Authors are incredible people. They have an ability to create worlds and characters that transport us out of reality. Authors can make us cry, gasp and get angry (sometimes all in the same chapter).
I love that I’ve been able to connect with so many different authors over the years, and truly enjoy being able to share my experiences with all of you.
Dear Student, by Elly Swartz, is a powerful novel about navigating middle school, friendships, family changes and anxiety.
This middle grade novel is so spot-on with what adolescents experience today. Autumn is starting sixth grade. Her best friend moved away and her dad joined the Peace Corp. As she tackles middle school, she encounters friendship troubles trying to juggle two different friends with her social anxiety. Autumn believes in animal rights and finds a way to stand up for her furry friends.
I had the privilege to do a Q&A with Elly about her new book. Honestly, my reader heart wanted to hug her through the screen. Not only did I love the book, but I feel like I made a new virtual best friend with the author. Authors, like Elly, are making big differences in a world that is very scary for so many young readers.
1. As an author, what is your writing process like?
All my writing days begin by finding brain space. And for me, that means either walking my pups or, if it’s raining, dancing in my kitchen. I need to put aside of the stresses, worries, and distractions of the day. I need to give the creative process room to breathe. Then I dive in.
If I am drafting a new book, I spend a lot of time getting to know my main character’s heart before I even begin writing. I need to know what they like for breakfast, if they love the rain, are scared of spiders. I need to know all of them. So, I interview them. I want to know everything. And once that happens, I begin.
I write what I know. That’s what I love about the writing process. It’s not linear. I don’t need to color inside the lines. If I know the beginning, I write that. If I know the end, I write that. I trust the process will enable me to fill in the rest as the story unfolds. Once I have a first draft, which I’ve fondly named Swiss cheese – because it stinks and has lots of holes – it’s time to dive into revision. For me, this is where the magic happens. I love revision!
At this stage, I work on my story in one big gulp. I sit all day with my characters. And it’s during this part of the process that I need to ensure that my characters are feeling all the feels. All happy, I’ve written a giant Hallmark card. All sad, well, no one really wants that. And I use emojis to help me get there. I promise, I’m not kidding.
After I write my Swiss cheese draft, I put an emoji at the top and bottom of each chapter. What’s the emotion coming into the scene and what’s the emotion coming out. This way, I can visually cue myself when I need to mix things up.
Emojis keep me in check and allow me to create a story with true emotional resonance.
Once I go through the story, I rinse and repeat until I feel in my heart that my story is layered, authentic, and has all the feels.
2. What kind of research did you do for this book?
I feel that all fiction is anchored in something real. And making sure those details are accurate and authentic is at the heart of my writing. I think it might be the lawyer in me!
I am beyond grateful to the many people who shared their expertise and time with me. In Dear Student, I consulted:
*a pediatric therapist who specializes in anxiety
*a person who specializes in iguanas and snakes (pregnant ones!)
*a congressman who sponsored the Humane Act bill that prevents the testing of cosmetics on animals and those in his office in charge of the bill
*a Peace Corps volunteer
*educators who kindly shared their Spanish translation skills and input with me
It truly takes a village!
3. What inspired you to write Autumn’s story?
Much of the inspiration for Dear Student came from readers. Kids who have written me letters, sent me emails, dm’d me and shared their truth. Their anxiety. Their heart. Kids who think brave and strong is reserved for the popular, the loud, and the confidant.
I want these friends to know their voice matters. They can make a difference. I want them to know that it doesn’t matter if they are quiet or loud. Extroverts or introverts. Eat lunch surrounded by friends or tucked into a table in the library. They are strong. They are valued. They are brave.
I want them to know that sometimes we all feel like Autumn. We all struggle to find the right words to say, the right clothes to wear, the right way to be. In our social media world, we often see only the shiny penny version of life. The highly manicured happy moments. But those are just slivers of time. I want them to know we all experience all the feels. Even if you may not see them in the latest videos on Tik Tok.
4. Why did you feel that Autumn should have social anxiety?
I love Autumn. She came to me with her quiet introspection, her big heart, and her social anxiety. Autumn is truly a compilation and reflection of so many kids I know and have had the privilege of meeting at school visits. I want my characters to reflect the kids who read them. I want all kids to see themselves on the page.
