Author Spotlight: Bonnie Graves
Jan. 11, 2019
We welcome Bonnie Graves, author of dozens of children's books, and her latest middle grade novel, CATCH ME WHEN I FALL (Fitzroy Books, Jan. 25, 2019), about a girl who disguises herself as a boy to work at a circus and uncovers family secrets. Enter to win a copy!
|cover art © C.B. Royal|
First of all, thanks to Kidlit411 for welcoming me and my first published MG novel to Author Spotlight. As Winnie the Pooh says, and I paraphrase, “Nothing better than having a little something sweet to eat and talking about me.” So, if you don’t mind, I’ll munch on a cookie while we talk and think about how I came to write for children.
There was no clear “aha” moment—“I think I’ll write a children’s book”-- but rather, a collection of experiences throughout childhood, youth and young adulthood that made me appreciate the power of story and my inability to let go of childhood, what it felt like to view the world from a child’s eyes. When teaching in Southern California, instead of staying inside at recess and correcting papers and such, I would often play outside with my students. One parent told me, “You’re just one of them.”
After having my own children and reading so many wonderful books to them and then getting the opportunity to write stories for the Indian Upward Bound program at the University of Minnesota, the stage was set. Even though these stories weren’t published in the traditional sense, my daughter’s first grade teacher invited me to speak to her class as a children’s author. If the hat fits, I guess you wear it. I walked onto that first stage, that first grade classroom, as “children’s author.”
Congrats on your latest book, CATCH ME WHEN I FALL! Tell us about it and what inspired you.
Here is the blurb from the back cover:
"Set in Racine, Wisconsin during the Great Depression, CATCH ME WHEN I FALL is the story of one gutsy twelve-year-old girl’s quest to learn the identity of her father, the father her mother refuses to talk about. What’s the big secret? When Emma finds a photograph hidden in her mother's bureau AND spots a circus poster featuring Filippo the Flying Wonder, she believes she's stumbled on the truth. The aerialist’s resemblance to the man in the secret photo is too close to be coincidence. Rebelling against her Mother’s warning not to go near the circus, Emma disguises herself as a boy and lands a job with the circus, determined to unravel the dark mystery that haunts her. It is here, amidst the sawdust and illusions of circus life, that Emma makes discoveries about her past that ultimately help her accept herself for who she truly is."
The spark of an idea for CATCH ME WHEN I FALL came from an uncle’s memoir about his experiences as a young boy watering the elephants for a traveling circus in hopes of earning a ticket to the Big Show. The anecdote was so rich in detail and humor it just begged to become a story. I didn’t feel I could write it from a boy’s point of view, the way my uncle had, so I needed a heroine, someone brave enough to dress as a boy to get a circus job, someone who desperately needed that circus job.
That someone turned out to be 12-year-old Emma Monroe, a spunky red-head, who’s determined to learn the identity of her father, the man her mother refuses to talk about. Much about Emma and her mother I drew from my own childhood. When I was nine, my father drove our family—my mom and two siblings—out to California to his brother’s family where he left us--and returned to Wisconsin--to be with his lover. He was never spoken of again, by anyone. It was as if he’d never existed. My sibs and I all knew that speaking his name was taboo, forbidden and even, to a kid, dangerous. So, I suppose, in a way, writing the story was an exploration of this childhood trauma, one that had remained forever in the shadows. Emma’s story, in a way, would help bring it into the light.
Was your road to publication long and windy, short and sweet, or something in between?
I don’t know many authors whose road to publication is short and sweet, straight and smooth-- although there are those talented, fortunate few who zip right to the front of the line. Naively, I thought at first, I might be one of the lucky ones, because I sold the first three stories I wrote and submitted to a publisher, even though, in my extreme greenness, sent them to the warehouse address instead of editorial. The kind folks at the warehouse sent them onto editorial with a note to me saying that they had read the stories, enjoyed them, and gave them to editorial. A few days later I received a contract for all three stories. I was overjoyed. It was surely a sign from above that I was meant to be a writer.
So, the writer in me got to work. I wrote my first middle grade novel and sent it out. Rejected. So, I revised. Again rejected. Revised again. Again rejected. I’m not talking about a few rejections here. I’m talking about boat loads, whole flotillas. After having a long talk with my more reasonable self, we both agreed that maybe this novel wasn’t my best effort. But then at a conference, I met an agent who wanted to represent it.
Wow! My fairy godmother had arrived. So, I started a second novel and sent it to said fairy godmother. Who sent it out into the world. Again rejected. After about a year, I took my two manuscripts back from the agent, revised and submitted again and again and again. Rejected again, and again and again. You get the picture? I suppose a more reasonable, sane person would have cut her losses and moved on. But I guess that’s just not my personality profile, to me, three’s the charm. So off I go on novel number three.
