Guest Post: Writing Across Gender Lines: Fiction that Appeals to Boys and Girls

By Yona Zeldis McDonough
for Cynthia Leitich Smith‘s Cynsations

I’ve alway thought of myself as a girly-girl writer. Although I’ve written bios for kids that appeal to both boys and girls—many of them in the popular Who Was series (Grosset & Dunlap) —my real love is girl-friendly stories. I like dolls—no fewer than five of my children’s books have had the words doll or doll house in the title—and all the girly stuff that goes with them. I also like kitties, pretty dresses, and tea parties, and all these things find their way into the fiction I write for kids.

I never saw this as a particular problem or even issue to be addressed. As the fans of mystery, dystopia, humor and fantasy can happily attest, subsets in the field of children’s books abound, and there are many ways to make readers happy. So writing books that appealed chiefly to girls didn’t seem like an issue to me.

But a chance meeting with an editor from Boys’ Life made the first chip in my frilly, feminine facade. We had been invited to speak on a panel together and when it was over, she encouraged me, strongly, to consider writing fiction for the magazine. I was flattered but didn’t think I was the right person for the job. I felt like I was too far out of my comfort zone and I wasn’t confident I could do it. But an invitation from an editor is something to take seriously, so I began to play around with some ideas, eventually settling on a story set in 1941 that was slated for the December 2016 issue. That was the 75th anniversary of the Japanese invasion of Pearl Harbor and in my story, a 12-year-old boy finds himself defending his best friend, Kenzo, a boy whose Japanese family had arrived in the United States some 10 years prior. It was about the need for facing down prejudice and bigotry and it advanced a message of tolerance and acceptance. The editor liked what I had written and asked for more stories, which I was happy to provide.

So when I was tapped by an editor from Scholastic to write what eventually became The Bicycle Spy (Scholastic, 2016), I had already taken some tentative, baby steps across the gender line. Scholastic wanted a book about a 13-year-old boy who lives in the Southwest of France during World War II. His parents own the bakery in town. Unbeknownst to him, they are members of the French Resistance and he’s been delivering the messages that they have baked into loaves of bread. He’s also an avid cyclist and fan of the Tour de France—suspended during the war years—and bicycling was to play a major role in the story. And he had a new friend in school; when he learns the truth about her family, he is called on to help them escape. These were the bare bones—the rest was up to me.

I was now faced with writing a book whose primary audience would be boys, a much more challenging and complex task than writing a 1,200 word magazine story. If I was going to succeed, I needed to widen and expand my range as a writer. This made me very nervous. Yes, I had written boy protagonists, but always in the short run. Could I sustain a boy’s point of view and hope to engage boy readers for a whole chapter book? I sure hoped so!

To my surprise, I found the task less daunting and more exciting than I expected. I wanted to make my protagonist Marcel appealing and relatable, so I turned him into an unlikely hero: small for his age, bespectacled and the unhappy target of the class bully’s teasing and aggression. Marcel loses to his best friend in a game of chess, flubs the occasional answer in class and dreams constantly of being stronger, taller and faster—like the winners of the bicycle race he reveres. And yet, for all his flaws, he’s also shown to be brave, loyal and determined.

As Marcel’s story evolved in my mind, I realized I wanted it to include a female component, something that would appeal to girls as well as boys. And so I began to develop the character of Delphine Gillette, the new girl at school who loves cycling as much as he does and is revealed, midway through, to be Jewish. Her family has fled Paris and is hiding out in this small town, protected by the false papers her father has been able to procure. But when the Nazi presence intensifies, Marcel learns that the papers of the residents, particularly those newly arrived, are going to be scrutinized carefully. Delphine and her family are no longer safe. They will need to flee again and it is Marcel who is instrumental in the daring plot to help them find their way to freedom.

