Laurel Snyder has published more than a dozen books for children, including Orphan Island and The Longest Night, and has won numerous awards for her work. In addition to writing books, she has edited a number of literary journals and is a commentator for NPR’s All Things Considered. Snyder’s new middle grade novel, My Jasper June, tells the story of 13-year-old Leah Davidson who is still struggling with the drowning death of her younger brother the previous summer. Lonely and bored, she ventures outside on a warm June day, only to meet Jasper, whose optimism and exuberance help Leah overcome her grief. As the two girls share their secrets, they ultimately find strength and healing in each other. We spoke with Snyder about her latest book, her secret to writing memorable stories, and her propensity for telling tales of magic.
On your website, you talk about being a little girl who had big writing dreams. Describe that little girl—what did she like to do? Where did her love of books and stories come from?
When I do school visits, I say that I started writing at about the age of eight, which is also the age that I became a fully independent reader. I explain that I loved magic and I wanted to get lost in the magic of books. But one day, this kid in the audience stood up and asked, “What else happened when you were eight? Usually when you start doing something new, it’s because something else happened.” I started to cry and I said, “My dad moved out.” My dad read me stories in bed at night. So I started making up stories to fill that space. I think the creative urge sometimes comes out of a painful place. I definitely feel like my life as a writer grew out of that particular year.
You’ve also shared the many things you’ve done in your life: waitressing, traveling, learning to play guitar. At what point did you know you really wanted to be a writer?
When I was at Catonsville High School in Maryland, I had a creative writing teacher named Gary Blankenburg who was a poet. He would bring working writers into the classroom and they would read their poetry to us and talk about the life of a poet. Many of us started going to poetry readings downtown. For me, it was a realization that writing could bring both an identity and a community, which was something that I really wanted. It also seemed like a way to live an interesting life of exploration and curiosity.
In your bio, you discuss starting your books with a “scribble.” How do you get from the scribble of an idea to a full-blown book?
I do a lot of what I think of as prewriting: wandering around and scribbling things in my notebook before I begin a novel. I come up with much of the backstory by scribbling notes. I’m never going to go back and type them up or use them, but for me it’s a way of processing. The characters are kind of rising up out of the mud in my brain.
Can you describe your writing routine? Do you write every day? Do you have a place you like to write?
I went through a graduate program where many of the students around me had very regimented schedules. They got up at 6 a.m., made a peanut butter sandwich, and sat in their chairs and wrote. I’ve always felt like I should have that sort of a practice. However, I delivered my first manuscript the same month I delivered my first child. He spent his first year of life on a book tour. Raising kids at the same time I was writing books has made it difficult to set boundaries. I write when it feels right to write.
Your writing includes poetry, picture books, nonfiction, and of course, middle grade. Do you have a favorite form or one you feel more comfortable with?
I think of myself as a poet first. I enter my writing as a poet. I start at the line level and I pay a lot of attention to language. Writing a picture book feels very much like writing poetry. Novels are different. I just keep trudging forward and, for me, that can be exhausting. However, you can only work on one poem for so many hours a day, so it’s nice to have a long project. But then sometimes when I’m writing a novel, I take a minute away to work on something smaller. It makes me feel guilty, like I’m cheating on my novel by working on a picture book.
My Jasper June is your latest novel. When you are asked what the book is about, what do you say?
I’m having a really hard time coming up with the elevator pitch for this one! Here’s what I would say: It’s about families and feelings and how important the right friend at the right time can be in your life. This is my first book that isn’t magical. I’ve always said to kids, “If you could put a unicorn in a book, why wouldn’t you?” The first draft of My Jasper June, which I wrote even before I wrote Orphan Island, was a magical book. It was a time slip novel and it was a disaster. My agent told me that when you give somebody a magic wand, they can wish for anything, so the realistic threats in their lives become weaker. This needed to be a book where the characters had to fix their own problems. So I put the book away for years. Eventually, I went back to it but I started completely fresh. I was very set on giving these kids experiences that weren’t safe. So my big question became this: in a world where the parents aren’t coming to the rescue and magic doesn’t exist, what happens? I guess now that I’ve talked about it for a while, I would say this is a book about how kids sometimes have to save themselves and how friendship can be an important part of that.
The story is told from Leah’s perspective, and she is dealing with both grief and guilt when she meets Jasper, who we learn has her own life challenges. The moment that they meet is written in such a way that readers know instantly of its significance. What is special about these two characters and their relationship?
My parents moved when I was 12. Middle school was very difficult. I met my friend, Susan, in those years, when my family was disintegrating. She was the right person at the right time. And maybe that is a big catalyst for this book. The year that I needed someone most, someone stepped in. Jasper and Leah’s friendship evolves from that experience.
Jasper is quirky and vibrant, but also guarded. She is carrying a heavy load and has an uncertain future, but she is full of joy and hope. Can you talk about where her character came from and how she developed as you wrote the book?
I had several friends in high school who were not living with their families. Some of them were emancipated legally, some illegally, and they were living alone. Jasper is a composite of several of those people. However, there actually is a real Jasper in my life. She is a wild redheaded 13-year-old spitfire. Jasper is not that Jasper, though. They only share a name.
You address some very difficult themes and topics: death, homelessness, trust, and abuse. What would you say to someone who felt that those topics might be too “heavy” for a middle grade novel?
I would say that I don’t believe that there is a topic too heavy for middle grade. I think the beautiful thing about books is that we need all of them. Not every child should read my books. Children should choose their own books. One of the really great things about reading broadly and widely is that you start to develop an ability to see when something isn’t right for you and to set it down. I feel like that’s an important part of literacy and education: knowing what will be helpful to you and what won’t be. The real dangers are when we don’t empower children to make their own choices or when we don’t have books for the kids who need them. What if there is a reader who needs this book and it’s not there?
What’s on your to-do list for the next year or so?
I am currently revising the sixth Charlie and Mouse book. I also have a fairy tale picture book that I’m working on. I’m writing a graphic novel that’s actually a memoir called Fairy Hunter. I’m also starting a new middle grade book. It’s set at Red’s Farm, in Jasper’s neighborhood, and it follows shortly after the events of My Jasper June. It’s not about Leah and Jasper but they make an appearance, sort of off in the distance. What’s interesting is that the girls in this new book do find magic. I wanted to write a book that would be a companion to Jasper’s story and have the same sort of feeling, be in the same setting and the same world, and have both engage with the question of if magic exists, but differently.
And if that little girl with the big writing dreams were standing before you right now, what advice would you give her?
What I would say doesn’t have anything to do with writing. Writing is wonderful but living is way more important. I think I would tell her that it’s all going to be okay. It’s the same thing I would tell any eight-year-old or 12-year-old. You might feel lost; all children feel confused and lost. The world is not an easy place. But it’s all going to be okay.
My Jasper June by Laurel Snyder. HarperCollins, $16.99 Sept. ISBN 978-0-06-283662-5