You couldn’t have picked a better day to visit From the Mixed-Up Files! Donna Gephart’s debut middle-grade novel, As If Being 12 ¾ Isn’t Bad Enough, My Mother is Running for President! won numerous awards, including the Sid Fleischman Humor Award. Her sophomore novel, How to Survive Middle School, which came out early this May, received a starred review from Kirkus Reviews. I ask you, does it get any better?
Why,YES—yes, it does!
Donna is here today to answer questions for the inquiring middle-grade minds. And if that isn’t good enough, Donna’s going to give a brand new hardcover of How to Survive Middle School to one lucky commenter.
But first, a little more about Donna! I explored her website, and I found a question in her Q & A section that was oh, so appropriate to introduce Donna with and to explain what middle-grade means to her. The question posed was, “Why did you decide to write How to Survive Middle School?”
Here’s Donna’s answer: Middle school (also called Junior High in some places) was very hard for me . . . and for our sons . . . and for most people. When I was about thirteen and fourteen, I went from feeling deliriously happy to miserably depressed often in the same day . . . even in the same hour! I wish someone had explained that it was just my hormones going a little crazy and they would calm down again. I wish someone told me that I didn’t really “hate” my mother, but it was a normal part of adolescence to push away from her. I wish someone had told me I’d survive the acne, the braces and the crush on a cute guy who didn’t like me. I want young people to know they are not the only ones having a hard time. I also want young people to know that they can get through middle school. So hang in there. It gets better. Much better.
Thanks for the good words, Donna. Middle-graders, take heart!
And now for THE INTERVIEW!
Your first book won the Sid Fleischman Humor Award. Has winning for humor affected your writing and confidence?
It was a thrill to hear Lin Oliver’s and Steve Mooser’s voice on my answering machine, telling me I’d won the Sid Fleischman Humor Award. The award allowed me to give a workshop about writing humor at the national SCBWI conference in L.A., which led to other speaking engagements, like The Erma Bombeck Humor Writer’s Workshop in Dayton, OH . After writing humor for over twenty years, it was an honor to win an award named after such a kind, generous and hard-working man.
You’ve woven sad and scary threads into your books, yet your stories are funny. How do humor and grief fit into the same book?
I strive to create books that combine humor and heartbreak, which mirror life. Funny without substance gets boring quickly, so I try to create characters with whom young readers can relate and connect. Of course, there will be problems—big problems—or else why write the book, right? It’s just that the heartbreak is handled with humor to cushion the blows.
When I picked up my copy of How to Survive Middle School (available everywhere!), I spotted the toilet on the back jacket flap! My first thought: What on earth? But I thought this with a smile on my face, and it set my expectations for the book—I knew it would be funny. What was your reaction when you saw the jacket design?
My first thought was: There can’t be another book with a singing hamster on the front and a toilet on the inside flap! The jacket design captures what the book is about in a fun, funny way.
Readers, it’s true—the toilet picture is not random. In fact, the combination of the cool singing hamster on the cover and the toilet photo on the jacket flap mirrors the dissimilar parallel lives of David Greenberg, the main character in How to Survive Middle School.
David is a celebrity in the cyberworld but a regular kid—sometimes overlooked—in the real world. I felt this was a good commentary on the social world in which today’s children are involved. What do you think of our lives online—are they real? Are cyber-friends true friends? Are children losing anything with or do they benefit by interacting online?
What a great question. The answer to this could fill a book. With two teenage sons, I’ve watched our kids sit next to a friend, each with an electronic device in hand. “Hello,” I want to say. “You are sitting next to an actual friend; you don’t need to text/IM/chat with your virtual friend right now.” The Internet is a great means of connecting to the wider world. It’s a wonderful way to share information and ideas and create communities. But it must not replace actual interaction with human beings, connecting with communities in the real world and being part of nature. As with all things, there must be a healthy balance.
