A Chat With Michele Weber Hurwitz

While madly gathering Advance Reader Copies at NCTE, I discovered a true gem in Michele Weber Hurwitz’s debut novel, Calli Be Gold. The cute cover also got my daughter’s attention–and we both loved the story about a normal girl with normal family problems. I hope this novel finds its way into many, many libraries and classrooms. Here’s my interview with Michele:

1. Calli doesn’t feel as if she fits into her high-achieving family. Why did you choose to write about a “regular” girl?

I think that sometimes, “regular” kids can be overlooked. So often we hear about the high achievers — the kids who placed first or won a medal or got a perfect score on the ACT. And of course there are many special services in place for kids who need help, and we often hear about that too, but what about all the kids in the middle? Those kids may not shine upon first glance, or have the loudest voice in the room, but they have so much going on inside, so much of value. The regular, average kids are good friends, decent students, thoughtful, sensitive, kind. These are the kids who will grow up to be good people. I love the notion of Calli’s story — that a “regular” kid, in a quiet yet determined manner, can change her entire family’s view of life. One of my favorite parts in “Calli Be Gold” is when Calli and her dad have it out and she asks him, “Isn’t it okay to just be a good person and be who you are and not have to be great at something?”

2. Calli participates in her Peer Helper Program at school (my 5th grader does that too). Why do you think peer mentors are important?

In the book, Calli mentors Noah, a second grade boy with some fitting-in and developmental issues. It’s not only the importance of the program, but the relationship that develops between Calli and Noah in that they find a common bond. When Calli is working with Noah, she feels good about herself, something that doesn’t occur when she’s trying to please her parents by finding an activity to excel at. In that way then, I think peer helper programs allow students to discover things about themselves that they may not in a more pressure-oriented, competitive type activity.

3. The busy, busy, on-the-go Golds remind me of several families in my neighborhood. Do you think kids are over-scheduled these days?

I have to confess that I do think kids are over-scheduled. It’s not news, we’ve all heard the lament, especially from parents of previous generations who didn’t have play dates and all-consuming schedules with every pursuit imaginable. I have three kids and I’ve really tried to let them direct their level of involvement with their activities. We try to have lots of family time, as well as downtime for everyone. It hasn’t always worked, though! I remember when my kids were younger, trying to be more relaxed and unscheduled, and sometimes, I’d miss the boat. I hadn’t signed them up for a class everyone else was in, or didn’t make a ton of play dates over winter break, and they were bored! So it is tough to create that middle ground today.

4. Teachers and coaches play a large role in kids’ lives. Why did you choose to make Calli’s sister’s ice skating coach critical and demanding? Do you think we expect kids to excel too soon?

I’ve met many coaches over my years of parenting — some good, some not so good. I think some coaches do lose sight of what’s important, and focus only on the win or being the best, forgetting kids’ emotions in the process. Calli’s sister’s skating coach was a reflection of what was happening in the story — that Becca was coming to a realization about her feelings with skating, and I’m not sure that could have happened without a harsh coach who forced her to see the writing on the wall. This was another piece of the puzzle in helping the Gold family change their views and expectations. Also, I hope that I balanced the coach’s toughness with Calli’s teacher, Mrs. Lamont, who is supportive, warm, and caring. And yes, I do think we expect kids to excel too young — especially in sports. It’s competitive so early on, when many kids haven’t even developed. Some parents and coaches take things so seriously from the get-go. We all just need to calm down and let the kids have fun!

5. Finally, we have to know: what were you like in 5th grade?

Ah, yes, the fifth grade question! I was shy and quiet. I had long, curly hair that I often wore in pigtails. I was good at writing and reading, and I remember making a year-long list of homonyms all during fifth grade. I don’t really know why I did this, but it was fun and certainly made me a good speller. My teacher was the totally bald Mr. Phillips, who the kids called “Bagel Head” (not to his face, but this nickname was written in pencil, very small, on the bottom corner of the door to his room). As for activities, I played the piano (which I hated) and spent the summer after fifth grade on a girls’ softball team. I was terrible and prayed the ball would never come my way. My whole family was into baseball. I have two younger brothers and it was like a religion. My dad coached, my brothers played, and my mom brought the lemonade and snacks. I remember feeling so unconnected to the rest of my family because I didn’t love it like they did. I definitely drew on this while I was writing Calli’s story.

Michele Weber Hurwitz grew up in a suburb of Chicago. She always has been a writer — from notes to her parents describing her younger brothers’ bad behavior while she babysat for them, to her first “book” in fifth grade, to articles for high school and college newspapers. She has a journalism degree from the University of Illinois and has worked in public relations, as a freelance magazine writer, and as a newspaper columnist. Being involved in mother-daughter book clubs with her two daughters prompted Michele to pursue her lifelong dream of writing a book, and after reading many middle grade novels, she found her niche. She is married to a CPA, has three teenage children, and still lives in suburban Chicago. Michele’s middle grade novel, CALLI BE GOLD, will be published in April 2011 by Random House/Wendy Lamb Books. The idea for the story grew out of Michele’s partially-crazed life as a suburban mom and her childhood experiences. Visit Michele at www.micheleweberhurwitz.com.

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Sydney Salter lives and writes in Utah, but she’ll travel a long way to gather good books! Her middle grade novel, Jungle Crossing, comes out in paperback this April.

Sydney Salter