Category Archives: middle-grade fiction

An Interview with Tony Abbott

Today we’re pleased to talk with Tony Abbott, the author of more than 95 books for middle-grade readers, including the Golden Kite Award winner, Firegirl. Tony’s newest book, The Summer of Owen Todd (Ferrar Straus Giroux, 2017), is the subject of our discussion. (Giveaway Alert! Read all the way through for details.)

The Summer of Owen Todd could be the story of just about any 11-year-old. Summer has arrived, school is over, and for Owen, the days stretch long with the possibility of beach trips, go-kart races, and baseball games with his best friend, Sean. Sean’s own summer plans, however, are derailed by his mother’s new job and the presence of a babysitter, a young man Sean’s mom believes she can trust to keep Sean, who has diabetes,  safe and help monitor his blood sugar levels.  When Sean becomes the victim of sexual abuse at the hands of his new babysitter, Owen is the only person Sean can talk to.  Told entirely from Owen’s point of view, The Summer of Owen Todd addresses a difficult topic as it explores issues of trust, friendship, and bravery.

MH: It wasn’t too long ago that a topic such as childhood sexual assault would have been taboo in middle-grade fiction. When did you know you wanted to write this story?

TA:  The “when” of this story is critical to me. To step back a few years, my wife knew a work colleague, and one day she told my wife a truly horrible story about her son. He was very young, molested, filmed, later told a friend about it, then swore that friend to keep it a secret, which he did. The boy eventually committed suicide. Some years later, his mother approached my wife, knowing I was a writer, saying she was ready to get her son’s story out and wondered if there was a book that could help other children and families. My wife told me about this, and one or two writer friends who had written tough stories for young adults were discussed, but almost from the beginning I had begun to feel some of the tensions and visualize some scenes that would need to be dramatized in any telling. There was something uniquely powerful in those moments. They drew me in.

I have not been molested, though there was a moment in high school, a meeting with an older man, that immediately came to mind, and I remembered how I felt when that happened. I also felt that the ultimate truth of what happened—the suicide—was something that occurred when the boy was approaching adulthood and that any story for younger readers would likely have to end before that. It might have been at this time that the element of telling the story from the friend’s point of view became the way into the tragedy. So, the molested boy’s friend tells the story, and it would chart the days and weeks of the ongoing abuse from the friend’s point of view. If, as I later discovered, from 1 in 7 to 1 in 20 boys is sexually abused, that left the majority of boys as bystanders, friends of the abused. It seemed a way to broaden the story, make it approach real life, to write from the likely reader’s point of view.

These tensions drew me into the story both deeply and quickly and there was no question of talking to other writers; I would try to create a draft to see how it might work. The narrator’s name, Owen Todd, came to me from that place where names come. It wasn’t assembled. It came, he came, with a voice and a personality, as these things often do. I loved him, his vulnerability, his likes and dislikes. I don’t think this is news to any writer. A character is born, not crafted, and that’s the way of it with Owen.

MH: The awful reality of what is happening to Sean is clearly, and yet delicately, stated. How much discussion happened in the editorial process about what words would be used and what words might be avoided?

TA: To begin to answer this, I have to say that the original draft had the characters aged around 8 or 9. The summer was between 3rd and 4th grade. What I knew, but perhaps not completely consciously when I submitted the draft, was that the language I was using, both in conversations between Owen and Sean and in describing the events of the abuse, was pushing the story out of that lower-age area of middle grade stories. To tell the story properly it had to be harsh and raw in parts. To have really worked it for younger readers, some of the language would have to be less precise and more vague. “Bad touching,” instead of the wordage Sean actually uses in the book. I felt that the gauzier language would have made the book poorer as a piece of art and as a representation of reality. So my editor kindly brought me back up to meet my own language, so to speak. The characters are now eleven and in the summer between  elementary and middle school. This made the story match the kind of humor and emotion, description and relationship interaction the characters already displayed. The Summer of Owen Todd may be one of the first middle-grade stories to talk this way about the sexual abuse of a boy, but what is still needed is a book for younger boys who are very much the prey of molesters. Another way of saying this is that I failed to find the way to tell the story I had in mind to a readership lower than ten years old.

MH: I wouldn’t say you failed as much as you adjusted the story you had in mind to fit a slightly older audience. Tell us about the sale of the manuscript. What did your agent say about the manuscript’s marketability?

The first draft was some 18,000 words long. Eighty pages. The events in the published book were mostly all there, but in compressed form, one abuse following the other until the end. My agent at the time, Erica Silverman loved the story as I submitted it. She thought, I suppose, that it was too short as is, but it was like a, what did Dickens call such things, a sledgehammer, and that it would find an editor with an encouraging response. We assembled a list of six or eight editors from different companies and imprints, and Erica sent copies to some of them, keeping a reserve of a few for a second round of submissions. There were a couple of odd passes from good editors, a useful letter or two, but it took a few submissions and weeks to find Joy Peskin at Farrar Straus, an editor who saw the inside of the story, saw what it could be, and knew from the brief draft that I could pull and push and enlarge the story into what it has now become. Joy’s wanting me to go back and draw some of the background characters and situations into the light—Owen’s sister, Ginny; his grandmother; the buying of the go-karts, the baseball game, the outdoor theater—proved to me that the story was both bigger and more real when I made it fuller. We knew from the beginning, Joy, Erica, and myself, that it was a specialized sort of book. Not one that you could market to all comers.

MH: How much outlining/preplotting did you do while writing this book?

TA: I tend to outline very specifically when I write a mystery or a thriller, and I have done quite a few of those. For novels—and yes, I guess I make a distinction between my books this way—there isn’t anywhere near as strict a machine for getting from the first page to the last. There is a very strong thread, I would call it, that I know the story will follow, or that I suspect it will. But there is enough play throughout so that events and motives can transform themselves, and that thread becomes more like a tapestry of several motives, weaving together what is a more complex whole. Some of what results during the writing of the story are, of course, elements I hadn’t the least conceived when I set about to write it. Those surprises are organic and, as such, exciting and life-bearing. All this is to say that I knew where the story would go, how it would end, but not all the features of the landscape.

MH: You capture summer on Cape Cod from the perspective of the locals, which is different from many seaside stories told from the point of view of vacationers. Why did you choose to set the book there?

Place has always been a character in the stories I love to read. Give me descriptions of rooms, weather, streets, the panorama of life. When I start to read a book and I find I don’t feel the place, I don’t go on.  I’ve visited the Cape for decades, just about every summer, often off-season. I am deeply in love with it, want to live and die there, if at all possible. If the characters and their voices and feelings come first, the setting comes quickly after. Where are they speaking and feeling? In this case, everything I knew about living on the Cape would find a home with these boys. I love go-karting, I love the Gut in Wellfleet, Provincetown, Chatham, Brewster, all of those things became living backgrounds for the psychological progress of Owen and of Sean. The idea of being locals; now that’s interesting. I suppose after going there for so long, I don’t feel like a tourist anymore. My wife and I and our daughters have so many “regular” places, it’s like being home.

MH: In the bookstore scene, there’s a nod to Brian Lies’s Bats at the Ballgame when Owen’s little sister Ginny picks out a “picture book about vampire bats playing baseball.”  Is Owen’s choice— “I find a novel about a boy who disappears”— also a nod to one of our own middle-grade contemporaries?

TA: Ha! This is funny. Because Brian lives on the South Shore below Boston, he’s quite familiar with the Cape; I thought of his books immediately when the bookstore scene came around. The novel, the one that Owen would buy for himself, is a veiled reference to one of my own, which isn’t out yet, and turns out to be not a quite truthful description of it, after all (but I still claim it!). I thought I would save Owen’s choice for something of mine, didn’t want it to be an old one, so it sort of just hangs out there as a question: what book is he talking about?

MH: Talk to us about using the truth as a springboard into fiction, as you’ve done so beautifully in this book.

TA: The idea of fact becoming fiction is always fascinating to me. Although the impetus for The Summer of Owen Todd came from a real event, the novel that emerged is almost completely imagined, and this sort of thing happens in an interesting way. The voice of Owen came first, I feel comfortable in saying. Sean’s voice, second. The center of the story would be Owen and his reaction to what  happens to Sean, but also his reactions to summer, which is a big deal in a resort area. So, first the voices, then the setting, then the emotional thread I mentioned earlier begins to establish itself. You know instinctively, I believe, when the novel you are writing cleaves too closely to what really happened, because it lacks a certain kind of fictive truth. Fictive truth, I’m compelled to say, is not less true than what really happens, but creates itself out of the emotional reality of the story you are crafting. If an imagined conversation or event aligns with that truth, then it is as true as life.

MH: Tony, thank you. Thank you for the brave way in which you tackled a project that many would have deemed too difficult. Thank you for generously sharing your process with us. And, thank you, for providing The Mixed-Up Files of Middle-Grade Authors with TWO signed copies of The Summer of Owen Todd for our giveaway. Your kindness is so very appreciated.

To enter, see below. *Contest open to U.S. residents only.*

a Rafflecopter giveaway

Indie Spotlight: Kids Ink Children’s Books, Indianapolis

Always a delight to learn about a thriving independent children’s bookstore! We’re speaking today with Shirley Mullin, owner of Kids Ink Children’s Books in Indianapolis, Indiana
MUF: Kids Ink has been open for over three decades, riding out even the bookstore blues of ten years ago. What’s your survival secret? Have you made adaptions over the year that helped?
Shirley:
We have made constant adaptations to changes in the book industry, the economy, and our customers. We’ve been constant in basic principles ie Kind, Fair, and Honest. We also have always emphasized customer service focusing as much as possible on the children and young adults asking them if they have read a book that they really like. Or, asking what interests them.

Beyond that, however, we have adapted our business to stay viable. We are constantly look for new markets. Several years ago we started supplying books for several title programs which has been successful. We offer not only the books but our expertise in choosing titles. This often involves taking books to the district for a “show and tell, ” helping them decide what works for the curriculum. We are currently beginning to experiment with pop-up stores in some of our larger retirement communities offering holiday shopping and gift wrapping at the facility.
Maintaining our presence at major educational events has also been important either selling books tailored to the event or providing information about the store.Finally, we have expanded our assistance to schools helping them find and book authors…often linking schools together.   We then supply the books for the school to sell.

MUF: Describe the atmosphere you try to create in your shop. What are some special features of Kids Ink?
Shirley:
We have always had a train table and have sold trains.   The past few years we have sold Brio. The train gives children a focus point and something engaging while their adults shop. It is not unusual for us to be called the Train Store.
We do our best to maintain the store as a bright cheerful place. All the fixtures are white so the books and toys stand out. Because we are about 20 percent books, our displays are interesting with perhaps a raccoon puppet and a book with a raccoon title or a Playmobil Knight package with a book about knights.Our front window is large and attracts attention most recently with banned books and now featuring the up-coming John Green book.
But the most important component of atmosphere is the staff. We try to make sure that we are able to greet everyone courteously and respond to their questions. We greet everyone who walks through the door and try to be aware of when they need suggestions.

MUF: Kids Ink is a small shop, so your books must be curated. How do you decide what books and related items to carry?
Shirley:
Terri orders all the sidelines/toys. She has a good eye for what our customers want. We only sell real quality toys with emphasis on “playability,” safety, and good construction. (I am quite able to order toys that never sell!) I personally order all the front list. I read all of the picture books before ordering and many of the novels and non-fiction. For all of them, I think about who might want this book and/or who should need this book. Sometimes there is a book that is about a subject or event that hasn’t been requested but the book is important and needs to be read.
For non-fiction, I look at who wrote the book. Are they qualified to write about this topic? I favor non-fiction that has good elements like Table of Contents, Index, Bibliography and Suggested Reading.
Most important, I watch for books that are inclusive of gender, race, and sexuality. Diversity is very important to me and all of the staff.

MUF: As middle-grade authors, we’re curious to know what titles, new or old, fiction or nonfiction, you find yourself recommending most often to readers ages 8-12?
Shirley:
Books by Jeanne Birdsall, the Penderwicks, Kimberly Brubacker Bradley’s The War that Saved My Life, Rita Garcia Williams titles, Pam Munoz Ryan titles, Jason Reynolds, Ghost and Patina.Non-Fiction varies a lot depending on what the child finds interesting. We have a lot of requests for biographies, books about animals, and weather.

MUF: Do you have any activities coming up that would be of special interest to middle-graders?
Shirley:
Sarah Cannon, a debut novelist will be signing on 12/2/17 from eleven to one for Oddity. Her book will be of interest for this level.

MUF: If a family is visiting Indianapolis from out of town, would there be family-friendly places near your shop where they could get a snack or meal after shopping? And if they could stay longer, are there some unique family activities or sights they shouldn’t miss?
Shirley: We are next door to The Flying Cupcake, a marvelous place incredibly popular with all our customers. Then next door to that is Father Bryne’s Pizza with unusual grilled thin crust pizza. Across the street is a long established Illinois Street Food Emporium which is known for chicken salad croissants baked daily in house as well as a Grater’s Ice Cream store. In addition, our corner contains shopping for everyone…a jewelry store, a boutique with unusual home items, an art store, clothing store, and a Starbucks.
Even better, The Children’s Museum of Indianapolis is twenty blocks from the store. It is the largest children’s museum in the world.

MUF: Thanks, Shirley, for sharing news  about your fine shop.  Readers, have you visited Kids Ink yet?