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Little Willow

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Interview: Denise Vega

Denise Vega is the mother of three school-aged kids. She recently gave birth to a fantastic novel for teens called Fact of Life #31. She's making a burrito for her next book, and her previous release, Click Here (to Find Out How I Survived Seventh Grade), is a great pick for middle school readers. We spoke of random numbers, diaries, blogs, internet safety, and character names.

Fact of Life #31 includes mothers, daughters, midwives, yoga poses, paintings, and more. What's been one of your favorite Mother's Day experiences, either as a mom or a kid?

My best experience was as a mom. One of my sisters had this great idea of an outdoor picnic so we got food from a local Italian restaurant and went up to a park in the foothills with my mom and my aunt, who lives nearby but whose own kids are all in other places -- we did some hiking, too, and it was fantastic! Food and nature -- it doesn't get much better than that.

Kat makes up numbers as she writes down "facts" in her notebook. Did you arbitrarily number the facts as you went along, or did you pick any of them - especially #31 - for a certain reason?

I love this question. They are all random, though I tried to balance out single, double, and triple-digits. The title number did go through several iterations before I settled on "31" -- I needed a number with three syllables so that it "sounded" right. At first I tried to pick a number that was symbolic in some way but nothing really struck me so I put in several 3-syllable numbers and for some reason, I liked "31" the best.

Names are important to Abra, who changed her own and carefully selected the names of Katima and Lucinda for her daughters. How do you select the names of your characters?

Usually the name of the main character just comes to me--Erin Penelope Swift from CLICK HERE just popped into my head. Kat Flynn was always Kat but her last name was Jones at first, until I realized I wanted to use that name in another book so I changed it in FACT OF LIFE #31.

For secondary characters, I use either my kids' yearbooks or my "name file." This is a document I have on my computer where I've collected names -- almost all of them from fans who have written me -- and stored them. When I need a name for a character, I'll look at this file and try a few to see which one "fits."

There are times when the name and its meaning are important, like in FACT OF LIFE #31. And in the novel I'm working on now, the main character and his siblings are all named after constellations and that plays a minor part in the story.

Click Here (to Find Out How I Survived Seventh Grade) was one of the first books for kids about blogs or told in blog format. Did you keep a diary during your middle school years?

Not during middle school but I did during high school and college. I've gone back and read them a few times and totally cracked up! I was such a dork. There were several places where I hinted at some big incident or event that had happened to me, saying "there's no way I'll ever forget this so I don't have to say exactly what it is." Well, guess what? I have absolutely no idea what I'm referring to! I encourage anyone who keeps a journal (online or off) to be specific so you can remember events when you look back as an old person like me.

Did your kids read Click Here while you were writing it?

When I was writing it, my oldest was a boy (9-10) and he had no interest. My daughters were 5 and 8 and too young. But later, when it was published, my middle child read it when she was in 5th grade and again at the end of 6th and had completely different impressions of it as an almost-7th grader. Things that went over her head the year before now resonated. It was very interesting. My son read it when he was in 6th grade because, as he told me, "You're my mom and everyone in my class read it." He did claim to like it but it's not what he'd normally pick up to read, and that's fine. My youngest just turned 10 and started it but decided she wanted to wait till she was older.

What (and who) can readers expect to find in the sequel?

Sequels are scary things for a writer because readers are expecting the same emotional experience they had with the first and we live in fear that we can't deliver it. In the sequel to CLICK HERE, Erin has some boy trouble and we also meet a new girl, Reede Harper (got "Reede" from my "name file" -- just added the "e" at the end), who stirs things up for Erin. There's still a lot of humor but Erin also has to face some realities about herself and the people in her life -- I hope readers will like it as much as I do!

We don't have a firm release date yet -- they are just telling me "Spring/Summer 2009." We are also "in discussions" about the title because they aren't sure about the appeal of the one I had.

Click Here was your sixth full-length manuscript and first published novel. Have you ever (or would you ever) re-work your earlier writings in hopes of future publication?

This is a question I've asked myself a lot! Especially because an author friend of mine has pulled manuscripts out of her "backlist" as she refers to it and has published almost all of them.

Of the five novel manuscripts sitting in my closet, I would say two are probably worth working on (they all need A LOT of revision)--but I have so many new and exciting ideas percolating that it's hard for me to think of going back. Right now, in addition to the new YA I'm writing, I have 5 novel ideas for middle grade/middle school and 4 YA ideas -- all in various stages in terms of how fleshed out they are -- and I get new ideas all the time. Not all of them will sustain a novel but I think most of them will.

I have to follow the story that grabs me the most, that I'm passionate about. And right now, the ones that do are the new ones I've come up with. But you never know! And I don't view those closet dwellers as wasted -- they were all excellent practice and got me where I am today.

At your website, you keep a separate blog for Click Here's leading lady, Erin. You also actively encourage your readers to be safe online, and you make sure that your younger readers know that Fact of Life #31 is for older teens. What do you feel are the biggest differences between writing for pre-teens and writing for teens?

I went through a lot of soul-searching about whether I should do anything because every person is different and what one person can handle, another may not be ready for. But I kept picturing one of my fifth grade CLICK HERE readers picking up FACT OF LIFE #31 and felt that they deserved to know that this book was going to be a different experience.

Even though the publisher lists FACT OF LIFE #31 as 12 & up, I feel it's better suited to mature 13 or 14 & up. But I do think there are 12-year-olds who are ready for it, so that's why I hope each reader will decide for him or herself.

I think the biggest distinction between tween and teen is interest and experience, though this does vary by person. For the most part, tweens are just getting their feet wet with puberty and crushes so my books for that age reflect that. Older kids may have already been in a fairly serious or serious relationship and have been around a variety of people from different walks of life and can handle and relate to the content in my YA novels. I know most kids like to "read up" (I know I did!) so it's natural for someone a bit younger than the age of the character to want to see what might be next for them by reading about characters who are older than themselves. But I also think some kids aren't going to want to read about teen romance, for example, if they still see boys as disgusting creatures they avoid at all costs! So it's really about where they are in their lives and what their interests are.

You've also written books for younger kids. The forthcoming Build a Burrito sounds yummy! Care to give us a taste?

This book was SEVEN years in the making! Staff turnover and format changes made it a very long process. But the illustrator, David Diaz, is a genius. It's a fun little book about counting in English and Spanish as you build a burrito by turning the pages. We are hoping to serve burritos at my book signing next fall!

What are your top ten favorite books of all time?

You ask the impossible! I will name a few that had an impact on me as a tween and teen. These books changed my view of myself, others, or both and still resonate with me to this day: Are You There God, It's Me, Margaret? by Judy Blume (of course!), Island of the Blue Dolphins by Scott O'Dell, The Cat Ate My Gymsuit by the brilliant and late Paula Danziger, Zanballer and Zanbanger by R.R. Knudson (loved a girl kicking butt in a boy's world ), The Outsiders by S.E. Hinton, A Teacup Full of Roses by Sharon Bell and A Tree Grows in Brooklyn by Betty Smith.

Visit Denise at her website and her MySpace page.

Read my review of Fact of Life #31 by Denise Vega.

Read my review of Rock On: A Story of Guitars, Gigs, Girls, and a Brother (Not Necessarily in That Order) by Denise Vega.

Tags: books, interviews

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