Spotlight image: Alison Green Myers with her son and dog exploring the setting from A Bird Will Soar.
Alison and Meera, thank you for joining us today. Would you introduce yourselves and tell us more about your books?
AGM: Thanks for having us! I’m Alison Green Myers, my pronouns are she/her, and A Bird Will Soar (Dutton Books for Young Readers, 2021) is my first book for middle grade readers.
The main character, Axel, is trying to uncover secrets that are tangled in the big, messy, beautiful family he is a part of. At the same time, he’s hoping to rehabilitate an injured eaglet so it can return to its family, so at its heart, this book is about family.
MT: Thank you so much for having us here today. My name is Meera Trehan, my pronouns are she/her, and I’m the author of The View from the Very Best House in Town (Walker Books, 2022). It’s been described as part thriller, part friendship story, and part real estate listing. It’s about Asha and Sam, two autistic kids who’ve been friends for so long that they take their friendship for granted, just as Asha takes for granted that Donnybrooke, the mansion that sits on the highest hill in town, is the very best there is. Their friendship starts to change when Sam is accepted into Castleton Academy, a snobbish prep school, and Sam appears to befriend Prestyn Donaldson, Asha’s nemesis, who lives in Donnybrooke. Asha has to discover who she is without Sam as her best friend, and decide what she’s going to do when she discovers that Prestyn’s interest in Sam is not so friendly. This book explores the themes of friendship and home from three points of view: Asha, Sam and the mansion Donnybrooke itself.
Each of you is a debut author. Can you tell us more about what inspired you to write for young readers?
MT: I was a voracious reader, but unlike a lot of writers I didn’t grow up thinking I wanted to be an author. I studied and practiced law, before eventually taking writing classes.
I’ve found that when I come up with story ideas, the best point of view for saying what I want to say is often a child or teenager. Those years are times of so much change, and that lends itself to story. I vividly remember what it was like for me to be a child and teenager, and it feels very natural for me to tap into those emotions.
Also, I love children’s literature! The two ingredients of any good children’s book are honesty and hope, and that’s what I aim for in my stories and the kidlit community is really wonderful. I’m so happy to be a part of it.
AGM: Unlike Meera, I didn’t fall in love with reading right away, but as a child, I loved the quiet spaces that seemed to be paired with books. Our mom would drop us off at the local library for hours on end. My oldest sister would read everything in sight, yet I can’t put my finger on a single book that I read there. But I can tell you what the carpet felt like, what it smelled like in there, what the view looked like out the window, that there was a draft next to that window. I liked being around books, but it took a while for reading to catch fire for me.
When I became a classroom teacher, I realized that writing books for children was not only something that I wanted to do, but also something that I felt like I needed to do. I liked to read and write with my students. We would do quiet reading time together. Similarly, I loved to write with them. That led me to two paths that brought me to writing children’s books.
One path was the National Writing Project (NWP), which is a professional development program for classroom teachers to help them grow as both teachers and writers. The NWP does amazing programming for children and adults.
The other path was courtesy of our school’s local author-in-residence, Linda Oatman High. She asked if I’d ever thought about writing for children and told me about the Highlights Foundation. I attended her course at Highlights in 2006 and now, fast forward 16 years, I work as the program director for the Highlights Foundation.
The mission there is helping children become their best selves—whatever that means to a child. We hope to amplify great authors, great stories, and great illustrators so that kids, and people who care about kids, can find them. Children’s books are recognition of the fact that we value childhood and children. Kids can’t hear that enough, and they should know and feel how much we value them.
Can you tell us about your journey from inspiration to publication? What was involved with taking these stories from idea to finished book?
AGM: At any point in my life, I probably would have been writing a story about found family and nature, those are important themes in my life, but this specific story didn’t happen until around 2018. I’d drafted a few books by that time with some aspect of diverse processing, nature, and dealing with addiction, but none of the books were ready for flight. None were getting to what I really wanted to say about the way that society values instincts, but only in some cases, or the way that society values diverse processing or problem solving but only in some ways. In 2017/2018 I started expressing those thoughts in my poetry by writing about birds.
