I’ve been a big fan of Leslie Connor’s middle grade books since I first met resourceful, upbeat Addie Schmeeter, the star of her award-winning book Waiting for Normal.Then I fell in love with wise-beyond-his-years Perry, of All Rise for the Honorable Perry T. Cook. Now, big-hearted, lonely Mason has stolen my heart in his poignant story, The Truth as Told by Mason Buttle.Connor’s books are known for characters that have readers rooting for their triumph over situations that are truly heartbreaking. This writer is wondering how she does it, over and over again. I’m so pleased that she’s agreed to this interview.
A.F. Hi Leslie! Your characters are your trademark, recognizable for the way they absorb life’s meanness without becoming mean themselves. Their outsider status doesn’t make them unable to accept love or to give it. And in spite of the abuse they receive for being different, they don’t change who they are inside. They remain kind, caring kids who accept the differences in others. So, your family of character-kids are the people we want our children, our students, and our young readers to become.
Two of my favorite characters in your books have learning disabilities. Addie Schmeeter of Waiting for Normal, has serious reading problems. I so admired the vocabulary notebook she kept on her own, writing down the definitions of words she didn’t know. And Mason Buttle, the hero of The Truth as Told by Mason Buttle, may not be able to write much at all, which is why he opens his heart to the Dragon, a computer in his school social worker’s office, that ‘writes’ for him. This is how readers get to hear Mason’s story, a combination of heartache, honesty, absolution, and triumph.
A.F. Finally, my question! I’m wondering if you have a special connection to kids with learning disabilities. Why did you choose to give your characters these challenges in addition to the other problems in their lives? What do you hope young readers will take away from reading about them?
L.C. First, thanks so much for inviting me in! It is a treat to have this visit with another author.
Yes, learning disabilities and I share some personal and family history! I know what that struggle feels like. I’m being genuine when I say that I don’t so much choose the challenges my characters face as discover them. First I see how the character is being affected, then I research and try to diagnose them. I aim to present academic underdogs as multifaceted humans. That’s not hard because every one of them is so much more than that disability. I hope readers will see themselves or their classmates in these characters and take away some patience, tolerance, and understanding.
A.F. Another question I have is about voice in your books. Your characters, Addie, Perry, and Mason, all have very distinctive ones, but they also have one big, beautiful thing in common–optimism.
How do you find your characters’ voices? Are they voices you’ve heard in children you’ve loved? Do you craft them during a first draft, as you learn who your characters are? Or do their voices come to you right away, in that dream stage before you begin your first draft?
L.C. I always say, “I write by ear.” Voice is there early on for me so I think it is truest to say that it comes in the daydreamingstage. I’m sure that I am conjuring voice from people I have met or read or heard about. My imagination creates a composite.
A.F. Each of your books has a sensitive, adult hero who watches out for your child protagonist whether he or she knows it or not. Ms. Blinny is Mason’s hero, and mine. She doesn’t solve his problems for him, but gives him a voice—the Dragon—which allows Mason to tell his story and think about it in an organized way. Addie’s stepfather does what he can to make Addie safe and comfortable. He never gives up trying to get custody, so that she can return to the little sisters she loves. And Warden Daugherty, who runs the prison where Perry T. Cook’s mother lives, risks her career to help Perry’s mom get the parole she deserves.
Are there hero/mentors in your life on whom you’ve based these adults characters? Please tell us about them.
L.C. I had a stable enough childhood that I didn’t need heroes in the same way that these characters do. However, I have had great teachers, neighbors, friends and employers in my life, many of whom I am still in touch with many decades later. I can imagine all of them in these roles. Ms. Blinny, for one, was inspired by a school social worker. I observed her in action and was hooked by my heart!
A.F. As we write, so many of our childhood memories get reimagined in ways that make people, places, and things only recognizable to us. Addie lives upstate New York in a little bitty trailer home. Perry’s home is a private room inside a prison full of mostly well-meaning, child-friendly people. Mason lives in a run-down apple orchard.
Could you tell us whether you reimagined a place in your childhood community into a home for Mason, Addie, or Perry? In what surprising ways did this place change?
L.C. First, I love this thought, so thanks for asking! An actual street corner in Schenectady, New York inspired Addie’s home and her story. For years I drove by a trailer home at that intersection (an unusual sight in the city) and wondered, who walks out that door? What circumstances brought them there? I turned an ordinary Hess station at the same location into the mini mart and “greenhouse apartment” that Addie’s friend Soula lived in.
Mason Buttle’s home is loosely based on the development I lived in from fourth grade until I left for college. The land had been a hilly apple orchard, some of which remained. I teleported the crumbledown house the Buttle family lived in from another location. (More daydreaming. More compositing.)
Perry’s home came from researching newer minimum-security prison campuses, and also from my own love of creative space-making and space-altering. Perry ends up sleeping in the closet at his foster home. I loved making sleeping forts inside the homes of my childhood.
L.C. Thanks for the thoughtful questions. This has been so interesting!
A.F. You’re welcome!
Leslie Connor’s new book, The Truth as Told by Mason Buttle, is published by Katherine Tegen Books, an imprint of HarperCollins Publishers.