EXTRAORDINARY by Miriam Spitzer Franklin is on my list of top anticipated debuts for 2015, and I’m happy to say she’s visiting the blog today to chat about her book, writing, and as usual, donuts! Miriam’s novel is described on Goodreads as a “heartfelt, occasionally funny, coming-of-age middle grade novel” (that I happen to be reading at the moment!).
ABOUT THE BOOK: Last spring, Pansy chickened out on going to spring break camp, even though she’d promised her best friend, Anna, she’d go. It was just like when they went to get their hair cut for Locks of Love; only one of them walked out with a new hairstyle, and it wasn’t Pansy. But Pansy never got the chance to make it up to Anna. While at camp, Anna contracted meningitis and a dangerously high fever, and she hasn’t been the same since. Now all Pansy wants is her best friend back—not the silent girl in the wheelchair who has to go to a special school and who can’t do all the things Pansy used to chicken out of doing. So when Pansy discovers that Anna is getting a surgery that might cure her, Pansy realizes this is her chance—she’ll become the friend she always should have been. She’ll become the best friend Anna’s ever had—even if it means taking risks, trying new things (like those scary roller skates), and running herself ragged in the process.
Pansy’s chasing extraordinary, hoping she reaches it in time for her friend’s triumphant return. But what lies at the end of Pansy’s journey might not be exactly what she had expected—or wanted.
Extraordinary is a heartfelt, occasionally funny, coming-of-age middle grade novel by debut author Miriam Spitzer Franklin. It’s sure to appeal to fans of Cynthia Lord’s Rules and will inspire young friends to cherish the times they spend together. Every day should be lived like it’s extraordinary.
What inspired your story about Pansy’s journey to becoming extraordinary?
My niece, Anna, suffered a brain injury when she was two, after a high fever led to a stroke. I’ve always been amazed and inspired by the way her family accepted the challenges and focused on the joy that Anna brought to everyone. Even though their hopes and dreams for her had changed, they adjusted and learned that living with a child with severe special needs can be a gift that makes you view the world in a different way.
My original story was about a girl who considered herself “hopelessly average” and one morning she wakes up and decides it’s time to become an extraordinary person. In an early draft, Anna was only a minor character but I realized that the girls’ stories needed to be linked, and that Anna needed to be the reason Pansy wanted to become extraordinary.
Pansy is pretty brave to cut off her hair herself in the first chapter of the book! We see pretty early on in the book how devoted she is to her best friend, Anna. This is inspiring and reminds me of how special those friendships in elementary school were! I know writers sometimes include aspects of themselves in their character. Is there any part of yourself as a young person that’s written into Pansy’s character?
For me, it’s pretty hard to create a character without including aspects of myself. I had a very special best friend in elementary school and when I moved away, it was difficult for me to make new friends. I also had a lot of fears, just like Pansy. My family didn’t camp when I was growing up, but if they had, I would have been scared to walk to the bathroom in the dark, same as Pansy. And don’t even mention those fuzzy spiders on the walls!
Another part of my personality that’s similar is that once Pansy set her mind to something, she didn’t give up no matter how difficult it was. I was a figure skater as a teen, and it didn’t come easy to me. I once flunked the same figures test (with judges and everything) NINE times. But I finally passed, with good scores. 🙂
Was there real-life inspiration for Miss Quetzel’s character?
I think Miss Quetzel came from my own experiences as a new fifth grade teacher. I wanted to motivate the students any way I could, and I was always setting up incentives and rewards so students would try their best. I also wanted to make sure the rewards were accessible to all students, especially the ones who struggled with academics and/or behavior.
Did your own experiences as an elementary and middle school teacher shape the writing of this book?
My own experiences definitely shaped the story. As a teacher, I’ve worked with children who treated others with kindness, persevered despite challenges, and were full of spirit and heart. Although they weren’t the top students or the most talented in the typical ways that get noticed, they had extraordinary gifts that others may not have recognized. Working with these children inspired me to create Pansy’s character.
There seem to be many children’s books being published in the last few years that deal with death of friends/family or serious illness. Some adults say this is good, as it reflects the fact that young people do have to face these topics in their own lives while others might say that it’s better to provide literature for children that is always uplifting and happy. How would you respond to this debate?
I think there’s a place for a wide range of books in children’s literature, from fun and entertaining to serious and thought-provoking. But I think that books with serious topics are important because children facing some of these issues need to know they’re not alone and that their feelings are perfectly normal. I also believe that a story for children can be both sad and uplifting, and I hope readers will laugh during parts of my story and that they’ll be cheering for Pansy by the end of the book.
What was the most difficult aspect of writing Extraordinary?
The most difficult part was immersing myself in Pansy’s feelings while trying to write a book with a positive, upbeat tone. Originally, I wrote the story so that Anna’s brain injury occurred five years before the book begins. I didn’t know if I would be able to write the story from the point of view of a ten-year-old girl whose best friend had just become brain damaged because I knew how heartbreaking that could be. But I realized that if I wanted Pansy’s motivation in the story to make sense, I needed to start where her quest begins. I also knew that Pansy’s acceptance and healing were an important part of the character arc, and that I had to dive in and write the story I was meant to write.
What was something you learned through the process of writing this book?
Since I wrote and rewrote this book over a period of TEN years, I’d say I learned A LOT about characterization, plotting, and voice. One thing I definitely learned is that publishing a book is a slow business and that even though you think the waiting will kill you, somehow you’ll get through it!
8. We often have readers of the blog who are aspiring writers. What are three pieces of advice you would offer to aspiring writers of children’s or young adult fiction?
Read as much as you can in your genre.
Reach out to other writers. Your critique partners are the ones who will truly understand what you’re going through. They’ll be there to offer hugs when you need them and to celebrate with you every step of the way.
As my third grader says, “The only way you fail is if you quit.” You can always put a manuscript aside for awhile, but if you believe in the story, it’s worth getting professional feedback and rewriting for as many times as it takes. There are people- writers who meant well when they told me to put this manuscript in a drawer and move on to something else. But I knew that Pansy’s story needed to be told, and if I’d listened to them, EXTRAORDINARY wouldn’t be headed out into the world today.
Are you working on any future projects at the moment? Can you tell us anything about them?
I have a few middle grade projects, all in various stages of revision. All of the stories are contemporary and character-driven.
One thing I love to ask authors who visit the blog: Favorite kind of donut? Or, if you don’t like donuts, favorite dessert?
Powdered sugar mini-donuts. Though if it were up to me, I’d pick a chocolate chip cookie over any other dessert anytime!
Thank you so much, Miriam, for visiting the blog! EXTRAORDINARY releases on May 5th, and you’ll see my review of the book next week on the blog. You can visit her website here.
You can buy the book here.
Thanks so much, Katie, for the interview!