As I wrote, I tried to keep the concerns of both boys and girls
balanced in mind. I knew that boys would like the suspense aspects of the story, the coded messages, and the workings of the Resistance movement, as well as the descriptions of both the occupying soldiers and the French gendarmes who supported them. I also made sure to include details about Marcel’s relationship to his parents—his mother’s worry and occasional tendency to nag, his father’s pride in his courage—as well as the push-and-pull with his school friends.

For the girl readers, I explored Delphine’s experiences as the new girl in town, her efforts to fit in and be liked, but also her spunk and her courage. I added references to the clothes she wore—because yes, girls do care—and her affection for her pet cat.

But as I got deeper and deeper into the story, I also began to notice a certain softening of gender lines and began to realize that the concerns of these two characters were more alike than different. They both loved cycling, worried about their place in the social pecking order, and had to deal with parental expectations. Both faced the awful upheavals of war and both feared an uncertain and potentially devastating future.

I had started out believing that boys would relate to Marcel, and girls to Delphine; I came to see that each of these characters would have appeal for the other gender. It’s a revelation that I hope to carry with me when I approach my as-yet-unwritten next book. Writing for boys taught me something about writing for girls and I am glad to have discovered that that universe of fiction is far broader—and more inclusive—than I had formerly imagined.

Cynsational Notes 
The Bicycle Spy was recently named a Sydney Taylor Book Award Notable Book by the Association of Jewish Libraries

10 Award-Winning Authors/Illustrators at AJL Convention

From ALJ: Ten award-winning authors and illustrators who create books for children and teens will appear at the 42nd Annual Convention of the Association of Jewish Libraries (AJL), scheduled for June 17 to June 20. All ten received recognition this year from AJL’s Sydney Taylor Book Award Committee, which awards the best in Jewish children’s literature. The convention usually brings in only three or four such author/illustrators, making 2007 a bonanza year for lovers of Judaic literature for young people.

“Authors and illustrators who win the Sydney Taylor Book Award’s gold medal are always invited to the convention to accept their awards,” explains Rachel Kamin, chair of the award committee. “Those who receive honor awards are always welcome too, but this year our invitation received an overwhelming response! We are very excited to be able to meet so many talented, creative people during the convention.”

2007 is the first year AJL presented a book award for teen readers, and convention organizers are particularly pleased to welcome Markus Zusak, author of The Book Thief (Knopf, 2006), the Teen Book Award Winner. Zusak will travel all the way from his home in Australia to receive the award. Other award-winning authors and illustrators who will be present include:

Author Stephen Krensky and illustrator Greg Harlin, creators of the picture book Hanukkah at Valley Forge (Dutton, 2006), the Sydney Taylor Book Award Winner for Younger Readers;

Brenda A. Ferber, author of the novel Julia’s Kitchen (FSG, 2006), the Sydney Taylor Book Award Winner for Older Readers;

Ann Redisch Stampler, author of the picture book Shlemazel and the Remarkable Spoon of Pohost (Clarion, 2006), a Sydney Taylor Honor Award Winner for Younger Readers;

Brynn Olenberg Sugarman, author of the picture book Rebecca’s Journey Home (Kar-Ben, 2006), a Sydney Taylor Honor Award Winner for Younger Readers;

Esme Raji Codell, author of the novel Vive La Paris (Hyperion, 2006), a Sydney Taylor Honor Award Winner for Older Readers;

Jennifer Roy, author of the novel Yellow Star (Marshall Cavendish, 2006), a Sydney Taylor Honor Award Winner for Older Readers;

Linda Press Wulf, author of the novel Night of the Burning: Devorah’s Story (FSG, 2006), a Sydney Taylor Honor Award Winner for Older Readers;

Dana Reinhardt, author of the teen novel A Brief Chapter in My Impossible Life (Wendy Lamb, 2006), an AJL Honor Award Winner for Teens (this award will take on the Sydney Taylor name beginning in 2008).

