MARY ANN RODMAN’s debut novel,Yankee Girl, was chosen as a VOYA Top Shelf Fiction for Middle School Readers and an NCSS-CBC Notable Trade Book in the Field of Social Studies. She lives with her family in Alpharetta, Georgia.
How did you come up with the story of Jimmy’s Stars?
This book has been through a couple of incarnations. It began as the first book I ever COMPLETED, twenty-five years ago. It was terrible, but I held on to it because the characters were based on family stories and letters from WWII…and I had done all that research. Then I recycled one of the chapters into a picture book. That didn’t work either, but an editor who saw it said, “I love these characters. Why don’t you turn this into a middle grade novel?” This time I found a story for them that worked. I guess it was bubbling on the back burner of my mental stove for the last twenty -five years.
Do you have any personal connections with the story?
As I mentioned above, what got me thinking about WWII (a time period that has always fascinated me) was a cache of letters my mother, her siblings, and her mother wrote each other during WWII. My mother came from a family of eight, and she and her three brothers all served in WWII. (My mom was a WAVE, one brother was a Marine in the Pacific, and the other two were in the Merchant Marine.) Each sibling wrote each other and their mother each week (sometimes more often) and in turn, their mother wrote each of them. That was a lot of letters. In addition, one of my uncles kept a shipboard diary. What struck me about these letters was that while what I think of as History was included, so were the more mundane events of life. So one of my aunts wrote “I guess the war is over. Lots of people carrying on in Times Square. I went home and washed my hair.” Or, “There are German subs following us. I am reading Steinbeck’s THE MOON IS DOWN.” They didn’t think about it being History or themselves as being special. It was just what you did when your country went to war. Nor did they think about the possible negative effects of the war on their families. (“The Greatest Generation”…having spent the Depression just trying to survive…were not big on introspection or analysis. They were people of action.)
About how long did it take to complete the writing process of Jimmy’s Stars?
The actual writing took 18 months, but I have been thinking about it and researching it off and on for over twenty-five years (as you probably gathered from the previous questions.) What is your ideal writing environment? I have an office, (which used to be the living room, except no one ever “lived” in it!) and when I am in it, I try to keep it conducive to writing. I turn off the phone, light a candle and turn on the music. If I am writing the first draft of a historical novel, I only listen to music of the time period I am writing about. For JIMMY’S STARS I listened to a lot of big band music (especially Glenn Miller and early Sinatra) as well as a compilation of “propaganda music” by the Smithsonian (funny stuff like Spike Jones’ “Der Fuehrer’s Face” and really blatant stuff like “You’re a Sap, Mr. Jap). On a perfect first draft day, I fall into my time period (1943-44 in this case) in my own personal time machine, so that when I finish writing for the day, I have to turn on something like CNN to reorient myself to the “real world.” If I am not writing a first draft, I can take my laptop anywhere. Most often I am writing in the den, revising in front of what used to be called Court TV (I am a big true crime fan) or at the skating rink (my daughter is a figure skater who skates hours every day). I have learned to write in five-minute spurts, while being interrupted…but not during a first draft. How does it feel to be a published author? I still have my “I-can’t-believe-I’ve-published-a-book” days…especially when I get fan mail from other countries, or I spot a book in a library. I have never wanted to be anything other than a children’s writer (OK, there was that stretch in college when I thought I was going to be on Broadway) and if I never publish another book I feel like I have achieved one of my life goals. My other goal is to keep writing (and hopefully, published) until I drop in my tracks. Writing is a compulsion, and even on my most discouraged days, when I said “OK, I quit,” I found myself writing endlessly in my journal about …being discouraged!
What are the other books that you have written other than Jimmy’s Stars? What are they about?
I have published another middle grade fiction, YANKEE GIRL, and two picture books, MY BEST FRIEND and FIRST GRADE STINKS. I have two more picture books, A TREE FOR EMMY and SURPRISE SOUP coming out in March and April, respectively, 2009. There are two more picture books under contract, THE ROLLERCOASTER KID (Viking) and CAMP K-9 (Peachtree…which I sold just this past week!) whose publications are yet to be announced but you can count on them being sometime after 2010.
YANKEE GIRL (Farrar Straus Giroux, 2004) was based on my childhood as the daughter of an FBI agent in Civil Rights Era Mississippi. It was named a Best Book by the Chicago, Cincinatti and Baltimore Public Libraries, as well as a Best Book by the National Association of Social Studies Teachers, and the University of Wisconsin CCBC, Voice of Youth Advocates “Top Shelf Fiction” and nominated for 9 state book awards, including the Illinois Rebecca Caudill Award.
MY BEST FRIEND (Viking, 2005) came from an event in my daughter’s life, and is about the nature of friendship. It won the Ezra Jack Keats’ Best New Picture Book Writer (from the New York Public Library), the Charlotte Zolotow Award for Best Picture Book Text (from the University of Wisconsin), was a CCBC Choice, a Bank Street College Best Book, a School Library Journal Best Book, and was nominated for the Kentucky Bluegrass Award.
FIRST GRADE STINKS (Peachtree, 2006) was again, based on my daughter’s troubles
adjusting to the increased demands of first grade, after a lovely, if undemanding, year in kindergarten. It was named a Bank Street College Best Book.
A TREE FOR EMMY (Peachtree, March 2009) was based on something that happened to a friend of my daughter. All five-year-old Emmy wants for her birthday is a mimosa tree, which if you live in the South, you will recognize as a “nuisance” tree…it sheds big pink fluffy blossoms and large seed pods, and usually grows wild. But if you are a five-year-old, it is a magic sort of tree. (The Northern equivalent is the cottonwood tree. I’ve had both in my yard at one time or the other…and lots of complaints from the neighbors!)
SURPRISE SOUP (Viking, April 2009) is illustrated by G. Brian Karas. This book came from a combination of things…my dad’s very labor intensive vegetable soup recipe, the hours I’ve spent watching him make it…and my husband’s childhood as the very LITTLE brother in a family of three.
Are you currently writing another book?
Yes…I’m always writing at least one novel, and one picture book, and researching another novel.
If so what is it going to be about?
The novel, which is more toward the YA audience, is based on the Great Tri-State Tornado of 1925. My father and his family were actually in the middle of the greatest tornado disaster in American history. In the space of 2 hours, the tornado hit three states, killed 1200 people (one of which was my great-grandmother) and completely changed the lives of not only my family, but entire towns. The question I hope to answer is “What happens when your whole life disappears in an afternoon?” I’m also writing a picture book that involves a gerbil…but the story keeps changing.
When will it be published?
Well, finishing them would help!
Is there anything else you would like to share about Jimmy’s Stars?
I would like to tell writers, both young and “experienced” to never throw out anything you write. You can never tell when you may have a revelation that can help you “find the real story” in something that you have had rejected, or that you don’t personally think is any good. As for whether or not you “learn a lesson” from JIMMY’S STARS, I trust the reader to come to his or her own conclusion about that. A book will mean a hundred different things to a hundred different people. In general, I would encourage people to pay attention to those “boring old family stories” your older relatives like to replay over and over. I was an unusual kid who actually enjoyed those stories, remembered them, and am now using them in my work. Even if you don’t write for a living, the stories need to be remembered for another generation. (My father is 85, and HE now wishes he had paid attention to those “boring stories” his aunt told!)
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Other Blogs that are hosting the Jimmy's Stars tour:
A Childhood of Dreams
A Christian Worldview of Fiction
A Mom Speaks
All About Children's Books
Becky's Book Reviews
By The Book Reviews
Looking Glass Reviews
Maw Books Blog
The Friendly Book Nook
The Hidden Sign of of a Leaf