Today the Mixed-Up Files welcomes Stephanie Greene. And we’ve got another special give away in store… read to the bottom of this post for more information.
If you’re an adult you may have somehow missed Stephanie’s Owen Foote series or her wonderful Sophie Hartley books, but if you’re a middle-grade reader you already love the way Stephanie uses every day kids and the ordinary world to create fast-paced, funny and, most of all, heartfelt novels. We never needed to shelve her Owen Foote books in the library where I worked. Boy and girl readers snatched them right off the shelving cart and ran back to the check out desk.
In a time when author buzz can seem to be all about the latest debut novelist, I especially wanted to invite Stephanie to the Mixed-Up Files. Stephanie has sustained a long career, publishing dozens of books and her middle-grade creds go back even further than her own first novel. Her mother, Constance Greene is a much loved children’s author who wrote noted books I grew up with, like
A GIRL CALLED AL
Last month Horn Book Magazine awarded Stephanie’s brand new
HAPPY BIRTHDAY, SOPHIE HARTLEY
with a great big star, and Indie Next selected the first book in Stephanie’s new series
PRINCESS POSEY AND THE FIRST GRADE PARADE
for their summer Indie Next list. With each book, Stephanie has grown as a novelist, building her career like a great plot. I can’t help wondering what will come next in Stephanie’s broad middle-grade repertoire.
Hi, Stephanie! Welcome to Mixed-Up Files.
Thanks very much for inviting me. From The Mixed-Up Files is a terrific and much-needed resource. Middle grades rock!
You’ve been writing for quite a while. What changes in publishing or audience have you seen since you published your first book?
I sold my first book in 1994 when my manuscript was discovered in the slush pile at Clarion. That’s a fairy tale ending, pretty much. I’d submitted it to ten of the big publishers, all of which were open to unsolicited submissions. Today, the majority only read agented material. Also (and this makes me feel as if I started writing back in the 1800s), I received either a postcard or letter of rejection from all of them and I was an unknown writer. That’s almost unheard of in today’s climate.
As far as changes in audience, I don’t think children of the age I write for have intrinsically changed. What has changed is that the emphasis on reading has become much more intense, beginning in kindergarten. But while children seem to be reading books with chapters earlier and earlier, reading levels have dropped across the country. So many of my early readers and chapter books are being read by kids in the 4th and 5th grades. We also hear, all the time, that kids today have shorter attention spans and more options vying for their time and attention. I can see it in the audiences at schools I visit. But those facts haven’t changed the way I write for them in any way.
Why are you drawn to the middle grade reader?
I love children who are 8, 9, and pushing 10 with all their might. Very young children are brave because, for the most part, they haven’t yet learned to be afraid. Middle grade children know there are things out there that are both scary and exciting, yet they’re determined to embrace them with open hearts and minds. They choose to be brave. They’re not as self-interested as teen readers; they’re more curious about about how the world works. How to interact with their families, friends, and at school. Their world is opening up. They’re not yet jaded. They’ll willingly suspend disbelief and follow a book almost anywhere, as long as it’s well-written enough to hold their attention.
You’re still writing fresh and different things and taking new risks. How do you manage to do that?
Funny, but I never think of it as taking new risks. I think it’s because I don’t write to particular genres. I write the ideas that strike me. Only when I’m finished do I wonder what genre it might fit into. I had no idea my first book was a chapter book until Clarion told me it was. My newest series is an early chapter book series, which is a relatively new genre aimed at transitional readers. If I’d thought I was blazing my way into a new genre, I might have choked.
I also think that because I’m a character-driven writer, my writing life has had longevity. I can’t write from plot. All of my books have been the result of a gut emotional response to something I have seen or heard or read about. Universal truths are the most powerful motivators in the world. They’re shared across cultures. They’re deep-seated and resistant to the culture of the moment. Fear, insecurity, longing for place, fear of the dark, jealousy … if a writer can hook into them, they supply endless material based on real emotional truth which will give their work the stamp of authenticity.
