Julie Bowe is the author of the Friends for Keeps series — My Last Best Friend, My New Best Friend, My Best Frenemy, My Forever Friends, and My Extra Best Friend. My Last Best Friend won the 2008 Paterson Prize for Books for Young People and was a finalist for the 2008-09 Great Stone Face Book Award. School Library Journal describes it as perfect “for readers who have graduated from Sara Pennypacker’s ‘Clementine’ stories, Barbara Park’s ‘Junie B. Jones’ series, and Megan McDonald’s ‘Judy Moody’ books.”
The fifth and final book of the Friends for Keeps series, My Extra Best Friend is hot off the presses this week. Here’s what Kirkus Reviews says about it: “…Peer pressure, hurt feelings, mild ethical quandaries and middle-school group dynamics blend with arts-and-crafts, swimming and bonfires, as Ida May deals with Elizabeth’s betrayal and decides if they can ever be friends again. . . . Preteens will gobble up this girl-friendly depiction of the world of early middle school and its ensuing changes. A good choice for girls not quite ready to leave behind the innocence of childhood for the spills and thrills of adolescence.“
Julie has worked as a youth director, a camp program director, and as a curriculum writer and editor. She is a mom and a volunteer youth leader in her community. She lives in Wisconsin and can be visited online at www.juliebowe.com.
Why do you write middle-grade fiction? What’s your favorite thing about writing for this age group?
A friend once told me I have the brain of a fourth grader, so I guess that’s the main reason I enjoy writing for this age! I’m interested in the transitional years between childhood and adolescence. I like trying to get at the eye level of fourth graders—to explore what interests them, what concerns them, what makes them laugh. It’s a joy to find ways to honor kids’ feelings through story.
The cover illustrations of Ida and her friends are adorable. Did they fit the picture in your head?
It was a little freaky when I first saw the cover art for My Last Best Friend because Ida looked so much like I did when I was a kid. She’s even sitting in almost the same way I sat for my author photo. Jana Christy’s art has played a huge role in the success of the series. Her kid-friendly style and attention to facial expressions and small details draws readers in before they even open the book. I’m so happy to have worked with Jana and feel blessed to call her my friend. My Extra Best Friend is dedicated to her.
How long has this journey taken you, from first spark of book 1 to publication of book 5?
Book 1 (My Last Best Friend) began as a picture book manuscript about a girl named Ida May who did not like her short, plain name and wanted to change it to something with more pizzazz. I sent the story to a number of editors and received an equal number of standard rejections. But in 1997, one editor replied with a personal rejection. I was so excited! I called my sister straight away and told her, “I just got rejected personally!” The editor liked my character, Ida, but felt she would appeal more to young readers, rather than the picture book crowd. She suggested I rewrite the story as a chapter book. Over the next few years, she read several revisions of the book that would become My Last Best Friend. Although she never accepted the story for publication, she gave me lots of positive feedback (and hope!) along the way. I began working with my agent, Steven Chudney, in 2002 and the book was taken under contract by my editor, Kathy Dawson, in 2004. I revised the story several times with Kathy before it was finally published in 2007. My New Best Friend followed in 2008, My Best Frenemy in 2010, My Forever Friends in 2011, and My Extra Best Friend in 2012. So, altogether, it’s been a 15 year journey for me.
How has Ida changed over the course of the series? How have you changed?
Ida’s self-confidence grows from book to book. She learns to stand up for herself and for her true friends. She’s vulnerable, but she’s no push-over. I think we see that side of her personality more and more as the series progresses. The other characters—particularly Jenna—also change and grow as the series evolves. I have grown, too. I’ve learned to be more at ease with my writing process. I’ve learned not to let criticism shatter my self-confidence. And I’ve learned not to get lost on the other side of the moon when good news about the books comes my way. At least, not for too long!
How did it feel to end the series? What’s next?
We weren’t sure that the series would end with My Extra Best Friend until after I’d written it. Then it was like, “Yeah, this is it. This completes Ida’s circle.” We were sad, but also happy for Ida. My editor said it best: “It’s bittersweet to see the series come to an end, but mostly sweet.”
I’m working on a new series for young readers. Like Ida, the main character, Wren, is a fourth grade girl. The hardest part about writing Wren’s story is convincing Ida to stay quiet and give the new girl a chance to speak!
What other books do you recommend to readers who enjoyed the Friends for Keeps series?
Here are a few of my favorite series, especially for girls:
Just Grace by Charise Mericle Harper
Allie Finkle’s Rules for Girls by Meg Cabot
What advice do you have for those who want to write middle-grade fiction?
I find that hanging out with upper-elementary kids is really helpful. They are everywhere! Beaches. Pools. Sporting events. Food courts. Community centers. Libraries. Churches. Schools. If you don’t know any kids personally, volunteer to serve as a mentor, a Sunday School teacher, a classroom helper, etc. Talk with kids and/or listen to their conversations and take note of what concerns them, irritates them, and makes them laugh. Watch how they move. Get a feel for the way they interact with the world and with each other. Then write!
Julie is giving away a signed copy of My Extra Best Friend to one lucky reader. To enter, just leave a comment below by Midnight EDT on June 18. The winner will be announced on June 19.You’ll get extra entries for sharing a link on your blog, Facebook, or Twitter.
***Please mention each link in a new comment so we can add your extra entries. Winners must live in the US or Canada. Good luck!
Jacqueline Houtman is a reformed scientist who writes sciency fiction for kids. Her debut middle-grade novel, The Reinvention of Edison Thomas (Boyds Mills Press 2010) will be released in paperback in September.