We asked a number of authors whose books are starred in this issue to tell us about something pleasantly unexpected that has transpired for them over the course of their writing lives.
I was doing a signing for Raymie Nightingale in Clermont, Fla., at the Cooper Memorial Library. I grew up in Clermont, and hadn’t been home for over a decade. Childhood friends and neighbors and teachers came through the signing line; again and again, I would look up and see a familiar, beloved face. I was teary and overwhelmed, but the thing that pushed me into outright crying was when someone who worked at the Clermont Elementary School library placed an old library card on the table in front of me.
It was for the book Mary Poppins Opens the Door. And on the second line—in my own third-grade handwriting—was my name. It was as if my own eight-year-old self had suddenly appeared before me. It moved me so.
If I were to mention every happy surprise that I have received since New Kid was published, PW would have to run a double issue just to contain them all. But it would have to start with the fact that a book I wrote was published in the first place. This long-awaited surprise came 22 years after I officially gave up on my dream of ever being traditionally published because of the number of rejection letters I received. It seemed back then as if no one but me wanted to see contemporary stories with African-American protagonists that didn’t deal with slavery or the civil rights movement or gang life. There have been some absolutely amazing, vital, and significant books on those topics, but my style is to make you laugh rather than cry.
The surprises grew exponentially when New Kid received five starred reviews. And the surprises have continued. But the love that I have received from readers has been the absolute best surprise of all: emails from teachers saying that their discussions about my book have led to a school year of newfound kindness among students, a Skype visit with a class from New Zealand who identify so closely with my lead character, librarians who have vowed to change the way that they interact with their kids of color by not always recommending books that are “gritty,” plus all the drawings and homemade comics from reluctant readers who now realize that they aren’t reluctant at all—they were just waiting for a mirror to show them how amazing they are. I even recently received a wallet-size photo of a boy holding a copy of New Kid in his class photo. His class photo!
And all of this is inspired by a graphic novel about a 12-year-old African-American boy from New York City named Jordan Banks—written and illustrated by an African-American man from that same neighborhood who had long since given up on the dream that I am living today. And that is probably the biggest surprise of all.
Working with Chronicle Books on my new middle grade graphic novel series AstroNuts has been one happy surprise after another. But it was the brilliance of editor Taylor Norman that turned my typo into the best happy surprise.
AstroNuts is the story of a secret NNASA (Not NASA) program of four super-powered animals looking for a Goldilocks Planet. I wanted their tale of global climate change to not be all doom and gloom, but I just couldn’t find the right comic narrative voice.
In a note to editor Taylor, I wrote, “Kids will get the real science of what is happening to Earth The narrator will fill us in.” I forgot to put the period after “Earth.” Taylor wrote back instantly: “Earth as the narrator is a GREAT idea!” And it was. Of course Earth should be the narrator of her own misery and outrage. It’s exactly right. And perfectly funny. I wrote back: “Uh, yeah. That’s what I meant. Right!” A happy surprise—thanks to my typo... and my ever-generous and always-genius editor.
Book signings and children’s letters are always honest and amusing.
Boy: “Please don’t sign my book. I like clean books. Sign my arm.”
Me: “Don’t you take baths?”
Boy: “I hold my arm out of the bathwater.”
Girl: “This is for my cat Lula.”
Me: “Did you notice my book is about dogs?”
Girl: “That’s all right. Lula just spits up on books.”
And the letters! “Dear Mrs. MacLachlan, I want to be you. How can we do that?”
And my favorite letter of all time: “Dear Mrs. MacLachlan, Sarah, Plain and Tall is the second-greatest book I’ve ever read.”
The happiest surprise of my Guts book tour is that I have felt so much at peace. I thought getting on stage and behind microphones to talk about mental illness would drain me, but instead, being open and honest about the things we often keep private is freeing. Who knew?
The surprise in Pay Attention, Carter Jones was Blue. I am as colorblind as a dog, and outside of the west window of Trinity Church in Copley Square, I don’t see much of the color blue. But before writing the book, I traveled to the Blue Mountains of Australia with my son David. There, you descend a thousand steps to a valley floor and hike through the tropical foliage and humidity, listening to the sounds of strange white birds and to the slithering of things that you don’t want to even know the names of in the thick plants. By late afternoon you are sweaty and tired, but suddenly the landscape opens up and you are looking across the valley at tall, striated sandstone cliffs. In the thick eucalyptus trees above them, the leaves are busy giving up their oils into the heat of the sun. Then those oils fill the air with blue that crosses the valley and descends on you in a lovely mist—like a slow-moving epiphany.
