Author Spotlight: Adam Borba

Today, please welcome critically acclaimed MG author Adam Borba to the Mixed-Up Files! In addition to being the author of Outside Nowhere—which was hailed by Publishers Weekly as an “intriguing novel with a strong emotional core”—and The Midnight Brigade, described by Booklist as a “tongue-in-cheek frolic,” Adam develops and produces movies, many based on beloved children’s books, such as A Wrinkle in Time and Peter Pan & Wendy.

His latest MG novel, This Again? has been praised by School Library Journal as… charming… nostalgic and fresh” and is out now from Little, Brown Books for Young Readers. But before I chat with Adam…

This Again? A Summary

Noah Nicholson has solid grades, great friends, and he’s finally becoming closer with Lucy Martinez, his crush since second grade. He might also have a chance to be elected class president. But despite all that, Noah fixates on the belief that he can make his life perfect—and comes upon an opportunity to do just that.

At the local bowling alley, Noah runs into someone most unexpected: himself, from nine days in the future. This lookalike—who Noah nicknames “Future”—insists that if Noah does every ridiculous thing he says—from quacking like a duck in science class to painting himself green—the two of them can achieve their dream of perfection. Unfortunately, fate has other plans.…

Interview with Adam Borba

Melissa: Welcome back to the Mixed-Up Files, Adam—and huge congratulations on the publication of your latest novel!

Adam: Thank you! And thanks so much for having me back! I love this place. It’s such a wonderful resource for discovering amazing new books.

Melissa: Could you tell MUF readers a bit about This Again? and the inspiration behind it?

Adam: It’s a story in the spirit of Groundhog Day or Back to the Future about the misadventures of a kid attempting to orchestrate the perfect day with the help of his future self and a time machine. But more importantly, it’s a book about a kid wrestling with anxiety and perfectionism, learning to accept that life doesn’t always go according to plan and that he’s good enough.

About ten years ago I had an idea about a kid creating a time machine out of a blender and an exercise bike. It was a fun concept, but it wasn’t really a story. A few years later, I began jotting notes for a book about a boy running for class president who is wildly unqualified for the job. I didn’t know where that idea was going until I decided those two concepts could be parts of the same book: a kid traveling back in time to coach himself in a misguided attempt to win an election. Shortly after, I realized that Noah, the main character, should (like so many kids) be struggling with self-doubt and anxiety. Combining all those aspects clicked the story into place for me.

The Many Faces of Noah

Melissa: Noah, the protagonist, is a study in contradictions. He maintains a neat-as-a-pin appearance but his room is a mess; his parents are physicists yet he struggles with math; he’s a self-described geek, with little confidence and shaky social skills, yet he runs for president of his seventh-grade class. Tell us, Adam: What’s the deal with Noah?

Adam: As Noah explains early in the novel, “People are complicated and I’m a person.” So often, we say one thing and do another—but that doesn’t mean we can’t always mean well and be true to who we are. We’re all contradictions doing our best. Noah’s big problem is that he takes on more than he can handle. He wants to do it all because he believes that’s what his parents and older brother did. And he thinks it’s expected of him. Along the way, he’ll discover that most of the pressure he’s feeling is self-inflicted and that sometimes others can seem to have their lives more together than they actually do.

Quest for Acceptance

Melissa: An overarching theme in This Again? is the craving for visibility and acceptance. Not only does Noah want to be accepted by his high-achieving parents and athletic, brainy older brother, he craves recognition from the popular crowd at school. Noah will do anything to get it, too, including turning his back on his best friends. What were you trying to say about popularity–and the need for acceptance in general?

Adam: One of the underlying ideas in the story is that the rules for who gets to be popular in middle school can be absurd. Life isn’t always fair and sometimes it can be downright silly. Noah learns that one of the keys to popularity, and much more importantly general happiness, is accepting yourself. Be who you are and do what you enjoy. Liking and believing in yourself can go a long way in getting others to take notice and appreciate you, too.

Oh, Brother!

Melissa: Let’s talk about Noah’s relationship with his older brother, Paul. Noah feels as if he’s in Paul’s shadow, which is something Noah tries to overcome by striving to be just like his brother. We later discover, though, that Paul’s life isn’t as charmed as Noah thinks. Is this a statement on the unreliability of perception, the nature of sibling rivalry—or both?

Adam: Both! So often sibling rivalries arise from siblings believing that the other had it easier. And (especially) younger siblings believing that they must do something because their sibling did. I think it’s fair to say that everyone in this world is struggling with things that others aren’t aware of. We often focus on the challenges we have in our own lives and overlook the hardships faced by others.

