Tag Archives: children’s literature

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

Never Too Old for Back-to-School

It’s Back-to-School month for many students, teachers, librarians, and parents. Summer is at its peak, and yet the supermarket aisles are filled with crayons and notebooks and lunch boxes. It’s time to get back to the business of learning.

As authors, we never stop learning, really. At least we shouldn’t. Even though I teach workshops about writing, mentor new writers, and critique others’ work, I still seek out opportunities to learn from those who paved this road I’m lucky to travel.

The best teachers are perpetual students. I believe that with all my heart.

Walking with Jane Yolen at her home, Phoenix Farm, during Picture Book Boot Camp last spring.

It’s important for authors to look for learning opportunities and find ways around all the reasons why we can’t pursue them.  Too far, too expensive, too time consuming, maybe in a few years. Of course, some of those are valid reasons, and no one can do everything their heart desires, but if each of us sought out one mentor encounter a year — attended a lecture, went to a book signing, signed up for an advanced workshop — all opportunity would not be lost on “maybe next year.”

Have you ever been in the presence of someone and I thought, “This is golden. I need to remember everything about this moment?” I look for moments like that. Sometimes I find them among hundreds of people in an auditorium, listening to a speaker. Sometimes, it’s just me, face-to-face with a beloved author, feeling the warmth of their handshake and trying desperately to form words in my mouth that make it sound like I made it past third grade.  That was me at this moment:

Standing on Ashley Bryan‘s front step, Little Cranberry Island, Maine, June 2015.

Here in rural Ohio, I don’t exactly live in a literary hotbed. But, I do live within driving distance to The Mazza Museum, the country’s largest collection of art from children’s literature. I’ve made the trip there to hear dozens of authors and illustrators speak. I’ve sat mesmerized by Tony Abbott, had a conversation with Gary Schmidt. and listened intently to Michael Buckley.

Last winter I drove two hours in the other direction to hear what Kwame Alexander had to say, and one piece of advice he gave the audience made a beeline to my brain and has changed the way I think. “Say yes,” he said. Be that person that says, “YES!” to opportunities.

So what Back-to-School opportunities will our Mixed-Up Files of Middle-Grade Authors bloggers say “YES!” to this year?  Maybe sign up for that amazing out-of-state-once-in-a-lifetime opportunity? Take a road trip to hear someone speak?  Attend a presentation at your local bookseller? Listen to a podcast?  Read that craft book on writing you’ve been putting off reading – you know, the one everyone says is “magical?”

It’s time. It’s time to get back to school.

My Summer Fun Reading List

Summer is finally here, and with it comes the memory of summer vacations long ago. One of my favorite things about summer was the local library’s Summer Reading Program. The rules were simple:  1. Read at least 1o books. 2. Record the titles on a chart. Do those things and at the end of summer you were rewarded with a picnic at the park, a dip in the community swimming pool, and a certificate signed by the governor. Which meant my weekly treks to the local library and the long days I spent sprawled in a lawn chair reading were totally justified. Just ask the governor.

All of this got me thinking about my own reading – and my current desire to spend my afternoons lounging in a lawn chair. Needless to say, this train of thought led to the creation of a new Summer Fun Reading List featuring the 10 middle grade books that will be keeping me company as I relax in my back yard this summer.

ONE SHADOW ON THE WALL by Leah Henderson

“Eleven-year-old Mor was used to hearing his father’s voice, even if no one else could since his father’s death. It was comforting. It was also a reminder that Mor had made a promise to his father before he passed: keep your sisters safe. Keep the family together. But almost as soon as they are orphaned, that promise seems impossible to keep. With an aunt from the big city ready to separate him and his sisters as soon as she arrives, and a gang of boys from a nearby village wanting everything he has—including his spirit—Mor is tested in ways he never imagined. With only the hot summer months to prove himself, Mor must face a choice. Does he listen to his father and keep his heart true, but risk breaking his promise through failure? Or is it easier to just join the Danka Boys, whom in all their maliciousness are at least loyal to their own?”

THE SOMEDAY BIRDS by Sally J. Pla

“Charlie’s perfectly ordinary life has been unraveling ever since his war journalist father was injured in Afghanistan.

When his father heads from California to Virginia for medical treatment, Charlie reluctantly travels cross-country with his boy-crazy sister, unruly brothers, and a mysterious new family friend. He decides that if he can spot all the birds that he and his father were hoping to see someday along the way, then everything might just turn out okay.”

ME AND MARVIN GARDENS by Amy Sarig King

“Obe Devlin has problems. His family’s farmland has been taken over by developers. His best friend Tommy abandoned him for the development kids. And he keeps getting nosebleeds, because of that thing he doesn’t like to talk about. So Obe hangs out at the creek by his home, in the last wild patch left, picking up trash and looking for animal tracks.

One day, he sees a creature that looks kind of like a large dog. And as he watches it, he realizes it eats plastic. Only plastic. Water bottles, shopping bags… No one has seen a creature like this before, because there’s never been a creature like this before. The animal–Marvin Gardens–becomes Obe’s best friend and biggest secret. But to keep him safe from the developers and Tommy and his friends, Obe must make a decision that might change everything.”

