“SOMEONE STOLE YOUR PENCILS” YA novelist Suzanne LaFleur on what children care about

So, although I have written for kids, and I have a bunch of kids, I’m one of these weird adults who mostly reads fiction written for adults. I make an exception, however, for the novels of my old pal Suzanne LaFleur—her debut, Love, Aubrey, was so heartbreaking and good that I’ve read her two followups (Eight Keys and Listening For Lucca). Suzanne and I met a long time ago, when we were both working at the same elementary school for eccentric young geniuses, deep in the heart of the Upper West Side. 

She’s a shy and thoughtful kind of person, but I goaded her into participating in my Reverse Blog Tour by promising to ask easy questions. I lied, though, they’re all ready hard. 

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OK, Suzy. Is there any difference in what kids books are supposed to do (comfort, challenge, scare, excite) as opposed to what adult literature is supposed to do? 

No.

I would say the main purpose of both—and of literature in general—is to engage people with written language. Kids’ lit might need slightly different language or content to achieve that, but in terms of emotional investment, the criteria should be the same. People of any age will of course gravitate towards that which interests them, so there should be an equal variety of choices available for kids as for adults. Maybe not every kid wants to be scared, but that doesn’t mean there shouldn’t be scary books for kids.

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Suzanne LaFleur with her mysterious floating signature.

How does writing make you feel inside?

This question wins the award for “highest potential for an abstract answer.”

When writing isn’t going well, it feels really frustrating. I get up a lot, pace, do things around the house. I typically abandon it, and then at the end of the day, I feel bad because I didn’t produce anything. I gave up. But there’s no sense sitting to write if there’s nothing ready in your head.

When writing is going well, I go into a sort of trance, which can happen whether or not I’m physically writing or just walking around or swimming or something. When that happens, the story spins itself along and I observe, record, replay. I don’t notice the time passing. Sometimes it will be hours. I suppose that part feels good, because it’s kind of relaxing and the story unfolds very genuinely, but I’m definitely not aware enough to consider how it feels. I have recently put my awareness to the test a little bit, because in the past year I have become much more of a coffee-shop writer. At home, there are fewer signs of time passing in chunks around you, but at the coffee shop, I’ll realize I didn’t see people around me sit down or get up to leave their table; they will just suddenly seem to have appeared or vanished. Sometimes it’s scary, because—where have I been?

You’re probably thinking at the end of those days, living in the minds of my characters, I feel good, right? Nope. I feel bad then, too, because I can’t account for my time. Whole hours disappeared and I’m not even sure how I spent them. If you sit down to work after lunch and blink and realize it’s time to make dinner, it’s a bit disconcerting. Even if you’ve filled ten notebook pages. You should have noticed the day passing, right? Or filled the notebook pages and then moved on to something else? How do you hold yourself accountable for how you’ve spent your time when you literally make your living daydreaming?

If both kinds of days leave me feeling bad, why do I continue? I think my markers of accomplishment happen on a much larger scale. For example, I’ll scribble in my notebook for weeks, and then type it all up, and WOW, my document is fifty pages longer! That’s a day on which I feel like I’ve made progress. I can print it, read it—that feels good! Those days occur? Once every couple months. Even more rare: once every two-three years, I get to THE END of a draft. THE END. The elation of knowing you’ve reached the end—I can’t even explain it. It’s awesome. Then I get a letter from a nine-year-old reader: “your book [aka the result of all those hours of pacing as well as the ones that disappeared] has changed my life.” Changed a life! Hmm. Perhaps I wasn’t making a living daydreaming after all, but changing lives.

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This lifeguard chair is in New Hampshire.

