Last week, a group of Middle School students, described by Middle School librarian and club supervisor Natasha Goldberg as “an astute group of readers with strong feelings about books and story,” gathered in the library and stared in anticipation at a large projection screen.
These students are members of Chapin’s Middle School Mock Newbery Club, a group inspired by the Newbery Medal, the prestigious award presented annually to the author of “the most distinguished contribution to American Literature for children.” Each fall, the Chapin group, comprised of students in Classes 4 through 7, reads books from a list of new titles before voting for their favorites in January. The book with the most votes receives the Club’s very own Newbery Award.
During this particular meeting, the club members spent time chatting on Skype with Ali Standish, the author of the current frontrunner for their Mock Newbery Award, The Ethan I Was Before. The book, which follows 12 year-old Ethan as he comes to terms with the death of his best friend, was beloved by the entire group. Their excitement was palpable as the author’s face appeared on the screen. “Woohoo!” “Let’s go!” “I’m so excited!” the students cheered.
After greeting her with a warm Chapin welcome and waving hello to her dogs, the students began asking the author their most pressing questions, which follow along with her answers below.
What books would you recommend that are super awesome, just like your book?
My favorite classics are Bridge to Terabithia by Katherine Paterson, Walk Two Moons by Sharon Creech, The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe by C.S. Lewis, and the Harry Potter series by J.K. Rowling.
My favorite recent books are Beyond the Bright Sea and Wolf Hollow by Lauren Wolk, and Wishtree by K. A. Applegate.
What was the inspiration behind your book, The Ethan I Was Before?
When I was in college, my good friend passed away - the book is actually dedicated to this friend. A few years later, I had a job in a Middle School and was working closely with students who were dealing with loss, grief or the absence of a family member. I was frustrated because I couldn’t find many books that I could recommend to these students about what they were going through. I can relate to the main character of The Ethan I Was Before because when I lost my friend I went through the same feelings and issues he experiences.
Are there pieces of yourself or people you know in your characters?
Absolutely! Any author who denies this is lying! There is a little bit of me in every character I write. The people in my life inspire some of my characters, and I also include pieces I pick up from the world around me.
Are you planning on writing more books?
Yes! I just finished editing my second book, but you’ll have to wait about a year to read it. Everything in publishing moves so slowly. The book is called August Isle. It’s about a 12 year-old girl named Miranda who lives in Illinois with her parents. She idolizes her mother, but there is a distance between them and she doesn’t know why. That summer, Miranda is sent away to August Isle, an island off the coast of Florida that her mother used to visit as a child. While there, Miranda meets some new friends and they help her to discover secrets that explain her relationship with her mother.
What is your pet peeve with middle grade books?
Many people think that middle grade readers can’t handle tough subjects. I don’t believe that. As Grandpa Ike says in The Ethan I Was Before, “Children are stronger than they seem.” I think that, especially now, with social media and the Internet, you are all more exposed to things earlier on. People are starting to realize there’s no reason to hide the way things are in the world, whether it be bullying or loss or different family structures.
Ms. Standish then asked the students to share their own pet peeves about middle grade books.
“I don’t like when a book is really exciting in the beginning but then by the middle it gets boring,” one student shared. “My advice to that is that life is short and there are lots of wonderful books out there,” she replied. “If you’re reading a book and it’s not teaching you something, making you a better person or making you happy, go find a better book.”
Another student mentioned that sometimes she reads a book that her friends love but she ends up not liking it. “As an author, you learn that no two people feel the same way about a book and not every book is for everyone,” Ms. Standish explained. “Once the story and the characters go from my mind to your hands, it becomes your book, and you get to form your own opinions of it. So, the story multiplies and becomes different for each person, which is very cool!”
A third student added, “I’m still in the process of reading your book but I really like how everything is mysterious. It’s really a page turner and makes me want to read more!” “Thank you!” the author replied. “Writing a book about loss can feel overwhelming and dark, so I wanted to give it a sense of mystery and adventure.”
As their Skype session came to a close, the students waved goodbye and wished the author well. “We hope you win the real Newbery Award!” Ms. Goldberg said with a smile. Before signing off, Ms. Standish left the students with some words of encouragement. “Thank you all for reading my book and just for being such awesome readers! The world is a frightening place right now, but it gives me hope for the future knowing that there are girls like you who are so passionate about books and stories.”