Hi guys! It’s exactly one week until Christmas, and it’s also the first full week for me out of school! I still have a few performances I have to do with my choir today and tomorrow, but then it will all be just resting and relaxation these next couple of weeks! I’m really excited about Christmas this year–I’m going to spend the days before with friends at a few get-togethers and parties and with my family the weekend of. And I am going to try and read as many books as I can before the year ends!
Today I am posting the first ever LILbooKtalk! LILbooKtalks are online discussion panels in which two authors chat about a certain topic that relates to both of their novels. I wanted to try something new because I love going to author panels and I love interview authors, but why not ask questions to multiple authors at the same time? Why not have author panels online for many to access them? This is a new “skit” I’m trying out, so I definitely hope you will enjoy our first every LILbooKtalk on “Overcoming Obstacles in Middle Grade Fiction.”
About Once You Know This
A girl wishes for a better life for herself, her mom, and her baby brother and musters the courage to make it happen in this moving and emotionally satisfying story for readers of Kate DiCamillo and Lynda Mullaly Hunt.
Eleven-year-old Brittany knows there has to be a better world out there. Lately, though, it sure doesn’t feel like it. She and her best friend, Marisol, stick together at school, but at home Brittany’s granny is sick, her cat is missing, there’s never any money, and there’s her little brother, Tommy, to worry about. Brittany has a hard time picturing her future as anything but a plain white sky. If her life is going to ever change, she needs a plan. And once she starts believing in herself, Brittany realizes that what has always seemed out of reach might be just around the corner.
This debut novel by Emily Blejwas is perfect for readers who love emotionally satisfying books. Thoughtful and understated, it’s the hopeful story of a girl who struggles to make her future bright . . . and the makeshift family that emerges around her.
About My Seventh Grade Life in Tights
All Dillon wants is to be a real dancer. And if he wins a summer scholarship at Dance-Splosion, he’s on his way. The problem? His dad wants him to play football. And Dillon’s freestyle crew, the Dizzee Freekz, says that dance studios are for sellouts. His friends want Dillon to kill it at the audition—so he can turn around and tell the studio just how wrong their rules and creativity-strangling ways are.
At first, Dillon’s willing to go along with his crew’s plan, even convincing one of the snobbiest girls at school to work with him on his technique. But as Dillon’s dancing improves, he wonders: what if studios aren’t the enemy? And what if he actually has a shot at winning the scholarship?
Dillon’s life is about to get crazy . . . on and off the dance floor.
(Questions are bolded)
Kester: Today we are having our first ever LILbooKchat, an online discussion panel with authors from all sorts of genres! The first author we have is the lovely Emily Blejwas, who has recently released her MG debut novel Once You Know This a few months ago. I had the wonderful pleasure to be able to meet with you at Southern Festival of Books back in October! Could you tell us a little bit about your book and your background?
Emily: I grew up in Minnesota and have lived in Alabama since 2004. Once You Know This started with a scene from my work as a domestic violence victim advocate in Chicago, and a lot of the content comes from experiences working with people really struggling to get by.
Kester: Thank you, Emily! Your book sounds super amazing–can’t wait to read it! Next, we have the awesome Brooks Benjamin, whose MG debut novel My Seventh Grade Life in Tights released last year. I also had the chance to meet you at the Southeastern Young Adult Book Fest back in March, and I really enjoyed reading your novel just recently! Could you also share with us a bit about your book and yourself?
Brooks: Sure! I’ve lived in Tennessee my whole life, always tucked back into the woods somewhere. I currently teach 4th grade at the only school in my town. I formed a dance crew back in middle school and we danced exclusively to New Kids on the Block (I know…I know…). That was the inspiration for M7GLiT which is all about a seventh-grade boy who wants to try out for a summer scholarship to a dance studio, much to the dismay of his dance-crew friends.
Emily: I love how you were NKOTB exclusive! That’s commitment!
Brooks: Haha! Right, Emily! We were, if nothing else, quite loyal to those guys.
Emily: Hey, loyalty is critical!
Kester: I definitely wished I knew how to dance like that back in middle school, or even now!
