Sara Pennypacker has published nearly 20 books, but her forthcoming middle grade novel is the first in which she’s created a character fully inspired by her own personality and introversion. The book, Here in the Real World, is the story of two misfits, one a shy Middle Ages-obsessed dreamer and the other a frank realist and gardener, who find comfort and purpose in an abandoned church lot and to prevent a crisis, must join forces. Pennypacker spoke with PW about writing a character very like herself, the standards she demands of each book she writes, and how a love of reading made her a good student.
What inspired the premise of your new novel, Here in the Real World?
In 2016, when Pax was published, I did a lot of speaking to children. I was moved again and again by the fact that I was having discussions about really difficult things with them about things that happen to children and animals during wars and about the fact that children and animals are never responsible for creating wars. These terrible things happen, and they don’t have a say in it. Kids, uniformly, wanted to know what they could do to help. They would research and find funds that would help abandoned animals. To them, this was a perfectly legitimate response, but adults will often say, “That’s too big of a problem” or “Here’s 10 bucks.” The kids took [the issue] on and found solutions.
Since 9/11, we’ve been unable to keep the real world from kids in the way adults seem to want to, by withholding things from them that they aren’t old enough to process yet. That’s over, we can’t do that anymore. Ultimately, [Here in the Real World] is a book about how people in the world address the things they see as unjust. After the Pax tour, I was particularly interested in how kids might face injustice. One option, of course, is to not live in the real world: to be a real dreamer and to imagine things. In my book, that’s where the main character begins. He’s a dreamer and an artist. He’s ridiculed for not living in the real world, for seeing this abandoned lot not as a problem to be solved, but as an opportunity. I wondered, “Does someone have to see things as they could be, for any real change to happen?”
Then there’s the secondary character, Jolene. She approaches the problem differently. She’s a realist and all she has is grit as a resource. The ground that she gardens is gritty as well; she’s going to stab the abandoned lot into compliance. All the characters have a different way of addressing injustice. Ware’s mom is a professional problem solver; her best piece of advice is, “If you can’t solve everything, look around the edges and see what’s meant for you.” Then there’s his uncle, who feels telling stories that can’t be told by the people or animals involved is a really good thing to do. There are characters like the bartender and the woman who owns the fruit market next door, who see a girl in need and give her shelter. And there’s Ashley, who was marked by one tiny injustice and has spent the rest of her young life addressing it.
What appeals to you about writing for young readers?
First, kids are a better audience. I did write one book for adults, so I have some credibility here. Kids care more and pay more attention. When you do a book signing for adults, they come up with their book in their hand, hanging by their body, but a kid comes up with the book pressed to their chest.
Kids need books more because, at that stage in their lives, they have a smaller field of experience and books widen [that field]. Sometimes that’s critical. You think you’re alone? Nope, this book says you’re not. This book says you are the way you are for a reason. This book says you can be a different way and choose your own path.
Where did your publishing journey start?
I was naïve, but so passionate. I learned everything I could and then I submitted [to a publisher] on my own. It was one of those rare stories. Holiday House, my first publisher, did tell me that one thing that stood out was how perfectly typed my submission was. I was so obsessive about everything!
You’ve written for adults and young children; does writing for teen readers interest you?
I could never say that I’m interested in writing for anyone. That’s just not how it works. I am moved by stories and then I have to follow them. A couple times, I haven’t recognized who the audience should be. My agent [Steven Malk] will have to say, “No, I really think that what you think is a picture book isn’t.” I thought Clementine was a really short seven-page manuscript and he said, “No, sorry, not only is it supposed to be a chapter book, it’s supposed to be a series.”
Do you feel that adults react differently to your books than children?
They do. Sometimes [children’s books] are more profoundly moving to adults because they’ve had more experience in the world. They know what’s coming, the inevitability of pain. Before Pax was published, I took the first chapter out on the road to a school where I was teaching a writing class to fifth grade kids. I wanted them to see motivation and hints dropped during an opening about what would happen next, so I read the first chapter of Pax to them and asked about the fox’s motive. They all got that the fox wants to be with the boy, but that, ultimately, he wants to be free. I was about to pack up and move on to the next class when the teacher stopped me and said, “You can’t leave, look at them.” I turned back and saw that there were kids who were obviously upset and shocked by the ending of the chapter. That was a real surprise to me. I thought I had written a “Hansel and Gretel” ending where the fox gets tricked and abandoned and now the reader should put their hands on their hips and say, “Well that wasn’t fair, go back and find him!” or “Outsmart them!” Instead, kids who had had the experience of loving a pet and not being able to say goodbye recognized that experience deeply.
