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Talking about True Shoes

Is this your first book?
No, it’s my 14th! And it’s a sequel to my best-known young-adult novel, The Revealers.

Is True Shoes better than The Revealers?
Well, I believe it’s a strong followup — but once a book is published, it really only matters what readers think. So far, middle schoolers and adults who work with them seem to like True Shoes a lot. Schools in 11 states have already committed to working with the book, and the other day a young reader emailed me to say, “I am COMPLETELY in love with True Shoes.” That was a nice message to get.

Why did you write this book?
I tend to connect my writing process with real kids — and that's what happened here. As I visited middle schools around the country in recent years, to talk with young people who had read The Revealers, in almost every session I got asked if I was writing a sequel. Kids would say, "We have to know what happens to these characters!" For a while, I had to let them down. I said good stories grow from ideas, and I just didn't have a good idea for a sequel. That didn't make anyone happy.

Then something started to happen.

From my conversations with kids, and from things I observed and heard in their schools, ideas began to grow. For example, I met a boy in a Massachusetts school who wore all camouflage, then I spoke with a boy in a school outside Chicago who had a parent serving in a war zone. I started thinking about a new character who might combine those aspects, and that became Cam in True Shoes.

In a Florida school I met an eighth grader who made his own films and posted them on YouTube. That led me to think about Turner, the independent-minded boy in The Revealers who has an interest in movies — and in True Shoes, guess what? Turner, a year later, has grown into a passionate young filmmaker with a high-def minicam and his own site on YouTube.

In a Vermont school I met an eighth-grade girl who had recently moved here from the Philippines. She and I wound up speaking at length about the conflicting pressures that she felt, going from a conservative, traditional culture and family into an American school with American friends. That led me to read Filipino young-adult fiction and to think a lot about Catalina, a key Revealers character. What pressures would she be under, as an eighth grader who has lived in the U.S. for more than a year — and after growing into the beautiful young woman that Russell’s mom predicted she would become?

Then one evening after a school visit in Massachusetts, sitting in the auditorium waiting to begin a community forum on bullying, I chatted with an eighth-grade girl in the seat next to me. She, too, very much wanted a sequel — and she asked if it could include a romantic triangle. “We’re obsessed with those,” she explained.

Out came my trusty pocket notebook. “Would you write about that?” I asked as I handed it over. And somewhere, in one of the notebooks I filled while True Shoes grew, are two pages of this girl’s careful handwriting, telling how it can feel to be attracted to someone who's already involved with someone else — how that can work out (usually not well), and what can happen. So in True Shoes, the very first thing we learn is that Russell, the narrator, has an intense and secret crush on a girl (I don’t want to give too much away) who is a friend of his but who has a secret, older boyfriend.

But isn’t this book about cyberbullying?
That’s a central part of the story, yes — and that also grew out of my conversations in schools. Because The Revealers deals with bullying, during my visits I started hearing about cyberbullying as it was first becoming an issue. Kids told me about things that were happening; so did teachers, guidance counselors, coaches and principals. They were all aware, sometimes very painfully, about how young people were beginning to use networked technology — cell phones, YouTube, social networking sites — to hurt, embarrass or humiliate each other, and to claim power in negative ways.

Here’s a key example. In a Florida school after a discussion of The Revealers, a boy approached me in the lunchroom to tell me a powerful group of eighth-grade girls in his school had gotten really good at spreading rumors by text message. Some new rumor, he said, would show up your phone with a warning: “Forward this or the next one will be about you.”

Out came my notebook! “Tell me more,” I said as other students came up to do just that.

And that’s how the ideas for the cyber-cruelties in True Shoes grew. As I worked on the story, I grabbed every chance I got to ask kids questions. How do rumors get passed along by text? How does it feel to be the subject of a rumor that may not even be true, but has flashed all over school — and even farther out into the world, so that you have no idea how widely you’re exposed? How does that feel?