RULES FOR THIEVES by Alexandra Ott

“Twelve-year-old Alli Rosco is smart, resourceful, and totally incapable of keeping her mouth shut. Some of these traits have served her well during her nine years in Azeland’s orphanage, and others have proved more troublesome…but now that she’s escaped to try her luck on the streets, she has bigger problems than extra chores to contend with. Surviving would be hard enough, but after a run-in with one of the city’s Protectors, she’s marked by a curse that’s slowly working its way to her heart. There is a cure, but the cost is astronomical—and seems well out of her reach.

Enter Beck, a boy with a gift for theft and a touch of magic, who seems almost too good to be true. He tells Alli that the legendary Thieves Guild, long thought to be a myth, is real. Even better, Beck is a member and thinks she could be, too. All she has to do is pass the trial that the King of Thieves will assign to her. Join the Guild, collect her yearly reward and buy a cure. Plus, Alli hopes the Guild will be the home—the family—that Alli has always wanted. But when their trial goes wrong, innocent lives are put in danger, and Alli has to decide how much she can sacrifice in order to survive.”

HOLLY FARB AND THE PRINCESS OF THE GALAXY by Gareth Wronski

“Holly Farb is not the Princess of the Galaxy. She may be top of the class in every subject, but she can’t even win a school election, never mind rule the Milky Way. The aliens who kidnapped her have gotten it all wrong.

Unfortunately Holly’s alien pirate kidnappers believe that she’s the princess they’ve been looking for, and so she finds herself hurtling through space on an alien pirate ship together with her teacher, Mr. Mendez, and Chester, the most annoying boy in her class. Now all she has to do is escape the pirates, find the missing princess, and get back to Earth in time for her big test on Friday.

But it turns out that space is a pretty big place, and before they can go home, Holly, Chester, and Mr. Mendez must face down space cruise liners, bounty hunters, giant worms, perky holograms, cosmic board games, sinister insectoid librarians, and a robot who is learning how to lie.

Between running from space pirates, defying the President of the Universe, and meeting a host of rather unusual new friends, Holly starts to wonder if there might be more to life than being top of the class after all.”

AMINA’S VOICE by Hena Khan

“Amina has never been comfortable in the spotlight. She is happy just hanging out with her best friend, Soojin. Except now that she’s in middle school everything feels different. Soojin is suddenly hanging out with Emily, one of the “cool” girls in the class, and even talking about changing her name to something more “American.” Does Amina need to start changing too? Or hiding who she is to fit in? While Amina grapples with these questions, she is devastated when her local mosque is vandalized.”

MIDNIGHT WITHOUT A MOON by Linda Williams Jackson

“It’s Mississippi in the summer of 1955, and Rose Lee Carter can’t wait to move north. But for now, she’s living with her sharecropper grandparents on a white man’s cotton plantation. Then, one town over, an African American boy, Emmett Till, is killed for allegedly whistling at a white woman. When Till’s murderers are unjustly acquitted, Rose realizes that the South needs a change . . . and that she should be part of the movement.”

SEE YOU IN THE COSMOS by Jack Chen

“11-year-old Alex Petroski loves space and rockets, his mom, his brother, and his dog Carl Sagan—named for his hero, the real-life astronomer. All he wants is to launch his golden iPod into space the way Carl Sagan (the man, not the dog) launched his Golden Record on the Voyager spacecraft in 1977. From Colorado to New Mexico, Las Vegas to L.A., Alex records a journey on his iPod to show other lifeforms what life on earth, his earth, is like. But his destination keeps changing. And the funny, lost, remarkable people he meets along the way can only partially prepare him for the secrets he’ll uncover—from the truth about his long-dead dad to the fact that, for a kid with a troubled mom and a mostly not-around brother, he has way more family than he ever knew.”

A DASH OF DRAGON by Heidi Lang and Kati Bartoski

“For years Lailu has trained to be the best chef in the city. Her specialty? Monster cuisine. When her mentor agrees to open a new restaurant with Lailu as the head chef, she’s never been more excited. But her celebration is cut short when she discovers that her mentor borrowed money from Mr. Boss, a vicious loan shark. If they can’t pay him back, Lailu will not only lose her restaurant—she’ll have to cook for Mr. Boss for the rest of her life.

As Lailu scrambles to raise the money in time, she becomes trapped in a deadly conflict between the king’s cold-blooded assassin, the terrifying elf mafia, and Mr. Boss’ ruthless crew. Worst of all, her only hope in outsmarting Mr. Boss lies with the one person she hates—Greg, the most obnoxious boy in school and her rival in the restaurant business.

But like Lailu always says, if you can’t stand the heat, stay out of the kitchen. And she’s determined to succeed, no matter the cost!”

ROOTING FOR RAFAEL ROSALES by Kurtis Scaletta

“Rafael has dreams. Every chance he gets he plays in the street games trying to build his skills, get noticed by scouts, and—someday—play Major League Baseball. Maya has worries. The bees are dying all over the world, and the company her father works for is responsible, making products that harm the environment. Follow Rafael and Maya in a story that shifts back and forth in time and place, from Rafael’s neighborhood in the Dominican Republic to present-day Minnesota, where Maya and her sister are following Rafael’s first year in the minor leagues. In their own ways, Maya and Rafael search for hope, face difficult choices, and learn a secret—the same secret—that forever changes how they see the world.”

What’s on your Summer Fun Reading List this year? Please share your summer must-reads in the comments below. I can’t promise a certificate signed by the governor, but I can give you permission to schedule a picnic in the park and a dip in the local pool. Happy summer reading.