I’m reminded of something my dad said to me when I was a teenager. My first official job was as a lifeguard. I hated lifeguarding because it made me so nervous. But very little ever happened. Every time I came home from lifeguarding, my dad would ask, “Did you have to save anybody?” and I would say, “No,” feeling defeated, and then he would say, “Then you saved everybody.” I think writing is like that on some level. On most days, there’s not a big event. There may not be any sense of accomplishment after hours of sitting, watching and listening, and there may not be anything concrete to show for your work. Odds are you didn’t write a whole novel that day, so you would have to answer the question “did you write a novel today?” by saying “no.” But those hours still mattered. At the pool, my presence and advice prevented my patrons from needing someone to dive in after them—they’re not not changed. And their existence itself is actually quite concrete—without a dramatic event, they all walked away from my pool, to go home and have their dinners and live their lives. A million things that never happened actually add up to something positive, something whole and beautiful and maybe thoroughly unacknowledged by anyone. Writing, I sit and think for hours and hours, selecting a few words sometimes, and while nothing seems to be happening, a book emerges. I’m never not writing. One day, children will interact with my book for just a few hours of their lives, and walk away, perhaps declaring in a letter that they’ve been changed, the vast majority not noticing that anything’s different, but still, they’re not not changed.

So, after that, writing makes me feel good inside. The hours spent get forgotten; the words you’ve decided on stay, the impact you’ve had stays.

What did you learn from teaching little kids that has been valuable to you as writer, besides learning what sorts of stuff they’re interested in, content-wise?

I learned what they consider injustices and what they get excited about.

Injustices:

–Your friend plays with someone else and not with you.

–Your friend give away his/her candy to someone else and not to you.

–Your friend goes to someone else’s house—without you.

–Your parents are the only ones who don’t come to the classroom party.

–Your parents don’t let you have sleepovers on a school night. Even though someone else’s parents do.

–Your teacher seems to pick you to blame out of a group of people all doing the same bad thing.

–Your teacher gives you the previously-determined penalty for not doing your homework (I haven’t yet figured out why, but your teacher is always being unfair if you haven’t done your homework).

–SOMEONE WENT IN YOUR DESK. IN YOUR DESK. YOUR PRIVATE SPACE. AND STOLE YOUR PENCILS.

–Pizza lunch day is canceled with no warning. And it’s the only day you’re allowed school lunch and now it’s ruined. What will you EAT?

–You don’t get to finish eating in the allotted time. Even though you were able to draw three pictures, talk and laugh with your friends, and make fun of someone else, you definitely weren’t given enough time to eat and now you will be hungry and sad for the rest of the day.

–It rains. Unless you happen to prefer reading, rain interfering with recess is a terrible injustice.

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Taken!

–You don’t get to be Benjamin Franklin on biography day. Everyone knows that you love Benjamin Franklin the most. And that is why someone else claimed Benjamin Franklin first. On purpose. To be mean.

Excitements:

–Anything that disrupts the daily lessons routine in any way (unless gym is canceled—that’s an injustice)

–Parties. In school or out. Parties rule.

–Sugar. Sugar when combined with parties is particularly exciting. Too much sugar usually leads to additional events in the “injustices” category, but to start out with, sugar is great.

–Showing off a newborn sibling. Additionally, when asked to write a memoir about something important that happened in his or her life, a young child will most often write about the birth of a sibling, and each author will include what he or she ate for dinner that night. I checked this phenomenon against my own memory, and it’s true, I remember eating fried eggs for dinner the night one of my sisters was born, though I was four at the time.

–Riding on a school bus to anywhere (really doesn’t matter where).

–Anything with “land” in the name. Legoland. Disneyland.

–Singing. Everyone loves singing. Especially in rounds.

–A new friend coming over for the first time. Heightened by the fact that this event involves written record passed between parents and teachers, and must otherwise remain totally secret, so as not to create injustices for others.

–The return of anyone beloved. Even if the person was your student teacher for only a couple weeks. She comes back to visit, she is beloved.

–GRANDPARENTS. ARE THE BEST.

Kids’ emotions are almost palpable: hot, invisible bubbles of anger or joy bursting from their chests in silent waves. I would bottle up all these feelings—the lunchboxes lovingly packed, the ones that weren’t; the girl ecstatic to head to grandma’s, the boy who’d never met his dad—and take them home with me, where they would filter into the emotions of my characters.

 

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