I’m thrilled to welcome Kerry O’Malley Cerra to the Mixed-Up Files blog. Kerry is a former high school history teacher who often enhanced textbooks with historical fiction to bring time periods to life. Just a Drop of Water, her first middle grade novel, was inspired by a deeply personal experience following the tragic events of September 11, 2001. In this gripping and intensely touching novel, Kerry brings the events of September 11 into the lens of a young boy who is desperately trying to understand the ramifications of this life-altering event. You can visit Kerry on her website and on Twitter and check out the amazing Just a Drop of Water trailer below.
I’m so glad you’re visiting the Mixed-Up Files today, Kerry! I’d love for you to share with our readers what inspired you to write Just a Drop of Water and why it’s set in Florida.
My very short answer, in regards to inspiration, is simply to promote peace. I have no doubt that it begins with children. If you’d like a longer answer, jump over to this blog post I did with Darlene Beck-Jacobson. There are a couple of reasons why I chose Florida as the setting. First, one of the terrorists lived in our small-ish town, so our city quickly became an FBI hot-spot and, as you can imagine, it was pretty freaky. We also lost six residents in the attacks that day. While many people associate 9/11 with New York and sometimes Pennsylvania and D.C., I want kids to know that the events of that day extended far and wide. It was a national tragedy, not just a New York tragedy. I don’t know anyone who was old enough to remember that day that wasn’t affected deeply. I want readers to know that.
How did you come up with the title, Just a Drop of Water?
My book, from the time I began dabbling with the idea for it in 2008 until the very last draft before submission in 2013, was titled September 13. I really loved that title and I still do. But, a good editor friend of mine brought up a great point when we were discussing it. While she understood my reasoning (even though most Americans’ lives changed on September 11, 2001, Jake is just a kid and doesn’t get to see the world for what it really is until September 13, 2001 when his whole world is turned upside down; the day he is forced to grow up and will never be a kid again) she felt the title took away from those who lost loved ones in the attack on September 11. When she put it like that, I knew I’d have to change the title. I didn’t want to disrespect anyone, and that day is just too difficult for people already. I wasn’t married to the title enough to potentially add to that grief unnecessarily. The new title came about in my very last draft. I wasn’t planning to add that thread in. It sort of came out of nowhere. I was consciously looking for a line from the book that I could possibly use to name the book while I worked through my final revision but, for some reason, the words of that song (sorry, I’m being vague to avoid spoilers!) kept popping up in my head every time I came across a scene that included the grandmother. So, not only did it happen just before I got an agent and sold the book, it pretty much came from my subconscious. But, I do love it. It just works.
I love it, too! And I love how much the tension builds as your story moves closer to September 11. How did you decide to start your novel on September 7th?
I really, REALLY love this question, Mindy. Thanks for asking it. This novel had so many different beginnings that I really can’t even keep track. As a writer, we always hear that we should start with a bang. Jump right in so kids will be hooked. But, my super-talented writer friend Gaby Triana made a great point at a workshop we did one day. I already knew that starting on Sept. 10 wasn’t working. She pointed out that readers wouldn’t have enough time to see the strength of Jake and Sam’s friendship prior to September 11—so when their friendship went south, the readers wouldn’t really care. She was dead on. From there, I knew I needed to back it up some, but it took a few more drafts to really find the right spot. Readers now experience the normalcy of the days before 9/11 and the friendship of two everyday kids. I hope that when their friendship turns rocky, that readers are invested in the boys enough to ache for both characters and hope that the boys find their way back to each other. One of my favorite, yet potentially viewed as unimportant, scenes is when the Madina family comes over to Jake’s house to have dinner with the Greens for Jake’s birthday. This not only happens prior to 9/11, it happens in the very first chapter of the book. To me, inviting someone to your dinner table is an almost sacred act. It shows trust and friendship. My editor initially wanted me to cut this because it doesn’t necessarily move the story forward. She might be right about that, but it’s a scene I couldn’t part with. When Jake’s mom goes into her tailspin and refuses to let Jake hang out with Sam and his family, it shows readers just how much and how quickly sentiments and lives in general changed after that heartrending day.
