All About Adolescent Literacy

All about adolescent literacy. Resources for parents and educators of kids in grades 4-12.
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Transcript from an interview with

Jennifer Holm

Meet Jenny Holm

So, hi, I'm Jenny Holm. And I'm the author of The Fourteenth Goldfish, and the co-creator of the Babymouse and Squish series.

The Fourteenth Goldfish

So, The Fourteenth Goldfish is a little bit of a departure from what I've traditionally written in my novels. I usually write historical fiction. And this is really more science fiction. And the premise is it's about a girl whose grandfather comes home one day, and he's actually found a way to reverse aging.

And so he's turned himself into a middle schooler, and he had to then live with his granddaughter and his own daughter, and it's about the limits of science, and the family dynamics when that sort of situation would happen with three generations. And, you know the world of possibility.

So, the character of Melvin, Ellie's grandfather, and he's the scientist who, he's in his 70s and he turns himself into a 14 year old, he was actually inspired by my late father who was a doctor, and loved science, used to run science experiments at our house when I was a kid. He kept Petri dishes with blood agar in the refrigerator to culture bacteria, like next to the cottage cheese, I thought that all kids had parents that did that.

So, I grew up with a lot of science, and he was a big fan of Doctor Jonas Salk, who develop the polio vaccine. And so, I based a lot of the Melvin characteristics on my dad, like my dad was very firm about putting the trash out at night, you know because if it didn't get picked up then you'd have two weeks of garbage in your driveway, so he had a lot of funny quirks.

Yeah, so it was a big departure to go from writing historical fiction to more science fiction. But I used the same process that I do for historical fiction. I kind of actually thought of the book a little bit as a history of science because I do, I mention a lot of, you know significant sciences in The Fourteenth Goldfish.

And I think honestly the book was inspired because my father had died a few years ago, and after he died I really struggled with trying to figure out what are the limits of life and death? How should you extend life? Should you not? And all those things were going through my head, so it was kind of therapy for me to try to work my way through those situations and questions.

Finding the kids’ point of view in historical fiction

When I write my historical fiction books there's constantly a little battle in my head between all the historical research and then keeping the story. And I always have to actually force myself to remember that the most important thing is the story. That you need to be engaged with the character, you need to feel really invested, but I think most historical fiction writers fall in love with all the little aspects of history, we love the research, we could spend, you know days in a library, or an archive, or fall down a rabbit hole on the internet, you know looking at something at the Library of Congress, you know just to find one little fact that somebody might not even pick up on.

And so, my process when I'm researching my novels I usually, I look for the details that would affect kids, like what are important to kids at the time? Not necessarily what's the big events going on in the world like war or something like that, but really what's the kids point of view?

And usually the kids' point of view are all about what's going on in their life, what are they eating, what are they smelling, what are they playing, what are their every day circumstances, who is their family, what are they listening on the radio, what are they watching on TV? Like just little things like that. What are they wearing, you know?

What is their everyday life like at school? What does their classroom look like? So it's really those basic things, I try to just remember what is it to be 10 years old, 11 years old, and what's important to you at that age?

Yes I like the, I like the 10, 11, 12 to write from that, that's like my sweet spot. I like remembering those age. I don't particularly enjoy remember like 14, 15, 16. I just remember that's when things seem to get more complicated and difficult, and you know classic, classic growing up things. So I like to remember the earlier part of the tweens.

so when I was a tween I was kind of a tomboy. And I had four brothers, so I liked to do what the boys did, and I liked to play kickball with them, and we would play Dungeons and Dragons. So I did a lot of the stuff the boys did, you know read comic books. And I do remember like the older you got a little, the more socially unacceptable some of those activities became, back in the old days, you know the 80s.

Origins of Babymouse

So where did Babymouse begin? So you can take it, it started at two areas. You can say it started when we were kids because I grew up in this house with comics, and four brothers, and I was the middle child. So I was surrounded by boys and they all read comics.

And the biggest boy in the house, our dad was a huge comic book and comic strip fan, so he loved Prince Valiant and Flash Gordon, and so we actually had the bound volumes of those strips in our house when we were kids, which was pretty unheard of. So he pushed comics on us and comic strips.

And then my brothers read them, and so I read them and I loved them. But the one thing about sort of the superhero genre was there weren't any ladies really, you know there was Superman and Batman, and Spiderman and Plastic Man and everybody. And there was Wonder Woman, but I never really identified with Wonder Woman probably because I was a normal kid, I wore clothes, and Wonder Woman runs around in her underwear.