For example, I wrote the first Owen Foote book because one day, when I was walking my son, Oliver, who was small for his age, into school, I heard the school nurse say to a teacher, “Tomorrow is height and weight chart day.” My immediate response was, “That could be hard on Oliver.” Boys like to be big and strong. To be weighed and measured in front of your whole class when you’re less than you’d like to be would be hard on any child. I didn’t write the book until several years later, but once I started I understood what was at stake for Owen Foote.
It was the same with the first Princess Posey book. One day I drove into the parking lot of a local school and saw a sign that said, KISS AND GO LANE. My immediate thought was, that could be hard on a child. Your mom stops the car, you kiss her good bye, you get out, you’re on your own. The line, “You’re leaving me” popped into my mind. It became the first sentence in the first Posey book.
Every day of their lives, children face a hurdle or conflict or situation with which they have to cope. It’s not always on a high magnitude. The most profound and frequent conflicts are often very small. The younger the child, the smaller they may be. Sometimes, to a writer, these conflicts feel as if they lack excitement. But to the child of that age who’s facing them, they’re excitement enough. The challenge to the writer is to make that small emotional nugget resonate with the reader.
You just had Princess Posey, an early chapter book, as well as “Happy Birthday, Sophie Hartley,” the 3rd middle grade novel in that series, come out. How are they alike and how are they different?
They’re not at all alike. Posey, who’s six, would not grow up to become Sophie. They’re very different girls. The Posey books are a little more than 3,000 words divided into ten chapters. As I said, I had no idea what genre they would fit. I wrote the first book the way I did because that was what the story dictated: short sentences, many chapters. The Sophie Hartley books, on the other hand, are a more traditional 25,000-word middle grade length. Story dictates the length, language, and content – always.
Do you have any advice for sustaining a career as a middle-grade writer? What advice can you give us?
Sustaining my career over that length of time hasn’t really been a problem. When I first started writing, I had an 8-year-old boy in the house. I spied and took notes (critical to any writer: take notes! You think you’ll remember every, hilarious thing said or done but you won’t. At least, not as specifically said or done; specifics are essential to good and authentic writing). Over the years, ideas have kept coming, I’m happy to say. I think a lot, have a lot of quiet time, think while I walk and drive and vacuum, and keep my ears, eyes, and heart open. I identify with children. My favorite age in my life seems to have been 9. (Ask any writer and they’ll immediately come up with their “age.”) I also read constantly, both adult and children’s books, and read to children every week at a local school.
The ideas are there for any writer. The trouble is, there’s too much noise in the world. Get away from it. Ideas grow best in silence. This is one time when my being hard of hearing comes in handy.
What did your mother, Constance Greene, teach you about writing or being a writer?
I learned two invaluable things from watching my mother – you don’t need an office (she used to push papers to the side on our small dining room table and set her typewriter in that small space. With five children, an office was a luxury. Also, she taught me not to take myself too seriously. Ever. I love to think that even, say, JKR or John Grisham could introduce themselves to the check out lady at my grocery store and she would say, “Hi, I”m Erin.”
GREAT ADVICE! Thanks so much for joining us here Stephanie!
Now for the give away. I have fresh-off-the-press copies of HAPPY BIRTHDAY, SOPHIE HARTLEY and PRINCESS POSEY AND THE FIRST GRADE PARADE. Leave a comment here about your favorite middle-grade author who has sustained a long writing career. You’ll get an extra entry if you tell us why you think his or her books have endured. Next week the random selector will pick two winners- one for each book. Good luck!
Tami Lewis Brown can usually be found scurrying around Washington D.C. but this summer she’s become a recluse in rural Vermont, hard at work on her next middle-grade novel… and it’s a mystery. Farrar, Straus & Giroux will publish SOAR, ELINOR!, her MG biography of pilot Elinor Smith this October and her middle-grade novel, THE MAP OF ME, will be out next spring.