Today on the Mixed-up Files, I’m pleased to introduce readers to Phoenix author Amy Fellner Dominy. Amy’s debut novel OyMG was recently named a “Notable Book of Jewish Content for 2012” by the Sydney Taylor Awards committee.
Before we begin, a bit about the book from Indiebound:
Ellie Taylor loves nothing better than a good argument. So when she gets accepted to the Christian Society Speech and Performing Arts summer camp, she’s sure that if she wins the final tournament, it’ll be her ticket to a scholarship to the best speech school in the country. Unfortunately, the competition at CSSPA is hot—literally. His name is Devon and, whether she likes it or not, being near him makes her sizzle. Luckily she’s confident enough to take on the challenge—until she begins to suspect that the private scholarship’s benefactor has negative feelings toward Jews. Will hiding her true identity and heritage be worth a shot at her dream?
To be in the running to win your very own copy of OyMG, leave a comment or question after the interview.
* * *
Welcome to the Mixed-up Files, Amy, and congratulations on your recent award.
Thanks! It was such a wonderful surprise. I’m having a wonderful time sneaking into bookstores and putting award stickers on copies of my book.
Our readers often ask about books suitable for tweens, and OyMG is one of those books that sits right on that line between upper middle-grade and lower YA—somewhere between Little House and Pretty Little Liars. What do you think makes a good story for tweens? What’s the difference between a tween and a teen, anyway?
This question always makes me think of the Goldilocks story. Only in this scenario, it’s Goldilocks in the bookstore. She goes to the YA section but those books are TOO mature. She goes to the MG section and those books are TOO easy. So she goes to the tween section and it’s JUST RIGHT. The problem, of course, is that there isn’t a tween section. (Yet!) But that’s how I define tween—not so much as a strict age rule, but tween represents that person who isn’t finding what they want to read in typical YA or MG.
Just to comment on how thin that line is there was a lot of discussion about where OyMG should be shelved. The marketing peeps recognized it might fit in either place. Interestingly, the book sold as an MG and then was marketed as a YA. My next book also straddles the line, but I edited it with a younger audience in mind and it’s definitely going to be MG.
As far as what makes for a good story for tweens, personally I always loved stories that showed kids (like me) searching for their place within their worlds—home and school, etc. The focus was more narrow—I wasn’t worried about the great beyond—but I grappled with who I was and who I wanted to be. Those are the issues that still fascinate me, and why I love writing for this age.
The story came to life with a question: “What would you be willing to hide?” I wanted Ellie to grapple with her identity in the way so many of us do when we find that we’re in some way “different.” The idea for a speech/theater background came after I saw a newspaper article about a local high school speech team. It just clicked as the perfect setting for an outspoken girl finding the courage to speak up for herself. To be honest, I never did compete in speech events but I really wish I had now. It looks like a lot of fun!
According to my 16-year-old son, once you turn 13 your family is nothing but a source of embarrassment—sorry, son!—but Ellie’s family is important to her, especially her flamboyant Zayde…even when he embarrasses her. He’s the moral compass of the book. Did you have a Zayde in your life?
Yeah, I hear ya. My two teens would rather I removed splinters from their eyeballs then show up at their school. Zayde is a character who first came to life in a play I wrote. I fell in love with him and knew I had to write about him again. One of my disappointments in life is that most of my own grandparents died before I ever really knew them, though I did have a Grandma Rose who loved to curse in Yiddish.
OyMG was honored by the Sydney Taylor committee for its Jewish content, but the ethical dilemma at the heart of the story—whether or not it’s okay to betray your beliefs in order to fit in or get ahead—is one everyone can relate to. How have readers responded?
That’s been the nicest part of this whole journey—hearing from my readers. I get emails from kids who begin by saying, “I’m not Jewish, but I loved OyMG.” It always makes me smile because as you said, the story is universal and Ellie’s dilemma isn’t unique to Jewish people. When I speak to classes, I find that kids feel different for so many reasons. In fact, I wonder now if anyone ever feels completely accepted for who they are?
As reviewers have noted, you tackle some serious issues in OyMG with a light touch, some romance, and a whole lot of humor. I laughed out loud many times, but I also teared up, especially during the scene at her boyfriend’s church when Ellie recalls being told by a second-grade classmate that she “killed Jesus.” There’s a lot of pain in that scene. How were you able to balance the humor with the heavier elements of the story?
You’ve mentioned a scene that always affects me, too, because that’s something that happened to me when I was that age.
I think the balance comes naturally from writing about a serious situation in the mindset of characters who use humor to deflect and deal with pain. In other words, it’s all Zayde’s doing—he’s the funny one not me.
You did such a great job of capturing Ellie’s inner turmoil after she chooses to lie about her Jewish heritage on her scholarship application. What’s your secret for getting into your characters’ heads?
I usually start out with character monologues. I ask them questions and write out their thoughts, first person, and get a feel for who they are. Ellie came to life when I posed the question: Would you bring matzoh to your new school during Passover? She answered, “Why not? It’s just a big cracker?” That put me in the mindset of a strong girl (with some attitude) who’s comfortable with herself. (Or so she thinks!) I know it sounds like a little bit of hocus pocus, but really it’s just letting the character talk until they begin to sound like someone interesting that you want to get to know. Sometimes, the character comes right away and sometimes I don’t find the right voice for a long time.
You worked for many years in advertising before earning an MFA in playwriting, and now you’re writing fiction. How do you think your background in theater and advertising has influenced your writing today – or has it?
Advertising was a big help because I wrote a lot of radio and TV spots. For both of those, you’ve got to bring characters to life through dialogue. If you write something stilted and unnatural it’s painfully obvious when you’re in studio doing the recording. Same thing is true of playwriting – you’re telling a story through dialogue so it better flow. That’s why I always advise writers to read everything out loud. It’s amazing how different it sounds from the way it reads.
While reading OyMG I couldn’t help but think of my favorite tween book when I was growing up: Are You There God, It’s Me, Margaret. It felt like Judy Blume wrote that book just for me! What were some of your favorite books at that age?
That was one of my favorite books, too. I wonder how I would have survived those middle school years without Judy Blume! I also have to mention James and the Giant Peach by Roald Dahl because that was the first book to inspire me to write a novel of my own. Otherwise, some of the books I’ve saved that are dog-eared and well-loved were the Scholastic books I’d get from school orders. They weren’t famous titles by famous authors, but they were so special to me I still have them on a shelf in my closet.
I understand you have another tween book in the works. Can you give us a sneak preview?
My next book, Audition & Subtraction, comes out this September from Walker Books. Here’s the blurb:
Tatum and Lori do everything together—including a duet for District Honor Band auditions. Then Michael Malone transfers in and suddenly Tatum is in danger of losing her spot in the band as well as her best friend, Lori. In a story of shifting friendships, divided loyalties and unexpected romance, Tatum must decide just how much she’s willing to give up in order to hold on to what she has.
Sounds great, Amy. Thanks, so much for visiting today.
Thanks for having me! This is such a wonderful site for all things tween. I’m glad to be a part of it.
My pleasure! To learn more about Amy and her books check out her website, Facebook, or Twitter feed. And don’t forget to leave a comment to win a copy of OyMG. The winner will be announced Saturday, March 10.
* * *
Laurie Schneider grew up in small-town Wisconsin where she was a junior-high speech geek and the only Jewish kid for a hundred miles. She could’ve used a friend like Ellie Taylor.