I am so honored to host today two-time Newbery Honor medalist Jennifer L. Holm. She rocked the Newbery with her very first book, Our Only May Amelia, then drank again from the silver goblet for Penny from Heaven last year. She has a super fun graphic novel series for young readers (I'd say 6-11 year olds) called Babymouse, and if you're a lover of historical fiction, look no farther than her popular Boston Jane series. Her latest, Middle School Is Worse than Meatloaf is subtitled "A Year Told Through Stuff," and indeed there's no actual narrative. The book is about a year in the life of Ginny, a seventh grader, which we learn by reading her school essays, report cards, bills, scribbles on her notebook, post-it notes from mom, the occasional comic strip done by her older brother, etc. Unusual and completely captivating. After I read it, I showed it to my sister, who sat on the couch and ignored everything going on around her until she'd finished it, then she promptly showed it to her husband. Jennifer Holm is made of the very best stuff--an extremely fine writer, who writes with grace, truth, humor, adventure, and fun, and doesn't sacrifice story for quality. Here's our conversation:
SH: I don't know that I've ever read a book in the same format as Middle School is Worse Than Meatloaf, and yet the storytelling flowed so easily. I felt like I was Ginny sometimes, and other times like I was a PI piecing together her life from the clues. So fun. What were the challenges in writing this book? Or what is an interesting question you keep wishing someone would ask you about this book that no one has
JH: It was such an odd book to write. So much of it came from this "box of stuff" my mom had kept from my childhood. She was a total packrat (you should see her basement.) She kept all this ephemera of mine--from the usual stuff like photos and report cards to plain weird stuff like notes I passed in class
(where did she find these?) and hall passes for when I was sent to the guidance office (apparently I needed a lot of guidance.)
I think the biggest challenge was to make the actual layout feel three-dimensional. I didn't want it to be a diary book. I worked with an awesome illustrator, Elicia Castaldi, and she told me that she lived in fear
of the packages I would mail her. I would literally send her junk from around my house (like plastic easter eggs, and fridge magnets, and Christmas lights!) But she was a terribly forgiving and incorporated much of what I sent her into the book.
I guess the question I wish someone would ask is: why does Ginny's older brother communicate to her in comic strips? Answer: because my brother Matt (illustrator of BABYMOUSE) did this when we were kids. I still have a bunch of comic strips he drew for me.
[AWESOME! I wish I'd thought to ask that.]
So, tell, what's it like to get a second Newbery Honor? Is the silver even shinier? Was it even more exciting than the first or different in an unexpected way?
<Happy sigh.> It's so much shinier. I think because every book I've written since OUR ONLY MAY AMELIA has been so much harder to write. This doesn't make sense, I know, but there it is. What made it really wonderful for me was that my dad was able to attend the Newbery banquet. He was ill during the banquet when I received an honor for OUR ONLY MAY AMELIA.
You've done the Babymouse series and now Meatloaf. I'm a huge fan of visual storytelling, both as a reader of graphic novels myself and as a proponent for those readers who struggle with purely textual books. Do you read graphic novels for fun? What do you find most satisfying about working with visual storytelling?
I'm a huge fan of comic books, from a young age. Matt and I like to say that our dad weaned us on PRINCE VALIANT and FLASH GORDON. I'm fortunate that reading comics is now, ahem, "research". Also, one of my first jobs when I was a recent college grad was working for a visual effects production
company, back in the day when animation was hand-drawn. And then I went on to become a broadcast producer and produced animation, so that experience has come in handy.
I'm really enjoying the new FANTASTIC FOUR lately (who knew, righ?) And I'm a big fan of Grant Morrison who wrote WE-3, the most mind-bending graphic novel evah. Read it with a box of tissues.
I think it's very satisfying to not be confined to just words. Since I work with my brother, I have a lot of involvement in the lay-out, style, etc. So, that's a lot of fun for me.
How is the reality of being a published author different than what you might have imagined when you were young?
I always assumed authors wore beautiful gowns and went to hoity-toity literary events and ate bon-bons. The harsh reality is that it is a pretty lonely career. You're sort of forced to isolate yourself in order to write. I've had to teach myself to be disciplined about writing. On the upside, though, I get to wear my pajamas to work!
How do people in your neighborhood and people you meet outside the business react to learning what your profession is?
Well, the kids in the neighborhood are on to me. They usually show up when my box of author copies shows up so they can get their free books (I need to start asking for more author copies!)
Generally, people are very nice when I tell them what I do for a living. Although, once, an adult author asked me when I was going to write a "real book"? Luckily, it was at a dinner, and my mouth was full, so I couldn't respond.
Let's look at the evidence, Jenni:
1. We both write novels for young adults
2. We've both co-written with our husbands
3. We've both written graphic novels for young readers
4. We've both received a Newbery Honor
5. We both have a toddler boy and a baby girl
6. We're both (objectively) super cute
So...are we the same person? And if not, why aren't we best friends at
least? And what can I do to solidify that BFF status?
7. You forgot: we are both covered with spit-up.
Thank you, Jenni! You are a gem.