As a newish mom who hadn’t been in contact with young children since I was one, I’ve enjoyed the blossoming of my bookshelf these past few years. Once again, on a nightly basis, I find myself enchanted by tales of rhyming fish and precocious pigs. On the other hand, as a writer – for adults – I’m invariably amazed at how the authors came up with their ideas. How did they know that a pigeon who talks to a bus driver (I’m looking at you Mo Willems) would result in years of hysterical toddler giggles? What do writers for children draw on for inspiration and how do they shape their stories? I also wonder why and how so many children’s authors create books together.
The newly published Upside-Down Magic is a delightful, humorous middle grade novel about Nory Horace, a 9-year-old whose magic skills are too “wonky” for her to gain admission to her father’s magic academy. Nory is forced to go to public school where she’s put in the Upside-Down magic class. The book is written by three New York Times bestselling authors (including the Brooklyn-based mom, Emily Jenkins, who also goes by E. Lockhart) who have collaborated before. Here, the authors answer some of my questions about writing for children, writing together, and writing Brooklyn, while they are on tour.
What inspires you to collaborate?
Emily: It is significantly more fun than writing alone. SO MUCH more fun!
Lauren: Also, it is less lonely! Writing is a solitary profession, for lots of us. Having FRIENDS I LOVE to write with keeps me from falling into a hole.
Sarah: If only we could write all our books together…
How do you write together? How to Be Bad (2008) had several protagonists’ voices, but how did the process work on Upside-Down Magic, with one main POV?
Emily: With our YA book, How to Be Bad, we each wrote one character, and the story was told in three voices. With Upside-Down Magic, Sarah figures out the plot, which I think is hard. And Lauren writes the first draft, which I think is hard. And then I do the part that comes easiest to me, which is revision. Win!
Lauren: So true. For all of us. I *hate* plotting and suck at it. I love revising, but Emily is better at the global shifting-big-stuff-around part. We all join in after Emily does her massive overall, circling it back and forth and making it better-er and better-er.
Sarah: I’ll say it again: If only we could write all our books together…
You each write for different age groups. How do you know how that age group thinks and feels and which ideas are suitable? Do you draw on your children or your childhood memories? Do you do research?
Emily: I don’t think of the child heroes in my books as different from me. I think of them as just like me. I just connect to them as human beings.
Lauren: I just never grew up.
Sarah: I started writing for kids way before I had kids, and I always wrote with younger me in mind. Now I write with my daughters in mind.
How did you come up with Nory? How do you know if a particular idea suits a particular age group, and why magic and coming to terms with your individuality for this one?
Emily: We love books about magic school, but in all the magic school books, the hero has great and powerful magic. But what if you went to magic school and turned out to be the dunce of your class?
Lauren: We knew right away that that perspective–“Oh no, what if I’m not good enough?”–would resonate with our readers, because it resonated so strongly with us.
Emily: Except for me. I know I’m good enough.
Lauren: Hooray! Everyone should feel that way. Kids hear negative messages all the time: “You’re not good at math.” “You’re good at math, sure, but you have to control your impulses.” “Sarah’s the pretty sister; Emily’s the smart sister.”
Emily: Excuse me! I’m the pretty sister and the smart sister. Also, I grew up an only child.
Lauren: I wanted to write about kids who didn’t perform magic the same way as many of their peers. Who didn’t fit in. I wanted to counter the negative messages with positive messages. In Upside-Down Magic, the message is, “You are NOT bad. You are awesome. Are you a cookie-cutter version of what a kid is ‘supposed’ to be? No way–and WE ARE SO GLAD!” Did you know that even bullying behavior stems from low self-esteem?
Sarah: I also wanted the book to be insanely funny and connect to kids’ feelings.
Do you ever think about parents when you write? Are they an audience in your mind? Is it important that your stories have take-away lessons?
Emily: I hate the idea that literature for children is there to impart lessons. Literature is infinitely more complex and multi-layered than that. I write to create joy and wonder. For kids, not for parents.
Lauren: I think about parents as characters, not as readers. Not *not* as readers! Lots of grown-ups who are parents read our books! But I absolutely do not write with a parent-over-shoulder filter.
Sarah: I don’t worry about parents when I write, but my main characters do always learn something—about themselves, about life—by the end of my books.
Emily, do you feel like Brooklyn infuses your writing? How does being a Brooklyn parent impact on being a (Brooklyn) writer?
Emily: A lot of my picture books are set in Brooklyn. Lemonade in Winter, for example, and Water in the Park. My Invisible Inkling series is set here, too. Upside-Down Magic is set in a small imaginary town up in Maine, but it’s influenced by Brooklyn in that the kids and the community represent the same ethnic and racial melting pot I see in my own neighborhood and in the schools my children go to.
Lauren: I agree with what Emily said, about Emily.
Judy Batalion’s debut “White Walls: A Memoir About Motherhood, Daughterhood and the Mess in Between” will be published by NAL/Penguin in January. She wrote about the preschool admissions process for the New York Times Motherlode, and her writing on parenthood has appeared in Salon, Tablet, Babble and many other publications.