Ware and Jolene are, in many ways, foils, but the church lot is a haven for them both. Can you speak about the creation of these two characters and the ways they interact with the world and each other?
I’m coming out as Ware. I’d never written a character who was truly myself before, but Ware is totally me. I think I only came to truly accept my own introversion recently. As a teenager, I was ashamed; I felt it was odd, something to be hidden and changed. I believed I couldn’t do anything meaningful because I was shy. Writing was how I came to understand that my introversion wasn’t just an essential part of myself, it was a superpower. I could not write as I do unless I craved and respected solitude; I need a lot of time on my own to reflect and explore possibilities. I wanted to write a kid who was as much like me as possible, a kid who was going to be an artist but didn’t believe that about themselves because they were so shy. Jolene is a foil, but she’s the type of kid I was drawn to when I was young. Maybe because [kids like her] are so opposite from me.
Did you conduct any research, especially regarding Ware and his knowledge of the Middle Ages and their duo’s castle-building project?
I did. When you sign on to write books, you’re always going to find yourself going deep into different things. I love that. So, of course there was a lot I could have included from my research, but I kept to things that were thematically relevant. For instance, Jolene slits her eyes, which reminds Ware of arrow-slots, which are used in castles to fire out, but don’t allow anything in.
How do you pull meaning from the stories you find yourself compelled to follow?
I find the themes of my books are usually related to something I’m outraged about or feel is unjust. I look back and see that in all my books, even Clementine. It seems like just a fun book, but I was definitely motivated to write it by the fact that I had a child with attention issues who was unfairly treated.
For you, what is the thread that connects your stories, across audience and subject?
When I was writing the first Clementine book, I overheard a conversation in which someone had recalled Carl Jung’s answer to a question. Jung had been asked, “Why is there evil in the world?” And he answered, “There’s evil in the world when people can’t tell their stories.” I was knocked out by that. I thought, why can’t people tell their stories? Well, you need a powerful voice. You need language and narrative skills. You need a platform and you need an audience. I thought, kids very rarely have more than one of those things at a time, but I have all those things. I decided, from then on, that I write for children. Not in the sense of here’s a present for children, who are recipients. No, I write for the children in the sense that the children can’t do it yet, so I do it in their stead. That’s been a profound change. I check every manuscript at the end and say, “Is some kid going to hold this book up to an adult and say, “This is what I’m trying to say. This is what it feels like.” If I don’t make that standard, I have to rewrite it. I’m not sure you would know reading the book, but for me it’s a big deal. My job isn’t to entertain children, it’s to say things for them, until they can do it themselves.
Do you have a goal or hope for this new book?
A book is a conversation and I get to throw out the first line. I rarely get to hear what happens afterwards, but I always hope that the conversation includes a lot of questions. I hope that it includes as many different points of view and experiences as possible. And that it goes on. As Ware’s uncle says, “It’s a pretty bad mistake to start something by hoping for the reaction.”
Were you a reader growing up? Which books or authors do you feel influenced the writer you are today?
I thought a lot about The Secret Garden when I was writing Here in the Real World. I can see the obvious influence; I always loved the idea of having a secret space. What’s different is that [in The Secret Garden] they were restoring a garden, which is honorable, too, but I was much more interested in transformation. I wanted to go forward into what things could be.
I loved reading more than I loved any of the books that I was reading, if that makes sense. I enjoyed the process of reading. In fact, the love of reading made me a good student because the reward for being a good student during my formative years was to be allowed to go to the back of the classroom to read on your own. I was motivated!
What’s next for you?
I’m coming out of the cave I’ve been in for a couple years, since Pax came out. That’s how I write, staying out of the business of books while I’m writing. I’ll go on the road with Here in the Real World for a while, but I am working on a novel. I’m not allowed to talk about it and it’s killing me because I’m so thrilled to be in this world again. I also have a picture book I’ve been working on, which I think I’ve finally figured out the ending to. I’m not sure what’s after that, but I try to stay a few projects ahead. If I didn’t know what I was going to do next, I’d be terrified.
Here in the Real World by Sara Pennypacker. HarperCollins/Balzer + Bray, $17.99 Feb. 4 ISBN 978-0-06-269895-7