I recently read and thoroughly enjoyed Amber Smith’s middle grade debut Code Name: Serendipity about a misunderstood girl named Sadie who discovers that she can hear the thoughts of a stray dog that she finds in the forest behind her house. In her quest to rescue the dog, Sadie finds that Dewey, the dog, can hear her thoughts as well, and a friendship forms between them. Soon, through her rescue efforts, Sadie is making more unlikely friends. This is a book to hand to anyone who loves animals and who has ever felt misunderstood. So, when an opportunity to interview the author arrived, I jumped at the chance. Welcome to the Mixed-Up Files, Amber.
MUF: Tell us about Code Name: Serendipity?
A: Code Name: Serendipity tells the story of eleven-year-old Sadie, a lonely misfit whose life seems to be going all wrong lately — she can’t get along with her older brother, her best friend moved away, and it seems no one understands her. That is until she meets a stray dog and realizes that they have a very special connection: They can communicate telepathically. Sadie sets out on a mission to rescue the dog, but in the process, she might just rescue herself too.
MUF: You’ve written several great young adult novels, and Code Name: Serendipity is your first MG? How was the experience different?
A: In terms of process and structure, it wasn’t too different to switch from writing YA to MG. But I found that it took me quite a while to find Sadie’s voice. As I was drafting, I struggled to balance her youth and maturity in a natural way, one that was so different from the older characters I have been writing for years now. Once I found it, though, the pieces of the puzzle just started falling into place!
MUF: Your bio says that Code Name: Serendipity was inspired by your own experiences rescuing animals. Are there any particular animals that inspired Dewey? Are there any stories from your time rescuing animals that particularly inspired this story?
A: Definitely! My wife and I are both huge animal lovers – we currently have seven rescues (two dogs and five cats). There are little pieces of each of these sweet furbabies threaded throughout the story, but the one who really inspired it was a third dog, Darwin. I rescued him from a shelter when he was still a puppy and he was with me his whole life, up until he was a senior, and eventually passed. I always refer to him as my “soul dog” because we had such a close bond that at times, it really did feel as if we knew what each other were thinking. Not quite telepathy, like Sadie and Dewey, but pretty close! So, I started writing this book in memory of him, and how much joy and love he brought into my life.
MUF: Not gonna lie, I really wish that I had Sadie’s power not only with my own cats but also the cat that I TNR’d. (Trapped, Neutered, Released) Have there ever been animal rescue experiences where you wished that you had Sadie’s power?
A: First, I love that you participate in a TNR program!
This is how we have ended up with the majority of our rescue cats. Former members of feral colonies, who, when brought in for spay/neutering, were found to have health issues that prevented them from being re-released back into their feral colonies. These kitties can have such weird and sometimes aggressive behavioral issues that prevent them from being (or staying) adopted — after all, they’ve never been a part of a household or family. So, my wife and I have become known as the “crazy cat ladies” the shelters call to take the cats who have run out of options. I have definitely wished I could telepathically communicate with some of these cats (we have five of them currently) to explain what it means to transition from feral-to-house cat. They get it eventually, but it would be so much easier if we could just talk it out!
MUF: Code Name: Serendipity deals with some weighty issues with Sadie’s grandfather’s illness, her LD, and also what could happen to Dewey if she’s not rescued from the shelter. How do you approach writing about these topics for MG. Is it different from how you’d approach writing them for YA, and how so?
A: My YA novels have all dealt with some pretty heavy, hard-hitting topics that sometimes get into dark places, and while I definitely wanted to touch on serious real-world topics in Code Name, I was very conscious of not wanting any of Sadie’s problems and challenges to ever feel insurmountable. One of the ways I tried to achieve this was to show her finding tools, help, and allies along the way – so there was always a light at the end of every tunnel.
MUF: Why does Gramps call Sadie Sassafras?
A: Gramps has a lot of what Sadie refers to as “Grampsisms” – or his own unique made-up expressions – old-timey sayings, but with a twist! When I was brainstorming nicknames he might have for Sadie, I kept thinking he’d probably want to express his admiration for Sadie’s spirited (or, some might say, sassy) nature. I thought at first, he could call her “Sassy,” but I wanted it to be something a bit more endearing and special, so in true Gramps style, Sassy became “Sassafras.”
MUF: Your descriptions of food in this story are awesome. I ended up buying a box of Uncrustables because I was craving PBJ after this. Were there any foods that you wrote, that you were hungry for after describing them?
A: Yes, I ate many a late-night PBJ sandwich while writing this book – and I still don’t know whether it was my snack that inspired the recurring PBJs in the book or the book that made me crave the recurring sandwiches. Also, Sadie has a penchant for French toast and big weekend breakfasts with her family, which is something I always looked forward to as a kid!
MUF: Sadie’s very gifted with art. I loved the scene where she’s drawing out the word problem. Do you draw? Or do origami like Macy? (Fun side note, I tried to learn origami in Japanese class in college because we did this whole Sadako and the Thousand Paper Cranes thing, and I literally made one sad, pathetic paper crane because like Sadie, I cannot figure it out.)
A: I actually do have a background in visual art – I went to college for Painting and grad school for Art History, so I love to incorporate creative and artistic themes in my books. I honestly don’t practice art too much these days, but it will always hold a special place in my heart as my first creative love. (Side note: I probably logged at least 100 hours of YouTube tutorials on origami while writing this book because I wanted to get the descriptions of Macy’s creations just right!)
MUF: Also, in a similar vein, throughout the story, we see Sadie working on her graphic novel. Are you a fan of graphic novels? If so, what are your favorites?
A: When I was a kid, I wanted to be an illustrator, but my wife is the true graphic novel aficionado in the family, so I borrowed that interest of hers for Sadie.
MUF: What are your favorite books?
A: I have too many to name (and the list is always growing), but on the middle-grade side I love anything by Lynda Mullaly Hunt, Holly Goldberg Sloan, and Kate DiCamillo – Because of Winn-Dixie has been a long-time favorite of mine, and definitely inspired Code Name!
MUF: What are you working on now?
A: I am in the beginning stages of a new middle-grade novel that I’m super excited about (all I can say right now is that it involves another special animal – this time, a cat).
How can readers find you online?
A: I love connecting with readers! You can find me online at www.AmberSmithAuthor.com, @ambersmithauthor on Instagram and Facebook, or @ASmithAuthor on Twitter.
Thanks for having me on From the Mixed-Up Files!
Code Name: Serendipity is out now, and here at Mixed-Up Files, we’re giving away a copy to one lucky reader.