September 3rd, 2012

wings, believe

Interview: Megan Frazer Blakemore

A few weeks after I redesigned her website, I conducted a Q&A with Megan Frazer. Megan, like me and Mindy Kaling, is a fan of The Westing Game by Ellen Raskin. Megan is also a writer, a mother, and a librarian, among other things. Find out more about her books and her busy schedule in the interview below!

Do you have any sort of writing routine?

As a mother of two with a full-time job, finding a routine is hands down the hardest part of my writing life. In the summer, I write when my kids are napping. In the school year, I'm still working on finding a good schedule, but it tends to be after my kids go to bed. I try to write for at least 30 minutes a day. I don't really focus on words or pages as a goal, though I do usually check how much I've accomplished. I have an office, but often find myself writing at the kitchen table, especially since we've bought a fixer-upper and my office has not yet been fixed up. My husband is working on the electricity and right now there isn't any in my office.

You got the idea for your novel Secrets of Truth & Beauty while watching the movie Little Miss Sunshine. Do you think Dara and Olive would get along?

I'd like to say yes, but I wonder if Olive would think Dara too serious and if Dara might find Olive a little kooky. I think Grandpa Edwin Hooper would love it on the farm.

How long did it take you to write the first draft, and subsequently to sell it?

Secrets happened really quickly. I can't remember how long the first draft took, but I had a draft ready for agents in nine months or so. Then, once I got my agent, Sara Crowe of Harvey Klinger, she was able to sell it quite quickly, within a couple of months, I think. This was back in late 2007, which might as well have been a different era. The Water Castle was a much longer process. I don't remember exactly how long it took. We did a revision for Mary Kate Castellani at Walker who ended up buying it.

What inspired your novel The Water Castle?

The Author's Note of The Water Castle is all about the inspiration for the story. It was inspired largely by places I lived and visited, from an old stone house much like the house in the book to the Poland Springs bottling plant. I went a lot different directions before the right story for the places came to me. I thought I might write about teens with special powers, but got too bogged down. Eventually, from the core elements of the castle-like house, a house full of books, and strange happenings in a small town, the story emerged.

What's your target audience for this story?

The Water Castle is for a younger audience than Secrets of Truth & Beauty, probably ages eight to twelve or so.

Tell me about your current work-in-progress.

I just finished a rewrite on another MG novel, a mystery set in the 1950s wherein a girl becomes convinced there's a Communist spy working for her parents.

What do you think your books have in common? Do they feature different aspects of your writing, and of yourself?

I think all of my books deal with revelations, uncovering things that are hidden, especially within families. I also am interested in the play between the past and present. This is really tricky when writing for kids and teens because the characters lives are so short. So, I often find myself looking at multiple generations.

Do you find it difficult to name your characters? Have you ever named a character after someone you know personally?

I do find it very difficult to name my characters. I use baby books and the Social Security names database. I actually try to avoid naming characters after people I know, which is hard when you work in a school and so many kids pass through your life.

You have a master's degree in library science and now work as a librarian at a school. Tell me about the path that led you to your library.

I started off working in television, but quickly realized it wasn't for me. I decided to move to Boston with a friend, but she needed a couple of months longer than I did to be ready to move, so I went back home and was substitute teaching. One day I was assigned to the library. I'd like to say it was an "A-ha!" moment, but really it was more of "Duh!" moment. All my life I'd done service projects and worked on literacy. Working in a library was a natural outgrowth of that, but it hadn't occurred to me until that moment. Fortunately, Boston is home to Simmons GSLIS, a fantastic library school. My education there was fantastic, though very theoretical. I was lucky to also have a part time job as a children's librarian. When I graduated, I took a position at an amazing independent high school, The Commonwealth School. I would probably still be there if my husband and I hadn't decided to move to Maine. After four years at a public high school, I am now at an independent school serving as their middle school librarian.

Happy new school year to you! What kind of programs have you been involved with that the kids really enjoyed?

I'm very proud of the coffeehouses we held in the public school where I worked. I believe that libraries should be as much about students sharing their skills and knowledge as they are places where information is retrieved, if not more so. Giving kids a creative outlet to express themselves made me very happy. I also try to use the connections I've made as a writer to get kids in touch with their favorite authors.

What are your ten favorite books of all time?

Impossible!

Visit Megan's official website.
smile, Alicia Silverstone

The Encyclopedia of Me by Karen Rivers

Middle school librarians would be wise to add The Encyclopedia of Me by Karen Rivers to their shelves this fall. This memorable chronicle of one almost-thirteen-year-old girl's summer leading into her eighth grade year makes footnotes fun and reminds readers that the coolest thing to be is yourself.

Tink Aaron-Martin has decided to write a book called The Encyclopedia of Me. True to its title, the book includes detailed entries about all sorts of things, arranged in alphabetical order. As Tink leads us through her life from A to Z, we get to know her brothers (see Aaron-Martin, Sasha Alexei (Lex) and Aaron-Martin, Sebastian (Seb)), her father, her mother, her best friend (see Anderson, Freddie Blue), her worst enemies, and her new neighbor (see Boy, Blue-Haired, Who Just Moved in Next Door).

