I just read an absolutely delightful debut called OPERATION FROG EFFECT (Random House), by author Sarah Scheerger. It’s funny, sometimes sad, has a wonderfully diverse cast of characters, and even includes a graphic novel element. The multi-POV novel traces one transformative year in the life of teacher Ms. Graham’s fifth-grade students. Because of her innovative teaching style, students learn to rely on their own ingenuity, deepen their empathy for each other, and fight for what they believe in. Their story is told through their journal entries and drawings.
As I often do, I drafted my middle-grade son to read with me, and he loved it too, so when I got the chance to interview Sarah, I included some of the questions he had for her as well.
Interview with Sarah Scheerger
The Origins of OPERATION FROG EFFECT
MUF: What inspired you to write this book?
My fourth-grade teacher, Mr. Nubling, was innovative. He took risks, he made us think, and he understood when we made mistakes. He had a “growth mindset” before that was such a popular concept. He actually had us build our own model rockets in class and shoot them off on the school fields. (This probably wouldn’t happen today, but this was the eighties.) Mr. Nubling only had four fingers on one hand. One year (not my year), a student accidentally shot off his rocket while Mr. Nubling was still securing it in place. And despite losing a digit, Mr. Nubling continued to shoot off rockets every year with his fourth graders.
When I thought of writing a middle-grade novel, my upper elementary years jumped out at me as the most memorable. My character Emily has the voice most similar to my own fifth-grade voice. I connected with her need to belong and her confusion as her friend group shifts. All the characters in this story are fictional, of course.
MUF: Why did you decide to use a multi-POV approach?
I love the way multiple points of view provide the opportunity for misunderstandings, for unreliable narrators, and for a quick moving pace. I love the use of the graphic novel component (Blake’s voice) for multiple reasons. I see how my own children gravitate toward reading graphic novels, and I wanted a way to incorporate some of that element in this story. I thought perhaps the graphic novel component might widen the potential readership. Plus. . . I love how illustrations can convey emotions. Also, I wanted to create a character who has his own unique learning style. Blake is a student who struggles with writing but loves to draw.
MUF: I was fascinated by the Whistler/Non-Whistler project. Is that a real teaching model?
My fourth-grade teacher, Mr. Nubling, did this experiment with our class. To be honest, my memory is fuzzy, so I’m not sure whether he did an eye color experiment or based it on gender. I only remember my feelings of injustice! I was confused and upset… and that experiment has stuck with me ever since.
When writing this book, I researched the eye color experiment. It originated with a teacher, Jane Elliot. She talked about it on “Oprah” back in the nineties. Here’s a clip. https://www.huffingtonpost.com/2015/01/02/jane-elliott-race-experiment-oprah-show_n_6396980.html
In my first version of Operation Frog Effect, I considered doing the actual “eye color experiment”. But after much thought, my editor and I decided the point would be most poignant if I selected something entirely random, like the ability to whistle. (By the way, I cannot whistle myself.)
About that Frog…
MUF: Frogs are an important symbol in many cultures – often indicating a need for transformation or cleansing, for a new perspective on life. I can’t help but wonder whether this symbolism tied into your choice of the frog as a class pet? Ms. Graham’s class had an incredibly transformative year!
You’re totally right. This was a transformative year for Ms. Graham’s class.
Sweet Kermit was an addition during my first round of edits. My editor and I were brainstorming titles and ideas for metaphors and themes. We decided that a class pet frog could bring out Blake’s nurturing/caring side, had the potential for fun complications (oops—frog on the loose!) as well as created fun cover art. (My heart melts for the frog on the cover of the book.)
The frog symbolism was important too. You’re right that frogs are an important symbol for many cultures, and my editor and I also loved the concept of making ripples. Frogs make ripples in the water, and my characters made ripples in the world. (I love the ripples on the cover too!)
Writing the Book
MUF: What is your favorite part?
I love Blake’s sections. Gina Perry did a fabulous job. I’m hopeful that his sections will reach kids in a different way than the traditional text. Interestingly, I rewrote all of Blake’s sections for the audiobook. It was a group effort—I worked together with the producer to transform the illustrations back into inner dialogue… what Blake would have been thinking as he was sketching. (This was so fun—the producer and I met for coffee and worked together!)
And the counselor in me loves the little tidbits of social-emotional learning that Ms. Graham shares with her class.
MUF: What was the hardest part of the book to write?
Oh, great question! I did find it challenging to keep track of threads and details across characters. I kept lists and charts. I wanted to give each character equal playing time, make sure they each had their own arc, their own strengths, and their own weaknesses. I wanted to be sure the voices were different enough to be distinct. I also took extra care with the representation of my diverse characters. I had seventeen different authenticity readers! Each reader shared different insights, from his/her own perspective. It was really important to both me and my editor that we take extra steps to be sure we represented each character authentically.
(Cool fact: the audiobook is narrated by nine different diverse voices. This was really important to me, and I’m so thrilled with the end result.)
MUF: How many times did you have to rewrite?
Too many to count! Let’s just say that I started this book when my daughter was born. And now
she’s four and a half!
I do love revisions, though. Once I have the skeleton of the book written, I enjoy going back and fine-tuning.
Writing Multiple POV
MUF: Multi-POV books can be a real challenge in revisions – how did you approach that challenge?
This was definitely a challenge! There were so many layers of revisions with this book. I managed this in a variety of ways, but mostly I followed these steps:
• I went through and revised threads/overall plot
• then went back through one voice at a time, looking carefully at how this specific change impacted each specific character (for example, all of Kayley’s entries, then all of Cecilia’s, etc.)
• And then… I went back through the whole manuscript from beginning to end.
These multi-layered revisions occurred many times throughout the revision process. One change in a single plot point impacted each character in his/her own unique ways. Each time I went through I found more details to change.
MUF: My son and I both had the same comps in mind as we read – BECAUSE OF MR. TERUPT by Rob Buyea, and THE LAST FIFTH GRADE OF EMERSON ELEMENTARY by Laura Shovan. Did either of those influence your writing or your choice to do multi-POV?
Perhaps on some level, the book Wonder impacted my choice to do Multi-POV. I have a huge author crush on that book. R.J. Palacio reached so many kids, and I’ve enjoyed watching how teachers have incorporated Wonder into their curriculum. Since I’m a school-based counselor, I love it when teachers find creative ways to incorporate social-emotional learning and empathy-building into their curriculum.
I think Because of Mr. Terupt and The Last Fifth Grade of Emerson Elementary are great comps too. In fact, you’ll find all these books (as well as tips about classroom activities) in the School Stories Educator’s Guide at the following link: https://images.randomhouse.com/promo_image/9780525644125_5528.pdf
Thank you for reading Operation Frog Effect! Here’s a link to the audiobook clip: https://www.penguinrandomhouse.com/books/575577/operation-frog-effect-by-sarah-scheerger/9780525644125/
OPERATION FROG EFFECT, published by Random House, will be on shelves TOMORROW, February 26, 2019.