So I just couldn't identify with her when I was like eight or nine years old. So I was always kind of complaining that I didn't think it was fair that there wasn't a girl that I could relate to the way my brothers could relate to Peter Parker, you know he's like a normal teenage boy.

And then sort of fast forward, Matt and I were both living in New York City, I was in Brooklyn, he was in Queens. And I was still working in advertising, and so I worked for many years, I worked full time and wrote. And I came home from a bad day at work and I was standing in my kitchen and I kind of had this cranky look on my face, and my husband said, "Oh, you look very irritated."

And this image of this kind of crazy whiskered mouse popped into my head, and I drew it on a napkin, and the next time I saw Matt I gave him the napkin, and I said, "Let's do something with this." And then he lost the napkin, so.

Babymouse survived, and then a few years later Babymouse was published, so.

Global Read Aloud

So, I love Global Read Aloud is a movement that was started by a teacher, and in Madison, Wisconsin. And it's basically the Global Read Aloud program is they choose a few books to read over a year in classrooms around the world, and you'll - My book The Fourteenth Goldfish was one of the books.

And so the teachers will read it in the classroom, but then they will connect with other classrooms. So you might have a classroom in say New Jersey that's actually connecting with a classroom in Canada, or in Europe or in Hong Kong. And the kids will connect over the book and talk about the book.

I interacted with a lot of the classrooms on Twitter, on Skype visits, on Google chats, and it was just amazing, everywhere I was going people were saying, "Oh, I'm part of Global Read Aloud." So it was a really amazing experience for me.

They really kind of want to advance like kids connecting and making them realize there's like a bigger world out there through literature, you know that kids here are reading the same book in another country across the world and that's a common something that we can talk about together.

Stories are personal

I love, you know I love doing school visits and being with kids who are actually reading the book, and it's fun to just hear what their take on the book is, and how they might pull a little thread or a little theme from the book and really connect it with something that's going on in their life. Something that I have no idea what's going on, but that touches them in a nice way. So, and it sort of also reinforces to me that reading is such a personal experience, like you bring your own, your own reactions to it. And it can take you very different places depending on the person.

Baskets of books

Oh, so my kids. I have a 7 year old and I have an 11 year old. They love, they read all different things. They both love graphic novels because they've grown up at Comic-Con, so they have no choice. But my daughter is in love with Ivy and Bean, and with Bink and Gollie, and Mercy Watson. And my son is in love with Gary Schmidt at the moment and Jackie Woodson at the moment. He just finished Feathers and he's reading Locomotion, yeah so he's going through the whole Jacqueline Woodson canon, so

So I think the way I encourage them to read is to, I step back a little bit and I just leave books everywhere. I have a book box in the car, you know I leave, I've always had a basket of books at the dinner table, like I always say, usually at the end of the day at dinner I feel like that's the hardest meal of the day, everybody is tired, we've had homework, and I always say it's fine if you just want to pull a book out and read at dinner, it's great.

And so they often just do that at dinner. And just have a lot of books in your house, and make going to the library a fun and an exciting event to go and getting a book. And then I think they see it's something of value.

I know, well I read a lot too. We both, my husband and I are big readers. So our house is full of books. And so.

Taking risks

I think what's been so amazing about the Newbery Honors is that it has allowed me to take risks in other genres in writing. I don't think I would have been able to make Babymouse, possibly if I hadn't gotten a Newbery Honor for May Amelia because it sort of allowed me to have some confidence as a creator to try something a little different, a little riskier.

And so I'm forever grateful because it's really allowed me to branch out creatively in different genres, so.

Dark humor

I mean I try to include a lot of humor in my books, and along with some dark moments and serious moments because I think that's, that's just part of life, and I don't know if it's also because this family I grew up in, my dad was a doctor, my mother was a nurse, so they often talked about like, when they worked in pediatrics, so usually when something bad happens to a kid that's pretty sad, and scary, but they still had a sort of a sense of humor about things, you know.

"The little boy threw up today. At least he made it into the basket." You know, like so they still, even though things could be grave they could lighten it up a little bit. And I don't know if that's because they worked with children and they developed a sense of humor from doing that, but I try to do that same thing, just I think it's important for kids to laugh and to be entertained and to enjoy reading, as well as, you know learn about some darker things.

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