Donna Gephart and THE PARIS PROJECT: Interview + Giveaway

Today I’m thrilled to be talking to Donna Gephart about her newest middle-grade novel, The Paris Project. Donna is an award-winning author, whose middle-grade novels also include: In Your ShoesLily and Dunkin, Death by Toilet Paper, How to Survive Middle School and others.

To learn more about Donna and The Paris Project read on. And to throw your hat in the ring for a chance to win a signed copy, write us a note in the comments section before Monday, Oct. 21, 2019, at 11:59 PM. I’ll pick a winner at random and announce it next Thursday.


What was the spark that inspired you to write The Paris Project?

There wasn’t a spark with this one. I thought I was writing a funny book about three Jewish guy friends when Cleveland Rosebud Potts marched across the pages of my notebook. Those first five pages I wrote in my notebook are close to the first five pages of the finished book. I sensed this character had an important story to tell and I’d be a fool not to pay attention to her.


Why was it important for you to write about a child having a family member in jail?

We have a big problem with mass incarceration in our country. That’s not news to anyone. What doesn’t get talked about as much is the effect that has on family members still at home. What happens when there is a loss of one income in a household? What happens when it’s expensive to travel to visit a loved one in jail? What happens when a child can’t even touch her parent because a facility chooses to have video visitations instead of in-person ones? Cleveland and her family deal with all these things and more.

I write books for young people to feel seen and to feel less alone in the world, but I also write so others can see a problem that may not affect them directly and develop empathy and understanding for those who are dealing with it. How else will we grow to understand each other and help make life better for each other?


What is it about middle-grade readers that makes you enjoy writing for them?

Middle grade readers are making the transition from childhood to adulthood. I can’t think of anything more dramatic. It’s a difficult transition, fraught with high-intensity emotions. I write to help young people navigate those changes and figure out their place in the world. I write the books I would have loved to have at that age, to help me understand what was going on and how I fit into the scheme of it all. I also write about kids with grit and determination to give young readers hope and agency in their own lives.


Did you have to do any particular research while writing The Paris Project?

I do research for each of my novels, even though they are fiction. For this one, I wanted to see what the inside of a video visitation center looked like. I wrote to and called the appropriate authorities to ask for permission and while they said they see no problem with it, no one would actually grant me the permission. So one day, my husband and I went to a video visitation center and sat with the families awaiting time with their loved ones. When the doors opened and the visitors were called in, my husband and I headed in, but I saw a guard at the door and decided to duck out at the last moment. None-the-less, while we were there, I did a lot of observing and listening to get those scenes right in the book.

My last book, In Your Shoes, found me inside a local funeral home, getting a tour and asking lots of questions. For Olivia Bean, Trivia Queen, I took the online test to get on Kids’ Week on Jeopardy! And I interviewed a spelling bee champ who made it to the national bee in DC while writing As If Being 12-3/4 Isn’t Bad Enough, My Mother Is Running for President!

Research is always interesting for me. I love learning new things.


What would you like readers to come away with after reading The Paris Project?

I’m always hoping to widen young reader’s worlds/minds/hearts with my work.

For The Paris Project, I hope kids who deal with financial insecurity will feel seen, and those who don’t will have a deeper understanding of what it’s like to go without money and how it might make a person feel. I also hope to shine light on the effect of parental incarceration on children and families. I include statistics and a “Child’s Bill of Rights” in the back of the book.

There’s a LOT to discuss after reading this book. It would make an excellent book club choice. And as a bonus, there’s a recipe for limeade spritzers in the back that could be served for book club members.


You’ve mentioned that the first draft of your novel, Olivia Bean, Trivia Queen, was written during National Novel Writing Month (NANOWRIMO). Since November is almost upon us, do you have any advice for writers who might be tackling writing a novel next month?

Do as much pre-planning as you can before you begin. Character bios, setting ideas, concepts for the big scenes and a possible ending.

