Our guest: Cammie McGovern is an author of middle grade, young adult and adult fiction. Her work includes Say What You Will (HarperTeen, 2014), A Step Toward Falling (HarperTeen, 2015) and her middle grade debut, Just My Luck (HarperCollins), available this week. She is based in Amherst, MA
The Proust-Esque Questionnaire is based on a set of 36 standardized questions designed by Marcel Proust in the 1890’s to give an overview of the respondent’s personality. Our goals are less lofty, but hopefully will provide some insight into how your favorite authors and illustrators work and what they love.
My mother breaking down in tears as she read us Nobody’s Boy about an orphan surviving against enormous odds with the help of a pet monkey who he trained to assist him as a street performer. My mother’s tears (and this first memory of seeing her cry) had almost as much impact on me as the idea that one could find and train a tiny monkey to be your friend and your helpmate. For years I held out hope of waking up Christmas morning and finding such a monkey under the tree with my name on it.
Do you get about fifty percent of your respondents over the age of forty saying Harriet the Spy? If not, I suspect they’re struggling to think of a different answer because this one seems overused. But there’s a reason she made such a big impression on all of us. It wasn’t just that she kept a journal detailing the lives of neighbors, friends and other people, thus solving every young journal-writer’s most pressing problem—nothing happens in your own life worthy of the ink and paper you’d waste recording it. The breakthrough was that she included so many details about those people —their moles, their ill-fitting pants, their cryptic food tastes— in a way that demonstrated (for this young writer anyway) that true comedy lies in observed details. Harriet fans everywhere: Think of how many of those you still remember! The tomato sandwiches! The Dumbwaiter! Sport and his cuckoo writer father!
This is a fairly impossible question but I’ll name two older writers I’ve recently re-discovered and loved so much that I’ve ordered all their older, lesser-known titles: E L Konigsburg and Paul Zindel (right). Both wrote many more titles than the ones they’re best-known for: The Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler and Pigman. It turns out all their books demonstrate their gift and underscore how big their impact was on children’s literature.
4. IF YOU WERE TO THROW A KINDERLIT PARTY FOR FIVE GUESTS, WHO WOULD YOU INVITE?
5. WHICH QUALITY DO YOU THINK IS MOST IMPORTANT IN GOOD CHILDREN’S LITERATURE?
I’d have to say sense of humor which might surprise the people who read my books. They’d probably say, “Wait, have you noticed that your own books deal with some pretty serious subjects and aren’t always a laugh-riot?” As a kid, I remember looking for books that made me laugh on the first page and loving the books that made me cry by the end. To this day, I believe that combination is the secret to writing a book that knocks it out of the park.
6. IF YOUR OWN WORK HAS A DEFINING CHARACTERISTIC, WHAT WHAT IS IT?
At this point, I am most well-known for writing stories about teenagers (and children) with significant disabilities. Being the parent of a 19-year-old with autism has introduced me to a world of kids with a wide variety of special needs and has opened my eyes to how underrepresented this population is in popular culture. With so few disabled characters in books, movies and on TV, kids make understandable assumptions: That these lives are unremittingly hard and mostly sad. Being a parent teaches you a great lesson early on: These kids adjust pretty quickly to their differences and are very ready to live their life and pursue their passions, just like any other kid. They almost never think of their lives as anything like the tragedy others might presume it is. I hope telling these stories helps more kids see that they have far more in common than not. They all want friendships, relationships, to succeed at school. Also, they all want to eat large quantities of junk food.
7. IF YOU WERE TO DIE AND COME BACK AS A CHARACTER FROM CHILDREN’S LITERATURE, WHO WOULD YOU LIKE IT TO BE?
This one was harder for me to answer until I remembered my intense desire as a 7-year-old to be very, very small and live as a “Borrower.” Could anything be better than that? I can’t think what.
8. IF YOU COULD GO BACK AND REDO ONE THING IN YOUR WORK, WHAT WOULD IT BE?
I never re-read my published works (or listen to the audios) because the impulse to change so much would be overwhelming. I’ve seen writers give readings in which they pull out a pencil and edit their work in the published copy of the book they’re reading from. It’s a heartbreaking gesture. No one has the courage to call out, “A bit late for that buddy…”
9. WHAT IS THE GREATEST PIECE OF ADVICE YOU WERE EVER GIVEN?
From my mother: Whenever you feel sorry for yourself, think about doing something nice for someone else. I used to resent her terribly when she said Pollyanna things like that and it turns out she was so right. I now say this all the time to my kids. They visibly roll their eyes and all but put their fingers in their ears.
10. DESCRIBE YOUR WORK PROCESS.
I work every day while my kids are at school. I like to keep a few book ideas going at once, though I only work on one at a time. Knowing I have another book I can get to though, helps when the current books feels like a terrible slog, full of problems I can’t solve.