I had the pleasure of meeting John David Anderson in Washington state this past March. We were part of a group event of seventeen authors presenting to over 900 students at Columbia Basin College for the Cavalcade of Authors.
John David and I chatted at a group dinner one night and when he mentioned Ms. Bixby’s Last Day, I knew I had to read it and share it will all of you here at The Mixed-Up Files. Shortly after my return from Washington, a copy of Ms. Bixby’s Last Day was in my mailbox and I devoured this heartfelt story in a short matter of time. Don’t make the same mistake I did though – make sure you have a box of tissues handy.
Everyone knows there are different kinds of teachers. The boring ones, the mean ones, the ones who try too hard, the ones who stopped trying long ago. The ones you’ll never remember, and the ones you want to forget. Ms. Bixby is none of these. She’s the sort of teacher who makes you feel like school is somehow worthwhile. Who recognizes something in you that sometimes you don’t even see in yourself. Who you never want to disappoint. What Ms. Bixby is, is one of a kind.
Topher, Brand, and Steve know this better than anyone. And so when Ms. Bixby unexpectedly announces that she won’t be able to finish the school year, they come up with a risky plan—more of a quest, really—to give Ms. Bixby the last day she deserves. Through the three very different stories they tell, we begin to understand what Ms. Bixby means to each of them—and what the three of them mean to each other.
“A smart, funny, and ultimately moving novel.” Booklist, Starred Review
Amie: Welcome to the Mixed-Up Files! It’s great to have you here. My daughter is a huge fan of your book, Sidekicked, and to say I loved Ms. Bixby’s Last Day is an understatement. What was your inspiration for Ms. Bixby’s Last Day? How is it different (or the same) than your previously published books?
John David: My wife is a teacher. My mother’s a teacher. I spent seven years teaching. My kids have teachers. Teachers are, like, everywhere. Though to be honest, Bixby started out more as narrative challenge than a tribute to educators. Ms. Bixby began more as catalyst than character, a way for me to explore the dynamic between the three protagonists. But as the novel evolved (meaning, as I wrote and revised the darn thing), I realized the profound impact she had on each of their lives and she became the hero of sorts.
In many ways Bixby is a departure from my other work. There are no superheroes, dungeons or swords. Nothing explodes (except tempers). It’s probably as realistic a novel as I’m bound to put out (minus the shark in the toilet). At the same time, I see it as a continuation of many of the themes I’ve explored in other novels. Kids coming of age, navigating the complex and often heartbreaking adult world, learning that their role models are fallible. Realizing that, even at a young age, they can have an impact. Plus it’s funny. Parts of it still make me laugh out loud—and I know the punchlines going in.
Amie: Ms. Bixby is absolutely a hero. And the shark in the toilet. He’s not a hero, but yeah. I know what you’re saying about laugh out loud! What was your favorite – or your worst – part about writing a story with three points of view? Of your three main characters, Topher, Brand, and Steve who was your favorite to write? Which was the most difficult and why?
John David: I enjoy writing in first person precisely because it gives me more opportunity to explore narrative voice in detail. And three narrators just means triple the exploration—so much potential for creativity. Of course all of my narrators inevitably sound like me a little bit (they have my sense of humor, I think), so the biggest challenge was differentiation. In that respect, Steve was the easiest and hardest—his voice seems the most unique to me, so I enjoyed drafting his chapters as an imaginative exercise, but it’s also the one that required the most revision and fine-tuning because it didn’t come as naturally.
I’m not sure I have a favorite. Brand carried the story for me—I think his voice was always the one telling me what should happen next. I’d wake up in the morning and Steve and Topher would be yapping at each other about whatever, but Brand kept me on task, reminded me that there was important stuff to deal with. That said, Topher hews closest to how I was when I was young—little kid, big imagination, hoping to get noticed.
Amie: I definitely understand the yapping characters. Why must they do that? All right, now this question is really important. White chocolate raspberry cheesecake or McDonald’s french fries?
John David: Heart attack or even quicker heart attack? Gah, they are both so good. Ask me at age 12 and it’s the french fries, no contest, with some fries on the side. But in adulthood I’ve cultivated more of the sweet-craving tastebuds, so I’m going to go cheesecake. Plus it has raspberries. That makes it healthy.
Amie: I’m glad I don’t have to choose! Serve me both, please! Last question. In Ms. Bixby’s Last Day the boys try to give their teacher her last day. How would you spend your last day?
John David: I’d spend most of it with family and friends. There would definitely be binge eating (so much chocolate). And none of it would be good for me. And I would want to spend the day out in nature. In the woods. By the ocean. Somewhere where I could marvel at the wonder of the indifferent-but-still-amazing universe. I would have everyone come with a line from their favorite book or movie or play. Something witty or reflective or profound to read out loud. Or maybe just a joke to bust my gut. I would want to laugh. Laughter makes everything go down easier.
At some point, though, I would have to excuse myself and go write something. A letter. An epitaph. A dirty limerick. Just so I could say that I got the last word.
Amie: Sounds like a wonderful last day to me. The only thing I’d add to it is music. There must be great music. Thanks for joining us at The Mixed-Up Files, David!
John David Anderson is the author of Sidekicked, Minion, Standard Hero Behavior, The Dungeoneers and Ms. Bixby’s Last Day. He lives with his patient wife and brilliant twins in Indianapolis, Indiana, right next to a State park and a Walmart. He refuses to wear neckties but will wear sandals in the snow. He enjoys hiking, reading, chocolate, spending time with his family, playing the piano, chocolate, making board games, chocolate, superhero movies, singing badly, and chocolate. He spends at least three minutes a day trying to move objects with his mind.
I can’t say enough good things about Ms. Bixby’s Last Day or how John David manages to make a serious topic entertaining. This book should be required reading for every teacher, student, and parent. So, if you’d like a copy for yourself or know a teacher who’d love to add it to their classroom library be sure to enter the giveaway below. You might just be our lucky winner!
Amie Borst is the author of Cinderskella, Little Dead Riding Hood, and the forthcoming, Snow Fright. All three books are part of her middle-grade fairytale retelling series, Scarily Ever Laughter.