For me, to see any color at all is a lovely surprise. To see one moving toward me was shocking. I knew right then I would use that blue—a blue so strong and bright, even I could see it. I knew the blue would move slowly through the book, gathering (I hope) strength as a metaphor until my character would yearn for it the way we yearn for life and love.
Laurie Halse Anderson
At festivals, bookstores, and libraries all over the country, I’ve met readers who were 12, 13, or 14 years old when Speak was first published in 1999. They came out to listen to me talk about Shout, and to have their copies signed... and of course, to chat. I want to know what’s important to them, how they’re faring, and the path of life they are walking. Their answers have given me goosebumps every single time.
They’ve grown into people of courage and integrity. They are lawyers, social workers, teachers, doctors, policy wonks, political aides, engineers, military officers, parents, researchers, farmers, librarians, professors, economists, and every other profession you can imagine. The thrilling part is to hear them say that my books made them feel less alone, that I wrote something that gave them the courage to speak up, in many different ways. They’re still reading my books—and those of many other YA authors—because our books help them see the world more clearly. That is the greatest compliment in the world.
I was on an airplane the day I found out The Star-Touched Queen had hit the New York Times bestseller list. I was at the very back of the plane, squished in the middle seat between two burly men with handlebar mustaches—I kid you not. I remember bursting into tears of joy, but the guys got the wrong impression. One of them patted my shoulder awkwardly and said: “He’s not worth it.” I then explained I hadn’t been dumped, but hit the list! Which sparked a delightful conversation, and I left the airplane with two new friends and readers.
In America, many elderly Nikkei—people of Japanese ancestry—have met each other. One of the things that used to surprise me but no longer does is that when I interview older Nikkei for books, they sometimes know someone I know. For instance, I met with an elderly Nikkei at a diner far from my home, and as we talked about people we knew, he said, “Oh, yeah, I was in the stockade in Tule Lake with Ichiro.” I knew Ichiro and his kids well. After the war, Ichiro’s family had renounced their American citizenship and ended up deported to the utterly devastated Tokyo area. At age 21, he had given up every dream he’d ever had and taken over the family to help them survive. Another time someone told me, “I lived on the same block in camp as your dad.” “Camp” would be Poston, in the Arizona desert. My father was drafted out of Poston when he was not much older than my son is today. And someone else told me, “Oh, Jiro! He used to keep a can with all his money in the backyard!” I told one of Jiro’s daughters, whom I happened to have known for more than 10 years, about this. It was the first she’d heard of it. She and her siblings had already sold the house, years earlier when their father died.
Our mothers and fathers are heroes to us, for the way they took the only jobs they could find and worked at them relentlessly so that their kids could find what they believed would be “better” work someday. So when we find someone who knew our parents during the war, every detail is precious. It reminds me of a time in 1981, when I was taking a Greyhound bus trip around the country. A Coast Guardsman in Oregon gave me a Japanese glass fishing float of the type that sometimes travels across the Pacific on the current and ends up on the Oregon coast. I remember carrying that float with me for years before losing it during a move. It seemed like a blessed thing, for that sphere of glass, out of the many thousands of such spheres used in Japan, to have ended up in my hands. That’s the way I feel when I hear details about the parents of people I know.
To me, the best surprises are the ones that help me learn something. The ones that knock me down a peg and remind me that there are things I can’t see, even when it comes to my own work. Some call it “being too close.” And with my latest book, Look Both Ways, let’s just say my editor, Caitlyn, surprised me by pulling back from what could’ve been the worst ending of a novel ever.
Here’s the thing: I’m never actually proud of my books. At least, not at first. I work and work and eventually get it to a place where I’m comfortable enough to turn it in to Caitlyn. I remember writing all the different characters—from the Low Cuts, to Bryson and Ty, from Jasmine and TJ, to Cinder and Say-So—nine chapters, stumbling through each of them like a baby learning to walk. But the one thing I was certain of was Chapter 10. The final piece, which, in my mind, was meant to blow everyone away. The basic premise for the book was to write a story about these kids walking home from school, and the final tale—the pièce de résistance—would be about a boy on a school bus who had basically been looking out the window, imagining and writing stories about the lives of classmates he observed on his way home every day. I won’t lie—I thought this last chapter was absolute genius. Thought I’d knocked it out the park and had basically pulled off the coolest bait-and-switch ever. I figured this was literary magic. The other stories, I wasn’t as confident about. But that closer... woo!
And then my edits came back. Turned out, Caitlyn loved the first nine chapters. As for that last one, well, let’s just say the one that’s now in Look Both Ways is not about a kid on a school bus anymore—at all. It was a humbling but necessary surprise—one that reminded me, once more, that sometimes you can be so close to the work that you can’t see just how far you are from the win. Thanks, Caitlyn!