It was a great experience in teaching me to sit down every day and keep the fingers moving across the keyboard, keep the story moving forward.

I also blogged about the experience to give myself public accountability. That helped me keep at it on the days I really didn’t feel like it. There are always days you don’t feel like writing.

It’s amazing how a handful of pages a day, consistently, turns into a whole novel at the end of the month.

Allow yourself lots of time to revise that novel. It took me months to revise Olivia Bean, Trivia Queen, even though I wrote it in 29 days.


And speaking of writing, what’s up next for you?

I can’t believe it, but I’m finishing up my eighth novel. Abby, Tried and True will come out from Simon and Schuster Books for Young Readers next year. And I have a picture book, Go Be Wonderful, from Holiday House the year after that.


Thanks so much, Donna, for taking the time to join us at The Mixed-Up Files and for providing a signed copy to a lucky winner!


More about Donna:

Donna is a popular speaker at schools, conferences and book festivals. She has taught creative writing at a school in West Palm Beach, FL. Donna lives in the Philadelphia area with her family and her canine office assistant, Benji, a sweet retriever mix. You can visit her online at for resources, reading guides and more.


More about The Paris Project:

Cleveland Rosebud Potts has a plan. If she can check off the six items on her très important Paris Project List she will make it out of the small-minded and scorching town of Sassafras, Florida, to a rich and cultured life at The American School of Paris.

Unfortunately, everything seems to conspire against Cleveland reaching her goal.

Cleveland is ashamed of her father and angry that her mother and sister are never around because they have to work extra shifts to help out the family. Her Eiffel Tower tin has zero funds. And to top it all off, Cleveland’s best friend Jenna Finch has decided she’s too fancy for her and her neighbor Declan seems to be hiding something.

As Cleveland puts her talents to the test, she must learn how to forgive family for their faults, appreciate friends for exactly who they are, and bloom where she’s planted—even if that’s in a tiny town in central Florida that doesn’t even have a French restaurant. C’èst la vie!


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Dorian Cirrone
Dorian Cirrone's most recent middle-grade novel is the award-winning,THE FIRST LAST DAY. She has published several books for children and teens. Visit her at
  1. I was lucky enough to read an ARC of THE PARIS PROJECT and loved it! Donna Gephart is one of my very favorite MG authors~ her authenticity and humor-in-the-face-of-heartbreak is top-notch.

  2. What an attractive and charming cover! It looks like there’s a real adventure inside, or at least a very imaginative protag. And after reading the blurb, I’m even more ready to root for her!

  3. Sounds like a great read, Donna — one that middle graders can relate to and enjoy. Congrats on your upcoming book as well!

  4. Every year I have several students with parents who are incarcerated. Many hide that fact, and it breaks my heart that they feel the shame of their parents mistakes.
    Look forward to reading The Paris Project and sharing it with students.

    • Hi Kristin, the whole book explores the concept of shame. It’s a reality that children carry the shame of their parents actions sometimes, even if it’s misplaced. I think we can all do better and hope this book is a step in a positive direction. I’m glad to know it might also make some of the students you work with feel less alone and more understood.

  5. Great interview, Donna. I loved LILY AND DUNKIN. I can’t wait to read your newest, THE PARIS PROJECT. You’ve chosen an important topic.

  6. Wonderful, informative interview. The book is one I will be looking for. It sounds terrific. Children of incarcerated parents have a really hard row to hoe. Thanks for the post.

  7. I have read the author’s works in the past and look forward to reading this one. I have a special place in my heart for middle school readers (former English teacher), and this author know what this age group is all about. This book sounds perfect for the times. Best wishes to Donna Gephart on her new release.

  8. I enjoyed this interview and my favorite answer was why this author writes for middle graders–she so gets them that I can’t wait to start reading her books.

  9. Thanks so much, Alex!

  10. Congrats on your seventh book, Donna! It sounds like a good one.