Shannon Hitchcock's new middle grade novel Ruby Lee & Me
is out this month and getting all kinds of lovely buzz: Booklist, in a starred review, calls it "a heartening and important offering for younger readers."
And here's the summary from Goodreads:
"Everything's changing for Sarah Beth Willis. After Robin's tragic accident, everyone seems different somehow. Days on the farm aren't the same, and the simple fun of riding a bike or playing outside can be scary. And there's talk in town about the new sixth-grade teacher at Shady Creek. Word is spreading quickly--Mrs. Smyre is like no other teacher anyone has ever seen around these parts. She's the first African American teacher. It's 1969, and while black folks and white folks are cordial, having a black teacher at an all-white school is a strange new happening."
I adored Shannon's first book, The Ballad of Jessie Pearl (
she spoke a bit about that book's journey to publication here
). Today, I am so pleased to have her back On the Verge.
Jody: The Ballad of Jessie Pearl
is set in the 1920's and inspired by a true event in your family history. Is there a true story behind Ruby Lee & Me?
There is. In 1967, I started first grade. That was also the first year that the school system in Yadkin County, North Carolina became integrated. Mrs. Pauline Porter was Fall Creek Elementary School’s first African American teacher. She taught first grade in the classroom beside mine.
Mrs. Porter had a special gift for working with reluctant readers. So every afternoon, she changed classrooms with my teacher, and worked with those of us struggling to read. Mrs. Porter had a beautiful cadence to her voice, and it reminded me of poetry.
Isn't it amazing how life-changing our first teachers can be--especially ones like your Mrs. Porter? I had a librarian like that in my childhood and recently tried to track her down. Have you ever thought about reconnecting with Mrs. Porter?
I did. Several years ago, I heard that she was in failing health. I went for a visit to let her know what an impact she had made on my life. During that visit, she reminded me that white children had been uneasy about having a black teacher.
To ease our concerns, she had asked each of us to touch her face and hair. As Mrs. Porter spoke, my mind drifted back to that time. I remembered how soft her skin felt and how she loved all children regardless of color. As a writer, I wanted to tell a story I hoped would pay tribute to her gentle dignity. I wrote a picture book that I hoped would do just that.
So, this story started out as a picture book?
Yes. I read the manuscript out loud to Scholastic editor, Andrea Pinkney at an SCBWI conference. She ultimately rejected it, but asked me to write a Middle Grade novel using those same themes.
Wow. That's a potentially huge revision!
That's what I was thinking too. After much wailing about how I couldn’t possibly turn a picture book into a novel, I managed to do so, and that’s how this novel came to be.
How do you tackle a directive like that? Do you outline? Just plunge into writing?
A bit of both. My usual process is to start with a very rough outline, but once I begin writing, the manuscript takes on a life of its own. For my current WIP, I used Blake Snyder’s Save the Cat
to get started.
I've never read that, but you're probably the tenth writer friend who's suggested it, so maybe it's time for me to check it out.
It's been helpful.
I'm a big believer in writing craft books. But I also realize they're not for everyone, and somewhere along the way each writer figures out the writing process that works for them. I know, from speaking to you in the past, that you've had years of practice taking a manuscript from idea to revision to publication.
I started out by writing magazine articles and picture book manuscripts. Several of my magazine articles were published, but none of my picture book manuscripts ever made it to press. I’ve lost count of how many manuscripts before I got a book deal, but a lot! All of that was good practice though, because my first novel attempt, The Ballad of Jessie Pearl,
was published in 2013.
Has your writing process changed since then? I'm sure you're busier now.
: It depends on what else is going on. Like December—it seems I never get any writing done around the holidays.
Me neither. My schedule goes right out the window and then it's back to work in January. Is it the same for you?
I don't have a regular schedule. When I’m in the zone, I’ll write like a fiend, all day every day in my pajamas. I literally do nothing else, and then when I’m finished, I do all the things I neglected when I was writing. I don’t necessarily recommend this approach, but it’s what seems to work for me.
I tend to do that too, especially as I'm nearing the end of a project. And we haven't talked about promotion yet. Promoting a book can feel like a full-time job in and of itself.
It does... I have trouble multi-tasking.
The writing process, for me, takes so much sustained focus. It's hard to juggle events and travel. Some of that's died down for me, but here you are gearing up again with a second book. Are you approaching promotion the same way you did with Jessie Pearl
You know, I tried everything I could think of to promote that book. I had a curriculum guide prepared, had a book trailer made, sent postcards, gave out bookmarks, wrote a press release, and probably about 100 other things I can’t recall at the moment. I’m of the firm opinion that none of it made much difference in sales.
For the record I still have the postcard you sent me! But I suspect you're right that it's difficult for an individual author to move the needle on sales numbers in a substantial way. We do what we can do and what we feel comfortable doing...
That's what I've decided this time around. I've taken a much more low-key approach. I updated my website, I’m doing interviews like this one, and I will of course do everything my publisher asks me to do, but I am not going to spend a small fortune like last time. I learned the hard way that it doesn’t pay off.
What are you working on now?
Another Middle Grade novel. I’m not ready to disclose the subject yet, but my editor has the first draft. I’m anxious to get her feedback on whether or not it passes muster. Cross your fingers!
Jody: I will! Thank you so much, Shannon, for chatting with me today.
Shannon Hitchcock grew up in rural North Carolina on a 100-acre farm. Her extended family and love of the South are integral to her stories. Her picture book biography, Overgrown Jack
, was nominated for the Sue Alexander Most Promising New Work Award. In addition to her novels Ruby Lee & Me
and The Ballad of Jessie Pearl
, her work has appeared in Highlights for Children, Cricket, Ask,
and Children's Writer
. She currently lives in Tampa, Florida, with her husband and teenaged son.
You can find Shannon at www.shannonhitchcock.com
Her books are available in bookstores, Amazon
and Barnes & Noble