I first met Ann Braden the same way as so many others, primarily through her debut novel, The Benefits of Being an Octopus. An important book that gives face, and heart, and soul, to economically-disadvantaged children who have long been under-represented in children’s books. Ann is a former middle-school teacher and she clearly, deeply, knows that world and those young people. But there’s something else. Something even more significant. Ann has, I believe, a quality that we find in some of our best children’s writers: a generosity of spirit. Read her books and you’ll see what I mean. And so, Ann and I connected on Facebook. I wrote to see if she might possibly want to answer “5 Questions” for us. Happily, Ann said yes and so here we are. As always, keeping our interview down to only 5 questions was the real battle. Every night I kick myself and mutter, “Why didn’t I call it 6 questions??!! Arggggh! Dumb, dumb, dumb!”
1. There are two kinds of teachers in the world: those who “get” middle schoolers, and those who would rather not, thank you very much. You are a former middle school teacher, therefore I assume you have some insight into, and affection for, middle school children. What do you like about ‘em?
I love that middle schoolers are just waking up to the world around them, and that when they recognize that something isn’t fair they want to DO something about it. I also love that they think they are opaque, but actually are usually transparent goldfish bowls of the basic human emotions of wanting to belong and doubting yourself.
2. Human goldfish bowls, I like that. As for me, I enjoy their plasticity, how they haven’t yet hardened into shape quite yet. Changeable, flexible, open. There’s still hope! Not many authors experience the great success that you enjoyed with your debut novel, The Benefits of Being an Octopus. An overnight sensation! But hold on, it didn’t really happen overnight, did it? How much time — in dreams and effort — went into that first novel? Or was it really that easy?
Yes, it was really that easy.
So, the first manuscript I wrote got completely rejected by agents. So, I wrote a second one, which got lots of full requests, but then all ended up as rejections. So, I wrote a completely different manuscript (my first MG) and that was got me an agent! YAY!! And then, it was rejected by editors. And then I wrote two new manuscripts that I was really excited about (#4 and #5) and they went out on submission. Soon I was working on my SIXTH manuscript, convinced that at least ONE of the other manuscripts would sell by the time I was done with it, and so this time, I figured, I wouldn’t have to “sell” this manuscript. I’d already have an editor. This time I could just be honest.
And then both the 4th and 5th manuscripts were rejected, which meant the 6th manuscript was a lost cause, and I decided I never was going to get published and that there were probably better things I could do for this world than spending seven years writing things that no one else was ever going to read. So I quit writing.
And then after about 8 months, I started getting really grumpy, And I finally realized that even if no one was ever going to read what I wrote, even if I didn’t like the new story I was working on, even if it meant getting up at 5am…I still needed to write. Just for myself. Just to be able to start my days with the creative part of my brain churning.
And a few days later, I found out that a publisher had made an offer on that sixth manuscript. It’s jaw dropping, really, the way the universe can work.
So, you’d think that would be the happy ending, right?
Five months before the book, which now had an official title of THE BENEFITS OF BEING AN OCTOPUS was supposed to be published, I got a call from my agent. She told me to sit down. Naively, I thought it would be good news. But no. It turned out that my publisher had just fired their entire children’s division – my editor, my publicist, anyone who knew anything about children’s books – and it wasn’t clear if they were even going to still publish the book.
That was a rough day.
But then, we thankfully found out that yes they would still publish it (it had just gone to ARCS), so that was a relief. But it was also clear that no one at my publishing house was going to do ANYTHING to get the word out about this book. I thought: maybe 100 people will read it – that would still be better than nothing.
But then, when I got those ARCS into the hands of educators, magic started happening. I think it was partly that there are kids like Zoey in every school and partly that there just weren’t that many books yet that showed them as the heroes that they are, but the buzz started building over the next many months – entirely based on word-of-mouth among fabulous educators – and it just took off in amazing ways.
So, yes, basically an overnight success, if that one night is nine years (full of rejections and setbacks) long.