Brooks: You know? I wish I knew how to dance back in middle school, too, haha.
Kester: That’s funny! This next question is for both of you: One of the biggest themes that both of your books envelop is children facing difficult decisions and overcoming their challenges, from whether it is Brittany in Emily’s book wanting to make a better life for her family to Dillon in Brooks’s novel torn between his friendship and his desire to grow as a dancer. Why do you both believe that it is important to introduce life-changing conflicts to middle grade readers? Did you use any memories from your childhoods as you wrote your novels?
Emily: One of the things that’s tough about being a middle schooler is that you want to make changes but you don’t always have the ability to do it, since adults are still calling the shots. I think every kid struggles with self-determination and wishing they could make something different. Figuring out what you CAN change is such an empowering experience.
Brooks: As a teacher, I see kids come to school every single day with smiles on their faces. But I also know that where we live, many of their lives are seriously tough. For a lot of them, that smile is how they survive from day to day. When I decided I wanted to become a writer, I knew I wanted to write for those kids. I wanted to create characters who were being pulled in different directions, who were struggling with something they didn’t want to talk about, who were relying on their friends to help them get through the day.
Emily: I totally agree. I also think it’s amazing for kids who come from tough circumstances to see themselves on the page. It shows them that someone understands their world, and it affirms that even though they may not have much materially, they still have a ton to contribute to the world around them.
Brooks: And showing kids how the can be empowered like you said is so important. Not only does it help them understand that they are needed in this world, it helps build empathy so they can see that others are needed, too.
Emily: Yes! I love the empathy point. If kids from different walks of life learn to relate to each other emotionally through reading, then that closes a lot of gaps between them in real life.
I have a 6-year-old son who loves to dance more than anything! Can’t wait for him to grow up and read your book! Taking him to see the Nutcracker for the first time today! It’s not New Kids, but I’m doing my best…
Brooks: Ooh, I hope y’all have fun!
Kester: I hope you both have fun, too! So how did both of you begin to write in a child/pre-teen’s perspective? What were some of the challenges that you faced, and how did you overcome them?
Emily: I just really wanted to tell the story from an 11-year-old’s perspective. For me the challenge was not being able to rely on pretty word pairings or big vocabulary words. To tell a compelling story without any flourishes or tricks. It was a little bit hard to stay in a child’s voice as well, but luckily I have an 11-year-old to help me!
Brooks: For me, falling into that MG Voice was kind of natural. I grew up on all of those amazing 80s movies where the kids were the heroes. And when I decided I wanted to write, I had been teaching for a while, and I knew I wanted my audience to be the kids I interacted with every day.
The hardest part for me was understanding that stories for this age can and should be pushed a little further. Kids can have tough experiences and it’s so important for us writers to understand that what many of them go through should be present in the stories we tell.
Emily: What’s so awesome about those eighties movies is that they came before helicopter parenting, so the kids really had a lot of freedom and self direction. That’s what I love about watching stranger things. Reminds me of that time!
Brooks: Yes! Stranger Things nails that 80s movie vibe so perfectly.
Emily: I agree completely. It’s been interesting for me to see some very wealthy schools hesitate a little when it comes to this book, because I don’t shy away from tough issues.
Brooks: A tough issues book earns a spot on my shelf immediately. It hurts my heart to think a school would shy away from your book because of the content. That’s basically telling its students that your book’s perspective isn’t as relevant as others. Has any school refused to put it in its library?
Emily: Not that I know of. From what I can tell, it’s a concern that parents won’t want their kids exposed to issues around poverty. But the vast majority have schools have been open. I’ve met so many amazing librarians!
Brooks: Emily, I’m so glad the schools understand it’s a story kids need to hear. And I’m convinced that our librarians are the ones holding our world together at the moment. They’re the ultimate gatekeepers to our future leaders and, bless their hearts, they do not have it easy.
Emily: I could not agree more. Librarians are my super heroes.
Kester: I agree! Librarians are some of the best people ever–they’re amazing to talk to and they do such a commendous job! It was actually my 9th grade librarian that got me to be such an avid reader!
