Welcome author Melissa Glenn Haber to From the Mixed Up Files of Middle Grade Authors!
Melissa is the author of several books for MG readers, including The Heroic Adventures of Hercules Amsterdam (Puffin Paperbacks, 2004, recommended for 9+); Beyond the Dragon Portal (Dutton, 2005, a Keystone State Reading Association Book Award nominee, recommended for 9+); The Pluto Project (Dutton, 2006, a Junior Library Guild selection, recommended for 11 and up).
Since Melissa’s latest release Your Best Friend, Meredith (Aladdin, previously released as Dear Anjali, Aladdin 2010) is a novel in letters, we thought we’d conduct her author interview a bit differently! Below are some questions from, erm, kind of imaginary readers, and Melissa’s thoughtful answers. (Dear Abby has nothing on this MG author!)
1. Dear Melissa, In your novel, your character Meredith types (and writes) long letters to her friend Anjali. Only problem is, Anjali has recently, and unexpectedly died. What inspired you to write a novel about a girl writing letters to her dead best friend? Were you worried it would be too dark? Signed — BFF in Boise
I mostly always start a novel because a first sentence comes to me, and that’s what happened here. Meredith just started speaking to Anjali in my head, and then I was writing this potentially depressing novel. I did worry a little about the novel getting too heavy, though it’s as much about friendship and first love as it is about death; to deal with that I tried to balance the times Meredith’s really despairing with goofier material. (My favorite: when Meredith’s at her lowest and suddenly loses the “e” key on the typewriter). I guess it worked, because the most common comment I hear from kids about the book is that they thought it was really funny. Which is a little bizarre. I mean, I have books about baby sisters turning into dragons, and three inch tall boys living with mice, and kids pretending to be spies and finding out that what they pretend to discover is actually true, and it turns out that the book about the dead girl is the laugh riot. Go figure.
2. Dear MGH, What made U decide 2 write a novel in ltrs? I mean, doesn’t everyone IM these days? xo — techwiz999
Dear Techwiz999, Ah: you discovered the secret! I originally set the novel when I was 13—back in 1983. That’s why Meredith is writing on what she calls a typerwriter. My agent suggested that I update it to the present, which meant all sorts of small changes in technology (I think there are still some LP records that stayed in by mistake). I kept the typewriter in part for the reasons Meredith says (she claims it lets her write in the Heming way), but also texting and IMing are not very useful when it comes to working out what Meredith would call your Inner Feelings (TM) For that, a diary—which is sort of what Meredith’s letters become—is necessary. It also turned out there was a major advantage to writing a novel in letters—aside from the fact that writing unanswered letters felt like a fitting metaphor for reaching out to someone who can’t reach back. Writing in letters dealt with the fundamental problem with the first person: unless the first person is written in the present tense, the narrator knows what’s going to happen. Here, Meredith was in as much in the dark as the reader.
3. Dear Author, In your novel, the three main characters are from three different religions – Meredith celebrates Christmas, so she seems like she’s Christian. Her friend and crush Noah is Jewish. And Anjali is Hindu. At the end of the book, Meredith even writes a letter to God. What role did spirituality and faith have in this novel? Yours Sincerely, Spirited and Spunky
Can you believe I never thought about that at all until I read your letter, Spirited and Spunky? That’s a funny thing about writing—there’s a lot there that even the author doesn’t notice. I can’t say there were good reasons for any of those choices—for example, Noah was Jewish so he could make the (lame) joke about how people in Israel might spit into the Tips jar at the coffee shop. But questions about faith are really central to me: I studied religion in college mostly because I wanted to understand other people’s answers to The Big Questions, especially the scary ones like death and the mysterious ones like how we connect to other people. Meredith is not outwardly religious, but her letter to God is pretty central to the novel. It happens when she needs someone besides Anjali to talk to, but there are a lot of parallels between God and the dead best friend: neither of them answers, at least in words, and both of them might be there all the time, whether you like it or not.