I write about kids with anxiety because kids have anxiety. And with the pandemic, that anxiety is on the rise. (https://www.hhs.gov/sites/default/files/surgeon-general-youth-mental-health-advisory.pdf)
I want kids to know they are not alone. Recently, I was visiting a school, talking to 200 six graders about Dear Student and Fearless Fred – the part of each of us that fear can’t boss around. And sharing how I saw courage and strength in every one of them. Even if they didn’t. After my presentation, a new friend came up to me. She whispered, “I have anxiety like Autumn in Dear Student.” Her voice shook. “Kids make fun of me.” She inhaled big. “Thanks for writing about someone like me.”
My heart melted.
I truly believe we are all a bit like Autumn. We all have moments where we wonder if we’re saying the right thing, wearing the right clothes, acting the right way. Especially now. Remote living. Remote learning. Masking. Reentry. It’s all hard. Exhausting. And sometimes scary.
Truth is, we are all working on something.
5. Why did you choose to have Autumn in sixth grade?
I love this stage. The start of middle school. The start of something new.
Kids are honest and vulnerable. They are discovering their voice and where they fit. They are navigating shifting friendships. And realizing the world is not always right and wrong, but often gray, nuanced, and complicated. Their feelings are big and real.
And I truly think my sixth grade self is reading along with me, wishing she had these stories as she navigated the halls of middle school.
6. How were you able to make Autumn, Logan, and Copper so realistic?
I love Autumn, Logan, and Cooper. I love their vulnerabilities. And their rockstar qualities. They are a wonderful blend of all of it. The stuff they are proud of and the stuff they are working on. So when I was creating each one of them, it was important to me that they felt all the feels. And that they reflected the authentic lives of my readers. They are layered because my readers’ lives are layered.
Authenticity is at the heart of writing these moments. Authentic emotions and authentic experiences. So when I sit down to write, I try and forget the shoulds and worries of my adult life and wrap myself around the younger me. I need to be that kid again. The one who wondered the halls of middle school with butterflies in her stomach, hoping she could find her way to class, open her locker, and just be herself.
I need to write as if I am my characters. And I know that I’m truly in it when my story weaves itself into every fiber of my being and every moment of my day. For instance, when I was writing Dear Student, the main character, Autumn, flooded my dreams. You see, I wasn’t dreaming about Autumn, I was dreaming as if I was Autumn. My world and hers had become completely enmeshed.
And that is truly when the magic happens on the page.
7. What do you hope readers take away from this novel?
I hope readers know their voice matters. That strength and bravery can look a lot of different ways. And that true friends will always be there. As Autumn says, “We don’t have to think the same or believe the same things to be friends. But we do always have to be kind to each other. And respectful of each other.” (p. 255-56).
I also hope readers discover that the most fearless thing they can do is be themselves.
8. What was your greatest challenge and joy about writing this book?
I loved writing the Dear Student letters. It brought me back to my middle school self, walking the halls, feeling all the feels. The excitement, the worry, the happiness, the self-consciousness, the cliques, the doubt, and the crushes. It was fun to give advice. I hope it helps my readers as they navigate all the feels.
The most challenging part was writing the friend conflict. No spoilers, but there’s something that happens between Logan and Autumn that hurt my heart to write. It wasn’t how I envisioned the story going. But it was the path the story had to take for me to stay true to the characters.
9. Do you have ideas for another book?
Yes! And yay! I have another middle grade novel entitled, Hidden Truths, coming out in 2023. This story is told from dual pov between best friends Danielle – a star baseball player – and Eric – her forgetful, but kind, goofy, crossword-loving neighbor.
Their friendship has begun to shift when a terrible accident happens, accelerating their rift.
At its heart, this story asks how far you’d go to keep a promise to a friend.
I’m also working on a picture book and starting a new middle grade that I am bursting with excitement to write.
Lots more to come. Woohoo!
10. What advice do you have for young writers?
Read! Read! Read! And then write what matters to you. Because in that space of true authenticity, lies the story of your heart.
Since Elly shared her 6th grade picture, I feel the need to keep it going by sharing mine.
To meet Autumn and read about her sixth grade experience, click here.
Little Reading Coach is a certified Teacher of English (K-12) and Reading Specialist (P-12) offering online reading, writing and home-based learning support tutoring services for students in grades 6-12. For more information head to my website.