Cynthia Leitich Smith
Sundee, welcome back to Cynsations, and congratulations on the release of Brendan Buckley's Sixth Grade Experiment (Delacorte, 2012)! The novel is a sequel to Brendan Buckley's Universe and Everything in It (Delacorte, 2007). What inspired you to revisit the character?
Three things, actually.
One, reader response. I kept getting asked, “Will there be a sequel?” I had no plans for a sequel, so this was surprising. Nice, but surprising.
Two, I had finished The Other Half of My Heart (Delacorte, 2010) and needed a new project, but now I also had a two-and-a-half year old and a newborn. The thought of coming up with a whole new cast of characters, frankly, sounded exhausting. So, it was also a decision of convenience in a way.
Three, and without this I wouldn’t have proceeded in spite of my second reason, I returned to the first book and found that I still loved Brendan and his family (time away from them allowed me to see this!). There were also some loose threads I had unintentionally left myself that hinted at there being more to the story.
What was the timeline from spark to publication, and what were the significant events along the way?
It was more like a slow burn than a spark, but I’d say I started working in earnest on the project in June 2009, researching possible science projects and brainstorming plot complications and scenes. I turned in my final draft in February 2011. The book was released in January 2012.
One significant event was discovering the perfect science project for Brendan. I knew Brendan was interested in the environment and earth sciences (the first book centers on his budding interest in geology). I found a great website for students looking for projects for science fairs. On the site, I answered all the questions as if I were Brendan, and they provided me with a list of projects suited just for him!
When I saw an experiment involving cow manure and two-liters (a two-liter bottle figures prominently in one scene in the first book), I knew I had the perfect project around which to build the story.
How does the story take Brendan Buckley in new directions?
One way that Brendan surprised me (I love it when characters do this to us writers) was when I was writing the middle school dance scene and I expected him, as a science kid, to be kind of awkward, but he totally busted a move. That was a new direction I wasn’t expecting!
What thoughts do you have for writers interested in setting a story during middle school?
Previously, I had only written stories that took place during the summer. I was totally intimidated by the idea of having to create the school setting—all those kids and teachers and classes, etc., etc. (not to mention having to return to my own memories of junior high).
But writing a school story was actually a lot of fun! School is rife with drama and scene potential—think locker room showers, lunch times, classroom pranks . . .
One bit of advice is to consider how much of the school year you want to cover. My first completed draft (the one I showed my editor) took place over the whole school year. She advised that the story was spread too thin, there were too many lapses in time with no mention of what had happened, and suggested that the tension and pacing would be served by tightening it up to a few months. She was absolutely right (as usual!).
How about for those interested in writing a sequel to a previous novel?
Also, try not to worry too much about whether the second story will measure up to the first. I did, and it was wasted energy (I’ve already been told by one young reader he liked the second one better than the first!). You can’t assume the reader who comes to the sequel will have read the first one anyway, so the story really needs to be able to stand on its own.
Could you talk a little about your decision to feature a biracial protagonist? How did this aspect of the character manifest to you? What responses has it generated?
Brendan being biracial was never a decision to make. The drama in the first book centers on his parents’ interracial marriage, so as their biological child, Brendan was necessarily biracial. Also, being biracial has been such a salient shaper of my identity that it comes very naturally to write from this perspective.
I deeply appreciate the words of African-American novelist Paule Marshall, who said, “Once you see yourself truthfully depicted, you have a sense of your right to be in the world.”
In terms of responses to Brendan’s (and my other characters’) biracial-ness, it has been astounding. I love hearing from readers who tell me how validated they or someone they know has been by seeing a biracial main character or interracial family in one of my books.
What advice do you have for your fellow authors of color, as well as to those writing both within and across cultures?
I have a prayer I offer each time before I start writing:
“Because there will only ever be one of me, if I don’t tell the stories you give to me in the way only I can, they will never be told. So help me to be brave, and to do my work today, even when I don’t feel like it and I’m afraid what I’m writing is of no worth or value.”
The world needs our stories. So be brave, get them down, and send them out!
And for extra motivation, check out the Cooperative Children’s Book Center’s data on books written by and about people of color each year (found in their “Thoughts On Publishing” summary of children’s publishing).
When I read this, it really fired me up to keep persevering in the often-difficult task of getting my stories down (see the “Multicultural Mandate” section).
What do you do when you're not writing?
Play with my kids, of course! And make meals, wash dishes, go for the occasional run, drink a lot of tea, try to have a decent marriage . . .
I do very little housework—truly, I stall as long as my conscience will allow, basically until I’m concerned about my children contracting a disease. That, or I’m hosting guests (and sometimes not even that will move me).
I’m really looking forward to an upcoming trip to Uganda and Kenya.
What can your fans look forward to next?
I'm writing a younger middle grade novel (for ages 7-10) . . . possibly a
series. I like the challenge of leaner, more focused plotting, and I'm
anticipating testing it out on my almost six-year-old. Wish me luck!
Thank you for your support and particularly your efforts to promote books by and about people of color, Cynthia!