By Rebecca Kirshenbaum
Two-time Schneider Award Winner and 2018 National Book Awards Finalist Leslie Connor talks about her new middle grade novel, Anybody Here Seen Frenchie? (Katherine Tegen, 2022), the power of research, and the beauty of symbiotic friendships.
Your newest novel, Anybody Here Seen Frenchie?, is at its heart a story about friendship (like so many of your books!). Aurora and Frenchie both exist apart from their peers, though for different reasons. Can you talk about their connection and what you wanted to convey with their special friendship? I’d say you capture different kinds of friendships in your work, but they are all powerful. Do you have a favorite duo?
First, thank you for reading my new title and for your thoughtful questions, Rebecca.
Aurora and Frenchie’s friendship is nuanced by neurodiversity. On the surface, they are a good fit because she wants to talk a lot and he does not speak at all. But it goes deeper. One of Aurora’s social difficulties is that she acts impulsively and tends to blurt. Being a good friend to Frenchie requires Aurora to slow down and learn to read his behavior. Both characters have exactly the space they need to be who they are. At the same time, each of them lives a richer life in the presence of the other. They are so tight, I had to ask myself what tears at the stitching? Aurora and Frenchie have both been taught social strategies, which, granted, don’t always take. But what if the wheels turn a hitch and one friend starts to feel the tug of a much-longed after social life while the other stays pretty much the same as they’ve been for years?
In The Truth as Told by Mason Buttle (Katherine Tegen, 2018), I loved writing about another symbiotic pairing: Mason, the outdoorsy, learning disabled non-reader, and Calvin, the sage, studious info-fanatic. These friendships seem unlikely but blossom in spite of it. Where we observe friends filling in the gaps for each other on that basic human level, that’s where we begin to trust that we can accomplish more together. It is great substance for the writer!
Aurora and Frenchie are both on the autism spectrum, though they are very different. As someone who is deeply invested in the autism and neurodiversity communities, I am impressed by the respect you have for these characters, their similarities and differences, and the way you highlight their individual gifts. How did you go about researching these very different characters? Was writing characters with ASD challenging? Did your approach change during the writing of the novel?
Thank you, Rebecca! I do always respect my characters—couldn’t do this work any other way. You and I exchanged notes about an oft-quoted line: “Show me one autistic person and I’ll show you one autistic person.” It’s a reference to the vastness of the spectrum; the similarities and differences we find in the members of the autistic community are striking. In this story, there’s the juxtaposition of one loud incessant talker, Aurora, and nonvocal (non-speaking) Frenchie, who relies on routine, and a just-so schedule. On the other hand, both are hypersensitive to itchy clothing tags.
My research was intense! My most valuable resources included posts and videos by members of the autism community and their families, websites on the subject, personal interviews and interactions, and years of observations. My respect for Aurora and Frenchie grew deeper as the research revealed them to me. I became aware of the acute sensitivities some autistic people struggle with daily—particularly how hard they are often working just to remain composed around others, let alone interact. My approach to the characters gathered a new facet with excellent advice from a couple of authenticity readers. They suggested I not ignore the challenges of living with and loving an autistic person; family and friends make adjustments and sacrifices. Not always easy. I suppose my greatest challenge was not being autistic myself. My work was to offer an empathetic response via story. I hope this telling encourages others to practice empathy. I also hope some readers will feel they see themselves in these characters.
You shared with me that these characters are especially special to you because you wrote Has Anyone Here Seen Frenchie? during the pandemic. I know just what you mean – especially during those early pandemic days when I was truly hunkered down at home with only my characters for company. It was intense! Will you share a little bit about the experience of creating these characters?
Yes! I think we may one day come to relish those days of intensity (though we’ll never relish the cause). This story was my place to go every day while so much else was off limits, closed, or cancelled. (This writer is served well by immersion!) The setting quickly became the most real place I knew, and its features served the plot. But as a reader and a writer, it’s the characters I am following. They have to be fully fleshed. Listening for them is vital to my process. I was grateful for Aurora’s loud voice in my ear, the way she pushed me forward, forward, forward! The quiet, poetic quality of Frenchie’s thoughts was very grounding.
