Author Spotlight: Jimmy Matejek-Morris
November 12, 2021
We are excited to feature author Jimmy Matejek-Morris and his debut middle grade book, MY EX-IMAGINARY FRIEND (Carolrhoda Books 2021). Enter to win a signed copy!
|art by Tania Rex|
Tell us about yourself and how you came to write for children.
Hi! I am Jimmy Matejek-Morris, an author and screenwriter for kids and young adults. I was born and raised in central New Jersey as the middle child of five, and I currently live in Cambridge, Massachusetts with my husband, Scott, and dog, Rudy.
Growing up, I was always interested in the Arts, but I never quite knew where I belonged or what I wanted to do with my life. I drew cartoons. I acted in school plays. I created short films with my friends. I produced homemade "radio shows" on cassette tapes with my sister. I re-created intensely complicated, soapy melodramas with my action figures. With such varied hobbies, my list of dream careers changed over the years, from animator to zookeeper (perhaps my only aspiration outside of the arts) to star of stage and screen. Somewhere along the way, I realized that writing allowed me to do all of the above -- drawing vivid worlds full of original characters and narratives, each containing a piece of me and my life experience. (In My Ex-Imaginary Friend, I even got to play zookeeper for a bit.)
Though my medium of choice has changed over the years, I always knew I was interested in creating works for a younger audience. As I grew up, my favorite books, movies, and TV shows did not. Children's literature and entertainment have always been my go-to comfort. If my own works can provide other children (and children-at-heart) with a similar sense of comfort and belonging, then my childhood dreams will have genuinely come true.
Congrats on your debut middle grade book, My Ex-Imaginary Friend! Tell us about the book and what inspired you.
My Ex-Imaginary Friend tells the story of 10-year-old Jack and the imaginary part-walrus named George that he thought he'd outgrown. When Jack first stopped believing in George, George disappeared. Children get older. These things happen. Jack thinks nothing of it until his own family also begins to disappear. Sure, their disappearances may be more grounded in the realm of reality: His parents' marriage has fallen apart. His father has walked out on them. His mother is struggling with her mental health and drops Jack off to live with his step-cousins who can barely stand him. Feeling alone, Jack convinces himself that finding George again is his only hope to bring his family back to happier times when they all got along, and more importantly, a time when they all believed in him.
Meanwhile, without the limitation of Jack's imagination, George begins to discover sides of himself he never knew existed. He reconnects with the walrus half of his family at the zoo and learns that he has a gift for magic. It would be so amazing to share these feats with someone else, but somehow, the only one who can see him besides Jack is a mysterious gopher-esque lady who warns George to find a new friend now or disappear forever.
Finding a new friend when you're invisible is about as difficult as finding your discarded imaginary friend, but the pair of former friends are determined. When the two eventually cross paths, the reunion forces both Jack and George to consider what it means to be seen and unseen, real and imaginary.
My Ex-Imaginary Friend is an exploration of imagination, growing up, friendship, mental health, and what it means to be family. This story is very much based on my own feelings of loneliness, struggles with mental health, and questions of where I fit in the world.
Was your road to publication long and winding, short and sweet, or something in between?
Oh gosh, it was such a long road. I began writing My Ex-Imaginary Friend in the Fall of 2007. I was in my first semester writing class in the Children's Literature MA/MFA program at Simmons College (now Simmons University). My professor, the very lovely, very wonderful Jo Knowles, had told us to write the first chapter of a middle grade novel, so I wrote what became the first chapter of this book. Though the plot has changed substantially, that first line of the first chapter of the first draft has remained almost entirely unchanged.
After I finished the class, I chipped away at "Jack and George," as it was called then, picking it up, putting it down, picking it up again. I gathered feedback, revised, and rewrote for years. In 2016 I began to query. In 2017, I received a Like on a tweet during #DVPit that led to me signing with my agent, the incredible Emily Keyes, in 2018. In 2019, we sold the book to Carolrhoda/Lerner Books and I revised the book again with my fabulous editor, Amy Fitzgerald. The book was scheduled to come out in 2020, but of course that year was not what any of us expected, and my official release was rescheduled to 2021. It is so surreal and magical to finally be able to hold this book and share it with young readers after all these years.
What are some favorite classic MGs? Any recent ones?
My favorite book growing up was Charlie and the Chocolate Factory. I was especially fond of the "bad" children. Part of me wonders if it was envy that they were allowed to do and say things I could never in my more strict household. Either way, I was quite relieved (minor spoiler alert, I suppose) that they all exited the factory alive at the end, albeit permanently changed.
I also ate up the books of Louis Sachar. Wayside School was a classic, but I had a particularly strong connection to There's a Boy in the Girl's Bathroom. Some of the themes have truly stuck with me after all these years. In the novel, a kid with anger issues uses toy animals to work through his internal conflicts, and is ultimately aided by a school counsellor. This was my first exposure to addressing mental/behavioral health concerns through therapy with a pleasantly positive outcome. I truly believe the memory of this book assisted me in my own mental health journey and favorable views of therapy later in life.
Some recent middle grade favorites include Pax by Sara Pennypacker, The Best At It by Maulik Pancholy, The Cardboard Kingdom by Chad Sell (and other contributors), Sweep: The Story of a Girl and Her Monster by Jonathan Auxier, The Last Shadow Warrior by Sam Subity, Thanks a Lot Universe by Chad Lucas, Starfish by Lisa Fipps, and the Front Desk series by Kelly Yang. I am not the fastest reader and I am trying to support as many of my fellow 2021 debut authors (#the21ders) as I can, so I also have a growing TBR pile that I look forward to diving into.
What are you working on now?
I am currently waiting to receive edit notes on my next novel. It has not been officially announced so I can't say much, but think humorous theater kids experiencing anxiety, first (gay) crushes, and of course, draaaaaaaama.
What advice would you give to your younger self? Is this the same as you'd give to aspiring authors?
In the wise words of Kermit the Frog in The Muppet Movie, "Life's like a movie. Write your own ending. Keep believing. Keep pretending." This quote, which was my high school yearbook quote, has really resonated with me over the years as I have explored various art forms, and as I took Jack and George on this long, winding journey from draft to publication. You have to keep going, keep trying new things, and as both Jack and George know more than anyone, keep believing in yourself. There will be obstacles, mistakes, and failures, but hold on to the dream. You can do it. I believe in you.
What is one thing most people don't know about you?
I love ice cream. Also cookies and hot chocolate, but this story is about ice cream. One day, my office decided to hold an ice cream eating contest and the prize was going to be an extra paid day off. They brought in a little scale to weigh each serving and told us we had one hour. I ended up eating two pounds of ice cream, and you will be happy to know I had a great time on my day off. Sometimes I wonder about my day job. . .
Where can people find you online?
I am on Twitter and Instagram @jmatejekmorris. My website is jmatejekmorris.com.
Jimmy Matejek-Morris grew up in New Jersey as the middle child of five. He enjoys musical theater, Muppets, ice cream, and action figures. He currently lives in Cambridge, Massachusetts, with his husband, Scott, and a very well-dressed poodle-Pomeranian named Rudy. When he is not writing books and screenplays for kids and young adults, you can find Jimmy peeking through the blinds in hopes of spotting baby bunnies. Jimmy has a BA in Film and English from Cornell University and an MFA in Writing for Children from Simmons College. He can be found on Twitter and Instagram @jmatejekmorris.
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