IN OTHER WORDS
BY ELISABETH DAHL
Jun 6, 2013
Recently, I joined seven other authors—Jeffrey Salane, Tui T. Sutherland, Kari H. Sutherland, Sarah Mlynowski, Josanne La Valley, Geoff Rodkey, and Rita Garcia-Williams—on a panel at New York’s excellent Books of Wonder
. The title of the panel was “Middle-Grade Adventures.” Within the group, there were some pulse-quickening stories of dragons and renegades, heroes and refugees, mermaids and magic mirrors. These were adventures in the classic sense of the word.
My debut novel, GENIE WISHES
, is a relatively quiet book—a slice-of-life book. It’s a ten-year-old girl named Genie’s first-person account of her fifth-grade year, during which she is elected to be her class blogger and must regularly and publicly address the school’s assigned blog theme of Wishes, Hopes, and Dreams. The story isn’t set in a fantastical world. There’s not a single death-defying dash. The only nonhuman creature is a fluffy lap dog named Lulu, and at one point in the book, what’s at stake is a hamster eraser. At first, I wondered how GENIE WISHES and I would fit into this adventure panel.
But then I remembered that adventures come in many flavors, and that my book contained the kinds of adventures that kids confront every day. The way friendships can change over time and cliques reorganize a class. The way socioeconomic differences you never noticed before can gradually become apparent when you’re older. The way a body can turn hilly and smelly and start sprouting hairs like a Chia Pet, all because you’ve hit a certain age. (Honestly, is there any crazier or more inevitable experience than puberty?) These were, in fact, adventures—adventures in growing up.
And Genie does take risks in the book—not Indiana Jones-type risks, but risks nonetheless. For instance, putting herself up for class blogger at all is a bit nerve-wracking for this relatively quiet girl. Then she has to figure out what to write about. And later, she has to gather her might to tell the boys in her class what she thinks of some of the pranks they’ve been trying. And though her single dad is a sweet, gentle guy, it still takes some courage to ask him to take her bra shopping or encourage him to sign up for an online dating service. No fifth-grade year, or any year for that matter, is without some degree of risk.
When I was a kid, I read all kinds of books, books about dark hallways and poltergeists and girl detectives and the rest. But the book I cherished—the only one I reread again and again, in the apartment I shared with my mother—was ARE YOU THERE GOD? IT’S ME, MARGARET. That book felt like a cross between a best friend and an older sister. It delivered exactly what I needed in my own middle-grade years, and even a bit beyond them. It was funny and serious and intimate and revealing. It filled in the outlines of the anatomy books I’d seen, addressing feelings and practicalities that those books did not. ARE YOU THERE GOD? IT’S ME, MARGARET did for me what it did for so many of the other girls I knew. It humored and entertained us while also teaching and reassuring us.
It wasn’t until I’d finished writing GENIE WISHES that I realized how much it owed to this Judy Blume classic. Although Margaret and Genie confront somewhat different challenges in the course of their stories (for instance, Genie isn’t dealing with the questions of religious identity that Margaret faces, and Margaret is a bit older), the characters share a fairly direct, confessional tone.
Authors write the books that they’d like to read, and children’s authors are no exception—they’re just writing for the younger selves they remember being. So, because I’ve always loved illustrated books, I also did line drawings to accompany the story, drawings of everything from Genie’s favorite flats to the “little Mom shrine” (a photograph and a bottle of her deceased mother’s perfume) she keeps in her room.
When I talk to kids who’ve read GENIE WISHES, girls especially, I get the sense that the book has done for them what I hope it would have done for me when I was their age. It has addressed the valid and serious issues that they confront on a daily basis while also providing some levity and reassurance that they have within them what they need to weather change in their lives. It’s a slice-of-life book, and I wanted it to be the most accurate, all-encompassing cross-section of one particular girl’s life that I could make it. Growing up is a part of life, and life is weird and funny and grim and joyous and short and long and tedious and invigorating—in short, it’s an adventure.
Elisabeth Dahl writes for children and adults from her home in Baltimore, Maryland, where she also works as a copyeditor. GENIE WISHES (Amulet Books/ABRAMS, April 2013) is her first book. Her website is ElisabethDahl.com, and on Twitter she’s @ElisabethDahl.
© 2013 Elisabeth Dahl. Please do not reproduce in any form, electronic or otherwise. 5 Questions With... the legendary Judy Blume! On a Writer's Journey, Finding a Fellow Traveler