Author Spotlight: J.H. Diehl
May 4, 2018
This week we are excited to feature author J.H. Diehl (Jean Diehl) and her debut middle grade novel, TINY INFINITIES (Chronicle Books, 2018). Cover art by Maggie Enterrios. Be sure to enter to win a copy at the end of this interview.
|Cover art © Maggie Enterrios|
Tell us about yourself and how you came to write for teens.
My favorite places when I was growing up were the children’s room in the lower level of the Little Falls Public Library, and my bed at home in a Washington DC suburb, where I read the piles of books I brought home from the library. My dad read to me just about every night before I fell sleep, all through elementary school, novels he loved, from authors like Alcott, Twain and Dickens.
In sixth grade I “published” my first book, a collection of poems – I think there were three copies. I still remember the powerful feeling of my voice speaking on the page and seeing my words printed. I’ve wanted to be a writer ever since. As an adult, I started writing for young readers because that vantage point, from upper elementary school through high school, felt and still feels like a place I have access to, and where I’ve found stories I wanted to tell.
Congrats on your debut novel, TINY INFINITIES. Tell us about it & what inspired you.
Thank you so much! I love reading KidLit411 and am excited to be here.
One day, when my daughter was in third grade, she brought home from school a drawing of a wild, fantastical bug, which she’d titled “Bugfire.” The instant I saw it, an image entered my head of an older girl standing over a younger girl in the dark, with their hands cupped around glowing fireflies. The younger girl was saying “bugfire,” and it was the first word she’d spoken in years. Out of that spun the entire novel.
The story I wrote follows the summer that the older girl, Alice, turns thirteen. Her parents are splitting up, her mom is suffering through a period of depression, and Alice’s chances of achieving her goal – to swim fast enough to get her name up on her team record board – seem to have sunk. She makes three unlikely new friends, including Piper, the little girl who can’t speak; Owen, Piper’s fifteen-year-old half-brother, an aspiring sushi chef; and Harriet, a new member of Alice’s swim team who’s obsessed with the school science fair.
Observing that Alice’s yard is a haven for fireflies, Harriet insists on doing an experiment to recreate firefly bioluminescence. TINY INFINITIES is a S.T.E.M. friendly novel. It is a story about how our good friendships can help us to grow up, and how a sport – or any activity a person is passionate about – can help to anchor them through tough times. Alice has to deal with choices the adults in her life have made that she can’t control or fix, and in the end she has to learn how to spark resilience inside herself – the way chemicals mix inside the abdomen of a firefly to create light – in order to find her way forward.
You also write picture books. How was the transition for you from writing picture books to MG?
The transition was a freeing one because I tend to have a long breath as a writer. I love picture books, and the poetics of telling stories through non-verbal art plus just the right few words – or with no words. But my recent story ideas have centered on middle and high school students, and so the transition has brought me closer to what my writing voice has to say – at least for now.
TINY INFINITIES has been described as upper MG, for ages 10-14, also as literary MG. I’ve appreciated how the novel form enables me to weave motifs and threads into a narrative exploring the complexity of being thirteen.
Was your road to publication long and windy, short and sweet, or something in between?
Long and windy, with travel delays, detours, and several helpful side excursions. I was overjoyed to reach the warm welcome at my sunny destination with Chronicle Books.
What advice would you give to your younger self? Is this the same as you'd give to aspiring authors?
To my younger self I’d say: open up that baggage you’ve been lugging around, examine what’s in there so you understand it, then discard most of it (responsibly of course, don’t litter). Place the rest in the recycling bin of your mind, so you don’t have to tote it around constantly but can keep and craft what’s useful into something new.
To aspiring authors, I’d echo much of the good advice other writers have offered to readers of KidLit411: read, read, read, write, write, write. Persist. If you are at the beginning of the submission process, keep in mind that if an agent or editor likes A but not B about your manuscript, there’s likely to be another editor or agent who likes B but not A.
Join a critique group that can offer you positive, constructive comments about how to move forward with your work. Know that it’s normal to feel you’re done, only to discover there are yet additional rounds of revision ahead. Persist. Write, write, write. Read, read, read.
What is one thing most people don't know about you?
I married into a swimming family, and in two generations I’m the only one who never swam competitively. My extended family includes summer and year-round age group swimmers, college swimmers, water polo players, masters swimmers, and a sister-in-law who once trained to swim for the Argentine Olympic team. I had great in-house swimming advice while writing TINY INFINITIES.
Where can people find you online?
Twitter & Instagram: @jhdiehl
J.H. Diehl is the author of the middle-grade novel, TINY INFINITIES (Chronicle, May 8), a Fall 2018 Junior Library Guild Selection, and the picture books LOON CHASE and THREE LITTLE BEAVERS, both with Arbordale. She started her career as a newspaper reporter, got her MFA at the Iowa Writers Workshop and then lived and worked abroad in Buenos Aires, Warsaw and Jerusalem. She’s published short fiction for adults in journals and anthologies and written leveled readers and other learning materials in her work for educational publishers. Jean has taught literature, composition and writing at colleges, high schools and elementary schools. She and her husband have two children and live in Chevy Chase, MD with their rescue spaniel, Oliver.
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