Welcome to my interview with middle grade author Elly Swartz and our sneak peek into her next release DEAR STUDENT – Autumn, a girl with social anxiety and a pet guinea pig named Spud, becomes the secret voice of the advice column in her middle school newspaper.
DEAR STUDENT by Elly Swartz
Publisher: Delacorte Press
Release Date: February 15, 2022
When Autumn becomes the secret voice of the advice column in her middle school newspaper she is faced with a dilemma–can she give fair advice to everyone, including her friends, while keeping her identity a secret?
Starting Middle School is rough for Autumn after her one and only BFF moves to California. Uncertain and anxious, she struggles to connect with her new classmates. The two potential friends she meets could not be more different: bold Logan who has big ideas and quiet Cooper who’s a bit mysterious. But Autumn has a dilemma: what do you do when the new friends you make don’t like each other?
When Autumn is picked to be the secret voice of the Dear Student letters in the Hillview newspaper, she finds herself smack in the middle of a problem with Logan and Cooper on opposite sides. But before Autumn can figure out what to do, the unthinkable happens. Her secret identity as Dear Student is threatened. Now, it’s time for Autumn to find her voice, her courage, and follow her heart, even when it’s divided.
“A story that shines with honesty and heart.”—PADMA VENKATRAMAN, Walter Award–winning author of The Bridge
Hi Elly! It’s wonderful to have you join us. I’m sure our readers are as excited as I am to learn more about Autumn. (And she has a pet guinea pig!💗)
What would Dear Student’s best life quote or hashtag(s) be?
Hmm . . . interesting.
Now, Autumn suffers with social anxiety. Such a poignant topic for the times we’re living in. How will this look to the reader at the opening of the novel?
Autumn tucks in as a way of dealing with her social anxiety. She tucks into the pets she loves, her sister Pickle, and staying connected with Prisha, her bff who moved away. Her social anxiety heightens with new friends and new situations. We see this manifest as the thoughts and worries that swim in her head, questioning everything she says and doubting her every action.
How does she grow with and through social anxiety toward the novel’s end?
Throughout the story, Autumn talks about Fearless Fred, “the part of each of us that fear can’t boss around.” (p. 10).
Yeah, now that’s awesome.
By the end of DEAR STUDENT, Autumn has discovered her Fearless Fred, found her voice, and the courage and strength to use it.
To ensure authenticity of Autumn’s social anxiety throughout her story, I worked with Dr. Kathleen Trainor, a therapist who specializes in anxiety in kids.
Sounds like you did a lot of research for this story.
All of my books are the product of tons of research. I think it might be the lawyer in me. Authenticity and respect are at the cornerstone of my writing. And I am beyond grateful to the many people who shared their expertise and time with me. In Dear Student, the experts I consulted with were:
*a pediatric therapist who specializes in anxiety
*a person who specializes in iguanas and snakes (pregnant ones!)
*a congressman who sponsored the Humane Act bill that prevents the testing of cosmetics on animals and those in his office in charge of the bill
*a Peace Corps volunteer
*educators who kindly shared their Spanish translation skills and input with me
Wow! You definitely did your research.
Did you know from the start that Autumn was going to write a school advice column and how did you approach creating that setting?
When I first envisioned this book, it was Autumn’s mom who was the secret advice columnist. But as the heart of this story crystalized, it was clear that Autumn needed to own her voice. And the secret voice allowed her to do that.
Why will readers relate to Autumn?
I think we are all a bit like Autumn.
We all have those moments when step into a room and wonder if we fit. If we’re saying the right words, wearing the right clothes, doing the right things. Moments where we wonder if we belong.
I also believe readers, like Autumn, have moments where we find ourselves stuck between friends. Knowing that no matter what we do, no matter which decision we make, one of those friends is not going to be happy.
In the end, I truly think readers will connect with Autumn’s heart.
What can parents, teachers, and guardians take from Autumn’s story to help a child/student they know suffering with social anxiety?
I want them to know their child or student is not alone. We are all working on something. We all have moments where we feel anxious. Where we wonder if our voice matters.
I want them to know that it does matter. That they matter.
Love your use of a ‘special’ animal friend as Autumn’s alter-voice throughout the novel. Tells us more, please!
