This post originally appeared on the Engage/Teacher to Teacher blog in August 2012.
Rebecca Stead is the author of WHEN YOU REACH ME (Wendy Lamb Books), a New York Times Notable Book, New York Times bestseller, and winner of the 2010 John Newbery Medal. Rebecca's first novel for children, FIRST LIGHT (Wendy Lamb Books/Yearling), is a Junior Library Guild selection and a Bank Street College of Education Best Book of the Year (2008). Rebecca grew up in New York City, where she worked as a public defender until about ten years ago. She lives on the Upper West Side of Manhattan with her husband, Sean, and their sons, Jack and Eli. Her latest book for middle grade readers, LIAR & SPY (Wendy Lamb Books) comes out this August. Your new novel, LIAR AND SPY, keeps a secret from the reader until the end of the novel (not unlike your Newbery Medal winner, WHEN YOU REACH ME). How important is this element of mystery to capturing the interest of a middle grade reader?
I think every book needs a sense of mystery, whether it’s written for kids or adults. When I’m reading a book, I savor my questions: What’s going to happen? What secrets are the characters keeping from me? Rich, delicious questions = exquisite reading pleasure. But if I run out of questions, I run out of interest. As a writer, I want my readers to be aware, as they read, that they don’t know everything. And I want them to care
about the things they don’t know, which means they have to care about my characters. So plot and character are intertwined in a wonderful way.
While I was writing WHEN YOU REACH ME, I wanted to create a puzzle whose final piece would radically change the whole picture. LIAR & SPY has different secrets at its heart, and they are revealed in a different way. To use a possibly-unflattering metaphor, I might call it a slow leak. But the sense of mystery always has to be present. When I’m revising a chapter, I often start by asking myself, “What is the reader waiting to find out now
?” Because as some questions are answered, others have to rise up to take their places, until the very end. Georges, the protagonist of LIAR AND SPY, is dealing with some serious upheaval in his life. How do you try to stay true to the voice of a tween when facing issues and conflicts often considered the territory of YA novels?
Pre-teens deal with a lot of upheaval. If we think their lives are simple or carefree, we’re kidding ourselves. Ten, eleven, and twelve year olds are stepping over a threshold—intellectually, they’re blossoming; socially, they’re navigating muddy waters. Their relationships with their parents and ideas about themselves are changing. For me, this is the beauty of writing for middle-graders (by which I mean, roughly, 4th-7th graders). I can write about complex questions (to which I don’t have the answers), and I know that they’re right there with me. You’ve said that you find that young readers can handle somewhat dark material, and that they were drawn to “the deeper stuff” in WHEN YOU REACH ME. What do you see as some taboo or less-explored themes or topics in children’s literature that, if addressed, would hold great value to young readers?
My answer has to be qualified a bit—I think that some
middle-grade readers would be nourished by books that dig around questions of religious faith and atheism, books that invite kids to examine their own ideas, and their assumptions about other people, without anxiety, hostility or guilt. Nothing with an agenda, of course. I despise agendas. On your website you offer the following piece of wisdom: “The most important thing to know about writing is that there are no rules.” What are the tangible manifestations of that mantra in your regular writing routine?
To begin with, I have no regular writing routine. Sometimes I get very down on myself about that. But I think that when I say “no rules,” I mean that writers should resist the impulse to fit their work into a mold created by someone else. When I’m writing a first draft, I’m pulling material from my heart and trying not to let it die before it hits the page. I hope that I’m brave enough to let that material take me to interesting places. I’d much rather write something truly weird than write something familiar. We’ve interviewed authors who write at beloved desks, in home offices, and even in personal writing cottages, but you are the first who enjoys writing on the subway. How do you manage to create in the midst of crowds, noise, and general hustle and bustle?
As a high school kid, I fell asleep on the subway regularly. For me, the “hustle and bustle” is like the sound of the ocean—a distant crashing that tells me the Earth is still turning. And if a fight breaks out—well, that’s just free material.
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