Hi guys! Tomorrow, one of the BEST books I’ve read this year–The Benefits of Being an Octopus by Ann Braden–is releasing from Sky Pony Press, and to celebrate, I have Ann, the author of this wonderful novel, here on the blog to talk about her latest novel. A few weeks ago I shared my really really personal review of The Benefits of Being an Octopus. You definitely NEED to read this book. I urge you to pick it up. If I could buy a whole shipment of copies to just hand out to kids and random people, I would do it. This is a book that you do NOT want to miss.
About the Book
Some people can do their homework. Some people get to have crushes on boys. Some people have other things they’ve got to do.
Seventh-grader Zoey has her hands full as she takes care of her much younger siblings after school every day while her mom works her shift at the pizza parlor. Not that her mom seems to appreciate it. At least there’s Lenny, her mom’s boyfriend—they all get to live in his nice, clean trailer.
At school, Zoey tries to stay under the radar. Her only friend Fuchsia has her own issues, and since they’re in an entirely different world than the rich kids, it’s best if no one notices them.
Zoey thinks how much easier everything would be if she were an octopus: eight arms to do eight things at once. Incredible camouflage ability and steady, unblinking vision. Powerful protective defenses.
Unfortunately, she’s not totally invisible, and one of her teachers forces her to join the debate club. Even though Zoey resists participating, debate ultimately leads her to see things in a new way: her mom’s relationship with Lenny, Fuchsia’s situation, and her own place in this town of people who think they’re better than her. Can Zoey find the courage to speak up, even if it means risking the most stable home she’s ever had?
This moving debut novel explores the cultural divides around class and the gun debate through the eyes of one girl, living on the edges of society, trying to find her way forward.
The Benefits of Being an Octopus will release from Sky Pony tomorrow! Pre-order it today!
1. Why do you love writing? When did you first have a love for writing, and how was it formed?
I love writing because stories shape us and change us in inexorable ways (both as the author and as the reader) AND because of the way it uses all parts of my brain!
2. What are your favorite books, genres, and authors? Which ones have impacted you and your writing style the most?
I love realistic fiction. My favorite authors are the ones who make me feel like it’s all real. I still remember reading Sara Zarr’s HOW TO SAVE A LIFE and being so struck by one simple scene where the girl and her mom are in the kitchen making peanut butter toast because it was so incredibly real. And I thought: How did she do that? I want to write like that! Sara Zarr, along with authors like Gary Schmidt and Jason Reynolds showed me that page-turners can be created with emotional arcs instead of snazzy plots. They freed me up to approach this book, not by trying to tell a great story, but simply trying to be as honest as possible.
3. What do you do when you’re not writing? Is writing a part-time or full-time job?
At the moment I’m a part-time writer and a part-time stay-at-home mom. In the past I’ve juggled a variety of different kinds of community organizing work along with my writing. I seem to find the kind of work that takes huge amounts of time, (while paying very little money) – but that feeds my soul and that hopefully helps to get more voices to the table and helps those new voices feel supported.
4. Your MG debut novel The Benefits of Being an Octopus, set to release on September 4th from Sky Pony Press, follows seventh-grader Zoey as she attempts to find her voice while navigating through poverty, loved ones in abusive relationships, and acceptance among her fellow peers. How do you desire for your book to be a bridge between the cultural divides in school? How do you want readers, regardless of financial situation, to be impacted by Zoey’s story?
I think that too often in our society we discount those who live differently than we do, whether its how much money someone has, what kind of job someone has, or what kind of political views they have. When I was in middle school, I remember being so struck that every person in every car on the road had their own story. And as I got older and got to meet a wide variety of people, I came to believe more strongly that not only do they have their own story, but that nearly every person is trying to do their very best given the circumstances they’re faced with. I hope that readers come away seeing that many of the characters, even the ones they don’t necessarily agree with, are doing the best they can – and that maybe the people around them in real life aren’t so different.
5. The Benefits of Being an Octopus also explores the gun debate and the polarization between both sides. Why did you decide to tackle this issue in your novel? Could you describe to us your work in GunSenseVT and how that influenced the story?
I founded the organization GunSenseVT because in Vermont when it came to the issue of guns, it couldn’t even be brought up for discussion in the Statehouse. There were multiple organizations arguing against any gun laws and there were individuals who thought guns should be banned, but having only the extreme voices present meant that it had paralyzed any hope of a deliberative discussion of the issue. And the more I talked to people, both gun owners and non-gun owners, the more I realized that there was a huge amount common ground on this issue, and that the voices we were not hearing were the ones we needed to be listening to.
And I have to admit that in terms of the novel, I wasn’t planning in having guns play a role. Yes, Silas loved hunting, but I thought that would be it. It was when I was drafting the mid-point that I realized what would have happened. And even though I tried to not have the story go in that direction, as I said before I was trying to tell as honest a story as possible, so I ended giving up my resistance and letting the story lead.