Firstly, share with our readers a little about Spud. 😊
Aw, I love Spud. Spud’s real name is Ajax. And he’s my son’s guinea pig (pictured to the left). I babysat for him while my son moved out west and fell in love with this giant baked potato of a guinea pig and knew I wanted readers to meet him. He is actually a rescue and currently 6 years old!
What do you hope young readers will take away from reading Autumn’s book journey?
I hope readers know their voice matters. That strength and bravery can look a lot of different ways. And that true friends will always be there. As Autumn says, “We don’t have to think the same or believe the same things to be friends. But we do always have to be kind to each other. And respectful of each other.” (p. 255-56).
Autumn is a wise girl.
I also hope readers discover that the most fearless thing they can do is be themselves.
Author visits – Would you share some advice for our teachers, librarians, and homeschoolers on how to prepare students for an in-person verse a virtual author visit?
I love visiting schools – in person or virtually. And, for me, the preparation for my visits is the same. The best visits are when students have read one (or all : ) of my books. It gives us a foundation and very special connection to build on.
What part of writing this story did you find most fun? Most challenging?
I loved writing the Dear Student letters. It brought me back to my middle school self, walking the halls, feeling all the feels. The excitement, the worry, the joy, the self-consciousness, the cliques, the doubt, and the crushes. It was fun to give advice. I hope it helps my readers as they navigate all the feels.
The most challenging part was writing the friend conflict. No spoilers, but there’s something that happens between Logan and Autumn that hurt my heart to write. It wasn’t how I envisioned the story going. But it was the path the story had to take for me to stay true to the characters.
Lastly, from your personal writing journey, what’s the most important parts of writing?
Aw. I love this question. I would say, stay true to your voice. Write what matters to your heart. And be kind to yourself.
SPECIAL MESSAGE FROM ELLY!📜
Whoopie Pies! There are recipes in the back of the book for Autumn’s Fearless Fred’s Whoopie Pies. And there are even allergy friendly recipes for readers like me who can’t have gluten or dairy.
And now that I’ve gotten you hungry for the book, I just wanted to tell you all the fun things that happen when you pre-order.
Special signed copies!
If you pre-order DEAR STUDENT (pubs 2/15/22) from Eight Cousins, Wellesley Books, or The Brain Lair, your book will be signed to the reader of your choosing and you’ll receive a limited-edition bookmark!
If you pre-order from Eight Cousins, Wellesley Books, The Brain Lair, or anywhere books are sold, and send proof of purchase to firstname.lastname@example.org, you’ll be entered to win one of the three prizes below. Winners randomly chosen on 2/15/22. Good luck!
** Happy Prize. A signed Brave Like Me poster
** Dear Prize. Handwritten letters to you, your bookclub, your group of friends (up to 20), or your class from me in the style of Dear Student.
** Virtual Prize. A free 30 minute virtual Q & A with me
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Elly Swartz loves writing for kids, Twizzlers, and anything with her family. She grew up in Yardley, Pennsylvania, studied psychology at Boston University, and received a law degree from Georgetown University Law Center.
Elly Swartz is the author of 4 contemporary middle grade novels. Finding Perfect was selected as a 2019-2020 Iowa Children’s Choice Book, a Kentucky Blue Grass Master List Pick, honored as a Child Mind’s Institute Best Children’s Book About Mental Health, and a 2017 Global Read Aloud contender. Smart Cookie was a 2019 ILA/CBC Children’s Choice for grades 3 and 4 and educator Colby Sharp deemed Smart Cookie one of his favorite books for 2018. And in 2019, Becky Calzada, Coordinator Library Services, Leander ISD shared, “Readers of Give and Take will quickly become endeared with Maggie’s spirit and heart. Elly Swartz has written a book where the characters love fiercely, and family is forever.” Give and Take was named one of the best books of 2019 by Pernille Ripp and A Mighty Girl. And on 2/15/22 readers will meet Autumn in Dear Student (Delacorte/Penguin Random House). Autumn is a girl with social anxiety who becomes the secret voice of the advice column in her middle school newspaper.
Connect with Elly at ellyswartz.com, on Twitter @ellyswartz, on Instagram @ellyswartzbooks ` or on her webseries #BooksintheKitchen with author Victoria J. Coe.
It’s been such a pleasure chatting with you! I can’t wait for Autumn’s story to be in the hands of young readers.
Share with Elly your thoughts about her book or maybe even an experience you know of about social anxiety.
As always, thank you for reading!