René Bartos: I am so excited to be able to chat with author Leslie Connor today! Welcome to Writers’ Rumpus Leslie! Can you tell us a little about your journey into the kidlit world?
Leslie Connor: Thanks for inviting me, René! My journey into kidlit started with an art degree. My interest was picture book art. Once I started writing (fishing for something of my own to illustrate) I began to get editor feedback suggesting that my voice might be better suited to longer works of fiction. I ignored that as long as I could, but eventually found that middle grade voice. I left the illustration part behind. I’m so happy writing middle grade! (But, man, I still love picture books!)
RB: Your latest middle grade novel, Anybody Here Seen Frenchie? published by Katherine Tegen Books, an imprint of Harper Collins Publishers (February 2022) was chosen by the New England Independent Booksellers Association (NEIBA) as one of the finalists in the middle grade novel category of their 2022 Book Awards. Congrats! In your author’s note, you write of an unexplainable seed that planted itself late at night. It is so interesting how writing ideas come to us at any time of day or night! Could you share a little with us about those initial ideas and how you shaped them into a novel?
LC: Thank you for that! I’m grateful to the members of NEIBA who have supported my books over the years. This honor is a sweet surprise.
I love those gifts from the subconscious! It doesn’t always happen quite this way, but for Anybody Here Seen Frenchie, I had a couple of thoughts one night during my “sleep entry” phase that made me sit up in bed. I wrote down two things: flapping and tweeting, and a bowl in the earth. The lines felt like part of a story resolution—the answer to a mystery–and a turn back toward normalcy after a period of difficulty. I didn’t know the whole journey, but I had a strong sense of trajectory. (Knowing where you’re going becomes important at some point!) Usually, like on my current project, I have to fiddle around, meander a bit, and keep an open mind until I see where I want my characters to end up.
RB: Quoting from a portion of the synopsis on the book jacket, Anybody Here Seen Frenchie? is a “bighearted, beautiful, and funny novel about the meaning of being a true friend and the collective effervescence that lifts a community in times of need.” I love the sense of community and use of multiple points of view throughout the story. Could you tell us more about your decision to use this approach and do you have any tips for effective community-building?
LC: That was so much fun! I rarely use multiple points of view. However, I went into this project asking myself, how do people get lost, and stay lost? Who saw something but doesn’t realize it was important? Who knows something but will not, or cannot, tell? And this delicious thought: what are the near-misses? Who almost saw something? What distracted them? So the multiple points of view fell into accord with the plot. I studied how searches are conducted. (Ugh—upsetting!) I was struck by how members of a community will bring their strengths and skills to the situation and leave their egos behind in service of a common goal. I referred to that thought frequently.
RB: The two main characters in the novel are a talkative, friendly, impulsive girl and a nonvocal autistic boy. It is so important that books reflect the diversity of our world and include neurodiverse and differently abled children and youth. In your author’s note you mention that you wanted to get the characters right and turned to two friends with personal experience raising autistic sons for review of an early draft. Could you tell us more about how you approached creating neurodiverse characters?
LC: Honestly, I catch a character in my minds’ eye and in my ear first, and I am often seeking to elevate a perceived underdog. I might sense neurodiversity, or disability but I start writing without knowing a character’s diagnosis, if you will. I observe and listen, watch their behavior roll out. (It’s that little mental movie thing.) Later, I begin to research, and characters gain depth as a result of what I learn. I go through a process of information, acknowledgement and acceptance, as one would in a social setting. (When you think about it, stories happen inside structures of society.) I want each character to have agency. That’s tricky with someone vulnerable like Frenchie. But readers will see that, though he becomes lost, he makes crucial decisions in favor of his own well-being.
RB: Another thing that struck me while reading Anybody Here Seen Frenchie? is that the diversity goes beyond the two main characters. You introduce us to a wonderful young boy with speech challenges as well as many diverse and unique characters. Do you have any advice for writers about creating such interesting major and minor characters?
LC: This will sound funny, but every character gets a promise from me: Even if this is not your story, I’ll still attempt to flesh you out. It’s the same thing as making sure each character pulls their weight. And if I cannot accomplish that, the character is probably not essential. (Uh-oh!)
Aurora’s little brother, Cedar, has a speech delay caused by early childhood ear infections. That element came to me naturally (and from experience) and happened to dovetail with Frenchie’s being unable to speak, and Aurora’s learning to read behavior.