I reread As If Being 12 ¾ Isn’t Bad Enough, My Mother Is Running for President! in preparation for this interview, and I enjoyed it even more upon this reading. The voice rang true. It had a loneliness to it, a slight melancholy that I liked. And in both books, the MCs feel like losers even after hurdling major accomplishments. What’s your take on this aspect of your books?
My parents divorced when I was young, and I lived with my mom. She worked full-time and I didn’t have a lot of friends, so I spent a lot of time alone. Sometimes, I was quite lonely. Other times, I found companionship in the pages of a book, borrowed from our local library. Oh, I loved that library! As an author, I want to provide those books that provide companionship, that may keep a lonely child company.
Good books do become good friends! When children read your books, they’re left unattended in the playground of imagination–their parents are trusting you, Donna Gephart, alone with their kids. With that in mind, what responsibility do you feel you have to parents and your readers?
I love your phrase: “In the playground of imagination.” Of course, there is a big responsibility in creating books for young people. And my responsibility, I feel, is to be honest and true in my writing. I just got an e-mail from a young reader, thanking me for being real in my books and including things that might not make people happy, but are the way it really happens. I loved that e-mail. I try to be true to my characters and therefore, true to my young readers. It’s a wonderful thing that young people can explore some of life’s challenges through the safety of books. They can experience things on the page instead of in real life. Parents who try to “protect” their children by limiting their reading choices are often simply not allowing them to “prepare” for challenges they might face in the real world.
That’s a perfect lead to my next question: When you write for middle-grade audiences, what experience do you hope to deliver? By this, I mean aside of the plot, what do you want your readers to take from your books?
It’s my hope that young readers of my books will feel like they’ve made a new friend. It’s my hope they will understand that all people have flaws and faults and it’s okay that they do, too. It’s my hope that they will realize they have power to affect changes in their lives and in the lives of others. And it’s my hope they will learn a bit of compassion and empathy for themselves and for others.
Nice goals, Donna! I think you deliver that sense of flaws and self-acceptance because, as I mentioned before, your main characters, especially Vanessa, engage in the kind of critical internal dialog common to that age. Middle-graders don’t always realize how much they have to offer or how wonderful they really are (and that not just their mothers think that!).
If you could choose one book to be made into a movie, which novel would it be and whom would you cast for the main roles?
AS IF BEING 12 ¾ ISN’T BAD ENOUGH, MY MOTHER IS RUNNING FOR PRESIDENT . . . would be a fun movie because of the spelling bees, the political process, life in the governor’s mansion and the mystery element of the threatening notes and the assassination attempt. Meryl Streep would make a great potential president, don’t you think?
Oh, my gosh, Meryl Streep would be perfect for that role!
HOW TO SURVIVE MIDDLE SCHOOL might make a fun TV series because of its connection to Jon Stewart and The Daily Show and the main character, David Greenberg’s love of creating funny videos. I hope the book inspires young readers to create their own shows/videos. I’d love Jon Stewart to have a guest appearance, if this ever were made into a TV show or movie. Wouldn’t that be fun?
Okay, Hollywood, are you listening? You never know! But one thing I do know is you’re not sitting around with your feet up–what’s next for you, Donna Gephart?
The next book down the lane is OLIVIA BEAN, TRIVIA QUEEN, about a twelve-year-old trivia geek, who will do anything to get on Kids’ Week on Jeopardy!
That sounds like a winner! (Haha! Okay, that was lame.) Thank you so much for your time and thoughtful answers, Donna. It was fun!
Folks, if you have questions for Donna or would like to jump into the conversation, post a few words in the comment box. Remember, one lucky poster will be selected by a random number generator to win a hardcover of Donna’s new book, How To Survive Middle School.
Danette Haworth is the author of The Summer of Moonlight Secrets and Violet Raines Almost Got Struck by Lightning. Danette stays up past her bedtime to read and write into the wee hours; she swears the next morning that she will go to bed on time the next night. It never happens.
Visit Danette at www.danettehaworth.com