I am thrilled to welcome Author Sundee Frazier to Cynsations today! Welcome, Sundee!
Could you tell us about your latest book?
Mighty Inside (Levine Querido, 2021) was inspired by the true story of how my grandparents acquired their first and only home. It was the 1940s, and the neighborhood in Spokane, WA, where my grandpa wanted to live was off-limits. Restrictive covenants—wording in deeds outlawing sales to Black people—meant realtors wouldn’t even show homes in certain areas to my grandpa. So, he enlisted the help of a white man who posed as the buyer on his behalf. Unfortunately, the neighbors weren’t happy to find out who was actually moving in. A petition circulated to force my grandparents out, but they remained steadfast. Over time, their opponents gave up or moved away. Many of their neighbors became friends.
When my grandma told me about this over twenty years ago, I knew it was the seed of a novel. Mighty Inside is the story of 13-year-old Melvin Robinson, who is becoming more aware of racism in his hometown in the 1950s. He’s also coping with a speech impediment as he begins high school. It’s a story of a kid learning to speak up.
I drew from the experiences of my dad and extended family, and wrote it as an homage to them, to my grandparents, and to the small, tight-knit Black community in Spokane—to their resilience and strength in the face of many wrongs. I am excited to offer a story featuring an African-American family in the Pacific Northwest, which we don’t see very often.
What appeals to you about writing middle-grade books? What are the craft challenges of writing for this age group?
I love kids in the eight-to-twelve age group! They are intellectually capable of grasping more sophisticated topics while retaining a childlike wonder about the universe, which makes for interesting conversations. Their developing morality makes them passionate crusaders for big causes, outspoken about injustices (from the personal to global)—and they still believe that something can be done to right the wrongs and make things better. They are emerging from their families to encounter more of the world, and yet still very much need and want to return to the safety of loved ones for acceptance and support. I love writing stories that show strong family connections and kids forming their identities, but that also take on harder subjects encountered “out in the world,” like racism, colorism, and interracial adoption, which is why I think I’ve gravitated toward middle grade.
Top of the list for craft challenges is keeping the plot moving to keep kids engaged! Especially as a character-driven writer interested in people’s interior lives, I often have to ask myself, “What is my protagonist making happen right now? What actions are they taking? What are they doing?” (Not just “What are they feeling?”)
It’s also important to trust young readers to “get” things. We don’t need to lay everything out for them, so I try to be careful not to over-explain or over-write. Kids of this age group are savvy and perceptive, and when they are able to figure something out on their own, it’s a huge confidence booster. Humor is key for this age group—but not always easy to attain! Finally, letting our characters have autonomy and agency is paramount. We must get the adults out of the way, which is sometimes hard because we want to keep our kid characters safe (the world can be a dangerous place!), but we need to let them do stuff—and do it without adults always nearby, waiting to swoop in and save them.
Reflecting on your personal journey (creatively, career-wise, and your writer’s heart), what bumps did you encounter and how have you managed to defy the odds to achieve continued success?
First of all, it’s important to make sure we are working with a healthy definition of success, by which I mean, “What can I control?” I can’t control what reviewers think or whether my work wins awards—or even whether kids read and like my stories. I can control how much time and focus I give to improving my writing and storytelling. If I’m doing this, I’m being successful.
I’m not very consistent at maintaining this healthier definition of success, but I do my best to return to it continually. I’ve learned that life is constant course correction. We get off track (whether in our values or how we are spending our time), we take stock (hopefully!), and we shift to get ourselves back on the road to where we really want to go.
In my experience, being a career writer means engaging in a constant negotiation between my own creative ideas and the suggestions made by others.
After my first book came out (Brendan Buckley’s Universe and Everything in It), I pitched a manuscript to my editor. She passed and suggested a different idea. Of course, I had the option to decline, but I took up the challenge and wrote The Other Half of My Heart (Penguin Random House, 2011). Getting it written was an emotional roller coaster, but I’m really proud of that novel, which came from a more personal place than anything else I’ve published—even though the initial concept came from someone else.
