This week, author Jamie Sumner stopped by MUF to talk about her brand-new middle-grade title from Simon & Schuster, ROLL WITH IT (giveaway below!). Here’s what Jamie had to say about writing for middle-grade readers, why stories about being the new kid are so appealing, and what’s on her TBR (to be read) list.
Mixed-Up Files: Tell us a little bit about ROLL WITH IT (& CONGRATS!!!), as well as your background as a writer.
Jamie Sumner: I woke up at 2:30 a.m. one late night/early morning with the idea for ROLL WITH IT rattling around in my head. My son has cerebral palsy and the notion of writing a story that he could relate to had been percolating for a while. But I knew I couldn’t tell Charlie’s story. I needed more distance from real life to let my imagination go where it would.
What woke me up at 2:30 a.m. was this vision of someone in a wheelchair trying to navigate my grandparent’s old trailer in Oklahoma. It would be impossible! It would be insane to even try! But maybe, just maybe, if you’re determined enough and young enough to brave it, it could be awesome. And so the idea of ROLL WITH IT was born.
The story follows Ellie, a 12-year-old girl with cerebral palsy, who moves with her mom into a trailer park in Oklahoma to help take caring of her grandpa who has dementia. It’s a tight fit, but there is so much love in that small space and that small town. She finds freedom in this most unexpected place and she makes friends and pursues her dream of becoming a famous chef. She comes into herself here.
As for my background as a writer, it’s all over the place. I’ve written essays, both personal and reported, for The New York Times and The Washington Post. And I’ve also written a faith-based parenting book, Unbound, which came out last year and I have another faith-based parenting book, this time for parents of children with special needs, called Eat, Sleep, Save the World, that comes out with Lifeway March of 2020! I am also the reviews editor at Literary Mama so not only do I get to write, but I get to read great stuff as well.
MUF: You’ve written personal essays about your son, Charlie. Had you always wanted to write or was being a mom to Charlie what sparked that interest?
JS: I still remember the first story that caused someone to call me “a writer”. It was fourth grade and the story was seven pages longer than the requirement and it followed the perilous journey of an elephant in India trying to escape from the zoo. My teacher loved it and I felt so important when the words I wrote made someone else feel things. I’ve written off and on ever since, but began to pursue it full time after Charlie and my twins got a little older. And writing about Charlie is how I first jumped back in. There were so many things I wanted to tell other parents who might be in the same boat as me. And then later, there were so many things I wanted to share with kids who are like Charlie!
MUF: What made you turn to fiction, and then specifically, middle grade fiction? What is it about MG readers that made you want to write for them?
JS: I love middle schoolers! I think this is the hardest age for a reason. When you’re in it, you have no idea what’s going on with yourself or anybody else. You’re confused and maybe a little scared. But all that makes you curious. And curious readers are the best kind! Kids this age are looking for answers and for stories that reflect what they are experiencing. They read with an appetite for comfort or understanding or simply distraction and when they find it they are loyal readers for life. I still remember reading Bridge to Terabithia as an 11-year-old and wondering how anyone could understand me so completely without having met me.
As for why I decided to write fiction—it was just too much fun to let the characters lead me wherever they wanted to go. I couldn’t imagine not telling Ellie’s story of friendship with Bert and Coralee and the wonderful things they get into. They are as real to me as my own family now.
MUF: I was interested in seeing that you’d made your main character, Ellie, “the new girl.” That’s a popular theme in MG — what is it about being the new kid that you think is such an appealing topic for readers?
JS: Being the new kid is like stepping up to a precipice and peering waaaaay down and then waaaaay up and wondering where to go from here. It makes you stop and think about the kind of person you want to be. You get to reinvent yourself, or more to the point, dig deeper to find the person you know you are. The “new kid” is just a metaphor for how we all feel when we encounter something for the first time – new house, new friends, new family dynamic – it’s a chance to see yourself in a different light. If a story is about character development, what better way to do that than having them starting fresh?
MUF: What’s next for you?
JS: So many things! I’m excited to get rolling (pun intended) on school visits for ROLL WITH IT. And as I mentioned earlier, EAT, SLEEP, SAVE THE WORLD comes out in March so I’ll be traveling quite a bit and speaking about that.
But also…I have two more middle grade books coming out with Atheneum/Simon & Schuster! Next up for fall of 2020 is THE SURVIVAL PLAYLIST, the story of 12-year-old Lou Montgomery, a talented singer with a flighty, fame-hungry mother and an undiagnosed sensory processing disorder that makes performing nearly unbearable. I just saw the cover for that one and I was blown away by how wonderful it is.
MUF: Finally, what is on your bedside table/massive book pile by your bed now?
JS: Oh, this is my favorite question. Ready?
Heretics Anonymous by Katie Henry
Sweep by Jonathan Auxier
The Lost Husband by Katherine Center
Beverly, Right Here by Kate DiCamillo (so excited for this one!)
After the Flood by Kassandra Montag
Akin by Emma Donoghue
The Distance Between Me and the Cherry Tree by Paola Peretti
The Green Children of Woolpit by J. Anderson Coats
Find out more about Jamie and subscribe to her newsletter here.
Want to win your own copy of ROLL WITH IT? Enter below!