I have a lot of "friends" that I've never met: people whose books I've admired, for example. Karen Harrington falls in that category -- I read her Sure Signs of Crazy and fell head over heels. But guess what: Karen and I will both be at the Texas Tween Reads Book Festival at the end of September. So we will get to meet! I cannot wait. In the meantime, enjoy this thoughtful post from an amazing writer.
As a writer, am I the only one who has the second novel blues? That place where you know a lot more than you did on your freshman novel attempt and everything about starting the second work makes you feel like you don’t even know how to write a sentence? When I was first drafting COURAGE FOR BEGINNERS, my second middle-grade novel, I had more false starts and weak attempts than ever before. I rearranged point of view, voice, characters, structure – everything. (There’s even a string of back and forth exchanges with my editor that include the subject line: Ways to get rid of David. If the NSA is tracking writers, well, they’ll have their hands full.) But I hit a critical turning point when I literally put myself in the sneakers of the unsteady, young character. COURAGE features Mysti Murphy, seventh-grade girl in the midst of two crises. First, her father suffers a serious accident, putting him in the hospital just as school is starting. This forces Mysti to fill in for her dad, and be the responsible one at home for her agoraphobic mother and her little sister. The second crisis is at school. Her long-time best friend, Anibal, engages Mysti in what he calls a “social experiment.” Anibal has his ambitions set on becoming a hipster this year and decides he can’t be seen talking to someone from his past like Mysti. “We’ll still be friends,” Anibal tells her. “Just not in the lunchroom or hallways.” My turning point was a day when I decided to visit a middle school like the one Mysti attends. I called a good girlfriend and arranged to have lunch with her middle-schooler one day. I wanted to see if the middle school cafeteria still hummed with that spectrum ranging from bright confidence to quiet insecurity, and all the colors in between. It did. (It also still smelled vaguely of cold soup and disinfectant.) When the time came to meet my young friend, I went to the cafeteria with my sack lunch. The cafeteria was a big, wide room with a curtained stage on one end. Rows upon rows of tables extending backwards from the stage. A small section of tables reserved for guests coming to eat with their students. A cafeteria line. Random teachers shouting, “Have some respect!” to a few rowdy students. I stood in the front of the cafeteria near the guest tables and eagerly looked for my friend. As I rocked back and forth, minutes passed. I watched the variety of students. The vivid, conversationalists. The ones with heads stuck in a book. And those sitting alone – even though they were sitting with others. Boy, I remember that. My young friend never showed up. Students came and went and stared at me like out of place person that I genuinely was. Want to know what that felt like? Just like I did in seventh grade! In fact, sort of like a dork. I ditched my home-made sandwich. The whole thing made me lose my appetite. I hit the writing desk again. And everything changed. I could see and feel where Mysti would encounter her old friend Anibal and ache to talk to him. To belong. To be asked to sit at his lunch table. To feel left behind and forgotten while others seemingly had a great lunch. And because I could vividly see that and pull up those feelings, I was finally able to hear Mysti’s words come through and onto the page. Every writer knows that’s where the magic is. I told my eleven-year old daughter this story recently and she responded, “So…what you’re saying is, you have to be a dork to write a book.” My child. She is funny. “No, you don’t have to be a dork,” I told her, “But today’s dork is often tomorrow’s inventor and artist and writer.” Writing this book reminded me of something my favorite writing professor once said: you need to find that opening into a character that you so strongly identify with that you can see the world through his or her eyes and allow your own vulnerability to inform your writing. My third middle-grade novel (MAYDAY, Little, Brown/2016) is about a plane crash survivor. Shall I leave you to wonder at how I entered into the experience of that protagonist?
I will confess that it is unseasonably hot here; that makes for one cranky Kirby. But I was made aware of something that makes me even crankier than our hot house with no AC. Keep in mind that the majority of book creators for middle grade readers are female. So how does one explain this page in the ALA catalog, where the only female featured is Taylor Swift? I will grant you that she does write songs.
But every other illustrator and/or author on the page is male. That does not compute. Maybe if enough of us questioned ALA and the publishers on this choice -- and the hundreds of other choices made that favor male book creators -- the playing field might get evened out. One can only hope. Honk if you love gender equity.
I am so pleased to host Patrick Jennings here today. In addition to being an awesome writer, Patrick is an awesome writing mentor to young people in the seaport town where he lives.
Guinea Dog 3 is about three guinea pigs and the
people who love them.
The first book, Guinea Dog, was inspired in 1997 by a new
Himalayan kitten I adopted. Soobie Mennym—I named her after a character in
underrated The Mennyms—reminded me of a puppy: overeager, clumsy, always
underfoot. She ran to the door when someone knocked. She played Fetch. Her
behavior inspired a picture book idea about a boy who wants a dog but gets a
cat instead. The boy, Rufus, is disappointed, until the cat begins to bark, run
alongside his bike, and catch Frisbees. I wrote and illustrated a dummy,
titled the story Snowball, Sit!, and sent it to my editor, who felt
it was for middle graders, not preschoolers. I put it away and resumed work on
my current book-in-progress.
A few years later,
I was invited to submit a middle-grade short story to an in-class magazine, Storyworks,
so I got Snowball out of cold storage and retooled it. Before submitting it, I changed the Snowball to Fido, a cat
to a guinea dog. Why? It was funnier. To smooth this over with Soobie, I
dedicated the book to her. Sadly, Soobie died of liver disease six months after
the book came out, in 2010, thirteen years after she inspired it. I like to
think she lives on in the books, including Guinea Dog 3.
I was delighted
with the enthusiastic response from young readers to the first Guinea Dog book. It was because they loved it so
much that my publisher asked me to write the second, then the third. I’ve relished the opportunity to spend
more time getting to know the characters, and to introduce some new ones,
including Pablo and Snapper in Guinea Dog 3. Recently my readership has
expanded, as the book has both been translated into German and Chinese and
recorded as an audiobook (the three books are available individually or
together in The Guinea Dog Collection).
Kids often ask me
if there will be a Guinea Dog 4. They want to know how many more Fido
books I will write. Will there be a Guinea Dog 23 with twenty-three cavies on the covers? I have no idea. It’s one guinea dog at a time at this
Patrick Jennings is the author of over twenty books for young readers, featuring electric dogs, guinea dogs, gopher snakes, grebes, ferrets, bats, rats, cats, and delphine aliens. He lives and writes in a seaport town in Washington State.