What is it like for an author to write that second book? I talked to Sally J. Pla and Elly Swartz about this very thing over at the Mixed Up Files blog. Check it out here:
Chapter books are where the magic happens. Finally able to tackle books on his own, my son delighted in more challenging prose, exciting plot twists and bright illustrations. He was taking the first step toward a lifetime of reading.
I love the humor and madcap adventures many of these books offer, often in series form, where kids can plow forward without pause. School Library Journal says of Jonathan Roth’s Beep and Bob series ‘Roth creates many unusual space terms and infuses the story with humor and gross details that are sure to make kids giggle. Beep is a cute and fun sidekick and Bob is relatable as an average kid in a not-so-average situation.’ This is exactly the type of series that has kids asking for more!
Now a few questions for the author…
Where did your love of books/storytelling/reading/writing come from?
My father was an English teacher and my mother is a painter, so books and art were always a big part of my childhood environment. Back then (last century!) there weren’t nearly as many awesome chapter books or middle grade novels as there now, so I mostly read comics or adult sci-fi (I could have really used fun school/action books like Mrs. Smith’s Spy School for Girls!). I was also fascinated with such classics as Alice in Wonderland and Charlotte’s Web (look for the references in my first Beep and Bob). Also, a real game changer was when my sixth grade teacher read Paul Zindel’s The Pigman aloud to us. It was about real kids doing real things, and it was absolutely poignant and even had fun doodles on some pages. My mind was blown (and not just because they drank beer).
The Beep and Bob series takes place in space. Were you interested in space as a child? What is your research process like?
My love of space, and any relevant research, takes three forms: favorite childhood sci-fi like Star Trek, Star Wars and E.T; an obsession with the real life stories behind the Apollo moon missions and other NASA adventures; and my love for the wonder of nature and being able to gaze with my with own eyes upon distant stars and worlds.
I love the pictures in this series! Do you illustrate your own work? Which is more fun, illustrating or writing?
Yes, I feel fortunate to get illustrate my own stories. But even though I went to art school and teach art to elementary kids for a living, the writing is where Beep and Bob truly come to life for me. But doing the illustrations is a lot of fun, too, especially because I can blast rock and jazz instead of the usual classical that I write to (writing with lyrics being sung or too much noise is distracting to me).
Who are your favorite authors?
Favorites are hard, but I certainly can trace much of my influence to such creators as Charles Schulz, Bill Watterson, Jeff Kinney and the true master of short, silly fiction, J.R.R. Tolkien. I also credit such perfect, concise and touching books as The Giver, Shiloh, Bridge to Terabithia, and Holes for showing me the amazing range of what is possible.
What is your favorite thing to do when not writing?
When I’m not writing or illustrating, I like to really go wild and…read. Preferably in bed. Though I also love to be outdoors, either walking with my wife or off on a cycling adventure.
What are you working on right now?
Even though Beep and Bob books 1 and 2 are just coming out, the manuscripts for books 3 and 4 have already been handed in, and I’m currently working on the illustrations for both. As you know, books require a lot of lead time!
How do you prefer readers get in touch with you?
There are a couple options on the contact page of my website, www.beepandbob.com. Look forward to hearing from folks!
It was a thrill to read Sally Pla’s The Someday Birds when it came out last year so I was excited to dig into her newest novel, Stanley Will Probably Be Fine. And it lived up to expectations!
Stanley, suffering from a sensory processing disorder, lives in today’s new ‘normal’, dealing with lockdown drills at school, not to mention friend drama. But his keen awareness of his own anxiety makes him relatable – elements of his struggles will resonate with almost everyone. Stanley escapes into comic books, where good and evil are often clear cut and logical.
I found this pivot away from a taxing reality both brave and heartbreaking. Stanley reminds us that while the world may not make sense, we need strategies to live in it, and his journey toward doing just that will have you rooting for him all the way. And now, lucky us, some Q&A with author Sally Pla.
Who were your favorite authors as a kid?
There weren’t many books in my house when I was a kid. I remember an old copy of Hans Christian Anderson. There was a set of Dickens that my late grandfather found on a sidewalk (the story goes), and carted home in his wheel barrel. There was a beautiful 19th century copy of Tennyson on the shelf (I still have it), a circa 1910 medical book with nightmare-inducing photos, an encyclopedia, and an art book on German Expressionism which was almost as scary as the medical book.
Once I got old enough to bike to the library by myself, my world brightened considerably! Nancy Drew, Beverly Cleary, Judy Blume, Laura Ingalls Wilder, E.L. Konigsburg, Aahhhhhh!!!! Also, animal stories! Misty of Chincoteague! Dr. Doolittle! I reread James Herriott’s “All Things Great and Small” series a million times and decided that when I grew up, I’d become a vet in Yorkshire.
Both The Someday Birds and Stanley Will Probably Be Fine deal with children suffering from anxiety. What process do you go through to make sure your depictions are accurate?
Charlie in The Someday Birds and Stanley in Stanley Will Probably Be Fine are indeed both anxious. This was no problem at all to write. I have been anxious my whole life. Every physical symptom, every awfulizing, catastrophizing thought those characters have, are thoughts and symptoms and feelings that I have had. They are me; I am them.
Kids deal with things like active shooter and shelter in place drills in school all the time these days. How did you decide this could work as the focus of a middle grade novel?
We had a school principal, when my three boys were in elementary, who had a peculiar code phrase for initiating a drill. He’d get on the intercom and say: “John Lockdown is in the building!”
Now, everyone thought that was kind of funny. At home, my boys would run around playing this James Bond sort of gun chase game, pretending to be “John Lockdown.” They weren’t freaked out by the drills, not really.
