Happy Book Birthday to THE BACKYARD SECRETS OF DANNY WEXLER by talented author Karen Pokras. This middle grade novel takes readers back to 1978, to a fictitious blue-collar Connecticut town where 11-year-old Danny is the youngest member of the only (known) Jewish family. Danny and his two best friends grapple with unsolved mysteries such as The Bermuda Triangle, the existence of aliens, the urban legend of a white van kidnapper, and most of all, whether Danny’s hairy-handed, sweaty piano teacher is really a tarantula, a werewolf, an alien abductor, or possibility a combination of all three. But when his hardworking father gets a well deserved promotion at the worst possible time, Danny experiences the painful sting of anti-semitism.
LC: Karen, congratulations on your new middle grade novel! I’m excited to introduce you to our Writers’ Rumpus community, and thank you for answering my questions. Having grown up in a small Connecticut town as a member of the Jewish minority, I jumped at the opportunity to read THE BACKYARD SECRETS OF DANNY WEXLER when I learned of the book’s premise. Now for my first question! What was your motivation for writing this engaging and powerful story for grades 3-7?
KP: Thank you so much! And thank you for having me here today!
When I first set out to write The Backyard Secrets of Danny Wexler, I had a much different type story in mind. I knew I wanted it set in 1978, and I knew I wanted it loosely based on some of my memories. I’d been thinking a lot of my own childhood, and a few of the memories that stood out in particular were my fascination with the Bermuda Triangle, always wondering about UFOs/aliens, and this mysterious white-van kidnapper who no one ever saw, but who definitely existed (at least definitely existed in my 10-year-old brain.) Beyond that, I wanted a light-hearted mystery set in the 1970s. Or so I thought. When it came time to start writing in 2017, I found myself weaving more and more of my worries about the everyday growing acts of anti-semitism both nationally and within my own community, into Danny’s story.
LC: With reference to Star Wars and other movies, and details like TV dinners and the lack of technology, you do a wonderful job bringing readers back in time. What influenced your decision to set this in 1978?
KP: Technology seems to be the center of everyone’s world these days and kids are no exception, so I really wanted to write a story that was free of smart phones, texting, the internet, social media, and on and on and on. 1978 seemed like the perfect year to choose, as it was the year when I was a ten-year-old middle grade child. I began by tapping into cob-webbed covered memories, writing down pages and pages of notes. In addition to the memories that made it into the book, there were so many that didn’t: creating mixed tapes by holding the tape recorder up to the radio in hopes that a good song would come on, making prank phone calls, the mean dog across the street I tried to avoid at all costs, my obsession with the movie Grease (I still have my very worn-out record album from 1978 in my house.) Maybe I’ll have to write a sequel!
LC: Danny spirals from one unexplained mystery to another, and the way he describes his piano teacher’s hairy hands is hilarious, particularly as they “scurried across the piano as he played, leaving a trail of sweaty prints.” (from p.1) As Danny embroils his friends in his crazy theories, it feels outlandish but very authentic. How did you choose 11-year-old Danny to be the protagonist and narrator? As a female writer, did you ever consider making the protagonist a girl instead?
KP: I actually love writing both boy and girl main characters! The first middle grade book I ever wrote was Nate Rocks the World with Nathan Rockledge as the main character, and I loved him so much I wound up writing a four-book series. When it came to Danny Wexler, I knew immediately I wanted a boy main character. I’d just finished writing another story with a female protagonist (currently still sitting on my hard-drive) and as much as I love that character, I was ready to switch it up a bit. A bigger part of it, though, had to do with separating myself out of the story. There are so many snippets of memories and conversations in The Backyard Secrets that come directly from my childhood, and I wanted to make sure my main character was 100% his own person with a unique personality and identity, rather than a mini-me.
