Interview with Patricia Reilly Giff

I am thrilled to welcome beloved children’s book author Patricia Reilly Giff to the Mixed-Up Files! She is the best-selling author of many children’s books, including the Newbery Honor winning books, PICTURES OF HOLLIS WOODS and LILY’S CROSSING. Her most recent books are the middle-grade, STORYTELLER, and a new series, THE ZIGZAG KIDS.

STORYTELLER summary from IndieBound: While staying with her aunt, Elizabeth finds something remarkable: a drawing. It hangs on the wall, a portrait of her ancestor, Eliza, known as Zee. She looks like Elizabeth.

The girls’ lives intertwine as Elizabeth’s present-day story alternates with Zee’s, which takes place during the American Revolution. Zee is dreamy, and hopeful for the future—until the Revolution tears apart her family and her community in upstate New York. Left on her own, she struggles to survive and to follow her father and brother into battle.

Zee’s story has been waiting to be rediscovered by the right person. As Elizabeth learns about Zee, and walks where Zee once walked and battles raged, the past becomes as vivid and real as the present.

What’s special about middle-grade books?

Middle-grade is particularly special because it’s the beginning of kids reading more complex, more complicated plots. As a writer, I love to explore and unravel a problem for my character.

How has children’s publishing changed since you first began writing? (First published in 1979-FOURTH GRADE CELEBRITY)

When I first began to write, there were fewer books on the market. THE KIDS OF THE POLK STREET SCHOOL was the first series for that age. It started that genre [chapter book]. The market has expanded quite a bit.

A peek into my point of view as a writer: When I began to write, I had a typewriter. I had to submit an original and two copies. I had to buy Wite-Out. You couldn’t cross out more than three times on a page. There were two pages of carbon paper, which smudged. [laughs] The meticulousness of it all.

How have middle-grade books changed since you were first published?

Middle-grade has become more sophisticated. If you compare the world of the ’50s with the 21st century, the world was simpler. Life revolved more around the neighborhood. Compare RAMONA THE PEST to some current day titles. Today’s books are much more adult in a way, now anything goes—alcohol, drug, parent issues—less openly than in young adult, but it’s there. A wonderful book, THE NINTH WARD by Jewell Parker Rhodes, about Hurricane Katrina has a child that sees her dead mother’s ghost. I don’t think you would have seen that in middle-grade before.

How much should authors do for book promotion?

I see some young writers do so much. When I began, I did nothing. Now I do talks, though that is not generated by me. The first, important thing is the review from places like School Library Journal, Kirkus, and Booklist. That’s what sells it to librarians and schools. I think publishers do more than they’re given credit for, in terms of sending out ARCs and trying to get your book sold.

How do you stay in touch with kids today?

All of my grandchildren, ages 6 to 23, live within 8 miles of me. I’m very lucky that way. Also, I speak to kids all over the country. And I get so much mail from kids. They tell me what they like and don’t like in my books.

What advice would you give to an aspiring middle-grade writer?

My husband likes to tell the story about an aspiring writer who came into our bookstore [The Dinosaur’s Paw] saying she wanted to write, but didn’t have the time. He told her: when Pat started writing she had three kids, she worked as a full-time teacher, and I worked long hours away from home, but she did it. If she could find the time, you can.

Write every day, no matter what. You can’t let it go. Even if it’s just 20 minutes a day. That’s what I’ve done for the last 30 years.

Karen B. Schwartz is working on her latest middle-grade novel, JAKE GLICK STANDS ALONE, about a shy seventh-grade boy who discovers that his girl best friend is growing up and leaving him behind.

Karen B. Schwartz
  1. I just got on the computer to check out this interview before curling up on the couch with my book . . . but as an aspiring middle-grade writer, I will take Patricia’s advice and do my daily writing first. Thanks for the push.

  2. I have been a fan ever since my reluctant reader daughter connected with the Polk Street School books many years ago. A lovely interview!

  3. Wonderful interview! Thank you so much Patricia and Karen!!! And yeah, I remember those White-Out days and weeks spent retyping manuscripts over and over again. Gosh, I love my computer. 😉

  4. Patricia Reilly Giff’s books are a big part of my daughters’ childhoods. We love her! Our very favorite is WATER STREET. We read it several years ago and we still talk about it. Such amazing and vivid writing!

    And, Karen, your book description has already hooked me!

  5. The Polk Street School books were some of my favorites when I was in first grade. I always felt that I could see myself in them, and that I knew kids who were just like Emily Arrow and Richard Best. This was a great interview! Thanks so much!

  6. Fabulous interview. Thanks for the much-needed inspiration!

  7. Thanks all! It was wonderful to talk to Pat. She has such a wealth of experience and is happy to share.

    Tracy-glad you liked my new project!
    Laurie-I totally agree. Love Pictures of Hollis Woods
    Sheela-that is so true about finding that balance between our experience as readers and the next generation of readers

  8. I loved hearing about Pat’s take on how middle-grade has changed over the years. I think for many of us who are writing for this age-group, we find ourselves straddling between being the readers that we were (and the memories of what we read in our childhood) and trying to be writers for readers in the now.

    Thanks for the wonderful interview, Karen and Pat!

  9. Patricia writes so beautifully about the sun and shadows in kids lives. I could never pick a favorite, but Nory Ryan’s Song and Pictures of Hollis Woods are in my top-five for sure. So glad the days of carbon paper are gone.

  10. I enjoyed this so much, but cringed at the memory of carbon paper and corrective fluid. Ack!

    Twenty minutes per day can really add up.

    (Karen, I love the title and pitch for your new project!)

  11. Wonderful interview! After hearing about those typewriter days, I sure am grateful for computers. 🙂

  12. Great advice and perspective from a beloved storyteller. Thank you for this!

  13. :heart:
    This interview went straight to the point, and it “spoke” to me. Thanks for sharing this with us.