All ten authors/illustrators will be presenting sessions during the convention on either Monday, June 18 or Tuesday, June 19. A reception and book signing will take place on Tuesday, June 19 followed by an evening awards banquet. The convention will be held at the Scottsdale Hilton Resort & Villas; information on attending the convention is available at www.jewishlibraries.org.

Cynsational Note

Read interviews with Brenda A. Ferber and Esme Raji Codell.

Author Interview: Brenda A. Ferber on Julia’s Kitchen

Brenda A. Ferber on Brenda A. Ferber: “I grew up in a happy home in Highland Park, Illinois, the third of four children. I attended the University of Michigan and created my own honors major called, ‘Creative Writing for Mass Media.’ It was basically a combination of creative writing, film/video, and communications classes. Lots of fun! For my honors thesis, I wrote a screenplay, which is currently sitting in the back of my file cabinet, exactly where it belongs.

“After graduation, I moved to Chicago with Alan, my college sweetheart. I worked for Leo Burnett advertising agency, got married, and had three kids in 19 months. (Yes, we have twins.) Suddenly I was a stay-at-home mom, living in the suburbs, and driving a mini-van. It was time to reassess life.

“I had always dreamed of becoming an author but never saw it as a practical career. Now I figured I had to give it a shot. I wasn’t making any money anyway, so what did it hurt? I took a class through the Institute of Children’s Literature, devoured everything in the children’s department of our library, and started to write. A few years later I sold two stories to Ladybug. Then, amazingly, I sold my first novel to FSG!”

What about the writing life first called to you?

When I was ten years old, my aunt gave me a diary for Hannukah, and I’ve been journaling ever since. For me, writing equals thinking. I don’t really understand something until I’ve written about it. Not only did writing in a diary help me tackle the ups and downs of life, but it also helped me discover my writing voice. Journaling and reading as much as possible (Judy Blume, Beverly Cleary, and Constance Greene were childhood favorites) added up to a natural desire to become an author.

I wasn’t one of those kids who wrote stories all the time, but I thought in story-mode, and I still do.

You know that inner voice you have? Well, mine is a story-telling voice. For example, right now I’m thinking, She tried to answer the interview questions while her ten-year-old son buzzed about the room and asked, “What’s for dinner, Mom?” I thought everyone’s inner voice worked like this until one day when I mentioned it to my husband, and he informed me otherwise. Who would have guessed?

What made you decide to write for young readers?

I’m much too hopeful and optimistic to write for adults. And I love examining the growing-up years. I find it fascinating.

Could you tell us about your path to publication, any sprints or stumbles along the way?

In 2003, I attended the SCBWI Mid-Year Conference in NY. One of the editors I heard speak there was Beverly Reingold, from Farrar Straus & Giroux. At that time, I was in the middle of my first draft of Julia’s Kitchen, and Beverly struck me as the right editor for that manuscript. I can’t explain exactly why. It was just a gut feeling.

I went home and read several books Beverly had edited, and I became even more convinced that she should be my editor. Of course, I couldn’t send her a half-finished first draft, so I sent her a picture book manuscript instead. Soon after, I received a lovely rejection letter from her. I sent her another picture book manuscript, and another, and another. Each time, she sent a rejection requesting to see more of my work.

Finally, she asked me if I could possibly write something longer than a picture book, and I told her about Julia’s Kitchen. She sent me a handwritten note saying to send it as soon as possible! I taped that note up to my computer and worked as fast as I could to finish the fourth draft.

Meanwhile, I had entered the third draft of Julia’s Kitchen in the Sydney Taylor Manuscript Competition and was waiting to hear the results. Right around the time I heard I won, I finished the fourth draft and submitted it to Beverly. She loved it, and offered me a contract! I did one revision for her, and then we went straight to line editing. Working with Beverly was an amazing learning experience. She was every bit the editor I thought she would be… and more!

Congratulations on the publication of Julia’s Kitchen (FSG, 2006)! What was your initial inspiration for writing this book?

