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5 Questions With… Anne Ursu ('The Real Boy')

by Ernest Cox
March 3, 2014

Anne Ursu on Reading Today OnlineAnne Ursu is the author of several books for young readers and is the 2013 recipient of the McKnight Fellowship in Children’s Literature. Anne’s latest book, “The Real Boy,” an Indie Next pick and was on the 2013 long list for the National Book Award. Her book “Breadcrumbs” was acclaimed as one of the best books of 2011 by the Bulletin of the Center for Children's Books, School Library Journal, Publishers Weekly, Amazon.com, and the Chicago Public Library. Anne teaches at Hamline University's MFA in Writing for Children and Young Adults, and lives in Minneapolis with her son and four cats.

How do “Breadcrumbs” and “The Real Boy” meet the literacy needs and interests of middle grade readers?

It's my goal to write characters that readers can really identify with and feel for. I think that emotional connection is really important to middle grade; readers of this age are so empathetic. And so I hope in Hazel and Oscar readers find protagonists they care about.

Breadcrumbs on Reading Today Online

In both these books, the protagonists are readers. Oscar sneaks into his master's library at night and reads botany books, and books ultimately help him uncover the secrets of his world. Hazel is a huge fantasy reader and makes a lot of references to Harry Potter and “A Wrinkle in Time”and “Golden Compass” and the like, and I hope kids who have read those books feel connected to Hazel, and those who haven't might want to read them.

Kids don't have a lot of preconceived notions of how books are supposed to work, and that gives us a ton of freedom in terms of the kind of stories we can tell and how we tell them. I love writing fantasy because it reaches kids on many levels—they are at a point where they are trying to figure out the world around them, and so reading about a fantasy world feels very relevant. And it tickles and celebrates their great capacity for imagination and for discovery.

It's also really important to me that the books give the reader a lot of credit.
I love Kate DiCamillo because her books use big words and have big ideas, and she proves all the people who think kids need simplicity wrong. I want the books to have ideas readers can sink their teeth into. I try to write books that have lots of layers, that might reach different readers in different ways. A couple reviews of these books have said they are too difficult for kids, and that makes me so frustrated. We need to honor these readers, not talk down to them.

And, most importantly, I want to give them a really good story that they can lose themselves in. Nobody loves a book like a kid does, and that presents a great challenge to authors—to write stuff worthy of these big-hearted, open-minded, story-craving readers.

Who are some authors that have pushed your writing and reading in new and unexpected directions?

“When You Reach Me” destroyed me. I was three chapters into a new book when I first read it, and I just threw away what I'd been writing; I realized if you can’t at least strive to have that kind of ambition, what is the point of writing a book? Every time I read that book I discover another way in which it’s perfect. Kills me.

“The Golden Compass” showed me that fantasy for young readers can deal with really rich philosophical issues, and I've always held it as a model for how big the themes in a book can be. Right now, I'm really interested in books that incorporate magic into the real world, like Nikki Loftin’s “Nightingale's Nest”I love that book because it trusts kids to understand that some questions cannot be answered. I just read “Where the Mountain Meets the Moon” by Grace Lin, and I think it's extraordinary, and it's got me thinking a lot about folktales. I also recently read “The Savage Fortress” by Sarwat Chadda—it’s a really exciting and fun adventure story using Indian mythology, and I realize I need to delve deeper into global myths.

In addition to being an author you also teach creative writing to graduate students. What is one piece of advice you would give to a future middle grade writer?

Read. Read everything you can. Whenever anyone asks me this question at a school visit, that’s what I say, and it sounds like I’m saying what the teachers want to hear, but it’s true. The best writing education can be found in books.

The Real Boy on Reading Today OnlineWhat can educators do to get the most out of an author visit? Do you have advice for an author preparing to give a public reading of their work?

I love visiting schools so much. I hope that seeing writers makes kids feel like maybe they can be a writer someday. It certainly helps when the kids have been prepared—maybe the teacher can read a little bit from the books and talk about the author, maybe brainstorm some questions. Sometimes when I’ve done readings for “Breadcrumb”teachers read “The Snow Queen” (on which “Breadcrumbs” is based) to their classes, and I love that. It helps me a lot when the kids have a basis for what I’m talking about, and also when they are coming in and obviously excited.

I also learned at a school in Chicago that it’s best not to the seat the kids too close to where the author is presenting or one of them might get stepped on, and then the author feels really really bad.

As for public readings, I cut down the section I’m reading—editing long paragraphs and descriptions—so it’s easier to listen to. My reading copies are always marked up like crazy. I try to pick something that’s fairly self-contained and about ten minutes. I have an old trick from being on the speech team in high school—when I’m doing dialogue I pick one side of the room to look at for each character, so the audience has a better sense of who is talking. 

Have you had an opportunity to listen to the audio versions of your books?  How does reading aloud factor into your writing process?

It sounds ridiculous, but it’s very hard for me to listen to my own work. I’m way too sensitive to any bumpy phrasing—you can’t edit it now, after all. And I’m hypercritical of the readers. It’s for everyone’s own good that I don’t listen.

I do try to read every draft out loud. Certainly, it helps catch mistakes, but also you get so much of a better sense of the rhythms of your scenes. And sometimes you get bored reading—and that’s a pretty good sign that what you’re reading is boring. I don’t really believe in “rules” for writing—I think you can do whatever you want, as long as it works—but I think you are generally supposed to avoid boring your readers as much as possible.

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