Stephanie Greene answers the facts of life… and how she writes three successful middle-grade series

Today we’re welcoming middle-grade author Stephanie Greene to the Mixed-Up Files!

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Stephanie grew up surrounded by children’s books–her mother was a celebrated author–but these days she’s written a host of middle-grade novels and chapter books and becoming a prolific, award-winning author herself.

Welcome, Stephanie! We can’t wait to hear about your new novel… and everything else in the world of Stephanie Greene! Tell us about your new middle-grade novel Sophie Hartley and the Facts of Life.

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Sophie is a reluctant pre-teen. When she hears that the fifth grade girls are going to watch “the movie” about human development, she doesn’t want anything to do with it. But her best friend Alice wants to know, so Sophie sets out to find out a tiny bit she can share, while keeping the respect of her peers who might think she’s a baby in not wanting to know all the gory details. To Sophie, the entire subject of P-U-berty stinks.

The conventional wisdom seems to be that teens (and YA novels) have the most angst and conflict, but Facts of Life is packed with troubles aplenty as Sophie confronts growing from a little girl to a young woman. What is it about this big childhood transition point that attracts you as a writer? How is your approach the same or different than someone writing YA?

Nine-and ten-year-olds face changes in their lives that feel every bit as catastrophic to them as anything a 15-year-old is facing, yet they’re armed with less information and sophistication. It’s a vulnerable and appealing age to me. I think children suffer angst at every stage of life, it’s that teens are more vocal about it. Writing any book, no matter what genre, starts off with the need for a strong narrative arc. After that, the depth and drama of the conflict has to change to reflect the age of the protagonist; the hurdles the protagonist must overcome increase in difficulty as the genre ages up; and the resolution might become more dramatic, depending on the story. A toddler discovers the shadow in the closet isn’t a monster, it’s his backpack vs. the girl warrior who tried to save the world lies at death’s door in preparation for the next book in the trilogy. Lol.

Facts of Life tackles a tricky subject– the facts of life, themselves. How did you approach this topic for the middle-grade readers. How important was humor when addressing this sensitive topic? What reaction have your received, negative or positive?

I can’t think of an adult woman I know, or a nine-or-ten-year old who I’ve talked to, who doesn’t cringe at the memory of, or anticipation about, having to see “the movie.” Puberty is embarrassing. I didn’t plan on the story moving in the direction it did when I started writing. It moved by itself. But using some humor felt important to me if I wasn’t going to embarrass the heck out of Sophie and readers, alike. It’s hard to be sincere about P-U-berty. Anyway, it makes me laugh.

Reaction so far has been great. PW said, “the author lightheartedly yet earnestly portrays the shifting dynamics of being on the cusp of middle school.” Booklist called it “wryly amusing, perceptive story,” while CCB said, “Greene paints a convincing picture of the last breath of childhood with sensitivity and humor.”

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The first Sophie Hartley book was published in 2005. To what do you attribute Sophie’s longevity?

First, I have to give credit to my editor, Dinah Stevenson, at Clarion. She makes every book better. After that, I guess I’d have to say that Sophie’s a funny, appealing character who gets herself into situations readers seem to identify with. I think there’s a continuing need for realistic, character-driven, middle grade books.

Did you base Sophie on a real girl? When you’re writing do you ever imagine a particular reader?

Sophie’s many girls who I’ve known. She’s also a bit of me, I suppose. But she’s an original. No, I never imagine a reader. I know writers are sometimes told to keep their readers in mind, but that’s never made that much sense to me.

In many middle grade novels the main character undergoes a fairly large transformation from the beginning of the story to the end. In the earlier books in this series Sophie was nine- now she’s ten, struggling with the idea of becoming a teenager. How have you balanced letting this character grow and change with keeping her relevant to your target age middle grade readers?

I haven’t purposefully balanced it. Unlike some middle grade books in which there’s high drama, the Sophie books are quieter. They chart the course of one, nine- and then ten-year-old girl, just trying to get along, not get into trouble, or get herself out of trouble … in short, grow up. Her siblings and family and friends are also going through their own, similarly painful growing pains, so there’s more in the books for readers than the story about one girl.

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You write two other middle grade series- Princess Posey (including the brand new Princess Posey and the Christmas Magic) and Owen Foote. What different writing challenges do these books pose. How are they different from your Sophie books?

The Posey books are early chapter books, while the Owen books are chapter books. Stepping-stone genres to fill the needs of readers as they mature, is how I think of it. They’re different because the protagonist in each series is a different person, so they face different situations and solve them differently. The Posey books are short. Short is hard to write. Plot and emotion and character development have to be conveyed in short, yet effective, sentences. The Owen Foote books are longer (about 10,000 words) and about boys, so I had to understand and know boys to write those. The Sophie books are about her, yes, but also her large family. My experience growing up as the middle of five children helped me there.

Stephanie has all the bases covered when it comes to writing for middle-grade readers– and understanding middle-grade kids.

Thanks so much, Stephanie! I’ve read Sophie Hartley and the Facts of Life and I give it two thumbs up! I just wish it had been around when I was at that… questioning time! No blushing necessary.

Tami Lewis Brown still wonders about the birds and the bees… and how she’s going to complete her next middle-grade novel!

 

5 responses to “Stephanie Greene answers the facts of life… and how she writes three successful middle-grade series

  1. *after seeing “the movie” that is. The very memory of that moment befuddled me!

  2. Wonderful and inspiring interview. Fifth grade–ugh! When the boys rejoined the girls in class, a bunch of them were chanting, “We know what your ovaries are!” We almost died from embarrassment! Sounds like a very relevant series.

    Thanks for the interview, Tami!

  3. Hi Stephanie,

    Fun interview – thank you (Tami)!

    I saw “the movie” in the fifth grade at my rural school. The girls all sat in one room and the boys sat in another. And at the time, the movie seemed like it was a couple of decades old (shown on an old movie projector). After we saw the movie there was so much chatter on the playground that afternoon.

    At the time, the girls in my class all scrambled to get a copy of ARE YOU THERE GOD, IT’S ME MARGARET. I lent mine to a friend and never got it back.

    Thanks for writing a fresh take on a “timeless” topic. There are readers waiting, guaranteed.

    Congrats on all of your books!

    Best,
    Heather Villa

  4. Andrea, if you ask me Stephanie is a super-woman!

  5. It’s so interesting to hear about how you cope with writing challenges. I also wonder how you manage to juggle writing three different series on a ongoing basis!