When Noah meets a future version of himself, he sees it as an opportunity to avoid life’s challenges all together. A way to orchestrate a perfect day and make his seventh-grade dreams come true by following the instructions of someone who has been there before.

Back to the Future

Melissa: Another prominent theme in the novel is time travel, when Noah’s parents invent a time machine and Noah meets his future self–aka “Future.” What is the significance of Noah’s relationship with Future, and Future’s with Noah? Also, what is it about time travel that most of us find so fascinating? 

Adam: Without giving too much away, one of the big questions that emerges is how similar are Noah and Future. Future is older than Noah, but only by a matter of days. Though those days have resulted in a more jaded person. As time goes on, Noah recognizes more and more flaws in Future, and he begins to wonder whether he’s been overlooking those issues in himself.

And time travel—is there anything cooler? For me, I think it’s the wish fulfillment. Breaking laws of physics sure does open amazing possibilities: Go back in time to fix a mistake. Relive something wonderful. Experience something before or after your time. Or like Noah Nicholson in This Again, pull strings in an attempt to create a perfect life.

It’s Just a Fantasy

Melissa: This isn’t your first novel to include a hearty dash of fantasy. Your previous novels, Outside Nowhereand The Midnight Brigade, have fantastical elements as well (i.e., flying cows, magical farmland, monsters and trolls). What is it about fantasy that floats your boat?

Adam: I’m drawn to stories that are driven by heart, humor, and magic. And for me, it really is that “dash” of magic that I love. Where everything in the story feels grounded, real, and relatable except for one wondrous element. Magical realism. It’s the wish fulfillment idea that we were just discussing. The feelings that come when a character in the “real world” experiences the seemingly impossible and a reader can daydream about what life would be like if that incredible thing happened to them.

The Extraordinary Within Reach

Adam: In This Again it’s the time machine, while the world around Noah and all the internal and external conflicts he faces are grounded. My first book, The Midnight Brigade, was about a shy kid in Pittsburgh who befriends a troll living under a bridge, but again, everything else is grounded. And in my second novel, Outside Nowhere, we follow a fish-out-of-water city kid, a Ferris Bueller-type, who is forced to navigate life working on a farm that just happens to have one secret, magical element. I love that when you paint everything else as real and relatable you can suggest that enchantment and miracles can be found anywhere, and make the extraordinary feel within reach.

(For more on Outside Nowhere and The Midnight Brigade, check out Adam’s past MUF interviews here and here.)

At the Movies

Melissa: As stated in the intro, when you’re not writing for kids you’re developing and producing movies (Pete’s Dragon, Peter Pan & Wendy, A Wrinkle in Time). How does your job as a movie producer influence your writing? And vice versa?

Adam: While filmmaking offers the luxury of telling stories with pictures, it all starts with a screenplay, which is a relatively short document with a lot of blank space. Because scripts are so short, the storytelling on the page needs to be efficient. Every word matters. I try to take that approach with my writing: Cut out the boring stuff and anything that isn’t essential. I also try to be as clear and economical as possible with character arcs, so readers understand how and why a character changes and grows as cleanly and efficiently as possible.

Variations on a Theme

Adam: Theme is also something I learned how to implement from filmmaking. When I’m developing a movie, one of the early goals I have is to get to a one sentence message. Something universal. Something that each scene in the movie builds to. Something that sums up what the movie is really about. It’s rarely a line that’s said out loud in the film, but it’s always something that my colleagues, the director, and the film’s writers have agreed to.

A few examples: In Pete’s Dragon it was “Everyone belongs somewhere.” In Peter Pan & Wendy it was “Everyone grows up at their own pace.” And in a Wrinkle in Time it was, “Everyone is deserving of love.”

When I’m writing, I try to figure out the theme before I begin a rough draft, so I can tie it to narrative and character as much as possible. Universal, clear, relatable. And not something you need to hit your audience or readers over the head with–again, often the exact line isn’t ever spoken or written in the story, but the subtext is clear because all the scenes in the piece build to that idea. For This Again, it’s “No one can do everything” (even with a time machine).

It’s All About Structure

Adam: Structure is also something I learned from film development. My initial outlines for a movie or a book are about three pages, and they’re in traditional three act structure. As I write and work with my editor to revise, my drafts become longer as subplots are added and we dive deeper into character. So, while my final manuscript isn’t quite a traditional feature structure, because I started the novel that way the story remains structurally sound for me.