LC: All of your characters are extremely well drawn, especially Danny, his sister Alice, his two best friends, and his elderly neighbor Mrs. Albertini. We get an excellent sense of other characters too, whether from Danny’s descriptions or from each character’s dialogue and actions. How do you develop your major and minor characters and make each of them so unique?
There is no doubt I write character driven stories. I realized recently that all of my book titles have my characters’ names in the titles – even the two I currently have out on submission and with my agent! I absolutely love developing characters. At their earliest stages they come to me in bits and pieces when I least expect it: a fragment of dialogue while I’m doing the dishes or a fleeting picture in my mind of what they might look like while I’m taking a morning walk. From there, I’ll go through a series of brain storming and off-manuscript exercises to pull out personalities, develop wants/needs, and figure out relationships. I take a lot of notes and use many outside observations and/or memories to shape and mold. My goal isn’t to fully understand my character right from the start – it’s to know enough to get going. I love the process of getting to know and develop my character as I write and revise.
LC: Your portrayal of anti-semitism was chillingly realistic, though I love how your ending shows townspeople appreciating Danny’s family and signs of acceptance. Is there anything else you wish to say about this disturbing issue or about what you hope readers take away from reading this?
KP: As a writer, it’s always a goal to connect readers with characters who are relatable and memorable long after the last page. This was a difficult book to write, and I really struggled with the ending as kids tend to look for answers and solutions. But how do you solve anti-semitism in 1978 when it’s still sadly going strong in present times? My hope is that readers will walk away with a greater understanding of the concepts and see where there is room to be more tolerant of others. In addition, I hope readers of all ages take the opportunity to have conversations, among themselves and with those around them, about these important topics, realizing that even Danny is at times unfairly judgmental of others. We’ve seen many examples in the past few years of how our younger generations have powerful voices and are capable of opening discussions for much needed change.
LC: I completely agree! THE BACKYARD SECRETS OF DANNY WEXLER is a wonderful book to generate important classroom and home discussions. I’m sure all pre-published writers share my interest in learning the answer to this burning question: What was your journey to publication and how many drafts did you write?
KP: I started writing later in life, just over ten years ago, testing the waters with self-publishing. My first middle-grade story, as mentioned above was Nate Rocks the World, and from there I self-published a few others, including three more Nate Rocks books and two Millicent Marie books: Millicent Marie is Not My Name and Millicent Marie: Just My Opinion. Along the way, I became curious about traditional publishing and began looking into agents and the querying process as I wrote additional stories. I sent out a LOT of queries over the years with several different unpublished manuscripts, and received mounds of rejections. However, I also found agents who showed initial interest and gave incredible feedback, giving me the encouragement to push ahead. The biggest thing I learned was how to take my time with each new manuscript to really work on character and story development. Finally, in 2018, I was offered representation for The Backyard Secrets of Danny Wexler, which ultimately led to publication. As far as the number of drafts, I found about fifteen different versions on my computer, the most I’d ever had for any story, so I suppose the advice I’d been given rang true for me. Fun fact: It was originally called Backyard Boys.
LC: Karen, what’s next for you? And how can readers connect with you?
KP: I have more two middle grade projects in the works, one on submission and one about to go on submission. The first is a contemporary story about a science-loving girl who’s moved into a house that’s rumored to be haunted, and the other, combines a historical fiction about a famed Russian Jewish ballerina with a modern story about a girl with challenges of her own. I’m hoping to share more information about both of these soon!
Readers can visit my website at www.karenpokras.com to learn about my books, sign up for my newsletter, and read blog posts.
I’m also on social media, mostly on Instagram: @karenpokras_author
And occasionally on:
Thank you so much for having me here today!
LC: Karen, it was my pleasure. I enthusiastically recommend THE BACKYARD SECRETS OF DANNY WEXLER to lovers of realistic middle grade, and I eagerly look forward to your next two books. I adore the photo below of your two furry editorial assistants, Theo and Wolfie. Clearly, they’re always poised and ready to lend their opinions!