Laurel Snyder is a dynamic author of five novels and six picture books. Her middle grade novel, “Seven Stories Up” is being released in paperback on April 28th. Laurel is a funny, honest and extremely busy author. We recently asked Laurel about her writing journey and passion for the middle grade genre.
Middle Grade Mafia: Middle Grade has become a popular category, however some define the age range differently. I understand you’ve had some experience with this. Could you tell us about it?
Laurel Snyder: Oy. This is a topic close to my heart.
In general, I hate the way books get categorized. I know categorization serves a purpose, especially for online sales, but the best books defy categorization, don’t they? How would you categorize A Tree Grows in Brooklyn, or The Little Prince? The best books stand alone.
But yeah, I’ve run into problems, relating to age. In Penny Dreadful, a secondary character has two moms. To some folks, this is “sexuality” and makes the book unacceptable for young readers. (I’m not going to get into that issue here, but you can read about it if you want) In Any Which Wall, the kids tend to a dog who has been mistreated, and to one reviewer, this was “too dark” for kids. Bigger than a Bread Box is “too sad” for young readers. (because sadness is something you only experience as a teen, I guess?) And in Seven Stories Up, there’s a “tooth fairy spoiler.” Which I heard about from more than one reader.
In theory, a middle grade book is intended for 8-12. But I’ve found that kids as young as five or six read my books. It’s hard, I think, as kids read earlier and earlier. Appropriate content doesn’t always match up with reading level.
But that said, I really feel like independent reading is a kind of freedom, or it should be. Learning to read is like getting a driver’s license. A kid learns to read, and suddenly they’re in the grocery store line, scanning tabloid headlines about infidelities, boob jobs, and assassination attempts. So I don’t really understand when parents try to limit or control content. Just like with a driver’s license, a kid needs to learn how to control their newfound power. They should be able to limit their own access, choose their own books.
So for me, this is mostly a non-issue. I write my books, and sometimes, an editor pulls me back. We cut a scene from Seven Stories Up, in which the two girls drink a glass of wine together. I’d intended it as a reference to Anne of Green Gables. But I guess Anne is too mature for contemporary middle grade readers too!
MGM: Seven Stories Up is such an imaginative story. Who wouldn’t love to go back in time and meet their Grandmother as a child? How did you come up with the idea for Seven Stories Up?
LS: It’s a sad story. My own grandmother, on her deathbed, told me a story about how she’d been quarantined as a child, for rheumatic fever. My grandmother had grown up (believe it or not) in a grand hotel, and so her quarantine was spent in a hotel room, alone. She was too young to read, and this was before TV. It’s hard to imagine.
She recalled this summer as the great trauma of her life, and really fixated on it, as she was dying. For me, Seven Stories Up was an attempt to go back in time, break that quarantine, and correct the past.
It was a kind of therapy, for me, I guess. Writing this book.
MGM: The book required a lot of research about life in the 1930-40’s. Can you tell us how you went about it?
LS: I’m embarrassed to admit how unprepared I was for that! I hadn’t ever really written anything historical before, in this way. It didn’t occur to me how much I didn’t know. I found myself staring at street maps of 1937 Baltimore, and looking up things like when underpants began to use elastic. Every tiny detail. Thank goodness for the internet! And my friend Paula, who is a brilliant librarian, with access to Baltimore historical records. But even so, the book took much longer than I expected. The book ended up being published a year and a half behind schedule! I don’t know how Kirby Larson does it…
MGM: Can you tell us a little about your road to publication?
LS: I’ve been very very very very lucky!
I’ve been writing since the age of eight, but in high school, college, and grad school, my focus was very much on poetry (for adults). So I was on that path– teaching, publishing in little literary magazines, submitting to contests at small presses. It’s a very different culture.
But I’d always loved children’s books. And one very depressing winter, I found myself going back to them, for a kind of sustenance. I needed that magic, that spark! You know? I started going to the children’s library, rereading old favorites. And slowly, I began to write my first novel, Up and Down the Scratchy Mountains OR The Search for A Suitable Princess.
When I couldn’t find a publisher for the book, I set it aside for a few years. I guess I gave up. But then my son was born, and I left my non-profit day-job (because I literally didn’t make enough to pay a nanny). When I found myself with time on my hands, as the baby slept, I pulled the manuscript out and began to revise it.
It still took many, many rejections, but after about another year, the book was pulled from slush, and Random House. A miracle, really! I guess I’m grateful to my son, and to the boss who paid me so little I was forced to leave my job. HA.
MGM: What are some other projects in the works?
LS: Well, my next book is a picture book. Swan, the life and dance of Anna Pavlova. It’ll be out in August, and it has stunning art by Julie Morstad. I mean, ASTONISHING art. It’s a book I wrote for my 10 year old ballet-obsessed self.
And then I’m just finishing (fingers crossed) a new novel, The Orphan Island. About 9 kids who live alone on an island. It’s upper middle grade. Think My Side of the Mountain mashed up with Blue Lagoon. Or maybe Gilligan’s Island and Lord of the Flies. Hmmmm.