But I was. What kind of a world do we have, when school kids accept as normal the possibility of an intruder bursting in and shooting them in cold blood? When they come home and cheerfully play-act about it?
This really bothered me.
I got to thinking: What if we don’t become inured to it? What if we fight against this societal desensitization? And so, further: What kind of a kid would have a problem with the normalization of violence in his life? What would that kid look like, and act like? What could that kid teach us, if we slipped inside his skin for a while?
Stanley is so wonderful, genuine and relatable. Is he based on anyone you know? Where did he come from?
Stanley is just Stanley. He has many of the same issues as Charlie in The Someday Birds, but Stanley has a dark, sardonic little sense of humor about himself and the world. Now that he exists, I love him like my own kin. Thank you for liking him too!
Superhero comic books are Stanley’s escape from reality and you include multiple panels from Stanley’s own comic creation, John Lockdown. Loved these! Did you work closely with an illustrator to get them right or did you do them yourself?
I did do my own version of Stan’s comic panels, just to storyboard it and see what needed to go where. But thank goodness for artist Steve Wolfhard! Steve’s a veteran comic artist whose work can be seen, most notably, on Cartoon Network’s Adventure Time. I think Steve’s art in the book (and on its cover) is just amazing. Originally, there were to be many, many more panels of Stanley’s comics. I so wish we could have included them all! Gosh darn!
Secondary characters can often feel cliché but yours, primarily Stanley’s messy family, provide depth and richness to the book. How much backstory do you create for them to achieve this, that never makes it to the page?
I write a lot of backstory, and take a lot of different approaches. At first, Stanley had two older brothers, not one. And he had both a dad and mom, but no grandpa… Things shifted a lot. What I like to do, repeatedly, is draw a bubble map with my main character in the center. Then I put each secondary character in a bubble around him. Each secondary character has to challenge the main character in a different, unique way, so the main character is always being tugged in different interesting directions. The bubble maps help me visualize this. Then, the supporting cast’s personalities grow from this. I also do a lot of journaling on each of them, until I can consistently hear their voices in my head.
What are you currently working on?
A love story between a big lonely girl named Alice Eugenia McMann and a woolly mammoth named Snowball, with a lot of cutting-edge genomic science – and an 85 year old best buddy — thrown in. It is not set in Yorkshire.
How do you prefer readers get in touch with you?
Elly Swartz’s new middle grade novel, Smart Cookie, has all the elements that are sure to delight young readers – friendship, family, secrets, mystery, a cool granny and ghosts.
At a young age, Frankie lost her mother but rather than wait for fate to intervene and choose a new partner for her father, she is determined to influence events. Along the way, she will have to wrestle with family secrets, an irritated best friend and, possibly, a haunted B&B. I loved Frankie’s spunk and grit and I know you will, too.
(Also by Elly Swartz: Finding Perfect)
What were your favorite books as a kid?
I was a huge fan of Pippi Longstocking, Ramona the Brave, and Eloise. I think I loved their spunky, mischievous, independent nature.
In Smart Cookie, protagonist Frankie creates an online dating profile for her dad without his knowledge, with humorous results. What sparked this idea?
The best ideas are everywhere! You just have to store them away for the right story. I run a business where I help students and their families navigate the college process. And a long time ago, one of my students shared that she created an online dating profile for her grandmother. It wasn’t, however, a secret mission. Although this was many years before Frankie came to life, it planted the seed for Operation Mom. That’s the thing about idea seeds, you collect them, but they only germinate when the story is ready to spring to life.
Frankie feels like a classic middle grade hero – her voice is genuine and relatable. Did she show up that way or did you experiment with different versions of her?
Frankie came to me with all her spunk and heart. I loved her from the first moment she started whispering in my ear. She’s filled with a strong sense of loyalty and love of family. But, ultimately, learns that family isn’t about having all the pieces in place, it’s about having people in your life who love you unconditionally. And that circle is so much bigger than those with whom you’ve shared a childhood or a name.
Secrets and mystery are at the heart of Smart Cookie. Are you a mystery fan or did this just evolve as you went along?
The secrets and mystery element of Smart Cookie evolved as an integral part of the story. When I write, I start with the heart of a character. In this case, that was Frankie. From there, it’s like I’m the muse and the characters are whispering in my ear. They are sharing their secrets and telling me why it’s so important to keep them hidden. And, if I am listening, really listening, I get to write their story.
Frankie, her dad and her grandmother live together in a struggling B&B. I loved the details. How did you research what it might be like running a place like The Greene Family B&B?
My husband and I have spent a lot of time in B&Bs. They are warm and friendly and filled with family. And many of these B&Bs have been nestled in wonderful small towns in Vermont. During our stays, I’ve spoken to the owners of the B&Bs about what motivated them to buy the inn, how life has been for them as owners, and the travails that have ensued at the B&B.
What are you currently working on?
I am in the middle of revisions for a new middle grade novel that comes out in 2019. In GIVE AND TAKE, you’ll meet twelve-year-old Maggie. Maggie has a big heart and a hard time letting go. Of stuff. Of people. Of the past. With the help of her turtle Rufus, a baby named Izzie and the almost all-girls trap shooting team, she begins to understand that people are more than the things that hold their memories.
I also have ideas stirring for a nonfiction book and another new mg novel. So stay tuned. Good things are coming!
How do you prefer readers get in touch with you?
I love connecting with readers! They can reach me via my website, http://ellyswartz.com/contact or firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @ellyswartz. And, for all the educators and librarians reading, I also love visiting schools and Skyping!
Smart Cookie Curriculum Guide