Rodman Philbrick, Donna Jo Napoli, Louis Sachar, Chris Crutcher, Jacqueline Woodson, Julie Anne Peters, Julius Lester, etc.


Excellent list and great inspiration!  When did you know that you had a book inside you and what were the first steps you took to writing it out?


I wrote my first book when I was still in high school, then another one after college, etc.  I have nearly half a dozen completed novels in a drawer.  They were practice; I just didn’t know that at the time. 

It takes a lot longer than you think to learn to create a solid story structure, build character arcs, discover emotional truths and all the other things that go into writing and revising a novel that will resonate with readers. 

I sold my first novel at 40, and I’m still reading, writing and revising to improve my craft. 


Wow!  That's so good to know - that it doesn't just happen over night for most people.  I guess you got your 10,000 hours in!  Obvious question, I know, but I have to ask how you decided to have the main character of your first book, as if being 12 3/4 isn't bad enough, my mother is running for president, be the child of a politician?  


That novel began as a short story I wrote for an anthology about mother/daughter relationships.  I considered a mother who would be so busy with her career she wouldn’t have enough time to spend with her daughter.  Can’t imagine being much busier than being a governor and running for president.  I then told that story of longing for time with her mother through the eyes of the daughter.  While the short story didn’t make it into the anthology, the editor of the anthology loved the main character and encouraged me to turn the story into a novel.  I’m so glad she did!


That's so interesting!  As a working mother I think about my kids and the time I am not spending with them constantly and I think you portrayed Vanessa's longing very effetively.  Even in a time when the president is writing children's books, real life politics rarely makes it into fiction for young readers.  I think that the way you presented politics in your book was really fascinating and I especially appreciated the letter to the reader from main character Vanessa at the end of the book that tells readers a bit about the constitution and where to go for more online information about government, the election process and American History (as well as information about spelling bees, scrabble and a recipe for lemon bars, all passions of Vanessa.)  How did you determine what aspects of the presidential race, from the caucuses to the nominating convention, would make it into the book?  


I appreciated the opportunity to make politics interesting and fun for young readers.  It’s important that young people feel empowered and part of the process.  I thought if I could get young readers excited about politics now, perhaps that would blossom into a lifelong passion.

I included whatever political elements were necessary to tell a good story, then, as you mentioned, I listed resources at the end of the book and on my web site for readers who wanted to learn more about politics, presidents, etc.


In both of your books I feel like you handle the potentially touchy subject of "girl likes boy" and "boy likes girl" with great delicacy and reserve.  Vanessa goes from liking her dream guy, who turns out not to be a nice guy to noticing the kid who gets picked on who turns out to be a (really) nice guy. David goes from not liking girls at all to having this whole new world opened up to him by a friendly new girl.  This could be fraught with so much more baggage, so much unnecessary information, yet I feel like you bring the perfect balance of innocence and, not to sound too goofy, wonder to the experience.  How did you decide to include beginners romance as part of your stories and how did you decide what to leave out when it came to the boy/girl parts of the story in your books?  


The romantic feelings are not, of course, the main plot of either story, but at that age, it’s a very important part of the wonder and discovery of growing up, so I included it in a natural way.  Young people today often feel pressured to act way too grown up when it comes to dating.  So in the pages of my books, they can know it’s okay to take things slowly and innocently. 


I think you definitely presented it in a natural and slow paced way!  What differences in writing about a boy/girl relationship when approaching it first from Vanessa's perspective then from David's did you notice?


I don’t know that there was a difference.  In both cases, the characters were surprised/delighted by the attention of someone liking them.  Those feelings were new for both characters and very exciting.  In short, the quirky characters were delighted to have people appreciate them for who they were.



You know, I think I brought the idea of gender differences to my readings of the books, but looking back on it I agree that there isn't necessarily a difference between the two.  I know that you have two sons, did you ask them personal questions to help you with David's burgeoning romantic feelings?


Lord no!  I’ve always been an observer and thinker.  I just happen to be fortunate to live with two teenage boys, who unwittingly provide great fodder for my novels. 



Ha!  I have to admit, when I first started reading as if being 12 3/4 isn't bad enough, my mother is running for president, not personally, but as a person who writes reviews of kid's books (mostly) for parents to utilize, I was concerned about some of the content.  There were a few words and phrases that made the reviewer in me pause.  However, as a parent of two teenagers and a six year old, I realize that these words and phrases were nothing new to my kids.  How did you decide to makes this part of Vanessa's voice in your book?  Have you had any complaints? 


