Heart and Spirit: An Interview with Ami Polonsky

By Carol Coven Grannick

My chronicles explore the heart and spirit of writers, the emotional and psychological issues and strengths that stir our creativity and are stirred by our work and the obstacles that impact our processes.

What strengths does each writer have that create and maintain emotional resilience?

How does an author’s or illustrator’s own internal process and state of mind intertwine with the narrative arc of her work?

The honest and deep responses I receive from writers interviewed for Cynsations are a gift to each of us, given in the spirit of community and awe of the journey we each travel.

Ami Polonsky is the author of three middle grade novels—Gracefully Grayson (Hyperion, 2014), Threads (Disney Hyperion, 2016), and her new release, Spin With Me (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2021). She also teaches middle school English.

Spin With Me is a dual-narrative story about Essie, a thirteen-year-old girl who can’t wait for her 110 days in a new school to end—until she meets Ollie, who is nonbinary. With the organic ebb and flow of an authentic “getting to know you—really” first love, the story delves deeply but gently into the question of naming and labeling who we are, and the importance of finding wholeness as humans in relation to ourselves and others.

Welcome, Ami! What can you share about your “inner” journey as you write? Is it different with each book, or do you have a fairly reliable emotional process with ups, downs, etc. Was there anything different you noticed about the process of writing Spin With Me?

My writing process has never looked the same twice. In addition to being a writer, I’m a seventh-grade English teacher and a mom, so my life is a bit of a juggling act. I love all three of my jobs, but because I have so much on my plate, I have to take whatever I can get when it comes to writing time.

This works for me; I don’t do well when I spend too much time in my head. I wrote the first draft of Spin with Me a few summers ago. The book consists of fairly short chapters now, but in my first draft, the chapters were even shorter. I texted them to my friend one by one as I wrote them.

In the moment, I wasn’t sharing my draft to create accountability for myself; I was sharing it because it was fun to essentially write a novel text by text. In retrospect, I realize that this process motivated me. After all, my friend wanted to know what was going to happen next!

As an author-teacher, how do your various roles inform one another? What can you tell us about trying to write while also working with students during this challenging time?

On the most basic level, for me, teaching and writing are indistinguishable. Each is about digging into a person or situation, finding underlying truths, and making those truths visible so they can be built upon or celebrated. In Spin with Me, Ollie and Essie are obsessed with optical illusions: the butterfly/painted hands; the old woman/young woman; the duck/rabbit.

When I reflect upon my practice of digging into things and extracting truths, from one perspective, it looks like teaching. From another perspective, it looks like writing.

This is a really hard time to be a student, and it’s a really hard time to be a teacher. (Basically, it’s just a hard time to be a person.) Everyone’s trying to keep their head above water. Beyond revisions to Spin with Me, I haven’t written since last summer. But, that’s actually not unusual for me. I’ve never been a daily writer and often spend summers on first drafts, some of which work, and some of which don’t. (I have an entire file on my desktop called “Books I tried to write.”)

This year, I’m more grateful than ever for my teaching career. Seeing my seventh graders each day, even though some of them are on a screen and the rest of them are masked, helps me maintain a sense of joy despite the COVID-19 crisis and political upheaval.

My students and I laugh a lot together, which is more important now than ever.

Ollie and Essie connect immediately on one level, but gradually in a deeper way that enables each to find something that’s been missing, something each has been searching for. They (you) ask significant questions about naming and labeling ourselves and others. Can you talk about how, and from where, the emotional heart of the story evolved?

The answer to this question is simple. The heart of Spin with Me is my trans child. My instinct as a parent is to help pave the way from both of my kids, but especially my younger one. (Writing Ollie’s mom in Spin with Me felt almost embarrassingly autobiographical.)

As a “mama bear,” my need to push the needle forward when it comes to protecting and celebrating LGBTQIA+ kids is visceral. Like Ollie and Essie understand in Spin with Me, being a trans kid needs to be no big deal and the most amazingly wonderful, huge deal, all at the same time.


Cynsational Notes

Ami Polonsky is the author of the critically acclaimed Gracefully Grayson, Threads and Spin with Me and a middle school English teacher. She lives outside of Chicago with her family.

Carol Coven Grannick’s debut MG novel in verse, Reeni’s Turn, is available through Indiebound and other stores via her website, where she’d love you to visit and say hello! Her children’s fiction and poetry appear and are forthcoming in Cricket, Highlights, Ladybug, Babybug, Hello, and Hunger Mountain, and her poetry for adults appears in numerous online and print journals.

In addition to being a reporter for Cynsations, she is a columnist for the SCBWI-Illinois Prairie Wind, a member of the GROG Blog, and guest blogger for children’s lit blogs.