After writing a sequel to Brendan Buckley, my agent suggested there was a need in the market for chapter books with a more diverse cast. I wrote Cleo Edison Oliver (Scholastic, 2016). My editor didn’t fall in love with my protagonist—she passed, and this time no alternative suggestion was offered. It was tempting to despair, but that closed door led to working with Arthur Levine (after a few years of revising Cleo without promise of a contract). Ultimately, if we want to endure in this business, we must develop a strong belief in our ideas and writing.
If you could tell your younger writer-self anything, what would it be?
Spend less time and energy resisting the crappy first draft. Trust that if you consistently put pen to paper and allow yourself to ponder and explore your ideas and characters, you will find your way to powerful stories that are whole and complete.
Talk to yourself with greater compassion. When you are struggling to get back to your manuscript or to persevere in spite of feeling devoid of a single good idea, when you are feeling like you might never finish another publishable piece of writing, speak to yourself with encouraging words in a supportive tone, as you would a dear friend, or as a dear friend would speak to you.
Ask yourself, What are your commitments—to yourself—and will you keep them?
The most important thing is that you get it done. In the end, how you do it doesn’t really matter. But if you can, observe your process and figure out what works best for you. This will help you become more efficient over time (although that’s not guaranteed because this process is just messy and hard) and prevent (or at least lessen) the temptation to compare your way of getting it done to others’.
What was an early experience where you learned that language had power?
When I was in third grade, my mom enrolled me in a ballet class. I was so excited to dance. Until the teacher informed me that I had flat feet. She told me I would never be a ballerina because I couldn’t point my toes right. I was eight! I wasn’t trying to dance en pointe for the New York City Ballet! I quit ballet soon after and never returned (although my longing to experience the freedom of dance has never gone away).
Conversely, my fifth-grade teacher, Ms. Mansfield, wrote on my report card that I was a gifted writer and gave me positive feedback on my creative stories. Was my ten-year-old storytelling so incredible that my teacher could say without a doubt that I would one day be a professional writer? Of course not! But her encouraging language boosted my confidence, and more importantly, my enjoyment of the creative process.
These vastly differing experiences with language inform how I talk to and write for kids. I may know better than to demean a child, but I still need to be aware of how I might assume a child can’t be successful in some area because of my own biases. My language can lift and inspire or discourage and deflate. I want always to contribute to young people’s positive views of themselves, because each one has the potential for so much creativity, whether that’s creating in the artistic sense, or creating a good life that they enjoy and that contributes to the well-being of others.
Sundee T. Frazier is the Coretta Scott King/John Steptoe New Talent award-winning author of books about a curious science kid (Brendan Buckley’s Universe and Everything in It and its sequel), twin sisters—one who looks Black, the other white (The Other Half of My Heart), and an irresistible 10-year-old entrepreneur (Cleo Edison Oliver). Her most recent novel, Mighty Inside (LevineQuerido, 2021), was inspired by her African-American family integrating a white neighborhood in 1950s Spokane in spite of restrictive covenants. She lives near Seattle, WA. You can learn more about her and her books at www.sundeefrazier.com.
Suma Subramaniam is the contributing author of The Hero Next Door (Penguin Random House, 2019). She is also the author of Centaurs (Capstone, 2021), Fairies (Capstone, 2021), She Sang For India: How MS Subbulakshmi Used Her Voice For Change (Macmillan FSG, 2022), and Namaste Is A Greeting (Candlewick, 2022). Her poems have been published in the Young People’s Poetry edition of Poetry Magazine from Poetry Foundation. She is a volunteer at We Need Diverse Books and SCBWI Western Washington. Suma has an MFA in Creative Writing from Vermont College of Fine Arts. Visit her website at https://sumasubramaniam.com.