I wrote about Vanessa’s obsession with her boobs because a lot of girls that age worry about their boobs being too small or too big.  It’s reality.  And I think young readers appreciate reading about things that matter to them.  I can’t tell you how many e-mails I got from young readers telling me they could relate to the whole “Boob Fairy” thing.  It struck a chord of recognition.

And with How to Survive Middle School, I had a young boy write recently to thank me for using words and gestures that middle school kids would really use. 

Parents/educators might not always like what young people know, think about, hear or talk about, but it is the way it is, whether authors write about it or not. 

I never use certain words simply to be sensational.  I use them only when it’s exactly what the character would say or feel.


That is excellent to hear and I'm glad to know you have had such wonderful response from your young readers.  Did you have any reservations or concerns about making Jon Stewart and The Daily Show a major plot point in How to Survive Middle School?  Most books for young readers don't usually mention specific contemporary celebrities.  Did you worry about alienating any readers who had never seen his show or heard of him?


Yes, I always think twice about using a contemporary figure in my work.  In my first book, Governor Schwarzenegger makes a guest appearance.  In my newest book, it’s Alex Trebek, host of Jeopardy!.  I don’t want to date my books, but in this case, it made perfect sense that David Greenberg would idolize Jon Stewart, so I went with it.  Even if kids don’t know who he is, the story still makes sense.



Agreed!  And I think that Governor Schwarzenegger will have a very long shelf life...  Let's talk comedy.  David and Vanessa are both funny, and in different ways.  Vanessa has a sharp wit and expresses it through conversation or internal dialog.  Despite his love of Jon Stewart and his type of humor, David's sense of humor is actually a bit less mature than Vanessa's, I'd say, which is interesting.  Can you talk about your two main characters and their senses of humor? 


The humor comes naturally through my characters and their particular quirks.  Perhaps David’s is a bit less mature because he’s a smidge younger than Vanessa, and boys tend to mature a bit more slowly than girls.



True!  Or, maybe it's just the difference between Vanessa's verbal humor and David's visual humor.  More comedy:  Growing up, the one way I could connect with my Dad was through comedy.  I remember being in 4th grade and having him call me into the living room to watch Steve Martin perform "King Tut" on the Merv Griffin show.  So love of comedy, the Steve Martin absurdist brand, the Saturday Night Live parodies and satire, the Tina Fey anything she does, the Jon Stewart intellectual humor, the David Sedaris sardonic wit, are serious currency in my family.  My kids have been watching Monty Python since they were four and SNL not long after and would watch more Jon Stewart if we had cable.  Is comedy currency in your family?  What is your comedy lineage and what do you and your kids appreciate today?


You reminded me that I used to watch The Carol Burnett Show with my mom.  We had so much fun laughing at the characters.  It was a special time for me and my mom.  As a teenager, my sister and I loved watching the TV showSoap.  I know my husband used to enjoy watching The Bob Newhart Show with his parents.

Comedy is very important in our family, even though I didn’t think much about it until your question.  We watch SNLand The Daily Show and so many other funny shows and movies together.

Humor is such a great way to deal with life’s challenges. 


Defintiely!  I found your portrayal of David's mother in HTSMS both poignant and sensitive.  I have the feeling that the character you created for her is more that what ended up on the page.  How did you decide what aspects of her personality to put in the story?  


The mother’s problems are vital to the story in the way that they affect David and the dynamics of the whole family. While revising, my editor said again and again, “I just don’t feel I know the mother’s character well enough.”  I had three completely different endings for the novel.  It wasn’t until I truly understood the mother’s character and special issues that I was able to give the book the right ending and everything came together.



Everything definitely did come together!  I love the ending that you chose!  Can you tell us a little bit about your next book?


I wrote Olivia Bean, Trivia Queen in 29 days for NaNoWriMo (National Novel Writing Month) last year.  And I’ve been revising it ever since.  I love the characters in this book and thoroughly enjoy spending time in their world.  It’s about a girl who absorbs trivia like a sponge and wants nothing more than to get on the TV quiz show, Jeopardy!. But a lot of challenges stand in her way. 

You can meet Olivia and her quirky friends and family Spring 2012.



That's amazing!  A novel in one month!  Thank you so much for taking time to talk to me about your wonderful, amazing books.  Can't wait for the next one!