One of my most anticipated middle-grade books of 2023 is THE FIRST MAGNIFICENT SUMMER by R.L. Toalson, so I was thrilled when she agreed to an interview to celebrate the wonderful cover her book has received.
Here’s the description from Simon & Schuster:
Judy Blume meets Barbara Dee in this tender and empowering middle grade novel told in journal entries and poetry about a young writer on the verge of becoming a woman whose summer with her estranged father doesn’t turn out the way she’d hoped.
Twelve-year-old Victoria Reeves is all set for her “First Magnificent Summer with Dad,” even though it’s been more than two years since she last saw him. She’s ready to impress him with her wit, her maturity, and her smarts—at least until he shows up for the long road trip to Ohio with his new family, The Replacements, in tow.
But that’s not the only unpleasant surprise in store for Victoria. There are some smaller disappointments, like being forced to eat bologna even though it’s her least favorite food in the world. And then there’s having to sleep outside in a tent while The Replacements rest comfortably inside the family RV. But the worst thing Victoria grapples with is when she begins to suspect that part of the reason Dad always treats her as “less than” is for one simple reason: she’s female.
As Victoria captures every moment of her less than magnificent summer in her journal, she discovers that the odds are stacked against her in the contest-no-one-knows-is-a-contest: Not only does her wit begin to crumble around Dad’s multiple shaming jabs, but she gets her first period. And when Dad does the worst thing yet, she realizes she has a decision to make: will she let a man define her?
R.L. Toalson is the author of two other middle-grade novels: THE COLORS OF THE RAIN and THE WOODS, both published by the Yellow Jacket imprint of Little Bee Books. THE FIRST MAGNIFICENT SUMMER will be out from Simon & Schuster on May 30.
Samantha: Welcome to From the Mixed Up Files, R.L.! What inspired this book?
R.L. Toalson: There is no simple answer to this question; it has several parts!
A story like this one has been sitting in the back of my mind for several years, but I was always afraid to pursue it. I had a similar experience to the one Victoria (the main character) has in the book—and it is not an easy story to tell. So I didn’t. For such a long time.
And then some questions started building in my head. Why is this the way things are? Why did I feel, as a young girl, like a man had the authority to define who I was and who I would one day be? Who else needs to hear this story?
That last question–who else needs to hear this story?–made me brave enough to pick up my pen (and it was a literal pen–I write all my stories longhand in a Yoobi composition book).
There’s a lot of me in this book. There’s a lot of what I wish I would have done and learned long before I actually did. There’s a lot of hope. And I guess that was the last step of the inspiration process: I wrote hope and love and healing into my own 12-year-old story, and out came Victoria and her journey to define herself.
Samantha: What was the most challenging part of writing it?
R.L. Toalson: Every story an author writes is different; I often feel, when I open my notebook to write, that I’m completely out of my depth for what this story requires. That was especially true for THE FIRST MAGNIFICENT SUMMER, proven by the many drafts that changed the structure of the story entirely. It started as a prose story. Then I wrote it as a novel in verse. Then I changed it back to prose. And then I experimented with journal entries. That structure stuck, because it felt right for the story. There’s still poetry and some humorous mini-essays that Victoria includes, but the main narrative is told through her own journal entries. Sometimes she breaks the fourth wall, which is fun.
It was also challenging to write in a consistently humorous way. I have experience writing humor, but mostly in essay form. Humor is really difficult to get right. You don’t want to rely on cliches and easy laughs; you want to mine for the unexpected, which takes quite a lot of work and energy. And the daily writing of humor gets a little tedious on the days you don’t feel much like laughing.
And it must be said that writing such a difficult-to-tell story, one that delved some of the depths of my own childhood story, took its toll on me emotionally. I have an amazing therapist who helped me through the tricky bits.
Lastly, I spent a lot of time and care writing the author’s note, so…even if you’re not the type who reads author’s note, read this one.
Samantha: I always read author’s notes, but will definitely be reading this one. What was the most fun part writing this story?
R.L. Toalson: I know I said the humor was one of the most challenging parts, but it was also one of the most fun parts about writing THE FIRST MAGNIFICENT SUMMER. As I’ve mentioned several times already, this is not an easy story. I felt like it needed humor to lighten places that felt heavy and that give readers important things to think about and consider. And those were some of my favorite places to write.
I also really, really love all the asides Victoria has throughout the narrative. She uses her humor and her melancholy and her personality to process through things that are happening in the narrative, and it was delightful to craft those asides. She has one called “Things I Like About Camping,” a poem comprised of multiple choice answers where she invites the reader to figure out whether (a), (b), (c) or (d) is what she likes about camping–and all of the choices are so sarcastic and grumpy, and then she has the last choice: (d) absolutely nothing. And you know that’s the right answer from all the other answers. It was so much fun to write. I hate camping, too. I empathize with Victoria. 🙂
Samantha: Ahh, camping. And that brings us to the wonderful cover. Tell us about it.
R.L. Toalson: This cover was designed by Svetla Radioeva and is absolutely perfect and gorgeous and perfect (it deserves a repeat). Victoria is front-and-center, hiding away in a tent, with a notebook open on her lap. In the background’s tent opening, you can see her father with a little girl next to a grill and a camper, and from the two juxtaposed images you get the sense of her isolation. There are all sorts of little lovely details you’ll only notice if you look closely–like a package of Womanhood Supplies (Victoria’s name for period products) by her left foot. It’s delightful. I spent several long minutes noticing all the little details that make this cover so remarkable, and I really cannot have asked for a better representation of Victoria and her first magnificent summer.
Samantha: Yes, the details are fantastic. And I love that they included them on the whole jacket, not just the front. (Readers, check out the pic.) What else should we know about this book and you?
R.L. Toalson: As the mom of several boys, I have to mention that I don’t believe in books for girls and books for boys. Yes, this book has a female protagonist, and yes she starts her first period in the book, and it’s a big part of her story. But that doesn’t mean it’s not a book for boys, too (and don’t get me started on how if we just talked about periods more it wouldn’t be so taboo in the first place). Girls AND boys watch their parents divorce. Girls AND boys sometimes have a parent who leaves. Girls AND boys feel the hurt and confusion and instability that comes from that, and girls AND boys wonder if their parent left because of them. Girls AND boys need to know that they are magnificent just the way they are. And that’s what this book tries to communicate to its readers: Be your magnificent self.
So I hope boys won’t be afraid to read Victoria’s story, too. We all need to be reminded that we’re magnificent.
Samantha: I love that! And I can’t wait to read this MAGNIFICENT book.