RB: In addition to the friendship and community themes, I also appreciate the depth of layers within the novel. It is full of interesting facts about the work, hobbies, and interests of the various characters. In addition to experiencing coastal Maine, I learned new facts about trails, rock collecting, geodes, granite and quarries, birds, a special rare animal (I won’t give it away!), poems on a barn, and much more. Could you tell us more about how you managed to add in many layers so effectively?
LC: First, this is high praise, so thanks, René! I laugh, because I often let my love for those layers lead me down ancillary paths. (The stories can only contain just so much! That’s why my terrific critique group and sharp editor are indispensable.) The integration of all those collected story-parts is what craft is, I am pretty sure. (Or maybe it’s dogged persistence.) Nothing is more joyous than assigning my own real-life enchantments—such as my encounter with a rare creature in the woods—to the characters in my stories. Successful layering happens when those elements are closely tied to plot. (A writer needs to ask, why am I using this here?)
RB: I love the hand-drawn interior map and cover art by Ramona Kaulitzki, whom you reference in your acknowledgements. While reading, I found myself frequently looking back at this map. Your lovely writing and the evocative art make us feel as if we are right there experiencing the journey along with the characters-searching, hoping, and soaking up the natural beauty of coastal Maine. Could you tell us more about your wonderful world-building and how you came to decide on using this map?
LC: Oh, I love Ramona’s map too! Her work is exquisite. I had a map in my writer’s toolbox for this novel. I referred to it constantly, and filled it with scribbles and jottings and of course, it was essential for studying search and rescue methods. I kept thinking, boy, I wish we could have a map printed on the endpapers! (They are expensive.) Well, my editor had the same idea! I shared my messy map with Ramona, and she made it into a work of art.
RB: You have also authored other several award-winning MG novels: Waiting for Normal, winner of the ALA Schneider Family Book Award; All Rise for the Honorable Perry T. Cook, an E.B White Read Aloud finalist; The Truth as Told by Mason Buttle, National Book Award finalist, and winner of the ALA Schneider Family Book Award; and A Home for Goddesses and Dogs. Amazing! Could you share a little with us about what inspired these works, and have you approached each one differently?
LC: Well, my story ideas have always come from elements of nonfiction—everyday life. The situation usually comes first with a character close behind. I do a lot of thinking and brewing and daydreaming before the words go down on paper.
RB: Could you share with us a little about your writing process and do you have any advice or helpful tips for kidlit writers? Do you have a community of writers or critique groups who help to inspire your work?
LC: I recommend writing groups. It can take a while to curate the right mix of personalities and meeting style for you, but the support is invaluable. Consider more than one. For example, I belong to a critique group where we share our work, and another group that focuses more on the business and networking. A great place to start is your local chapter of the Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators (SCBWI). Reach out to members and see if they’d like to form a private spin-off group that perhaps focuses on a genre.
-I always say write what you can’t ignore! Watch for life’s intriguing situations—the ones that really stick to your heart—and build story around them.
-Treat everything you write like a read aloud. (Use your ear!)
-Visit your characters every day! Even if you cannot get to your notebook or computer, dedicate some time to imagining your scenes. Do this while you commute to work, climb the stairs, or cook supper.
RB: Great advice! Do you have any other children’s books in the works? We look forward to seeing more!
LC: Yes! I’m working on a new middle grade novel about a family facing changes related to our national housing crisis. There’s a “sister story” emerging here—and I don’t mean to be overly cryptic. I’m still getting to know this one!
RB: Thank you so much Leslie! We look forward to enjoying more of your work in the future.
Leslie Connor is a “dedicated daydreamer” and writer who believes middle grade is her wheelhouse! She is the award-winning author of the novels Waiting for Normal, winner of the ALA Schneider Family Book Award, All Rise for the Honorable Perry T. Cook, an E.B White Read Aloud finalist, The Truth as Told by Mason Buttle, National Book Award finalist, and winner of the ALA Schneider Family Book Award, and A Home for Goddesses and Dogs. Her most recent title is, Anybody Here Seen Frenchie? (February, 2022). Leslie lives with her husband and rescue dogs in a little house in the Connecticut woods.
Facebook: Leslie Connor