Readers first met the irrepressible Callie Jones in Callie’s Rules. But kids were begging to read more about her and they can now in my most recent book, Write On, Callie Jones.
Callie wants two things. She wants to be a writer. And she wants to be part of a group. So when she learns that there’s going to be a school newspaper, she feels as if a fairy godmother has granted her wishes. And, for good measure, brought her Mr. Fischer, the newspaper advisor and a man so handsome he makes Callie’s chest crinkle.
That crinkle becomes a cramp when Principal Nolan vetoes Callie’s first news story. But Callie’s not the only one in trouble. A member of her newspaper team is being bullied. Then Callie finds herself being bullied when Mr. Nolan shuts down the school newspaper.
When the kids take their paper online, Callie is free to write pieces that express her opinions—of which she has many. One of those pieces leads to quite unexpected consequences.
What inspired you to write this book?
The first Callie popped up when I read a newspaper story about towns that were banning Halloween. It was a pagan holiday, they said, it was frightening to small children, it taught the wrong values. And suddenly, as I was reading, an eleven-year-old girl appeared in my head, arguing with those townspeople. It wasn’t long before Callie had popped out of my head and onto my computer screen.
The second Callie book was inspired by Callie herself. She kept insisting that she had much more to say. And so I let her say it.
How did you know you wanted to be a writer? How did you get started?
When I was a kid, I didn’t know that I wanted to be a writer. I wanted to be Lois Lane, a newspaper reporter. And then I actually did become a reporter of sorts—a kid reporter, not a girl reporter. In New York City, where I lived, there was a man who loved his little cocker spaniel so much that he started a magazine devoted to her. In his magazine, this man would print anything that another dog lover cared to contribute. I contributed a story about my dog Eric, a German shepherd. And at the age of nine, I became a published New York writer.
As an adult, I continued to write nonfiction, but always what I wanted most to write was stories for kids. I did write a number of children’s stories, but none of them were quite good enough.
And then something very strange happened. I was looking through the window of a bus stopped in the middle of a busy street in Istanbul, Turkey. Outside, amid the throngs of workers, shoppers, fruit vendors, and water sellers, was a bear—a shaggy-haired, dusty-brown bear, wearing a leather muzzle and being led on a chain. The bear quickly disappeared into the crowd, but it stayed in my head. That bear, and the small, skinny-legged, dark-haired boy I imagined for him, became my first middle-grade novel, Benno’s Bear.
Tell us something about yourself.
I grew up in New York City, where my dog story was published. Later, in college, I was an English major. (Basically, I was still reading books, but now I was calling it “studying.”) After I was married, I worked for a Boston publisher. Now I was still reading, but I was getting paid to do it. Then I had two children. And I was reading children’s books again. Lots of them. Whenever my children asked me for “one more story,’ I obliged. My children had very extended bedtimes.
My children eventually learned to put themselves to bed and I began writing. Together with my husband, I wrote award-winning books and articles for adults. And I taught writing at the University of Rhode Island. But always I wanted most to write for children. And now I do.
Are you working on your next book? What can you tell us about it?
I am always working on a book. My books begin in my head, long before I put anything on paper, and they talk to me constantly. The book I am working on now, which is also a middle-grade novel, I call Castaways. There are three main characters. Two of them, thirteen-year-old Leann Kies and her younger brother Logan, have been tossed from homeless shelter to homeless shelter to broken-down trailer. They have never belonged anywhere and now they are brought to Blackbird Island as unwilling foster children. Julie Rodman, also thirteen, has lived all her life in a tiny fishing village on the island. But on the mainland, where she attends school, she also feels herself an outcast.
These are my main characters, but I won’t reveal any more about the book because, like the kids I write about, it will change as it grows.
What is the best advice you can give other writers about writing?
I’m about to say some things that counter the basic rules that writing instructors give. One rule is: Write what you know. I would say: Don’t be afraid to write what you don’t know. Benno’s Bear was about a boy (I’m not and never have been a boy), who lives in the nineteenth century (I didn’t), and lives with a bear (haven’t done that either). I did know the setting, having lived in a place similar to Benno’s middle European city, but that was it. But I did know much of what was going on inside Benno. I knew the love he felt for an animal. I knew fear and cold and loneliness. And love and warmth and hope. And I dug deep into myself to find ways to express those things as Benno would have.
Another rule I’m going to advise writers to break is: Read, read, read and learn from other writers. Of course, writers should be reading all the time. But once you begin writing, stop reading anything remotely like your own work. You’ll wind up with an echo, not a voice.
The third rule given to writers is to revise, revise, revise. Of course, that is my and every other writer’s personal insanity—even after my book appears in print I want to keep revising it. But I try to remember something said by the great cellist Yo Yo Ma. He said, “The goal is not perfection but expression.” Your book will never be perfect. But if your book expresses something real, something true, you will have achieved your goal.
Where can readers learn more about you?