Long ago, I was signing copies of my book, The Fantastic Drawings of Danielle, at a bookstore in New Canaan, Conn. A young, very pregnant couple came into the store after seeing my book on display in the window. They knew their baby was going to be a girl and were undecided about a name. Danielle was one of several they were considering. They decided on the spot that my book was a sign, and they had me inscribe a copy for their “new little daughter Danielle.”
That was amazing enough, but then... Seventeen years later, Danielle’s father wrote that she was graduating from high school, that my book had been her favorite as a child, that she loved to draw, and asked if he could purchase one of the illustrations from The Fantastic Drawings of Danielle as a graduation gift. I sent artwork from the book to him, and he wrote back that Danielle was delighted with her gift and thought it was the most perfect present for this milestone event in her life. The family and I corresponded several times after that, and Danielle wrote to me about how much she’d loved my book growing up, and how it had inspired her to consider herself an artist. I hope she’s still drawing!
Writing historical fiction has taught me that when we go searching for story, the universe responds and story comes searching for us. My first novel, Between Shades of Gray, chronicles Stalin’s deportations of Lithuanians to Siberia. I was inspired to write the novel when I discovered that several of my father’s family members had been deported. Unfortunately, the relatives were no longer alive, so I had to write the book without knowing the specifics related to my own family’s experience.
A year after Between Shades of Gray was published, I received a phone call from a gentleman in Chicago. They were clearing the basement of a Lithuanian church and found a case that belonged to the priest, who had since passed away. The man informed me that inside the case was a folder with a name he recognized from my book. It was the name of my grandfather. Inside the folder were letters and photos from my family, detailing their exile in Siberia. It’s made me realize that often history isn’t lost, it’s just hiding. Our desire to share the stories of others just might lead us to our own!
While researching the setting for Butterfly Yellow, I came upon a gorgeous corner of the world called the Palo Duro Canyon. It really is the Grand Canyon of Texas. My daughter and I took a trail ride around the canyon rim. She did great, having had riding lessons. I kept bouncing atop a gigantic horse, all the while leaning to one side and not looking at all cowgirl-like. That mishap inspired the riding style for Hang and LeeRoy, a refugee girl and a cowboy who found an unlikely, yet deep, friendship in the novel.
This job has brought me so many unexpected moments of happiness, like getting to meet Dolly Parton and reconnecting with childhood friends. One of my favorite things, though, that’s unfolded over time begins with Aurora Parlagreco, my cover designer for Dumplin’, Puddin’, and Ramona Blue. Aurora is wildly talented and her covers are always so iconic. When we did the preorder campaign for Dumplin’, it was a totally homespun effort with my friends and family helping me to keep track of preorder emails and mailing out freebies to participating readers. I’d noticed a few emails from a family with the last name Parlagreco. I knew it was familiar, but didn’t think much of it. I saw the name pop up again for Ramona Blue, but not until the Puddin’ preorder campaign did it hit me: Aurora! This was Aurora’s last name. I’d been sending preorder swag to my cover designer’s parents.
I wrote them a note to let them know how much I adored Aurora and loved everything she’d done for me. They were so proud of her and rightfully so. The month before Puddin’ published, I received a package at my post office box, from Aurora’s father. He explained that he was an art teacher and one of his favorite pastimes was stripping down Funko figurines and remaking them into something new. Inside the package was a handmade, one-of-a-kind Dumplin’ Funko figurine. It was beautiful and perfectly complemented his daughter’s work. I was so moved by the gesture.
This year at New York Comic Con, as I was leaving my panel, a couple followed me out and introduced themselves as Aurora’s parents. Finally we were meeting in person! We gushed over Aurora and the Funko figurine, shared hugs, and took a picture. Aurora has moved on to a different publisher, but we still keep in touch, and my new designer, Jenna Stempel-Lobell, is not only a total rock star but also a dear friend of Aurora’s. I guess it is a small world after all.
Fly! is my first wordless picture book, and since it was a departure from my previous work, it seemed appropriate to take it to a new publisher. Allyn Johnston at Beach Lane has been a friend for years. Why wouldn’t she love my new project? One possible reason was that wordless picture books are not always her thing. In fact, she had recently moderated a panel about them and opened with: “I’m not really sure why Politics & Prose asked me to do this, because mostly I despise wordless picture books.” Fortunately, I didn’t know this at the time.
