For Writers

Big Questions for Leslie Connor

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.









Children’s Book Festivals!

Little Annie looked at me across the table, her big brown eyes dancing. With a flick of my Sharpie, I finished signing a copy of Virginia Hamilton: America’s Storyteller for Annie. She took the book, her eyes even wider, thanked me, and then held it close to her, cradling it in her arms. A cherished gift for her.

And for me.

Book festivals allow these kinds of connections between reader and book creators. They provide the opportunity for attendees to meet their favorite authors and illustrators, and to purchase books and have them personally signed. These events also offer writers and artists to meet their fans and to talk about their work.

There are hundreds of literary festivals occurring in the United States annually. But did you know that there are many that cater to children and families?

As the founder of Claire’s Day, I thought I’d share other festivals (for the remainder of this year) that focus on children’s book authors and illustrators.

This partial listing serves as a resource for educators, media specialists and parents, as well as authors and illustrators!

The 17th annual Claire’s Day has three event dates this year, the first three Saturdays in May. A highlight of each event is the C.A.R.E. Awards, given to children nominated as being the most improved readers in their schools. Event includes school visits and fun Claire’s Night!

May 9: The Hudson Children’s Book Festival was established in 2009, and this year the featured author is none other than Kwame Alexander.

May 19: Children’s Festival of Reading in Knoxville, Tennessee offers storytelling, cuddly characters, science fun, and of course, authors and illustrators. This year Linda Sue Park and Eric Litwin are the featured authors.

September 29: Chappaqua Children’s Book Festival features 90, count them, 90 children’s book authors and illustrators! To learn more, visit

October 12-14 Sheboygan Children’s Book Festival’s theme this year is Here’s an Idea! The 9th annual event includes school visits and a two-day festival.

November 3: Rochester Children’s Book Festival is still working on their invitation-only author list, but they’ve had incredible lineups in the past. To get updates, visit

For a complete listing, I’d like to credit Laurie Renaud, a member of KidLit 411. Check it out:


Interview with Newbery Winner, Erin Entrada Kelly

I recently had the pleasure of talking to 2018 Newbery Winner, Erin Entrada Kelly, about her her newest middle-grade novel You Go First, which hit bookstores this week. In addition to winning the Newbery for Hello, Universe, Erin has won many other awards for her middle-grade novels, including the 2017 APALA Award for The Land of Forgotten Girls and the 2016 Golden Kite Honor Award for Blackbird Fly. You Go First was a Spring Indie Next Pick and a Junior Library Guild Selection.

Erin was raised in Louisiana, but now lives in the Philadelphia area. She is a professor of children’s literature in the graduate fiction and publishing programs at Rosemont College. Erin is also a short story writer. Her short fiction has been nominated for the Philippines Free Press Literary Award for Short Fiction and the Pushcart Prize. Erin has a bachelor’s degree in women’s studies and liberal arts from McNeese State University and an MFA in creative writing from Rosemont. Welcome, Erin!








First let me say congratulations on winning the Newbery Medal and on the release this week of your fourth middle-grade novel. I know that you’re also an accomplished short story writer, and I’m wondering what attracts you to writing for the eight-to-twelve-year-old reader. In my opinion, it’s one of the most important phases of life. Tweens are not quite children, but not quite teenagers. At that age — particularly 11 and 12, which is the age of virtually all my characters — you’re looking for acceptance from your peers and trying to figure out who you are as an individual. Unfortunately, these two things don’t always go hand-in-hand. You want to be yourself, but you also want to fit in, so the pressure to conform is palpable. It’s a difficult age. It takes resilience to emerge unscathed. I remember being 12 as easily as I remember yesterday. That’s how weighty, difficult, and impressionable that phase was for me.

You Go First is such a heartfelt novel about two lonely kids who live far apart. What was the spark that gave you the idea to write about these two characters? Thank you! I wanted to write about two people who struggle with the pressures of middle school and tweendom while dealing with their unusual adult sensibilities. I love writing about underdogs and outcasts, and Charlotte and Ben are both of those things.

One of the many things I loved about You Go First was all the interesting facts at the beginning of Charlotte’s chapters. I pictured your head spinning with all of that wonderful knowledge. I’m curious as to whether you were like Charlotte and had been collecting these facts all your life or whether you looked them up specifically for the novel. Most of Charlotte’s “rabbit holes” were specifically researched for the book, but there were several that I already knew. I’ve traveled down many rabbit holes in my life. When I was a kid, I loved looking things up in the encyclopedia. This was before the internet, back when people actually had encyclopedia sets. I would sit down, pick a letter, open a page, and start reading.

One thing that struck me while reading the two point-of-view characters in You Go First is that although you’re writing in third person, it feels like first person. We’re so much in the minds of these characters. Can you share your secret on how you do this? I wish I could! I’m not sure how it happens. My characters come to me fully formed before I ever put a word on paper. I get to know them very well.

The characters in your novels tend to be outsiders. Is there a reason you’re attracted to writing that type of character? Because I was an outsider, and I know how difficult it can be. I have an affinity for kids (and adults) who veer away from the beaten path. It takes moxie to be an outsider. And they are often underestimated — by themselves and others.

I know you’re a professor of writing, and I’m sure our readers, who might also be writers, would love to hear a couple of your best tips on how to create the type of characters you write about–characters with a great deal of depth, heart, and authenticity. What an incredible compliment! A few pieces of advice I like to give: Know what your character is most afraid of. Know what they want most out of life. And find out how they feel about their name. Names are very personal. You’d be surprised the things our characters will reveal when we ask them how they feel about theirs.

Is there anything else you’d like to share with us? I’m currently working on my first MG fantasy, which is inspired by Filipino folklore. I can’t wait to share it with readers. It’s tentatively scheduled for summer 2019.

Thanks so much for taking the time to answer these questions. Thank YOU! 

Twelve-year-old Charlotte Lockard and eleven-year-old Ben Boxer are separated by more than a thousand miles. On the surface, their lives seem vastly different—Charlotte lives near Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, while Ben is in the small town of Lanester, Louisiana. Charlotte wants to be a geologist and keeps a rock collection in her room. Ben is obsessed with Harry Potter, presidential history, and recycling. But the two have more in common than they think. They’re both highly gifted. They’re both experiencing family turmoil. And they both sit alone at lunch. Over the course of a week, Charlotte and Ben—online friends connected only by a Scrabble game—will intersect in unexpected ways, as they struggle to navigate the turmoil of middle school.