4. Dear Melissa, OMG!!! Meredith, like, uses sooooo many exclamation points !!!!! and question marks ???? n’ stuff when she writes. (hahahaha did u see i just did the same thing?) How did you work on finding such a great middle grade voice? thx — Voiceless in Vermont
Lots of people have asked me how I made Meredith’s voice so real—but I really, I have no idea, and (scarily!) I have no idea if I’ll ever be able to do it again! There’s a wonderful short story by Karel Capek (the Czech writer who coined the term “robot”) about a policeman who’s terrified because he’s made a brilliant arrest—and knows it was just by luck. It’s ostensibly a detective story, but I’m positive it’s really about every writer’s terror that we won’t get inspired again. Which is a long way of saying: I dunno, but I know this: even very young kid writers I meet know that you write best when you’re just the scribe who records the story spinning in your head. That doesn’t mean you don’t work as a writer; I did edit and shape Meredith’s voice: I cut out what didn’t sound authentic and I enhanced a few of her quirks (but not too much, I hope, because I didn’t want her to be a mockery of herself.) One thing I found sympathetic in Meredith’s voice was the way she starts off on some lovely phrases and then lands with a thud, or the slightly pretentious way she misplaces adverbs in sentences, or the when she combines big words or metaphorical language with something pretty banal, (my favorite: “lonely meatloaf and isolated peas.”)
5. Dear Author, Can you tell us about your journey to publishing “Your Best Friend, Meredith?” Did you get an agent and editor right away? Thanks — #1 Query Junkie
Sure, Query Junkie, but the story has to go back to 2001, when I’d just finished my first novel, The Heroic Adventure of Hercules Amsterdam. I had really no idea what to do with it. I’d heard you need an agent, so I’d written to 17 of them, and got 17 rejections, which was not the plan. I was all ready to despair when a friend of mine from high school asked me if she could read the manuscript—and then called me back to ask if I remembered this guy from the class below us in high school, and this other friend from the class below that—and did I know that guy’s girlfriend was an editor at Dutton Children’s Books. That chain of events led to my first contract and eventual to my wonderful agent who placed my next three books. I think there are two lessons to this story: 1) If you want something, TELL EVERYONE. 2) Be nice to people in high school.
6. Dear Melissa, If you could write a letter to anyone (living or dead), to whom would you write? Who are the top 5? Signed — The Curious Epistolarian
Number one: my beloved and dead Uncle John Donge Zedo Haber. He died in 1992 and I still can’t stand it. I want to show him my children; I want to show him my books; I want to tell him how much I still love and miss him and how much I thought about him while writing Meredith. Next: Ursula K. LeGuin, author of the Earthsea books, because I’m working on a novel right now that I really want her to read. Then, Madeleine L’Engle and Dr. Seuss, just to thank them. Last, and I’m not kidding, Jesus. I have a lot of questions.
7. Dear Melissa Haber, Your novel addresses several difficult issues that children today might be dealing with – including mourning and loss. What do you think are a children’s author’s responsibilities to teach vs. entertain? How do you walk the fine line between messages and storytelling? Sincerely — CEO, Edu-tainment Corporation
THAT is an important question. In my opinion there is nothing more worthless than The Message Book that has a Point delivered by zombie characters in a off-the-rack plot. Personally I think the author’s primary responsibility is to the craft of storytelling—when we do it right, meaning appears, like the overtones that are created by voices singing together, even though no voice sings those notes. The meaning that emerges is different from the Message Book because the message, like truth, is not so neat and might not even be the same to all readers. Maybe really good books are like mirrors that help people see themselves and their situations more clearly….? In any case I really hope Meredith is a real book and not a Message Book, even though I did end up figuring out a lot of things I didn’t understand before by watching Meredith think how different people are with their different friends, and by thinking about how to hold onto the dead.
8. Dear Author, Which are some of your favorite children’s novels today? From your own childhood? Any of them novels in letters? Signed — A Ravenous Reader
My favorite novel in letters when I was a kid was Jean Webster’s DADDY LONG LEGS. Webster’s book was written about 100 years ago, but like all great books, it’s not at all creaky. It also has a great sequel, written in letters by a different character, called DEAR ENEMY. I still read it when I get the flu. My favorite writers when I was a kid were Madeleine L’Engle, Marilyn Sachs, Tolkein, and Laura Ingalls Wilder, and I still reread those when I get the flu. In recent years, the kids’ books I’ve enjoyed the most (aside from Harry Potter) have been Garth Nix’s very dark Sabriel series (zombies! necromancers!). Those are definitely story books, rather than message books, unless the message is be very afraid.