6. Since Zoey learns how to speak up as she goes through many struggles, what is one way that you have found your voice amid trials in your life?
Leading GunSenseVT meant that I was being publicly bullied by those who disagreed with me, and it showed me that the more you are challenged, the tougher you can become (especially when you can find ways to team up with people you trust). I was a shy, sensitive person before the experience, and it fundamentally transformed me. I knew that if I stopped speaking up, the people who were bullying me would be even more emboldened to bully the next person who spoke up. So, I refused to be quiet. And the result was amazing. I saw the power of one person’s voice. And I saw that the more confident I became, the less likely I was to be bullied. It was a lesson I will never forget.
7. Do you have a love for octopuses like Zoey has? What is your favorite thing about this unique species?
I do! I haven’t always been as obsessed with them as I am now, but I read Sy Montgomery’s amazing nonfiction book, THE SOUL OF AN OCTOPUS, right around the time when I was in the early stages of drafting this book, and there was no looking back! I think my favorite thing about octopuses is something that actually isn’t in THE BENEFITS OF BEING AN OCTOPUS: it’s that when an octopus runs its suckers along your arm it can taste you, and in the process tell what you’ve been eating and any medications you’ve recently taken. Isn’t that amazing?
8. Why do you believe that the MG contemporary genre can be very powerful?
MG Contemporary has the power to speak right to the heart of the forces that define us. It’s incredibly powerful when you can step back and realize that the choices you are making are not being made in a vacuum, but that larger systems are shaping those choices. It’s when we can see the larger systems clearly, whether it’s relationship dynamics, economic systems, gender norms, or peer pressures, that we can stand more firmly in our own power and work to shape those larger systems to be healthier and more respectful.
9. How has writing The Benefits of Being an Octopus impacted or changed your personal life?
Every time I write a manuscript (this is my first one getting published, but it’s my sixth one overall), I live the characters’ experience deeply, and that experience stays with me. Writing THE BENEFITS OF BEING AN OCTOPUS means that every time I pass a trailer park, I feel like I live there. It also means that going forward I’m getting to speak with kids in schools about Zoey’s inner strength and about recognizing their own inner strength (no matter how others are judging them), which I feel might just be my life’s mission. In the book, Zoey uses an octopus tattoo to remind herself of her own inner strength, and as I handed out octopus tattoos at my most recent school visit I told the students that they can use their tattoo as a reminder of their own inner strength. One girl told me that she’s going to save her tattoo for when her cat dies so that it can help her remember she can be strong! This book helps me look at the world as a place full of potential because it’s a world made up of strong people who just need to come together and help each other raise their voices. Because when more people speak up – if enough of us are ready to listen to them – we’ll be able to work together to shape this world into a more compassionate place.
10. In your bio, you state that being an author wasn’t a dream that you’ve had since childhood. What inspired you to delve into writing? With The Benefits of Being an Octopus releasing in a few weeks, what makes you the proudest being a debut author?
For me, it wasn’t the writing driving me at first as much as the people whose stories needed telling. (Although I certainly learned to love the writing along the way.)
In terms of what I’m proudest about, I really had to think hard about this one. The whole process has been so surreal that it’s still hard to look at it straight on. The thing that turns me into an instant puddle, though, is thinking about the kids who rarely see themselves in books, and thinking about how they WILL see themselves in the pages of this book. And that takes my breath away.
11. What could we expect from you in the future? Are there any secrets you would like to share?
I’m just finishing the first draft of a new middle grade and I’m really excited about it. I don’t want to say too much, but I will say that it explores the way tiny actions can have big consequences.
12. Before you go, would you like to share any advice you have to any aspiring authors or writers?
Of course! Here is my advice:
1) Be honest.
2) Step into someone else’s shoes as often as you can, both in life and in your writing.
3) BE PERSISTANT!
Thanks so much, Ann, for coming onto the blog to do this interview! It’s my honor to be able to host you here today!
About the Author
Ann Braden writes books about kids struggling to find their voice amidst the realities of life. Newbery award-winner Karen Hesse describes Ann’s debut middle grade novel The Benefits of Being an Octopus as “a compassionate look at poverty, hard choices, and defending one’s right to be treated humanely. A very fine first novel, written with a deft hand.” Ann founded GunSenseVT, a grassroots group focused on championing the common ground on the issue of guns in Vermont, which recently helped pass landmark gun violence prevention legislation. She also founded the Local Love Brigade, which now has chapters all over the country sending love postcards to those who are facing hate. Ann is the co-host of the children’s book podcast, “Lifelines: Books that Bridge the Divide,” along with Pakistani American author Saadia Faruqi, and is a former middle school teacher. Ann lives in southern Vermont with her husband, two children, and two insatiable cats named Boomer and Justice.
Are you excited for The Benefits of Being an Octopus? Do you like MG contemporary?
Comment below, or find me in one of my social media pages, and let’s chat!