Then in May of 2018, a tornado devastated many towns near where I live. Four eaglets from displaced nests were taken in by our local raptor rehab, and my family watched the eaglets’ rehabilitation and wondered about them: Will they find their families? Will they all get to go back to the sky? We got to see three of them released, but there was the fourth eaglet that we didn’t know anything about. We talked a lot about that fourth eaglet. That year we went to an educational program at the raptor center, and saw the fourth eaglet, Lizzy, who would not be rehabilitated enough to return to the sky.
At first, A Bird Will Soar was a story about Lizzy, and getting her to the point of being released. But as I navigated the story, I realized that whether she was released or whether she ever found her family wasn’t the point—it wasn’t really what I wanted to say. Lizzy’s story gave me the backdrop for writing a story that shows that life can be hard or stormy, but there are so many things to love about it, and so much to share from both the hard and lovely times.
MT: I also have to sit with a story idea for a long time before I start writing. For this book, I thought about a friendship between two autistic kids and their families, about how those families might vary, and about how their relationship might change as they got older. I knew one of the kids would have a real interest in houses, which made me think about what houses can represent and the status we attach to them. All these thoughts coalesced and the voices of Asha and Donnybrooke came to me.
Donnybrooke’s voice, with its very status-conscious take on society, was the clearest one. But even so, after a few drafts with just Asha and Donnybrooke, it felt like something was missing. I often do writing exercises if I’m stuck—to help me find a character’s voice, get lines of dialogue, or crystallize a character’s motivation, even if the exercises don’t end up in the finished manuscript. As I did this, I wrote a lot from Sam’s point of view, and I realized that was what was missing from the book.
To tell the story from three points of view, I had to plot out chapter by chapter who was doing what, where, and who could relate what information in the story. Then I made sure that each point of view had a clear story arc, and that the voices weren’t slipping into each other.
After several drafts I showed the manuscript to a sensitivity reader and some close friends, who gave me feedback, and then I revised and queried it. I signed with Molly Ker Hawn in October 2019, and her one big suggestion related to the point of view: I had always drafted Asha and Sam in close third person, but Donnybrooke was in first person. She suggested putting Donnybrooke in close third as well, which was just the change those chapters needed.
We went on submission in February 2020. It sold at auction on March 13, 2020, the day that everything was shutting down because of the pandemic. I’ve been lucky to work with Susan Van Metre at Walker Books, who is an excellent editor. She improved my story, finding all the places that needed to be cut or expanded and helping me to tell the story as well as I could. Now it’s coming out in February 2022.
Can you tell us more about the other characters in the book?
AGM: I wanted to show more than one type of diverse thinking and processing in the book. At a book club recently, one kid was talking about Daniel, a character from the book. He said, “I always liked when Daniel was in a scene, because I knew I was going to laugh.” Daniel isn’t just funny, though, he’s got many characteristics. An important one is the way Daniel processes strong emotions. This isn’t done the same as Axel, but that doesn’t mean one way is good or bad, it’s just different. He gets to be a whole human. He gets to navigate his set of feelings and emotions his way. It was important to me to show that with as many characters as I could because I think that is very true to life.
Diversity of family is also a theme in the story, as it is in all my stories. There’s a non-biological family in the book, and they prove very important in giving Axel support and love and acceptance. Axel and his mom live on a piece of land near a farmhouse where a couple, George and Emmett, live with George’s sister, so there are multiple generations coming together on this one property. I wanted to showcase George and Emmett’s love and honesty, how they’ve taken this family under their wing, and how this found family grows deeper over the years.
