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Interview: Sonya Sones

Sonya Sones has a background in animation and film, which led her to teach at various colleges, including Harvard. Years later, prompted by an assignment in a poetry class, she discovered a new interest. She now writes verse novels, but she doesn't use her pen only to write poems: she also draws the little flipbooks featured in the bottom corner of some of her books.

Her first novel, Stop Pretending: What Happened When My Big Sister Went Crazy, was born out of experience. Next came What My Mother Doesn't Know, a lighter story, telling of a girl's first crush. Both that and One of Those Hideous Books Where the Mother Dies, my favorite Sones work to date, became bestsellers. Her newest verse novel, What My Girlfriend Doesn't Know, is the highly anticipated sequel to What My Mother Doesn't Know.

As today is the last day of May, which is National Mental Health Month, let's start off this interview with a discussion of Sonya's first verse novel, which is a great pick for teens who are dealing with mental illness within their families or their social circles.

Stop Pretending: What Happened When My Big Sister Went Crazy is incredibly personal, to say the very least. What encouraged you to publish such private thoughts?

I'd been taking a class at UCLA on writing poetry for children, taught by the great Myra Cohn Livingston. I'd been concentrating on writing funny poems. But one day Myra asked us to write a poem using dactyl and trochee rhythms, which are these really somber rhythms. When I sat down to do the assignment, something very unexpected happened: I ended up writing a poem about having to visit my older sister in the mental hospital on my thirteenth birthday, and about how sad and scary that had been for me. I was embarrassed to share the poem with Myra because it was so intensely personal, but when she read it, she said, "You should write more of these." She said that anyone who had someone in their family who was throwing the whole rest of the family off-kilter would feel less alone if they could read poems like this one. She said she knew it would be hard, but that if I could put myself through it, I'd be doing a service. That really appealed to me, so though I didn't really feel like revisiting that difficult period of my life, I forged ahead -- and that's how Stop Pretending, my first novel-in-verse, was born.

Has your sister read the book?

My sister has read the book and, thank goodness, she liked it very much. Her first reaction was: "A book like this could be used to open up discussions about mental illness in schools." I was touched by her selfless attitude about sharing her personal story. I'd like to think that at least some of her suffering will be redeemed if the people who read Stop Pretending walk away from the experience feeling more compassionate towards the victims of mental illness.

What My Girlfriend Doesn't Know picks up right where What My Mother Doesn't Know left off. Had you always planned on writing a sequel, or was this a response to fans and/or sales?

I didn't get the urge to write What My Girlfriend Doesn't Know until a couple of years after I wrote the first book. It happened because I kept getting emails from fans saying: "OMG! What happened next! I've got to know!" After hearing this question posed day after day, year after year, I realized that I also wanted to know what happened next -- and that the only way for me to find out was to write the sequel.

I chose to write it in Robin's voice because his was the story that intrigued me most -- what would happen to a homely guy, the school's biggest loser, if he suddenly found himself with a girlfriend for the first time in his life?

Whose voice was easier to capture, Robin or Sophie?

I think it was probably easier to capture Sophie's voice [because I'm a girl]. When I began writing in Robin's voice, I almost felt like I was in drag, like I was an imposter trying to pass myself off as a boy. It was also weird because when I write, I read my poems aloud to hear if the rhythm's working, but when I started reading Robin's words aloud, I heard my own girly voice instead of a boy's voice. It took me awhile to get past that, but once I did, and once I got inside Robin's head and began looking around, it got a whole lot easier. It was really fun, in fact.

In the case of One of Those Hideous Books Where the Mother Dies, which came first, the story or the title?

The story definitely came first. The title is a line in one of the poems, when Ruby is complaining about how much she hates reading depressing books. I was worried about this title, scared that it was too wordy and strange, and that it would be hard for people to remember, but I was drawn to it because even before opening the book it gave the reader a glimpse of my main character's attitude and sense of humor, while also conveying what the book was about. I was shocked and delighted when Publishers Weekly gave it a Cuffie Award for the best book title of the year!

Drawing on your animation background, would you ever consider making one of your stories into a short or full-length film?

I don't think my books would translate well into animation, so I wouldn't want to animate any of them. Though I'd love it if any of my books were turned into live-action films. One of them was optioned by a producer once, and some of my other books have received attention from various directors and studios over the years. So far nothing's come of it, but my fingers are always crossed . . .

You've contributed short stories to anthologies such as Sixteen, but those too have been in verse. Do you have any verse-free fiction or non-fiction in print or in the works?

This past summer, my husband and I wrote a prose picture book together called Violet and Winston. We're very excited because the magnificent Chris Raschka is illustrating it. It was fun writing in prose, but since it was a picture book, we were constantly boiling the words down to their essence, which is very similar to what I do when I write my poems. I'm drawn to the idea of writing an entire novel in prose someday, but also terrified by it. So many words! Yikes!

Why write in verse? I imagine the answer might be as obvious to you as mine is when people ask why I sing or dance: For me, those expressions are as natural as breathing, and done to the beat of my heart.

When I began writing Stop Pretending, I didn't even realize I was writing a novel. I just thought it was a themed collection of poems. It wasn't until my brilliant editor at HarperCollins, Alix Reid, wrote me a fabulous editorial letter full of poem-provoking questions that the collection morphed into a novel.

Having discovered that I loved writing in this form, I just continued on from there. It's an especially good choice for telling stories to teens because poetry brings you straight to the feelings -- and that's where teens live. Plus, I get emails every day from kids who say things like this:

"Okay. First off let me tell you, I'm Janeesha, and I HATE reading. A lot. I hate it so much that every year since the 3rd grade, (I'm in 9th) on the test to see if we pass the grade I just guess on the reading part, just so I don't have to read a few paragraphs. but your books make me wanna read. I love them. I've only read two, but now I'm gonna read them all. When and if I read a book, it takes me like a month to finish. but yeah, the two I read each took me a day. You are officially my favorite author. You're like my hero. I've never had a favorite author. Or a hero. Ha."

Hopefully, after reading my novels (completing the rest of my entire life's work should take her only two more days at the rate she's going) Janeesha will move on to other books, maybe even books with more words on the page. I can't even begin to tell you how great that would make me feel!

Name other verse novels that make your heart sing.

The first two that leap to mind are Love That Dog by Sharon Creech and Make Lemonade by Virginia Euwer Wolff.

Have you any favorite poems or poets?

Oh, gosh. Tons! Some of my favorite children's poets are Valerie Worth, Eve Merriam, and Alice Schertle. Some of my favorite adult poets are Ron Koertge, Billy Collins, Mary Oliver, Sharon Olds, Dorianne Laux, and Donald Hall . . . but there are way too many to list, and I'm discovering new ones all the time.

Visit Sonya's website. For an extensive list of Sonya's favorite prose and verse novels, check out the Great Books section.

Tags: books, interviews

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