I lead an online class for Gotham Writers, “Writing Children’s Books,” and I will be sure to share that story with the group. It will depress them all! So much work. Your new novel comes out in May, Opinions and Opossums. Are you only going to use “O” animals as major metaphors? Is there an Oxen in the book after this? An Ocelot? (My theory conveniently ignores Flight of the Puffin. Anyway, none of this is a real question. I’ve only got 5 and I want to make them count.)
3. I mean to ask: Could you tell us about the point when Opinions and Opposums clicked for you? When all those loose ideas come together and you realized, wow, this is actually going to be a book.
No, it’s a pattern, see? Octopus, Puffin, Opossum, then Pangolin, Ostrich… No, actually I think of these books almost like a trilogy that will conclude with the Opossum, exploring the economic divide, political divides, and then religion -– but more importantly spelling out a secret hidden code of O, P, OP – which conveniently aligns with one of the themes of the Opossum book: OPOPinions, AKA Other People’s Opinions, and if you say that three times at midnight, while at a secret meeting with your neighborhood opossum, you’ll be able to unlock the….
Ahem, I mean, let me answer your real question.
Oh rats, I thought we were going to get into some deep Wicca enchantments there for a minute.
I was doing lots of school visits in the spring of 2019, and I also had a book under contract with my dream editor, Nancy Paulsen, but it was a book that did not exist yet. So, I tried not to panic (and instead bask in this dream come true!) and I took my notebook and set up four pages with the headings THEME, CHARACTERS, SETTING, and PLOT. And I decided that for two months I would try to write down one thing a day in any of those categories. For me, plot is always the hardest, but theme (which to me basically means: stuff I’m angry about that I want to explore) usually comes first. And I remember being at a gas station in Kentucky when I realized that three big themes (which I had thought would have to all go into different stories) could actually play off one another in the same story, and be far more authentic that way then they would have been on their own. That was when the story really started coming to life for me. The themes were: 1) questioning some of the patriarchal assumptions that have been baked into Christianity — while still finding a way towards faith, 2) how the death of my father when I was a baby shaped me in ways that were different than simply missing a parent, and 3) how quirky friendships (especially cross-gender ones) have the power to push back against all sorts of misguided social norms. That was when the story really started coming to life for me.
4. Where did you grow up?
I grew up in a suburban town in Connecticut, Fairfield. Opinions and Opossums is loosely based on a fictionalized version of it actually. There were some wonderful things about it as a place to grow up (there were so many places I could bike to!) but I was also very ready to leave the conformity and the outsized emphasis placed on Other People’s Opinions (those OPOPinions!) as I got older. And of course, all of that worked its way into this book.
5. Now that you are a published author — a dream come true — and you are already kind of a big deal — what’s the best thing about actually being a published author? The paparazzi? Getting all the best tables in the fancy restaurants? The private charter flights to exotic destinations? Um, no? Then what’s so good about?
The two things that are totally a dream come true are:
1. Getting to work with my editor Nancy Paulsen. Getting to create something alongside a pure genius is one of the greatest joys life can offer.
2. Being able to connect with kids at a deep level of understanding without even having to say a word. As a teacher, you work so hard to convince students that you love them for who they are, but it’s always a complicated process and you never quite know if it’s getting across the way you want. But when you write a book, it’s like writing a love letter to kids (taking all the time it needs to make sure you’re communicating that love exactly how you want), and then you get to send it not just to the kids in your town, but to thousands and thousands of kids all over the country! If I was wishing for a superpower, that’s what I’d wish for. I’m still dumbstruck that this is what I get to do.
JAMES PRELLER is the author of many books for young readers, including Bystander, Upstander, Blood Mountain, Better Off Undead, the “Scary Tales” books and the popular Jigsaw Jones mystery series. Look for the first book in his strange & mysterious middle-grade series, EXIT 13: The Whispering Pines, available in stores in February 7th, 2023. The sequel comes out in August!