And as a producer, I’m always hunting for ideas for movies. I’m biased, but I think adaptations of books tend to make the best movies.

Adam’s Writing Routine

Melissa: What does your writing routine look like? Do you have any particular rituals?

Adam: I have a little office in my backyard that I sit in for eight to ten hours a day while I write, powered by green tea and diet soda. As I suggested, I like to begin a project with an outline, but I’m a strong believer in embracing the unexpected. I love being surprised by the details that emerge as characters and story lead the way.

My initial outlines will often have literal lines like, “And then something bad happens,” and that line could be followed by something like, “And then something happens that makes everything worse.” I’ll use those beats as placeholders to figure out the most unexpected ways to surprise myself (and my characters) to keep readers on their toes and turning pages. Because, hopefully, if I’m not entirely sure what’ll happen next, no one else will be either.

Adam’s Outlining Tips

When I start writing, my outline will be three pages of bullet points, but as I move forward, characters, subplots and drama will emerge, and that outline will grow with my manuscript. I keep both documents open while I’m writing to keep track of everything, make notes on things I want to call back to, and hopefully not go too far off the rails. So, what starts as a three-page outline is closer to twenty pages by the time I finish a draft of a manuscript. I also love listening to music while I write. I’ve found that lyrics can distract me, so often I’ll play movie scores from films with a similar feel to the project I’m working on.

Melissa: What are you working on now, Adam? Enquiring Mixed-Up Files readers want to know…

Adam: Still early stages, but I’m working on a project about a girl who befriends an alien.

Lightning Round!

And finally, no MUF interview is complete without a lightning round, so…

Preferred writing snack? Whatever my three-year-old is in the mood for. I pick her up from preschool around lunch and we’ll usually grab chicken nuggets or tacos.

Superpower?  Being about to fly would solve so many of life’s problems.

Time travel: Fact or fiction? Fact. I have a theoretical physicist friend who convinced me that someone will eventually figure it out. Depending on how you look at time they probably technically already have.

Favorite place on earth? A great bookstore.

Zombie apocalypse: Yea or nay? If it doesn’t happen, I’ve wasted so much time and money on my bunker.

If you were stranded on a desert island with only three things, what would they be? My wife and kids. (Hopefully they won’t be too mad at me for bringing them along.)

Melissa: Thank you for chatting with us, Adam. It was a pleasure to learn more about you and your book, and I’m sure MUF readers will agree!

Adam: Thanks again for having me! Hope everyone gets a chance to check out This Again and share it with their favorite young readers.


ADAM BORBA is the author of three middle-grade novels, This Again?, Outside Nowhere, and The Midnight Brigade. When he’s not writing, he spends his time developing and producing movies, most of which have been based on beloved children’s books like Pete’s Dragon, Peter Pan & Wendy, and A Wrinkle in Time. He is a graduate of Palm Springs High School, the University of Southern California, and the William Morris Agency mailroom. Adam lives in California with his wife and two young children. Learn more about Adam on his website and follow him on Instagram and Twitter.

Melissa Roske is a writer of middle-grade fiction. Before spending her days with imaginary people, she interviewed real ones as a journalist in Europe. In London she landed a job as an advice columnist for Just Seventeen magazine. Upon returning to her native New York, Melissa contributed to several books and magazines, selected jokes for Reader’s Digest (just the funny ones), and received certification as a life coach. In addition to her debut novel Kat Greene Comes Clean, Melissa’s short story “Grandma Merle’s Last Wish” appears in the Jewish middle-grade anthology, Coming of Age: 13 B’Nai Mitzvah Stories. Learn more about Melissa on her Website and follow her on  Twitter, and Instagram.

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Melissa Roske
Melissa Roske is a writer of middle-grade fiction. Before spending her days with imaginary people, she interviewed real ones as a journalist in Europe. In London she landed a job as an advice columnist for J17 magazine, where she answered hundreds of letters from readers each week. Upon returning to her native New York, Melissa contributed to several books and magazines, selected jokes for Reader’s Digest (just the funny ones), and received certification as a life coach from NYU. In addition to her debut novel Kat Greene Comes Clean (Charlesbridge), Melissa’s short story “Grandma Merle’s Last Wish” appears in the Jewish middle-grade anthology, Coming of Age: 13 B’Nai Mitzvah Stories (Albert Whitman & Company). Melissa lives in Manhattan with her husband, daughter, and the occasional dust bunny. Learn more about Melissa on her Website and follow her on Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram.