Category Archives: Miscellaneous

Interview with Author Donna Gephart — and a Giveaway for Teachers and Librarians!

I’d like to welcome one of my favorite middle grade authors and one I am happy to call my friend:  DONNA GEPHART!

2934511Donna Gephart’s first novel, AS IF BEING 12-3/4 ISN’T BAD ENOUGH,MY MOTHER IS RUNNING FOR PRESIDENT! won the prestigious Sid Fleischman Humor Award.  Her second novel, HOW TO SURVIVE MIDDLE SCHOOL, received starred reviews from Kirkus and School Library Journal and landed on these state reading lists:  Texas, New York, Louisiana and Illinois.  Donna’s new book, OLIVIA BEAN, TRIVIA QUEEN, about a girl determined to get on the TV quiz show Jeopardy!, received a starred review from Kirkus!
 
 

Donna’s books are hilariously funny. They make people laugh. They make people cry. They touch your heart.  Her first three books are all fabulous:

                     

I am thrilled to be able to share her latest book with you. It’s called

Death by Toilet Paper! 

Fans of How to Survive Middle School will welcome the adventures of a contest-crazed seventh grader who uses his wits and way with words in hopes of winning a big cash prize to help his family avoid eviction.
 
Benjamin is about to lose a whole lot more than good toilet paper. But even with his flair for clever slogans, will he be able to win a cash prize large enough to keep a promise he made to his dad before he died?

 

“Gephart’s generous view of humanity’s basic goodness shines through, and she leavens her characters’ difficult situation with plenty of humor. . . Readers can’t help but enjoy this heartening book about hanging in there.”–Kirkus Reviews

“Ben is a character kids will root for, and he’s surrounded by family and friends who help him see things will be okay, a message that may comfort readers facing similar circumstances.”–Publisher’s Weekly 

Here’s where we find out the genius behind the creation:

Donna, tell us about your latest book. Was it fun to write?

Locating facts about toilets and toilet paper that head each chapter was fascinating and fun.  Did you know the first stall in a public bathroom is the least used, therefore, the cleanest?  I got to study books like, Sarah Albee’s Poop Happened!:  A History of the World from the Bottom Up and call it research.

 

 Your books are hilariously funny, but they also have a thread of real-life, and you cover difficult topics at times, such as divorce, separation and even death. Why do you feel the need to do this?

I love reading books that make me care enough to cry . . . and laugh.  That’s my aim when I create books – humor and heartbreak — so my work can also serve as an emotional roadmap for readers.  In Death by Toilet Paper, Ben Epstein figures out how to navigate the impossible stages grief and ultimately move forward with hope.

 

Where do you get your ideas?

Trader Joe’s.  Seriously, I LOVE that store.  When Trader Joe’s is closed, though, I get my ideas from paying attention to unusual names, hobbies, jobs, conversations and stories.  Podcasts, like This American Life, are great ways to get my mind thinking of story ideas.  Reading the Sunday newspaper usually gets me thinking as well.

 

What is your writing process? Do you have a set time to write every day? 

Every day . . . except when life gets in the way, which it sometimes does.  Most days, I exercise outside then make a big cup of hot tea before I begin writing.  I use the Pomodoro Method, which is a program of set times for work and breaks.  I found a free Pomodoro timer online, and it has increased my productivity and kept me off the Internet while writing.

 

Why did you decide to become an author? 

When I was ten and bored, I wrote a story about a horse, although I knew NOTHING about horses.  My mom read my story and made a big fuss.  That’s when I decided I’d be a writer.

But the drive to write probably hatched years earlier in the children’s section of the Northeast Regional Library in Philadelphia.  That place was a life-changer for me in the best possible way.  I was lonely and bored and found excellent company on the shelves.  A Hundred Dresses by Eleanor Estes resonated with me back then . . . and still.

Can you name one teacher that inspired you to write or had an affect on your life? 

Heck yeah!  My 10th grade teacher, Myra Durlofsky, inspired me with her creativity and energy.  She was a great role model.  I put her in a couple of my novels, and I still keep in touch with her!

Also reconnected last year with my childhood librarian, Miss Irene.  I walked into the main library in Philadelphia with my niece and there she was – Miss Irene – looking very much like I remembered her thirty-five years before.  That was a happy reunion!

 

  Donna speaks at elementary and middle schools, book festivals, libraries and conferences, including the S.C.B.W.I. National Conference, the Erma Bombeck Writers’ Workshop, F.A.M.E., the Conference on Children’s Literature, etc. She also does Skype visits to connect with schools across the U. S. and internationally. 
 

You do Skype visits for your books, what does that entail?

I LOVE doing Skype visits.  They’re so much fun.  After my interactive presentation with lots of show-and-tell, students ask questions.  And I ask them questions about their favorite books and authors.

 

How do you interact with the students during a Skype visit?

Sometimes, I do a Jeopardy!-style quiz with the students, which gets them totally engaged.  I ask questions and have them guess the outcomes as I tell stories.  There’s no substitute for in person school visits, of course, but Skype visits come close and they are good for the environment – no travel involved.  (Also, I may or may not wear bunny slippers during Skype visits.)  http://skypeanauthor.wikifoundry.com/page/Donna+Gephart

 

What is your favorite part about being an author? 

The creative responses to my books that I receive from both educators and young readers.  I’ve gotten freshly baked lemon squares, paintings, drawings and sculptures of characters and book covers, student-created videos, etc.  And I treasure the letters and emails I get telling me how my story resonated for a particular reader.  The connections I make with readers are what I really value.

If I could tell the lonely, bored girl choosing books from the shelves at the Northeast Regional Library that she would someday grow up to have a literary life, filled with reading, writing and people passionate about literature, I think she’d be quite pleased.

 

Anything else that you’d like to add:

For funny videos, word games, trivia, reading/activity guides, writing advice, etc., check out my site:  www.donnagephart.com.

Thanks for joining us Donna and giving us a peek into your creative process. :)

Donna has graciously donated a very special PRIZE !!

An  educator/librarian prize pack — a signed book, reading/activity guide and a couple dozen bookmarks

To enter, simply leave a comment below. In the spirit of the Donna’s latest book  let us know your funny encounter with toilet paper OR how you would  use a bunch of money you won in contest!  You have until December 10th to enter.

 

 

 

 

 

Lemony Snicket’s Particularly Unfortunate Event

Last week at the National Book Awards, Jacqueline Woodson, who is African American, won for Best Young People’s Literature. Immediately afterward, Daniel Handler, who is Lemony Snicket, made a watermelon joke.

A video is here, and this transcript was made by David Perry:

Woodson: Thank you for your love of books, and thank you for changing the world.

[music]

Handler: I told you! I told Jackie she was going to win. And I said that if she won, I would tell all of you something I learned about her this summer, which is that Jackie Woodson is allergic to watermelon. Just let that sink in your mind.

And I said you have to put that in a book. And she said, you put that in a book.

And I said I am only writing a book about a black girl who is allergic to watermelon if I get a blurb from you, Cornell West, Toni Morisson, and Barack Obama saying, “This guy’s ok! This guy’s fine!”

Alright

[cackle]

Alright, we’ll talk about it later.

I first learned of this alleged joke by following a Twitter link to a Horn Books blog entry by Roger Sutton titled, “Being a White Guy in Children’s Books.”

Sutton touches on issues of diversity and male privilege in children’s publishing, but also suggests: that Handler is guilty of “overreach,” as if there were some less objectionable version of this particular joke; that Handler mistakenly thought he was “cool enough” to pull off such a joke, as if another humorist might have had better luck at it; and that Sutton, or any other white male, can’t complain too much because they could have easily “fallen into the same trap.”

I strongly disagree with all three of these implications.

First, take a look at the structure of Handler’s joke. At its core is an observation that’s only ironic or amusing to someone who buys into an infamously offensive racial stereotype, and which anyway has nothing to do with Woodson’s literary accomplishments. This was not a risky joke that hovered just beyond Handler’s comedic reach, as Sutton implies. This was an unfunny statement that would have been equally inappropriate to the venue no matter how Handler could have told it.

Is Sutton at least right that the joke might have worked in a different context if only Handler were “cool” enough to pull it off? I don’t know whether Sutton is using “cool” as that Fonzie-in-a-leather-jacket mix of confidence and style that lets some people get away with breaking the rules, or as a euphemism for…something else.

Either way, let’s assume a “cool” comedian like Chris Rock were able to make a successful joke about Jacqueline Woodson’s watermelon allergy. So what? That would be entirely irrelevant because Daniel Handler is not Chris Rock, and because the National Book Awards are not an HBO comedy special.

So if it’s not the joke that failed, or the insufficient “coolness” of the joke teller, then what exactly is the trap that Sutton thinks Handler fell into?

I’d like to posit that this was a classic example of filter-fail.

We all have thoughts we would never say out loud—and I mean all of us humans, not just white males like Daniel Handler, Roger Sutton, and myself. Our senses of humor are built over a lifetime, based on personal experience, and influenced by the society we live in, largely beyond our conscious control. Once you hear a racist joke, it can never be unheard. Luckily, our brains come equipped with filters. When we know a joke is wrong, hurtful, offensive, and unfunny, we can choose not to pass it along to other people.

Handler’s contextual disclaimer emphasized how aware he was that a watermelon joke would be too toxic for him to write into a book, so it’s mind-boggling that he would opt instead to say it out loud to an auditorium full of people—not as an off-the-cuff remark that reached too far and fell flat, but as a story that took months of planning and reflection beforehand.

On the basis of a private conversation that we have no other record of, Handler believed he had Woodson’s permission to tell a racist joke about her, and that such permission would keep anyone else from being offended. No matter how cool you might be, there is no way to ever pull that off.

If Daniel Handler’s internal filters had been working properly, telling him which jokes can be shared with others and which should be smothered, none of us would ever need to know that Lemony Snicket is amused by such things as watermelon allergies among people of color.

But now we do.

Is Sutton right to worry that he himself might suffer a filter-fail under similar circumstances? Or that this is in any way a problem exclusive to white males? Is it wrong for him to empathize with Handler? Is it wrong for me not to?

I am holding Handler to a higher standard than other people, not because of Handler’s gender or skin color, but because he is a professional humorist who writes for children. I also write humor for children, and only wish I could do it half as well as Handler can. He has long been an idol and role model for me, especially in the way he has developed his literary voice and professional persona. I want to do what he does.

But while I can see myself making any number of embarrassing gaffes if I were given a microphone in a public setting, I can’t imagine ever joking about Jacqueline Woodson’s watermelon allergy, or finding humor in such a situation.

It’s personally horrifying for me to think that a watermelon joke could come from the same quirky wit that has produced books that have made me laugh out loud. I won’t be able to read those books quite the same way as before.

And for me, that’s just from the second-hand offense I feel on behalf of other people, a tiny fraction of the outrage and betrayal expressed by Nikky Finney and other commentators who experience racism in their daily lives, and who reasonably expected a literary awards presentation to be a safe zone.

To Handler’s credit, he owned up to his filter-fail in a series of tweets and pledged $10,000 to the We Need Diverse Books campaign, with additional matching funds of up to $100,000. Not that he can pay, buy, or donate his way to forgiveness, but it is refreshing to have at least some attempt at restitution.

We need diverse voices so that our children internalize actual viewpoints instead of ugly stereotypes. That way they can grow up to tell jokes about all the great stories they’ve read, rather than the hateful old jokes of the past.

Want to Be a Mixed-Up Author? Now Accepting Applications

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We’d love to add a few new members to our blog who love middle-grade books as much as we do. We are looking for people who are willing to post about 5-7 times a year with original, quality entries that include topics about the changing market, unique book lists, interviews, writing MG books, and anything else middle-grade related.  Each Mixed-Up Author also is responsible for one other “job” that helps keep our site fresh and up-to-date (such as keeping our parent, teacher/librarian, parent or kids pages updated; gathering new release information; or updating our Facebook or Twitter pages). We greatly appreciate when our members join in discussions and help promote our blog via blog/Facebook/Twitter.

If you’re interested in joining us, please send an email to membership @ fromthemixedupfiles dot com, and include the following in the body of your email (please don’t send us an atttachment):

1. Your name and website or blog.

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4. What special skills/talents you have (such as vlogging, webmaster, or web coding experience, artistic skills, teacher/librarian background, etc.) and what you think you can do for The Mixed-Up Files…of Middle-Grade Authors.

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We will accept applications until Saturday, October 18, 2014. Please spread the word to others who might be interested. If you applied a while back and would still like to join us, we’d be happy to receive a new application from you. We can’t wait to announce our new Mixed-Up members on Saturday, November 1st!