But Allyn loved my thumbnail dummy and said yes immediately. Then I had to let her know part two of my pitch: I would be away during the entire five months before the book’s publication, hiking the Pacific Crest Trail—Mexico to Canada—and would therefore be unable to do anything to promote it. There was just the tiniest of pauses on the phone. Then she said, “No problem!” And that’s my surprise: not that Allyn turned out to be the perfect editor for this odd book, but that she agreed to do it at all. Even more amazing is that the plan worked: I made the pictures, went on the hike, and came home to a beautiful new book. This happy experience has not only opened up future possibilities for picture books, but more importantly, for future extended vacations!
I was surprised by A Blushful Hippopotamus, a book I wrote about siblings many years ago. I chose as names of my hippo siblings Lombard and Roosevelt, from the name of the town and the biggest street of my childhood. Lo, someone at my elementary school noticed this, even though my adult name is quite different from the name I had when I was a student at York Center Elementary. I had no idea they knew what had become of me. This someone then directed the entire student body to sign one copy of this book and then sent it to me. Where my classroom was filled with Franks and Susans and Tonys, the classrooms are now full of Josés, Marias, and Carmens. Wonderful! Gracias!
After the release of The Thing About Jellyfish, I was trying, and mostly failing, to write my second book. My sophomore novel was to be similar in tone to that debut: serious and literary. But I had this problem: I kept sneaking off to write something entirely different—a book that was lighter in tone, filled with a group of prankster misfits. What, exactly, was I doing?
When a neighbor asked how the writing was going, I confessed the truth, and offered an example. “Today, one of my characters actually signed a letter, ‘flatulently yours.’ That’s... embarrassing, right?” The phrase seemed to capture all that felt unserious about my efforts. But instead of cringing, or gaping at me in horror, my neighbor whooped with laughter. “Flatulently yours! I love this book already!” It hit me: My sophomore novel didn’t have to be exactly like my debut. Maybe, even, it shouldn’t.
So I set down the serious book and began working on this new one in earnest. By the time I finished writing The Next Great Paulie Fink, it was lighthearted and meaningful. Turns out serious and silly aren’t opposites after all. When the book was released, I signed a copy for my neighbor with four words: “Flatulently yours, Ali Benjamin.”
On the tour for Another, I had the opportunity to share the book at the Atlanta School for the Deaf. It was my first time doing a reading for a non-hearing audience, and I was curious to see how the students would engage with a wordless story. After the reading, a child raised their hand and asked, “Which character is deaf?” I turned the question back on him and asked him what he thought. He pointed out the main character of the story and said, “I think it’s her!” to the agreement of the rest of the audience.
The idea for Another came out of my intention to create a book where all types of kids could see themselves on the page. It was powerful to see what that experience does for a kid. It also made me more mindful moving forward, and inspired me to purposefully include a deaf child on one spread in my newest book, Just in Case You Want to Fly. I’ve probably done hundreds of school visits at this point, and that was hands-down one of my favorites!
I was raised by librarians and nuns. Only until the sixth grade, when I was homeschooled instead, but still, it was long enough to install the whispers of saints and sins and overdue fines in one’s ears for life. One nun, Sister Rose, left more of an impression than most. She ruled third grade math with Old Testament steel, and often she would march out into the hall with an unruly student and a ruler. A few minutes later, the student would return, wiping tears, and Sister Rose would ascend smoothly to her throne. One day, I was that student. The moment the classroom door was closed, Sister Rose pocketed her threatening ruler and told me, “Now you start crying and get back in there.” I learned an important lesson then: nuns are compassionate—also, nuns are liars.
Fast forward two decades: I was doing a signing for Shiver at my childhood library only a few miles from that old Catholic school. Who do I see coming through my long line but the diminutive, ancient form of Sister Rose? I don’t know how she found me—my first name is different, my last name is different, and I’ve moved 18 times since that school. Nonetheless, there she was.
“We’re proud of you,” she told me, and I didn’t know if we meant the other nuns and her, or God and her, but either way, I was back out in that hallway again, and I was learning something else about nuns: they are compassionate, they are liars, they read books about werewolves, and they would like you to sign it to “Sister Rose,” please.
Raúl the Third
I have had so many amazing experiences since the publication of ¡Vamos! Let’s Go to the Market. One of the funniest was receiving a copy of my high school magazine, Kaleidoscope, at TLA from my first editor, Shellie Fraught. The poetry journal is filled with my teen angst drawings from that period of my life. The absolutely coolest thing was getting to tour along the East Coast on a bus with my Versify team bandmates. Kwame Alexander is an amazing leader, and we all had such a magical time together. During that ride, I pitched ideas to my friend and editor Margaret Raymo, and not long after we announced a six-book deal for further books in the world of Vamos! It has been a great year.