Interview with Gennifer Choldenko, author of If a Tree Falls at Lunch Period
Why is Kirsten's best friend hanging around with the school's queen bee? Why
are her parents fighting all the time? And, why does Walk's mom think he's going
to mess up like his cousin? The answers to these questionsand many moreare
answered in Gennifer Choldenko's new novel, If a Tree Falls at Lunch Period, a
hilarious and honest story about what happens when two worlds collide.
In addition to being sisters, Kirsten and Kippy are good friends. As the youngest of four siblings, did you draw on any interactions within your own family to portray their relationship?
I don't think I drew on any family interactions directly. I wasn't the least bit like Kippy, neither of my sisters was like Kirsten, and my family was not at all like the McKenna family. On the other hand, not only was I the youngest of my siblings, I was the youngest of the neighborhood kids and all of my cousins as well. We spent so much time with two of my cousins, in particular, that to this day I consider them to be siblings, not cousins.
Come to think of it, my relationship with one of them, Jody, was a little bit like Kippy's relationship with Kirsten. Jody is the person who gave me the nickname "Snot-Nose." I know this doesn't sound like a truly affectionate relationship, but strangely enough, it was. I obviously didn't draw on this consciously, as this connection didn't occur to me until now, but I wonder if it didn't inform my writing at some level.
Kirsten's mom tries to help her lose weight, but her tactics are not successful. So when Kirsten decides to tackle this issue, she does it on her own. Do you think readers will identify with her struggle with weight?
I had terrible struggles with weight as a teen and preteen. I used to wish I had a mom who could help me deal with my problem, so when I first started writing If a Tree Falls at Lunch Period, I hoped Kirsten's mom would be more help to her. I'm certain there are moms more helpful than Kirsten's mom turned out to be; even so, I do think weight issues really are the kind of problems you have to solve for yourself.
I also think that there are no easy answers. Each person's weight problem is different. For me, it was really about emotional health. I have very very intense feelings, and I simply did not know how to cope with them without numbing myself with food.
Tree Falls brings up the issues of race and class, particularly with the situation between Brianna and Matteo. The book also reminds us that appearances are rarely what they seem, and that we should be careful when making assumptions about people. Do you hope readers will analyze their own feelings about prejudices and stereotypes after finishing the book?
My first goal is to write an entertaining book. My books have to pass what I call "the Ian test." Ian is my thirteen-year-old son. He's a great reader, and you simply can't get him to read a book he doesn't find interestingno way, no how, it'll never happen. If a Tree Falls at Lunch Period, by the way, definitely passed the Ian test; as a matter of fact, he prefers Tree Falls to my other novels.
Once I've got an entertaining book, I then try to write a book that makes you think. Because I personally think a lot about race and class, it's not surprising that these issues should show up in my work. But in answer to your questions: Do I hope a reader will see himself reflected in characters who do not have the same skin color or the same circumstances as he does? Absolutely. Do I hope she carries that experience outside the pages of my book? You bet.
The dialogue in Tree Falls is witty, and the kids all seem very real. How do you get in touch with your characters?
Thank you! I have a thirteen-year-old son and an eight-year-old daughter, so I'm around kids all the time, and I'm sure that helps. I never use my kids directly; though, occasionally something will happen that I will use. For example, yesterday I was working on a nickname for a kid in my new novel. Later that night, my son came home from tennis camp and talked about this girl with a really squeaky voice who the tennis pro had nicknamed "Mouse." I might use that nickname. Stay tuned.
In general, creating characters is a lot like shopping for new clothes. I try on names, sisters, brothers, mothers, and houses until I find what fits. With Brianna, the antagonist in If a Tree Falls at Lunch Period, I spent time observing the kids at the library of a local middle school. One day I saw this girl who was on her way to a talent show tryout. She was walking down the hall singing. There was something about her manner that told me there was absolutely no doubt in her mind that she would be chosen for the talent show. And I began to wonder, how could she be so sure? That was the beginning of Brianna.
More than anything else I hope my protagonists are real to my readers. There's a J. D. Salinger quote I have on my bulletin board that really sums this up for me: "What really knocks me out is a character that when you are done reading you wish was a friend of yours and you could call them up." It turns out that isn't exactly what Salinger said. He said he wished ". . . the author that wrote it was a terrific friend of yours and you could call him up on the phone whenever you felt like it." But I like my version better.
Your books always have such creative and humorous titles, such as Notes from a Liar and Her Dog and Al Capone Does My Shirts, your award-winning middle grade novel. Where do you find inspiration for these great titles? What specifically inspired the title of this book?
Sid Fleischman once said that titles are either really easy or really hard. I have to agree with him on this. Sometimes a title will just pop into my head while I'm working on a novel, and I know deep down that will be the title for the book. Other times I have to work my tukus off on them. The title Al Capone Does My Shirts came very early in the writing process, with no real effort.
The title If a Tree Falls at Lunch Period came late in the game, after about thirty pages of title ideas. I think the title came from the character Walk. I've always liked the philosophical question: If a tree falls in the forest and no one hears it, does it make a sound? I suddenly saw that this idea reflected Walk's journey in the book. His knowledge of himself changes dramatically over the course of the novel, but who he is inside does not.
How did you get the idea to have Jamal get involved with Amway?
Well, I've had friends who got involved in Amway in a big way. In the case of one of my friends, it was an unusual choice; it seemed out of character with who she was. Even so, I didn't plan the Amway scene . . . I just started writing and that's what came out. It was totally a surprise to me!
What's up next for you, another middle grade novel or a picture book? Do you ever think you'll write something for young adults?
YA is a stretch for me as my internal age is twelve. I can maybe handle being thirteenbut fourteen is way out of my frame of reference.
Right now I'm hard at work on what I hope will be the second book in the Alcatraz trilogy. The novel takes place just after Al Capone Does My Shirts. I have also just begun a novel for slightly younger kids, eight- to eleven-year-olds. I'm having a blast with both novels.
Unless otherwise stated, this interview was conducted at the time the book was first published, and is reproduced with permission of the publisher. This interview may not be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the copyright holder.
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