This is a great coming-of-age story. Tink makes it through a realistic mix of serious and not-so-serious dilemmas, ranging from wiping out while trying to (skate)board to dealing with older brothers to having your first crush. Tink, often called the Peacemaker in her typically chaotic household, is witty and remarkable. Though her family often frustrates her, she does love them. As she comes to realize things about her best friend, her family, and her future, she takes the time to appreciate what she has and who she is, and she's not afraid to stand up for the people she cares about, or for herself.

Tink's mother is a redhead from America; her father, British, of African-Caribbean descent. When you get to Tink's entry about herself - which comes very early in the book, due to her last name - you learn what her real name is, how she feels about being "an exotic mystery of mixed heritage," and how she deals with people who ask her what she is:

When people ask me what I am, I usually say, "I'm a human being." Then when they say, "I mean, what RACE are you?" I say I am African while fixing them with a patented look that I like to call my Are You a Racist? Face.

Tink tells it like it is. Though she sometimes holds her tongue when her best friend does something she thinks is phony or out-of-character (or, y'know, when they fall for the same guy), she's always honest with herself, and honest in her narrative. She's a very reliable narrator.

One of her brothers is stinky; the other is autistic. That's just the way they are. Mostly, they're pains-in-the-neck, because that's what big brothers are, and she loves and loathes them equally.

Then there's Kai, her new neighbor, who is interesting and nice and confusing, because Tink thinks she kind of likes him, but her best friend has declared her like for him, and that means Tink can't like him, but she kind of does, and she thinks he likes her, too. I like the fact that Tink isn't boy-crazy, and that she's genuinely trying to figure out if she likes Kai, and how that might mess up her friendship with Freddie Blue. She describes it as "an awkward love love triangle where two of the points didn't even known they were part of the shape." (Page 133)

The writing is awesome. Check this out:

"Jealous" is also one of those words that does not fit its meaning. The real word for "jealous" should have a lot of k's and h's in it and hard sounds, like a mouthful of chewed glass. The word "jealous" sounds more like the name of a dessert made from Jell-O and something delicious. Unlike what jealousy actually is, which is the ugliest, worse feeling in the world. - Page 111

I'm more scared of karma than I am of anything else. Maybe all this is happening because I deserve to have bad stuff happen to me. Maybe I did something really awful once, and I don't even know what it was, and now it's all coming back to me like a nicely wrapped Christmas parcel full of sadness. - Page 118

On the difficulties of maintaining a friendship with someone who has changed and you might not like so much anymore:
It was like Freddie Blue and I were wrapped up together in strands like cobwebs, and no matter how hard I pulled (or how hard she pushed) to get out of the web, I was still in the web. And the web wasn't a bad thing; it was a web that I knew. And the web had been fun for my whole life! And I didn't want things to be different. Just being back at school made me want to crawl right back in and get firmly stuck in the place where I belonged. Which was with FB. Even if she was a bit spidery lately. - Page 180

I also really like a passage that takes place two pages before the end, but I won't quote it here because I don't want to spoil the terrific ending.

Complete with footnotes, cross-referencing, and the occasional stock photograph, Tink's encyclopedia has everything that it should.

I'd love to read Tink's list of twenty-six life goals. She references it early on, and reveals a few of the items on the list, but says it is "private and I'm already so embarrassed that my face is likely to melt and slide right off my skull," and while I wouldn't want to invade her privacy, it would have been cute to see that list on the endpapers after I reached the satisfying conclusion of the book. Then again, Tink lets us in on so much of her life and so many of her thoughts, she certainly deserves to keep some things private.

This book, though, you should definitely share. Give it to your middle school kids. I bet a good portion of them are prompted to write stories of their own afterwards. This would be a great book to use in both creative writing and autobiography courses. If I had found this book in my library as a kid, I would have checked it out and read it over and over again.

My favorite entries and random items include:
Aaron-Martin, Isadora (Tink)
Sparkly Unicorns and Happiness, which is an ice cream flavor offered at the ice cream shop featured in entry titled Ice Cream Incident, The
The bear photographs in the entries for Alaska and Norway, which have hilarious captions. (My pal Kristen shouldn't look at those pictures, though, because they would frighten her.)
Karma
Ballet, subtly dealt with throughout
The footnotes, especially those offering the readers prizes for interacting with the book and making accurate guesses, and other such comments that sound like something I would say (and my friend Christina can vouch for that!)

And remember:

If you say something with enough authority, people will believe you, whether you know what you are talking about or not. - Page 241

Additional notes and considerations:

Bonus points to Tink for getting her (nick)name from one of my favorite characters, Tinker Bell.

Tink's classmate Ruth should meet Jil! from the Matthew Martin books by Paula Danziger, because the first time Tink thinks of Ruth in the book, she thinks of Ruth! with an exclamation point because she is always exclaiming! About everything! All the time! As someone who uses her fair share of exclamation points when happy, Ruth, I give you bonus points, too.

I've added to The Encyclopedia of Me to two of my most popular booklists: Tough Issues for Teens and Middle School Must-Haves