Cyberbullying is really pretty new, and it can be a bewildering, harsh new experience for young people to cope with in our connected world. I tried my best to write a realistic story about what that’s like, how it feels and what it can mean in young people’s lives. Not because I have answers, but because this stuff is very real — and young teenagers are often alone in coping with it, because we adults tend to have little or no clue.

So is the book all about negative stuff?
Oh no! I also got very interested in online creativity, in the positive ways that young people are using the Internet to express themselves. Another new character in True Shoes is Emily, who hardly ever says a word but is, as everyone in Parkland Middle School knows, a musical genius. Her work, like Turner’s videos, becomes a vital part of the story.

So does a creative multimedia project that one troublesome language arts class — which includes Turner, Emily and Russell — is assigned to do. I traveled to a Vermont middle school just to observe two teachers, one in language arts and the other in technology, introduce a project like that to a computer lab full of eighth graders. That became the basis for the challenge posed in the story, by Mr. Dallas and Ms. Corbin, to the difficult group that Russell calls “the Whatever Class,” and that is suddenly very motivated by this project.  

I’ve come to think that the truest, strongest force against cruelty and violence in our lives isn’t niceness; it’s creativity, it's positive self-expression. Think about the times when a song, or a book or a film, has reached into your heart and changed your life. What’s more powerful than that? And if you were ever encouraged to share your own voice, to find a meaningful way of expressing yourself, think about how much that meant to you.

In writing stories for young people, I never want to preach to them — they would stop reading if I did, and who am I to preach at anyone? But I do think that when kids are encouraged and empowered to claim a positive voice, they are far less likely to project themselves in negative ways. And when people find their true voices, they really can change things. If there is a theme in True Shoes, I think it might be something like that.

Are you in the story?
Not in this one, no. In The Revealers, the very first scene — when Russell is punched out for being wise to Richie — is based, as I’ve often told kids, on something that happened to me when I was an incredibly awkward seventh grader who had talked back to the toughest kid in my school. From that early point on, all the rest of The Revealers is made up. True Shoes is fiction, too.

I heard you’re really tall. Is this true?
Yep. I’m six foot ten.

Whoa! Has anyone ever asked you “How’s the weather up there?”
Um ... yes. Actually, people ask me all kinds of questions about being tall — especially when I visit middle schools. Of course they want to know if I played basketball.

Did you?
Yes, in college. But it was a long time ago, and in a summer-league game after my sophomore year I wrecked my knee. That was the end of playing seriously.

How does being really tall affect your writing for middle schoolers?
I think it reminds me what it’s like to feel different. Middle schoolers very often feel as if they’re standing out in some awkward way — as if everyone is about to stop and gawk at them. That’s pretty much my everyday reality.

Do you have kids of your own?
Yes, and I’m very proud of them. My son Brad is in law school in Philadelphia, and my stepson Nate is a tenth grader in Middlebury, Vermont. They’re great guys.

How did you get started writing for young readers?
My first writing jobs were as a newspaper reporter and editor, but when I was almost 30 I left journalism to try writing books. About 10 years later, in the early 1990s after I’d failed to get my first four books published, I was working as a freelance writer here in Vermont, doing newspaper articles, newsletters, magazine pieces. I had a young son to support and I was earning a living, though barely. Then by luck, and because I knew someone who knew someone, I got asked to do a book for a young-reader series called Choose Your Own Adventure, which was then very popular. I wrote The Forgotten Planet, then seven more “Choose” books. They did well, and I discovered that I really liked writing exciting stories for young readers. That’s how I got started.

By the way, just last year I wrote a new Choose Your Own Adventure, called Curse of the Pirate Mist. Reading “Choose” books is a lot of fun because every few pages you get a choice, and the decision you make determines which page you’ll turn to next. Pirate Mist has 14 different endings — and kids often love that their decisions become part of the story.

Are all 14 of your books for young readers?
Yes — and all but one of them are fiction. (I also wrote a nonfiction biography of Alexander the Great, for Scholastic’s Wicked History series.) Of course, like a lot of authors, I’ve written a number of other books that got rejected, or that I never showed anyone because I didn’t think they were good enough. The very first book I wrote, a nonfiction book for adults, was rejected 75 times. It was never published by anyone.

