Q & A with Gennifer Choldenko

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Gennifer Choldenko is perhaps best known for her historical novels for middle graders, most notably the Al Capone at Alcatraz series. Her forthcoming novel, One-Third Nerd, is a contemporary story for slightly younger readers, which follows three unique siblings and their quest to convince their parents (and curmudgeonly landlord) to allow them to keep the family dog. Choldenko spoke with PW about balancing humor and seriousness, crafting neuroatypical characters, and writing from the truest part of yourself.

What draws you to writing stories for children?

I’ve always loved to write. I used to write advertising, but I wanted to write for myself. I hated advertising after a while. I really felt like I was selling my soul. I thought I could write for adults; it never really occurred to me to write for children. I found it really boring to write for adults. [Laughs] I couldn’t care; I didn’t want to. It was weird because I knew I loved writing.

Eventually I came to the realization that what I’d written before and really loved had all featured a protagonist between ages 10 and 17. Oh my god! I could write for kids. I always loved reading kids’ books. It just all came into place. As soon as I start writing for kids, I get animated and excited. I love that age. So, I do it because it’s who I am inside. It just comes naturally. I don’t want to ever have to write a book for adults.


From where did the inspiration for One-Third Nerd come? Was the drama surrounding the family’s incontinent pet (or other details) influenced by personal experience?

The character Dakota popped into my head one day when I was doing something unrelated. She is all-consuming and demanded my attention. I started to play around with her and, pretty soon, the rest of the family came into the picture. Sometimes books come from characters, sometimes from settings, sometimes ideas. They come from all kinds of things. But this book came just from characters.

The dog is basically my dog. She has every peeing problem known to man. She’s 10 and a half.

In the last few years, I’ve mainly been writing historical fiction. It’s fun to write a contemporary [story] again and to place it in the general area that I live. I thought it’d be really fun to try that and [take] a break from historical fiction. I love writing historical fiction, but I like to do different things because I think it stimulates different parts of your brain. This seemed like a lark to do on the side.


Why did you choose to tell the story from Liam’s point of view, rather than from the perspective of one of his sisters?

I think because Dakota is a little much. I thought it would be funnier if her older brother had to deal with her. In some ways, she’s the main character. They both are, but she plays a huge role. I thought Liam’s observations of Dakota would be more fun to see on the page than her observations of herself.


Is One-Third Nerd the start of a series?

I’m going to do two, but I don’t know if it will be beyond that. Once I finish the second, which I just started, then I’ll know where I’m going with it. It’s a different kind of book. For one thing, it’s a little younger than my middle grade. I think a second grader who reads well could easily be handed this book, which I don’t know if I’d do with Al Capone Does My Shirts. It’s a little lighter and shorter and the themes are not so intense.


How do you strike the right balance between humor and seriousness in your novels?

I don’t have a lot of control over that. I think it’s who I am. I have a funny side, but I’m also very intense. When I allow that part of myself on the page, people respond to it. If you really put yourself into a book, which doesn’t mean you’re writing autobiography in any sense of the word, but you’re putting the truest part of who you are in your work, people really respond to it. When I write from that part, it is a stronger book.


Do you ever struggle to write from that truest part of yourself?

When I was trying to get published, I definitely tried to write something that someone would want to buy. I had an idea of what that was because I would go to conferences and they would say what they wanted. I would try to write that book, but it didn’t sell because, even though it was supposedly what the world wanted, it didn’t showcase who I am in the best way.

But then, with my book that will be out in 2020, I way saying to my agent that it’s not really funny at all. She said, “Really? I think it’s funny.” It’s definitely not as funny as One-Third Nerd, but she found humor in it that I didn’t really realize. So I think who you are and where you’re from leaks out between the words.


How do you stay in touch with what children will find funny?

It’s funny you should say that because I do think there is some humor in One-Third Nerd that kids will think is funny and adults won’t. I think I went around adults and went directly to the kids. I do a lot of school visits and I like to be around kids. It’s my goal to get kids up and doing stuff [during my visits]; I don’t just rattle off information. I get to interact with them and see what they respond to. I read the first chapter of One-Third Nerd to a couple of school groups; the things they respond to are not always what I think they will respond to. They couldn’t get over the chapter title “Pee in the Fridge.” The reason I write for this age group is because I really am 11 inside. That’s the age that feels most comfortable to me.


Your Al Capone series and One-Third Nerd both include neuroatypical characters. Why is it important to you to include these characters in your books? What are the challenges of representing neuroatypical individuals?

I had a sister who had autism, so I knew I would write a book with a character with autism. Somehow Natalie just showed up [in the Al Capone books] and didn’t want to leave. I think when you have lived in a family like that, it gives you a different perspective on neuroatypical people. I feel strongly about representing neuroatypical characters. There are so many families out there for which this is normal life, and I want them to see themselves in books.

I did a lot of research into kids and families with Down syndrome for One-Third Nerd. It really struck me how normal it all is. Everything in their lives wasn’t centered around the kid with Down syndrome, it’s just a reality that is incorporated into their lives. I don’t want to make being neuroatypical a big thing or to write a problem novel that centers on it; I want to represent reality.


Did you envision One-Third Nerd with illustrations? Did you have a role in that decision?

I was very involved. I thought the book would come to life with illustrations in a way it wouldn’t without them, and I lobbied really hard when we negotiated the contract with the publisher. My agent and I were adamant. The publisher picked Églantine Ceulemans. I think she did a great job. Her ability to bring Izzy and Dakota to life was spot on! She just got them.


Your website notes that you are open to school visits anywhere in the world. Do you travel often for school visits? Can you talk about one of your most rewarding experiences?

I do a lot of school visits. Usually a trip a month, which works out pretty well, with local school visits in-between.

I’ll tell you about the most unusual school visit. I did a visit in Nepal, where instead of a bell system, they had a man with a bell. Labor is cheap there, so it’s easier to have a man with a bell. There were wild monkeys that ran wild across the schoolyard, too.

For Chasing Secrets school visits, the students and I do improv. I’m going to try to do the same for One-Third Nerd. I’m always trying to get the students to be part of the creative process. I’m trying to show them how to recognize ideas and let them in.


Is it difficult to balance touring with writing? Do you have methods you’ve developed that help you maintain productivity?

Happily, I love to write, so I get uncomfortable if I don’t get my writing time. What I try to do is write early in the morning. During this time, there is no answering email and other marketing-related work. I set aside three hours where I just write. Then I try to get marketing stuff done in the afternoon. At the end of the day, I’ll have another two hours to write. That’s a perfect day. But I’m really religious about my morning writing time.


Have you ever considered writing for teens?

Sometimes an idea comes to me that feels like it might be young adult. I’ve been playing around with this initial idea that might be a YA, but I think when I’m done it’ll be middle grade. I remember exactly what it was like to be between eight and 13. A lot of traumatic things happened when I was a teen, so I don’t feel like I was totally there. I don’t feel like I really had the opportunity to be a teen.


What can you tell us about what you’re working on now?

It is a historical fiction middle-grade novel called Orphan 11. I traveled to Thailand to spend time with elephants and did a lot of research into the 1938 circus to prepare. There was some other really interesting research; I can’t share it because it would spoil the plot, but it’s an unusual book!