By now years have gone by, a decade. The sweet smell of that initial success a distant whiff. By this time, I’ve collected so many rejection letters, my sympathetic preteen daughter is questioning my sanity. However, in her thoughtful and endearing way, she sweetly reminds me of the prizes and awards I’d garnered from the three unpublished novels. “Someday you’ll be published.” And, bless her heart, the little prophet was right. However, it took abandoning my middle grade protagonists and taking up a younger crowd, closer to the ages of the kids I taught in third grade, and I began writing chapter books. I sold my first three chapter books to Hyperion. You see, three really is a magic number! At least for me.
Your favorite classic MG Novels?
Gosh, I have so many classics I love, but I suppose my favorite of favorites are Frances Hodgson Burnett’s THE SECRET GARDEN, Scott O’Dell’s ISLAND OF THE BLUE DOLPHIN, Katherine Paterson’s THE GREAT GILLY HOPKINS, and C. L. Lewis’s THE CHRONICLES OF NARNIA. Each has a compelling story that never lags and appealing, relatable protagonists--plus the authors are really able to get inside a child’s head.
Your favorite recent MG novels?
My favorite more recent MG novels are Kate Camillo’s BECAUSE OF WINN-DIXIE, Kimberly Willis Holt’s WHEN ZACHARY BEAVER CAME TO TOWN, and Cassie Beasley’s CIRCUS MIRANDUS. As with the classic MG novels, these more recent ones are compelling narratives with empathic, believable characters.
What projects are you working on now?
The project that is most close to my heart now is a series of chapter books, THE NUTCRACKER CHRONICLES about another unstoppable character, Cassie Castelli, a spunky eight-year-old whose zany impulsiveness and colorful imagination are matched only by the predicaments she gets herself into. Her dream, her passion is to dance in the Nutcracker and each of the three books that I’ve written so far bring her somewhat closer to that allusive goal. For every pirouette forward it seems, there are several glissades back. (Sounds somewhat like my journey as a writer.) Some of my happiest moments were spent in the ballet studio, although I never progressed past level 1. Cassie’s chronicles help me relive those sweet memories and the years when my daughter was dancing in the Nutcracker.
What advice would you give to aspiring authors?
My advice to aspiring children’s writers is not unique, more like a well-worn shoe, one that will feel familiar to many a writer/author.
1. Read, read, read. Continue devouring the books that your favorite MG authors are writing. They are your teachers. Learn from them.
2. Connect with the child in you. Try to see, hear and feel the way a child does so the child reader with see him or herself in your protagonist.
3. Take the risk, the plunge and just begin, write.
4. Find encouraging people to read what you write and give encouragement. This was so critical to me early on, and I feel I wouldn’t be published today if it weren’t for my writers’ groups and fellow author cheerleaders, like Margo Sorenson, whose sound advice and encouragement have kept me going on many a dark day.
5. Revise, revise, revise. You’d be shocked to see the number of manuscripts spilling from my closet and file folders on my computer.
6. Submit, submit, submit. No publisher is going to know about your fabulous book unless you send it to them. Unfortunately, fewer and fewer publishers will read unsolicited, unagented material these days, so it’s important to research the houses that might be willing to look at your manuscript and to join organizations like SCBWI and go to writers’ conferences where editors and agents speak and often open their doors to read your work.
7. Learn how to deal with rejection. Don’t let a few rejections stop you, or even a hundred. It’s part of the job description. Own it, don’t let it own you!
8. Persevere. If there is one quality I can attribute most to success in being published, it’s perseverance. You just gotta keep at it, otherwise it ain’t gonna happen. Sorry. It’s blood, sweat, tears. It’s ignoring family and friends and family who just shake their heads and question your sanity and tell you to get a real job. Nuh-uh. You can’t listen to them if you want to get published. Listen to your heart. Tap into your soul. Be true to yourself. Persevere.
What is one thing most people don’t know about you?
That I keep every birthday card I’ve ever been given. (Thank you, dear family and friends. You are precious to me.)
Where can people find you online?
Oh, dear. I mostly eschew social media, but I’m going to try harder with this new book. My twitter handle is @storymeister; I’m on Facebook, but don’t post that much. On the advice of my guru Margo, I will rev up Twitter and Facebook in the hope that that will help me connect with librarians, teachers, and readers—anyone who would like to read or has read CATCH ME WHEN I FALL. I would especially love to visit book clubs, in person or via Skype. Just send me a personal message via Facebook Messenger. I would love to hear from you!
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