Barbara Dee has a few “Small Moments” with Author Beth Ain
Can you describe the fourth grade teacher’s assignment that inspired IZZY KLINE HAS BUTTERFLIES?
Yes! My daughter’s fourth grade teacher had each of the kids pick a moment or a memory to write about and they worked on drafts and went through a pretty involved editorial and peer critique process and in the end they each had a complete and well-drawn piece of writing about a moment in their lives. The teacher had the collection bound into a book called “The Stories on Our Minds,” and I was really moved and entertained by the stories. From my own daughter’s zip lining piece, “Zip, Zip, Ziiip!” to someone else’s (hilarious) “No Good, Very Bad Dentist,” to another favorite of mine, “Tia Claudia Comes to Visit, ” they displayed humor and heart and the stories were reflective and interesting. I loved also that it was called The Stories on Our Minds, because that’s just it. It was all there. They didn’t have to go very far to find their stories.
How do you think that encouraging kids to write about “small moments” helps them grow as writers? Do they have difficulty thinking “small?”
I actually think the opposite. I think they have trouble thinking big, or at least trouble writing big, which is why zeroing in on smaller moments gives them access to their own stories and their own memories and therefore gives them a jumping off point for their writing. I think kids sometimes think writing means they have to invent a whole fictional universe out of thin air, which I suppose if you’re writing high fantasy, it is. But usually, writers access their own memories at the very least as a prompt. Most of us get our ideas from our own lives. Even if we aren’t stealing those moments directly, we are inspired by them. They trigger feelings worth writing about, or perhaps just the ambiance of the moment itself is inspiring in some way. The smell of the fresh air on the beach, the sound of the sled hitting the snow after a blizzard, the sadness of saying goodbye to Tia Claudia after a visit.
Writing can really stump some kids, but when they are reminded that the answer is likely right in front of them, it relaxes them. It’s like taking an open book test.
So many MG kids gravitate towards big, high-concept fantasy novels. Do you think embracing and exploring “small moments” naturally leads kids to realistic fiction?
I think in some ways, yes. I was a realistic fiction reader myself and found fantasy a bit alienating because I was searching for familiarity and I was rather practical and therefore unwilling to believe in magic of any kind–still am. (That said, my favorite book of elementary school was The Trumpet of the Swan. Give me talking animals all day long!)
At any rate, I always credit Paula Danziger as being my mirror when I was grown up. Seeing myself in her books was helpful. Judy Blume’s characters, too, of course. Discovering characters whose lives were a bit imperfect like mine, or whose worries felt familiar, that was comforting to me. Oh look, her dad left, too. And her brother is a little testy, too. And yes, her best friend has gotten distant, etc, etc. To be fair, though, I think fantasy books can do the very same thing because the best ones truly do transcend genre. Part of the Harry Potter appeal has to do with the fact that Harry’s concerns and those of his friends are not so different from yours or mine. They’ve just been shipped off to a fantasy land where the limits of the physical world and been lifted and where Rowling could play with darkness and light in more literal ways. Almost never does the emotional world shift, even in high fantasy. There’s always magic in the small moments, whether you are in your classroom in suburbia, or your dorm room at Hogwarts. Childhood is childhood.
IZZY KLINE HAS BUTTERFLIES is a novel in verse. Can you explain the impulse to write it that way? Do you think the focus on “small moments” is especially well-suited to verse-writing? Why aren’t more MG novels written in verse?
I really do think small moments writing and verse writing are intertwined. I didn’t set out to write a novel in verse, honestly. I set out to write a novel in small moments, meaning that I wanted the language to be clear, and spare, and meaningful. I didn’t want it to be weighed down by plot and logistics. I think a kid’s day kind of happens in small moments more so than in plot points, if that makes sense. Art class. Recess. Dinner with dad. Fight with brother. Throw up. It isn’t always so linear!
As I wrote, a lot of word play started to happen and a lot of little tricks that some kids might miss and other kids (and teachers especially) will pick up on and feel really in the know. Writing that way was very exhilarating. Thinking to myself, “I know the kid who’s gonna catch that reference or see what I did there” was just very exciting. Poetry really gives a writer (and a reader for that matter) the opportunity to zero in on an experience and get deep. It can be meaning of life type stuff or small stuff, but all of it calls for artistry and evocative language and hopefully a healthy dose of humor. Somewhere in there you can get to the bottom of things. So, yes it turned into free verse as I dug deeper, as a I saw that there is so much poetry in the interior life of a child. There’s so much poetry and rhythm in the school day alone–the sights and smells and sounds and feelings of elementary school are very nostalgic for me and I feel so lucky that I get to re-live it a little through Izzy’s eyes.
What are you working on now? Is it in verse? Inspired by a “small moment?”
I am happy to report that I’m busy writing the sequel to Izzy Kline has Butterflies and lucky for me it’s another novel in verse. It has a lot to do with that transition out of the younger, more innocent part of childhood and into the complicated spaces of early adolescence. So, yeah. I get to smell those childhood smells a little while longer…one of these days I’ll be ready for middle school.
Barbara Dee’s sixth middle grade novel, TRUTH OR DARE (Aladdin/S&S), publishes this month.
From the Mixed-Up Files is the group blog of middle-grade authors celebrating books for middle-grade readers. For anyone with a passion for children’s literature—teachers, librarians, parents, kids, writers, industry professionals— we offer regularly updated book lists organized by unique categories, author interviews, market news, and a behind-the-scenes look at the making of a children's book from writing to publishing to promoting.
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