Do you have any activities that tie Just a Drop of Water into school curriculum?
Oh, I love this question, too! Yes, I worked over the summer to come up with discussion questions that lend themselves to Common Core. There are currently 23 on my website under the Teacher Resources tab. Likewise, after attending the awesome SCBWI Florida workshop on Common Core this past June, my brain clicked to autopilot and I came up with some cool extension activities that teachers can use in the classroom for Just a Drop of Water. Finally, in working with some pretty awesome 5th grade teachers at Maplewood Elementary School, we created lesson plans that they have implemented as their entire 5th grade classes are reading the book. I’ll be posting them on my website soon.
I absolutely love your cover! What can you tell us about it?
I know most authors never get to speak to their illustrators, but I’m so fortunate that Katy Betz—an incredibly talented and dear friend from my SCBWI Florida chapter—was hired to do my cover. I actually thought this would mean that I could just tell Katy what I wanted and…poof, my wish would be granted. I knew she had read the manuscript and I told her exactly the scene from the book that I thought should be brought to life on the front of the book. It’s the scene when Jake is walking to school on September 13 and is seeing all the flags up and down his street for the very fist time. I was determined that that would be my cover. But, Katy worked closely with the art director at Sky Pony and I think at some point she gave them three concept sketches based on their discussions. From there, the publisher narrowed it down to one. That’s when I first got a peek at what would soon be my real cover. Because Katy is my friend, I was so nervous when the email came in. What if I hated it? What if I had to get my agent involved to try to get another cover? And, when I opened it and saw the boy’s leg and him stepping in a puddle, I was shocked that it wasn’t my street scene. Honestly, I wasn’t sure if I liked it—though I knew I didn’t hate it, for sure. My boys had a bunch of friends over that day so I showed it to them. Not only did they love it, they told me all their reasons for loving it. And the more they talked, the more I let go of my boring old street scene. Within minutes, I was hooked except for one thing. I really, really wanted a flag somewhere on the front, so I sent Katy a most delicate email telling her how excited I was, but asked if she could add a flag. Within seconds she replied, telling me to look in the puddle where I’d find stars. The sketch I got was in black and white, so it was impossible to know at that point that Jake was actually stepping in a puddle that was reflecting a flag from a house. And oh my gosh, it was so brilliant. When I saw it in color several weeks later, it seriously blew me away. I love the crème colored background—it gives a timeless feel. I love that it’s Jake on the cover alone, because even though Sam is a huge part of the story, this is Jake’s coming-of-age tale. The leaves in the puddle perfectly illustrate that this takes place in the fall, and that groovy font for the title…perfection! Ironically, I always preach to my kids about not having expectations, but that’s exactly what I did. I’m so glad that Sky Pony and Katy went in a totally different direction, because my idea was so dull compared to the gorgeous artwork that is now my official cover. Love!
Mindy, thank you so much for having me on the Mixed-Up-Files blog and for your thoughtful questions. Big hugs to you!
You’re welcome, Kerry. Thank you so much for visiting the Mixed-Up Files today—big hugs to you, too. I loved learning how Just a Drop of Water was born. And thank you for offering our readers a chance to win a signed copy of your book!
Enter using the Rafflecopter widget below, and one lucky winner will receive a signed copy of Just a Drop of Water. The winner will be announced on Thursday, September 11th. Good luck!
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Mindy Alyse Weiss writes humorous middle grade novels with heart and quirky picture books. She’s constantly inspired by her two daughters, an adventurous Bullmasador adopted from The Humane Society, and an adorable Beagle/Pointer mix who was rescued from the Everglades. Visit Mindy’s Twitter, Facebook, or blog to read more about her writing life, conference experiences, and writing tips.