MT: I think Alison does a beautiful job at reflecting the world around us in her book, and it’s something I wanted to do as well. It came naturally for me, because we live in a diverse world. My main character Asha is Indian-American, and that’s an important part of her and her family’s identity. They celebrate Diwali, but the diversity is also reflected on deeper levels in terms of how she sees herself, and how other people see her and react to her. The book has characters of many races and ethnicities, there’s diversity in terms of family structure, and diversity of economic status. It was important to me to reflect a world that kids can recognize.
For our last question, as debut authors, what advice would you give to an aspiring creator?
MT: I have so much I could say, but I will limit myself to two pieces of advice. First, my advice about advice: “Take the advice that works for you, that helps your process, that helps your work.” Writing is such an individualized process, and there’s no right way to do that. It’s great to listen and to experiment, but if in the end, what you’re trying isn’t working for you, it doesn’t matter who suggested it. There’s no one right way to do this.
Second: it’s okay if it takes time. Everything we read, everything we write, the quiet thinking time that Alison mentioned—all of that is working towards something, even if we don’t always feel it directly. Give yourself space and time to have fun and to experiment and to enjoy the process. You might find your best work that way, but even if you don’t, you’ll enjoy the process and that has value too. Write what makes you excited about writing. For me, with this story, one of the things that excited me was writing from the POV of view of a house. There were people who didn’t love that choice—and certainly a story could be written without that POV. But it wouldn’t be the story I was trying to tell. And I needed to take my time to explore Donnybrooke’s voice, and Sam’s and Asha’s, to find that story.
Another example is Alison’s book – it’s a mix of poetry and prose, and each amplifies the other. If she had felt “I can only do one thing,” it wouldn’t have been her book, it wouldn’t have been this wonderful book.
AGM: Thank you so much, Meera. I would echo your advice about time and space. It’s your own process.
My biggest piece of advice is to find what works for you, not just for your writing but also when it comes to your writing life. It doesn’t have to be 3.3 million followers on Twitter – if it is, great! You’ve found how to make your connection. But it’s okay if it’s a small, tight group of people. I find it easiest to connect with a small group of people.
This brings me to my next piece of advice: extend kindness when you can. Everything in my life shifted when Linda Oatman High extended her kindness to me. She didn’t have to take the time to invite me in, but she did. Also, it makes me think of Meera, who has said to me many times over the years, “You know you can call me anytime!” We don’t just talk about the stories—we also talk about all the other things that go into that writing life, and we can do that genuinely and openly. It is important to find a way to make those connections that make you feel safe and comfortable. So my advice would be to find the kind of network that you need personally, and offer them as much support as you can, and it will come back to you in waves.
Thank you both so much for talking with us today about your books and your writing life.
Alison Green Myers is a writer and educator. She is the program director for the Highlights Foundation and a National Writing Project Fellow. A Bird Will Soar is her first novel, and received the Schneider Family Book award for a book the best embodies the disability experience for children at the ALA Youth Media Awards. She lives in the woods with her family. For activities related to A Bird Will Soar, please visit her website.
Meera Trehan grew up in Virginia, just outside Washington, DC, where she read as much as she could, memorized poems, and ate enough cookies to earn the nickname “Monster” after the Cookie Monster. After attending the University of Virginia and Stanford Law School, she practiced public interest law for over a decade, before turning to creative writing. Her debut novel, The View from the Very Best House in Town, comes out February 2022 from Walker Books US., an imprint of Candlewick. She lives in Maryland with her family. Meera can be found at her website and on Twitter at @writemeera.
Originally from the US, Elisabeth Norton now lives with her family in Switzerland, where she teaches English as a Foreign Language at a Swiss technical school and writes picture books, chapter books and middle grade novels. She serves as the Assistant International Advisor for Outreach for the Society of Children’s Book Writers & Illustrators (SCBWI).
You can find out more about her writing and involvement in the world of books for young readers on her website.
When not reading or writing, Elisabeth can usually be found knitting, hiking in the mountains or walking along the river in the forest near her home.