She’s written picture books, middle-grade fiction, and young adult novels, but Rachel Vail breaks new ground as an author in her latest novel, Justin Case: School, Drool, and Other Daily Disasters (Feiwel and Friends). The book is aimed at readers ages 7-9 and written as the journal of a third-grade worrywart. Vail, who played acting, directing, and writing roles in the theater world before becoming an author, talks with Children's Bookshelf about her somewhat dramatic route to writing Justin’s story.
You’ve written quite a few books that focus on girls, including the Friendship Ring series and the YA trilogy about the Avery sisters, which just wrapped up with Brilliant [HarperTeen, May]. Would you say that writing Justin Case in the voice of a third-grade boy is a departure for you?
I think it’s funny, as “girly” as my books are—and when they’re published they come out with pretty pink covers—I honestly don’t think of them as girl books. And I certainly don’t think of Justin Case as a boy book. I see each book as a journey into a character, and this book was all about getting into Justin’s head. In each book, I write about the character, but I’m not trying to write for a girl or a boy. I just thought of this as simply Justin’s book.
This is a new target audience for you. What inspired you to write a novel for this age group?
Yes, this is one age I’d skipped writing about until now. I love the traumatic, angsty things very little kids go through, and I really like to write about adolescents, because I like the idea of metamorphosis and capturing someone who is changing so quickly. Middle school is full of life-and-death moments, when kids feel emotions strongly yet have no perspective, no context to put them into. I love writing about the pain and pathos—and the humor—of that. It was only when my own sons, who are now 10 and 15, were going through the early elementary school years that I realized what an interesting stage it is. Watching them reminded me that it is actually a time full of becomings—kids are so very much in the throes of changing at that age.
What inspired the plot of Justin Case?
As a second grader, Liam, my younger son, was a little boy with a lot of worries. I started looking for a book to get for him about a regular kid dealing with worries—I wanted a book that was fun and funny. I mentioned to my agent, Amy Berkower, that I needed a book about a third-grade worrier, and she said, ‘Don’t we all?’ She didn’t know of any—and suggested I write one.
So what was your first step?
I think the first thing that popped into my head was Justin’s name. Liam was always saying things like, “Let’s bring an umbrella, just in case,” or, “Let’s write it first in pencil, just in case.” So my character’s name quickly became Justin Case.
Once you had the idea, did the story come easily to you?
Not exactly. I soon realized that I didn’t know how to write a book about or for early elementary school kids. So I did what all good bookworms do. I looked through my kids’ bookshelves and went to the library. I read literally hundreds of books to teach myself what a good novel for and about kids this age is like. I took lots of notes and started seeing patterns. I noticed that many of the successful novels are structured like one-act plays.
So your background in theater came into play?
Definitely. My playwriting background has a lot to do with how I write as a novelist. I feel that authenticity is the key—you have to get into character. Most of my earlier novels I structured as three-act plays, but I decided to write this one as a one-act play, and for the first time ever, I outlined the book before I wrote it. And then I wrote, edited, rewrote, rewrote, and rewrote some more, and by the end I had what I thought was a pretty good one-act play-type book.
Sounds like a lot of rewriting. Is that unusual for you?
Not at all. I feel as though my first draft is like a painter setting up paints, or a potter putting clay out and making sure it’s wet enough to work with. For me, a first draft is that same kind of setting-up of materials. Only then can I really start my work. At about the eighth or ninth draft, I feel as though I’m getting there. But after I finished what I thought was a good manuscript for Justin Case, I ended up throwing it out.
Because honestly it was only at the very end of that long process of writing and rewriting that I really began hearing Justin’s voice. I had a complete manuscript in my hand and I called my editor, Liz Szabla, and said, “I’m finished, but this just isn’t Justin’s book.” When I first began writing books, I swore to myself that I would never forget the truth of what it feels like to be a kid and that I would never condescend. When I finally began to hear Justin whispering his story in my ear, I knew I had to take him seriously.
So you started over?
At that point I told Liz that I had a crazy idea: that I felt strongly that Justin would have something to say every day. He’s like that—very meticulous. So I wrote the first month of his journal entries and sent them to her, and told her that that was how he was talking to me. This was the truth—this was Justin’s story. And she said, “I love it. Keep going.” I was so excited. I find him hilarious. I adore him in such a way that now everybody thinks he’s my son Liam—and that I’ve written about him in code.
But that’s not true?
It’s not true. Justin is not Liam, and he’s not my older son, Zachary. He’s like my third kid. There’s a lot of me in him, a lot of each of my sons, and there’s a lot of other people in him, too. But in the end, he is Justin.
What do your sons think of him?
They were my first readers, and they really liked Justin from the start. The best part was handing them some pages to read and hearing them crack up. When I hear their laughter, I know I’ve hit it right. They gave me a lot of feedback, and when they told me some parts needed to be funnier, they were right. They were very on target.
Will we see more of Justin?
I hope so. I’ve learned a lot from him. Right now, I’m writing a sequel to If We Kiss and am having a hard time with the rewriting process. I think about Justin and I realize what I need to do is keep going and pretend I am not scared—but it’s all right to be scared. I learned that from Justin, which is kind of weird. Anyway, I love Justin and I suppose whether there’s another Justin book depends on whether others fall in love with him too. I think that his younger sister Elizabeth needs her own story at some point—I do love her personality. I definitely want more of both of them.
Justin Case: School, Drool, and Other Daily Disasters by Rachel Vail, illus. by Matthew Cordell. Feiwel and Friends, $16.99 May ISBN 978-0-312-53290-1