Your first novel is called Waiting for Normal (Katherine Tegen, 2008)–an apt and prescient title, I think, for your entire body of work, which is filled with many unique and sometimes challenging family situations, neurodiversity, mental health, and a character who lives in a prison (All Rise for the Honorable Perry T. Cook, Katherine Tegen, 2016)! Your writing conveys both empathy and respect for these characters and their lives. What draws you to these kinds of characters and stories?
Oh, that’s a keen observation! And thank you for the compliment. The search for a sense of family emerged (organically) as a theme in at least some of my stories. I’m not sure why. I was an emotional, worrier-type of kid but I came from an intact family, so go figure. It gives me comfort to believe that we can all find “home” someplace, and it comes naturally to me to acknowledge the changing shape of contemporary families in my work.
My own childhood anxiety made me feel weird, alone, and under-doggish. Perhaps I saw myself mirrored in kids who were on the margins—the ones having a quiet, largely invisible struggle. I wanted to understand them–to know their stories–but I didn’t always have the confidence to befriend them. So part of me is still an eleven-year-old with unfinished business. I’m writing books for all the struggly kids now– with apologies for showing up late.
I am struck by how many different settings you explore in your work. Does setting come first for you? Do you actively incorporate setting when plotting? How does the physical world factor into your writing process?
Hmm. Situation comes first, but it always has close ties to environment—so much so, the two show up nearly simultaneously. I need setting to inform plot, yes, and I need for place to be the stage for my characters. I sweep back through my drafts often to make certain that a strong sense of place comes to life for the reader. The most important thing about the physical world is how each character perceives it; how they observe it, how they live, play, and suffer in it. (Wow. That sounds heavy, doesn’t it?)
Anything else you’d like to share with us?
Well, I have started work on another middle grade novel—a sister story, which is new for me. But would you mind if I mention the National Book Awards? I had the honor of being a finalist for The Truth as Told by Mason Buttle (HarperCollins) in 2018.
Now I’ve had the privilege of being a panelist for the Young People’s Literature prize. Talk about close to my heart! Just in case your readers missed it, these are the five finalists this year, and I sincerely hope these titles have landed on everyone’s TBR lists:
- Last Night at the Telegraph Club by Malinda Lo (Dutton, 2021)(winner);
- Too Bright to See by Kyle Lukeoff (Dial, 2021);
- Me (Moth) by Amber McBride (Feiwel & Friends, 2021);
- Revolution in Our Time: The Black Panther Party’s Promise to the People by Kekla Magoon (Candlewick, 2021);
- The Legend of Auntie Po by Shing Yin Khor (Kokila, 2021).
Leslie Connor is the author of the middle grade novels, Waiting for Normal (Katherine Tegen, 2008), All Rise for the Honorable Perry T. Cook (Katherine Tegen, 2016), The Truth as Told by Mason Buttle (Katherine Tegen, 2018)(a finalist for the 2018 National Book Award), A Home for Goddesses and Dogs (Katherine Tegen, 2020), and most recently, Anyone Here Seen Frenchie? (Katherine Tegen, 2022). Leslie is a two-time winner of the American Library Association’s Schneider Family Book Award, and finalist for the E. B. White Read Aloud. Her titles have appeared on many state reading lists. Leslie holds a BFA in Fine Art from the University of Connecticut. She lives with her husband and three rescue dogs in a little house in the Connecticut woods.
Rebecca Kirshenbaum has an MFA in Writing for Children and Young Adults from Vermont College of Fine Arts, an MA in children’s literature from Simmons University, and an MA in English literature from Columbia University. She really, really likes being a student. She grew up in Cleveland and roots for all Cleveland sports teams.
She lives in Boston with her husband Mark, her teenage sons, Caleb and Eli, plus a lot of animals – guinea pigs Frisky and Sprinkles, a bunch of fish, and her family’s therapy dog Quimby. (All you kidlit people should get the Ramona reference!). When not reading and writing, she teaches fourth grade literacy and organizes her bookshelves in rainbow order.