9. Dear Melissa Glenn Harber, Your protagonist drinks (or tries to drink) a lot of coffee. Do you think this symbolizes a trend in kids literature? What are your favorite caffeinated beverages? Appreciatively — Caffeinated in Cleveland
The coffee theme was a bit of an in-joke with myself. I drink a lot of coffee, no sugar. (As Meredith’s sister says, the point of coffee is to love the black bitterness, just like with life.) In fact, I drink so much coffee even when I’m teaching that my photograph in the yearbook this year was a coffee mug (it’s my mug shot, a friend joked). On the other hand, I do not encourage this habit. There may in fact be a correlation between the fact that I drink a lot of coffee and that I am Very Very Short. Drinking coffee is not a Message of Your Best Friend, Meredith.
10. Dear Melissa, What do you find unique about middle grade readers? What’s your favorite thing and biggest challenge about writing for them? — Warmly, Mixed Up and Middle Grade
Dear Mixed Up,
I love writing for middle grade readers because for me the years between 9 and 13 those years were for me unmatched in intensity. They were just the most exciting, the most scariest, the most funniest, and most embarrassing of my life—and the most magical. I felt everything much more exquisitely then, not only because there were so many firsts (first best friend, first crush, first recurring nightmare, first novel) but because I was beginning to taste what it might mean to have a life fully independent from my parents. (You’ll note that Middle Grades fantasy novels almost always dispose with the parents pretty quickly, though not always as efficiently as Roald Dahl did at the beginning of James and the Giant Peach. Part of the freedom and fear of that time and those books is that you’re on you’re own!)
In a funny way, though, I think the challenge for writing for those grades is to address that intensity and that fear without hurrying kids towards all of the themes that show up in adult literature. Smart middle grade readers often have the trouble that they want complex, literary, sophisticated books that match their giant brains—but that doesn’t mean they all want the sex and drugs and brutality that pepper so much of fiction for older readers. I’m not saying Middle Grade readers should be protected from all things harsh and sadistic—I do believe all people have the right to read what they like—but I personally want to provide books for brainy kids that are sophisticated from a literary point of view but less dark in attitude and content.
That’s not to say I want to write books that are all saccharine or All Happy Elves Playing with Rainbow Unicorns TM, as Meredith would say. I have a terrible habit of killing off characters, for example. Still, I want to writer stories that are sweeter, simpler, and more magical than the way life is often portrayed. In my opinion, fiction for the middle grades—especially the old stuff—is ideally suited to getting to the heart of life how life as it really is. There’s a wonderful moment in Mary Poppins where the babies can talk to the sunlight and the sparrows, because they’re not yet bounded by human language—and another where all the people go bounding up into the sky because they have found the balloons with their names on them. Those moments are strange and innocent and wonderful, and as far as I’m concerned, they rank among the truest scenes in all of literature, in that they capture something both intangible and real. These days we read those books to children too young to understand the profundity and sadness there, and those same kids gallop towards books that make them feel grown-up. I think the challenge for those of us who write for middle grades—the ages that share in the clarity of thought of both those older and younger than they are—is to capture such moments of truth, before the kids become too old to understand them. But perhaps the challenge is not entirely with writers, but for parents, teachers, librarians, publishers and so on—to match kids with books that meet their particular literary, social, emotional and, yes, entertainment needs.
Curious? Intrigued? Itching to Write Melissa your own letter? Well, it’s your lucky day! One lucky individual who posts a comment below will win a copy of Your Best Friend, Meredith! Rules: 1. Your comment must be in the form of a letter to Melissa. 2. You must post your letter/comment within the next 24 hours. Giveaway winner announced tomorrow!
Sayantani got back in touch with her best friend from childhood, Karen, when Karen found a big box of letters Sayantani had written her when she was about 10 and on summer vacation in India. Sayantani and Karen even tried to write a MG novel in letters based on these missives (which was pretty awful), so wrote a different MG novel together. They remain very close – all because of those discovered letters!
(images courtesy of Melissa Glenn Haber and Microsoft Clip Art)