After years of behind-the-scenes collaboration, husband-and-wife team Chris and J.J. Grabenstein have co-written Shine!, a standalone novel for middle grade readers. Following 12-year-old space-enthusiast Piper as she begins at a posh and intimidating new school, the story explores the anxiety and joy of finding yourself and where you belong. The Grabensteins spoke with PW about their personal inspiration for the novel, navigating disparate creative styles, and developing an effective cooperative process.
What inspired the premise of Shine!?
Chris: When J.J. was a kid, she wished someone had written a book that said who you are is more important than what you accomplish. Maybe it’s because we live in New York City surrounded by overachieving kids or even the scandal with the moms that were trying so hard to push their kids [into college], but we wanted to do something that showed people shine in different ways. You don’t have to be in the spotlight, you can shine just by being a good person.
In Shine, Piper doesn’t think she’s particularly good at anything and is determined to just blend in, but her new friends and teachers help her realize her skills and the many ways she makes a positive impact. Are the teachers and their role in Piper’s story inspired in any way by your experiences as students?
Chris: Well, Jack Van Dusen [Piper’s English teacher] is a real guy. He’s the English teacher I had as a freshman in high school and introduced me to Shakespeare, Mark Twain, and Ernest Hemingway.
J.J.: Definitely. But I had Mrs. Zanek. [groans]
Chris: She did not like you. [laughs] That’s one of the fun things about being a writer: You can say thank you to the nice people and get a little dig in at the other people who weren’t so nice.
What are you most looking forward to as Shine! makes its way into the world?
J.J.: I hope this book reaches someone who feels that they don’t shine and that it helps them realize that, if they think about their whole life, not just trophies and awards, they do shine in their own way.
Chris: I think Random House is going to do some neat things, centered around the idea of stickers to share when a reader sees someone who shines. I hope it will promote kindness because we can always use more of that.
Is this the first time you’ve collaborated on a creative project?
Chris: Not for me. J.J. has been my secret weapon! I think I have 58 different books and she always reads things first. And I’ve collaborated with James Patterson in the past on about 26 books... But J.J. is much better looking.
We’ve written together. We do puppet shows sometimes for our church. I’ll do the first draft and J.J. will do the rewriting. But I would say this is our first major project together.
How did you get your start in children’s books, Chris?
My start came by accident! An editor read a book that I thought was a scary story for adults and said it would make a great book for middle grade readers—if I cut all the adult language, adult situations, and about 70,000 words. I have 20 nieces and nephews and none of them could read my adult murder mysteries, so I did it. I found out that I’m still 11 years old in my brain. I haven’t gone back to writing for adults since!
Have you long been interested in writing for children, J.J., or has your interest been piqued by Chris’s career?
My interest was definitely because of Chris. Being married to a children’s author makes you start thinking about the books you read as a kid. I’d been remembering the books that made an impression on me and the books I wish I’d had to read. That’s how Shine! was born. It’s the kind of book I wish that I’d read when I was a kid.
How has your career as a voice-over and stage performer impacted your storytelling process, J.J.?
Well, it’s interesting that you would ask that because one of the things Chris and I learned from writing together is that we create very differently. He’s been typing for so many years that he thinks through his fingers, while I want to act out the scenes. I become the character and act if out, while he has a whole dialogue in his head that I can’t hear.
Are your individual creative processes compatible? What does your idea-sharing and writing process look like?
J.J.: Part of the time Chris was on the road, so that was easier because we could write back and forth with notes in the margin, instead of being in the same room with me acting and Chris writing.
Chris: That’s the way James Patterson and I work, too. We’re never in the same room, but I’ll do some drafting, he’ll make some comments, then I’ll do some redrafting. I think J.J. and I did the same because I have the curse of a journalism student and can type 120 words per minute.
Once something is on paper, we can then start acting it out and making revisions. J.J. is great at characters and motivations and what scenes would sound like, so hearing her read things out loud is really great. She does the lion’s share of that because I mumble too much when I read aloud.
Were you each still working on independent projects while writing and editing Shine!?
Chris: Yes, because there were gaps where we’d do a draft and then send it to our great editor, Shana Corey at Random House, and she’d work on it for a month. In the meantime, I’d be working on another Lemoncello book or something with James Patterson.
J.J.: I was still working on voiceover jobs in between, too. But, whenever we’d get notes back, we’d go right to work.
Did you go through edits together?
Chris: Yes, we would both sort of digest them. We’re lucky that Shana has been my editor for seven or eight projects now and J.J. is familiar with her, too. I think every writer, when they first get edits back, thinks, “.No, it was perfect the first time.” Then, you think about it and realize the notes are actually really good. We consider Shana our third partner in this process.
What is something you’ve learned from or about each other during the creation and publication of Shine!?
Chris: Did we learn anything new? Well, we’ve been together 18 years, so... I guess I learned how good she really is.
J.J.: Awwww. I think I learned how good Chris is at collaboration because, with all his previous books, it was truly his book and he had the final say. Yes, I give tons and tons of notes, but the final decisions are his. This was different! It was not up to just Chris; it was up to both of us. We really had to trust each other. There were times when I couldn’t convince him of my side and he couldn’t convince me of his, so we had to acknowledge that something is wrong with the scene. And we’d write it again.
Do you plan to collaborate again?
Chris: Not specifically. I mean, we kind of collaborate on everything. She reads everything and gives me copious notes. If Shine! is a big hit, maybe we’ll do a sequel. It’s kind of a hard one to imagine a sequel to, but when I wrote Mr. Lemoncello, I thought it was a standalone and now I’m working on the fifth book, so you just never know.
Shine! by Chris and J.J. Grabenstein. Random House, $16.99 Nov. ISBN 978-1-5247-1766-7