Is it hard to get books rejected?
Sure it is — but it’s part of doing this work. It’s like playing sports: if you compete as an athlete, sometimes you are going to lose. But if you’re open to learning, if you're trying to get better, you’ll often find you learn more from a loss than from a win. If you write and try to bring your work to the public, you are going to get rejected. But if you keep going, keep trying, failure doesn’t have to be the end of anything; it can be a gift, a chance to learn how to produce better work. You have to be open and determined, at the same time. When kids ask me about dealing with rejection, that’s what I try to tell them.

Why do you write for young adults?
I can give you two reasons, both good.

First, books meant a lot to me when I was an awkward, lonely middle schooler. I had been a reader since childhood — my dad was my role model, he was a great reader all his life — but in that difficult time, books became my best friends. I was reading all the time, and the town and school libraries became my safe places. Years later, when I got started writing for young adults, it came back to me how much I’d loved good books back then. I remembered how much it had meant when I could connect with the characters, when I could relate to the story. Since the first time I tried it, writing fiction for young adults has felt natural and right to me.

Sometimes I joke that it’s because middle schoolers and I are on a similar maturity level. People who know me well might say that’s not totally a joke!

The other reason I do this work is that I find middle schoolers really interesting, and very much worth writing for. Young people are on the leading edge of change. When the next networking technology comes along, middle schoolers will be the first to adopt it, just as they did with texting and MySpace, the original social-network site. Young teenagers are creating the future — and at the same time they’re creating the rest of their lives.

In visiting so many middle schools, and talking with kids who’ve read my books, I have realized that this is the most intense, confusing and important time of change that most people ever go through. You come into middle school as a kid; you leave as a young adult. Socially, grades six through eight are the social and personal laboratory for the rest of our lives — the time when we search and experiment to find out who we are and how we can fit in. Is it okay to be me? Can I trust other people? What will I do to fit in, to have status, to be safe? It’s no wonder that middle schoolers seem preoccupied with this stuff. Those are big questions!

And middle schoolers read. Adults everywhere can tell you about the book they read when they were this age that saved them, or let them know they were not alone — the book they’ll never forget reading. I want to write those books. The chance to write realistic stories that could mean something to young people at this crucial time of life is, to me, a tremendous opportunity.

You’ve created your own publishing company to bring out True Shoes. Why?
Believe it or not, the publishing company that brought out The Revealers never wanted a sequel — they told me not to write one, and when I did anyway, they rejected it. At that point, it would have taken me two or three years to find a new publisher, then get the book through the usual publishing process — and I didn’t want to do that. True Shoes is about the fast-emerging, big new issue of cyberbullying, and kids really wanted to read it! So I decided to go my own way, to become a publisher and bring the book out this year.   

In this new age of fast digital printing and Internet marketing, more and more writers are doing this, going “indie” in a way that’s similar to what many bands have done in the music industry. This way we can reach our readers much more directly. I believe True Shoes is a really good book, and I think I have a good connection with young readers — so I created Long Stride Books. Our motto is Young-reader fiction that engages, informs and empowers.

Thanks to the very strong early response to the novel, Long Stride Books recently won a contract with a national book distributor, Small Press United, a division of the Independent Publishers’ Group. I have three more books in the works, for publication in the next couple of years. It’s a big adventure! I’m learning a lot, and having a whole lot of fun doing it.

So if you want to support independent voices in the book world, that’s another reason to read True Shoes.

If kids in my school write to you, will you write back?
Oh yes — I always do. On my school visits (if you'd like to learn more about those, please download this one-page flyer) young people often ask me, "Where do you get your inspiration?" I tell them, "From you!"

It's true, too. Connecting with young people — learning a bit about who they are, what they're going through and what's important to them — is really important to me. I hope, in this conversation, you've been able to see why.

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