Here’s my next question for both of you: Would you consider yourself a plotter or a pantser? Did you know how each of your main protagonists would overcome his or her conflict before you started writing, or did you just let Dillon or Brittany’s story take its own direction?
Brooks: I’m a die-hard plantser. I try to figure out the bare bones (the 25% mark, the 50% mark, the 75% mark) and wing the rest. Dillon’s story changed about a dozen times before I figured out what he wanted to do at the end.
Emily: I wrote the end of Brittany’s story first (or one scene close to the end), so I actually had to figure out where she came from…
Kester: I love asking that question because every author’s writing style is different. I was watching a panel with Kimberly Brubaker Bradley and Alan Gratz at Southern Festival of Books and they had two completely different ways of writing a story. (Alan was strictly an outliner and Kimberly could scrap an entire book and start over again!)
Emily: Yes! It’s amazing how many different methods there are. I basically just put my characters in a scene and watch what they do.
Brooks: WOW. I can’t imagine scrapping an entire book!
Emily: Me neither! That would be rough. But I can totally see how that would happen.
Kester: If I were a writer, I wouldn’t see myself starting over again, too, haha!
Do you believe that middle grade is only for young children, or can teens and particularly adults read it, too, even though they have outgrown that age group? If so, what value can teenagers and adults get from reading middle grade novels?
Emily: I absolutely believe adults can read/love middle grade. Some of my favorite books of all time have young narrators. I like to read books from all different perspectives, including age!
Brooks: I believe readers never outgrow stories, no matter their age. Stories of characters struggling is such a universal concept. We can and should learn from kids every chance we get. My absolute favorite book is Bridge to Terabithia with a pair of 5th-grade main characters at the helm!
Kester: I agree with you both 100%! Some of my favorite books were actually written for children younger than me but I still love them, such as Jenn Bishop’s 14 Hollow Road!
Brooks: 14 Hollow Road is fantastic!
Kester: It is such an amazing book! I’m thinking of getting The Distance to Home for Christmas! Before you all go, would you both like to share any advice to young readers and writers who are viewing this discussion?
Emily: The best advice I can give is to find something that you love doing, something that makes your soul happy, and do it. Take it as far as you can! Whether that’s reading or writing or baseball or robots. Everyone has something that they get lost/found in. Find yours and follow it. ❤
Brooks: Write your story for yourself, first and foremost. Be completely honest on the page and when it’s time for you to look for feedback, be absolutely open and willing to listen to any and all criticisms. Constantly strive to grow as a writer, read widely, and support others—especially those marginalized voices who get overlooked too often.
Emily: Yes to all of the above! I would also add to make sure that you’re getting out and collecting new experiences as much as possible. All of those feed into your writing.
Brooks: Absolutely to the new experiences. That’s so important!
Kester: That is some great advice! Thank you so much, Emily and Brooks, for joining me in this panel! It was so great to be able to chat with you about our theme, “Overcoming Obstacles in Middle Grade.” I hope you both have a blessed day, and have fun at the Nutcracker, Emily!
Emily: Thank you both! This was really fun!
Brooks: Thank you so much! You two are amazing and I’m so glad I got to chat with you.
About Emily Blejwas
Emily Blejwas is a Minnesota native, and holds degrees from Auburn University and Kenyon College. She is the Director of the Gulf States Health Policy Center and has worked in the field of community development, research, and victim advocacy. She lives in Mobile, Alabama with her husband and four children.
About Brooks Benjamin
In sixth grade, Brooks Benjamin formed a New Kids on the Block tribute dance crew called the New Kidz. He wasn’t that good at dancing back then. But now he’s got a new crew—his wife and their dog. They live in Tennessee, where he teaches reading and writing and occasionally busts out a few dance moves. He’s still not that good at it. MY SEVENTH-GRADE LIFE IN TIGHTS (Delacorte/Random House) is his first novel.
Thanks so much again to Emily Blejwas and Brooks Benjamin for agreeing to do the first ever LILbooKtalk! I hope you all enjoyed this online discussion panel, and if you’d like to talk about any aspect or question of the discussion, please comment below!
Comment below, or find me in one of my social media pages, and let’s chat!