In 2001, we were living in Austin, Texas, and there was a house fire in our neighborhood. A father and son died in the fire, and to make matters worse, the mother had died two years earlier in a car accident. There were two brothers who survived, and they went to live with relatives. I didn’t know the family, only their house and their story. But every day as I would drive by the burned out house, I wondered about the two boys. I wondered how they were dealing with all this tragedy. I also wondered how I would have coped in their place.

Then 9/11 happened, and it seemed everyone was walking around with a new level of fear.

I asked the age-old question: Why does God let bad things happen? I figured I could try to answer that question in a book. I always loved novels about grief and loss (I just love a good cry!), and I noticed all the mainstream books about death had Christian characters. Where were the Jews? I wanted to write a universal story about a Jewish girl dealing with loss and trying to figure out why God lets bad things happen.

What was the timeline from spark to publication, and what were the major events along the way?

I let the initial spark simmer in my head for about a year before I tried to write anything. During that time, we moved back to the Chicago area. I enrolled in ICL’s novel writing class and formed a critique group. I spent about a year writing the first draft, and six months writing the next three. I worked with Beverly for about a year, and then a year later, the book was released. So it was a total of four and a half years from spark to publication.

What were the challenges (literary, research, psychological, logistical) in bringing it to life?

I am a naturally happy and optimistic person, so it was very hard for me to go as deep as I had to into Cara’s grief. I wanted her to get over it! I wanted her to be happy!

Thankfully, a member of my critique group is a social worker, and she kept pushing me to delve deeper inside Cara’s feelings. Also, one of my dearest friends unfortunately lost her mother to cancer while I was writing the book, and we had many talks about the grieving process. Through my friend, I learned that grief isn’t only painful, it’s also beautiful, and absolutely necessary to heal.

At one point while working with Beverly, it dawned on me that this was a terribly sad book. I wondered who would ever want to read such a heartbreaking tale, and I felt a bit panicked about that! But Beverly told me it has to be sad because it’s a sad situation. I had to be true to my character and her story. And of course, there is a hopeful and uplifting ending. Even in the depths of grief, there are happy moments, if you look for them.

Congratulations, too, on your Sydney Taylor Awards for Julia’s Kitchen–best manuscript (2004) and best book for older readers (2007)! What did this recognition mean to you?

Thank you! Winning the manuscript award in 2004 was amazing because it validated me as an author. It made me think I might actually get published. And it did help me find a publisher right away! But winning the gold medal in 2007 was even more exciting because there were so many outstanding Jewish books written this year. I was shocked and thrilled and flabbergasted and grateful that they picked mine as the very best. (I’m still trying to wrap my head around it!)

What advice do you have for beginning novelists?

Read, read, read. And don’t stop revising until your manuscript is as good as the best stuff out there today. Only then should you try to find a publisher.

What do you do when you’re not writing?

I love to spend time with my family and friends. We go to White Sox games, play Monopoly or Scrabble, see movies, go out to eat. I also love to read, scrapbook, bake, and (when nobody’s watching) sing and dance to my iPod. My non-writing time also includes running errands, cleaning the house, doing the laundry, driving carpools, settling fights, and figuring out what’s for dinner. If I ever win the Newbery or write a best-seller, I’m getting a personal chef!

As a reader, what middle grade novels have you enjoyed lately and why?

I loved Sold by Patricia McCormick (Hyperion, 2006). It was hauntingly powerful, deeply sad, yet filled with hope. Right now I’m in the middle of Alabama Moon by Watt Key (FSG, 2006), and I’m loving it! The main character, Moon, is one in a million. I find myself thinking about him when I’m not reading and itching to get back to his story.

What can your fans look forward to next?

Jemma Hartman, Camper Extraordinaire, will be published by FSG in spring 2009. It’s a middle grade novel about friendship, sailing, and growing up at an overnight camp in northern Wisconsin.