Something strange is happening at Silver Brook! When thirteen-year-old Eddie is roped into volunteering at Silver Brook Pavilion retirement home for his bar mitzvah service project, he discovers a colorful cast of characters. There’s a dramatic courtship unfolding, long-hidden secret identities, a rumor of a vengeful ghost, and a thief on the loose. When suspicion falls on Eddie, he teams up with his fellow volunteer (and crush), Tessa, to solve the mysteries of Silver Brook.
Today Lois Ruby, author of Eddie Whatever, joins us to discuss her approach to writing contemporary middle grade, her narrative technique, and her upcoming projects. Read on to find a discussion guide and teaching guide!
Your new book echoes similar themes and characters that we find in Red Menace. Would you call Eddie Whatever a companion book rather than a sequel?
Yes, though the obvious difference is that Eddie Whatever is contemporary, and Red Menace is set in 1953.
Eddie’s story is similar to Marty’s in that both boys are baseball fans with middling talent for the game, and both are approaching their bar mitzvahs with little enthusiasm. There the similarity ends. Eddie’s story, set in Oklahoma City now, has nothing to do with the Red Scare then, or McCarthyism, or execution. (Whew!) I think of these books as partners or companions because the protagonists in both stories are nice, thirteen-year-old kids baffled by the bizarre things going on around them.
At first, Eddie isn’t a bit thrilled to do a community service project in an old folks’ home, but all things change, and if they didn’t, there would be no story. Marty’s narrative is quite serious, with humorous overtones, and Eddie’s is mostly humorous, with serious overtones. I think of Eddie Whatever as an antidote, or the flip side, of the weightier times Marty muddled through and overcame. I want Eddie Whatever to be a mostly fun book.
You write both historical and contemporary novels. How do you approach their writing differently?
I love doing both types of books, but the process of writing contemporary novels differs from that of writing historicals in one fundamental way. For contemporaries, the character comes first, and I have to figure out who this person is, and what their story is, and why they’re interesting or important enough for me to spend four or five years with.
However, for historical novels, the time period comes first with lots of research, and then my task is to figure out who populates that specific era and locale. Once I’ve answered my personal in-depth questionnaire about each major character in the novel, whether it’s contemporary or historical, the story begins to write itself, and I have the privilege of hearing what the characters tell me and recording it all as fast as I can. It’s like watching a movie in my mind – but being able to change scenes whenever I want to.
Is it harder to connect with young adults now?
It’s harder than when I was raising and advising teens. I’m not fluent in teenspeak, and I won’t patronize young adults by trying to emulate their vocabulary or slang. They’d see right through the fakery and fling my book aside! I focus instead on the story and making the characters’ voices as genuine as I can. As for technology, it’s hopeless for me to keep up. My books are never going to be packed full of techno-babble or high-tech gadgetry that perplexes me. I find myself writing about middle-graders rather than more edgy teens, and I’m content writing historical fiction pre-the technological boom.
What’s most important is staying connected with young people. I spend a lot of time in schools around the country listening to kids, and I get email from young adults who read my books and ask intelligent questions, or tell me about how they see their lives reflected in my characters. That’s plenty for me to chew on.
You often use two narrators in a novel and sometimes the narrators live in two different time periods. Why, and how does this work?
This technique comes naturally to me because I don’t view things in clear black-and-white. It’s my curse (or maybe my gift?) to see things from two or more points of view, and that’s why many of my books are in two voices, and some tell a story both through historical characters and contemporary ones. It’s very hard to keep this straight! Charts on the wall help, but first I need to hear the characters’ voices in my head. I usually write the whole story in a linear fashion to get the basic plot points down, and then deconstruct it all to decide which character carries the information and actions and reactions vital to get the story across. Finally, I weave their parts together. It’s very complex and involves maybe ten revisions to get it right before I’d dare send it to an editor for another major overhaul.
What are you working on now?
I don’t talk much about current projects because voicing them tends to make them go pfft. They lose the air in their balloons. I’ll say this much. The dubious “gift” of the pandemic we’re living through (2020 and 2021) is that lockdown affords me much more writing time than I’d normally enjoy if I were out and about. So, I’ve been combing through, revising, and updating older manuscripts of wide variety that have not yet seen print. That’s like getting in touch with the you you’ve forgotten about. On a specific note, I’ve been writing a YA novel about the Salem witch trials of 1692. It’s a fascinating subject that, if you look closely, parallels the “witch hunts” of the 1930s to 1950s and even in the present day.
What advice might you have for beginning writers–perhaps in general and then especially for those interested in writing in your specific genre/genres?
The best advice for beginning writers is and has always been read voraciously. Only reading gives one the taste and texture and thrum of language in its gloriously diverse forms. Also, travel as much as possible to experience the universality and specificity of people everywhere. Next, get the best education you can afford in order to explore ideas and the vastness of history and the human experience. A person can yearn to write – and I do believe it’s an irresistible urge – but without some worldly experience, what is there to write about? Navel-gazing rarely makes interesting copy. I’d advise people interested in writing for middle-graders and teens to read children’s and YA books extensively and spend time with young people. If you don’t have any hanging around your house, then visit as many schools as you can and keep your eyes and ears open.
Having said that, don’t be so aware of your audience that you lose sight of the creative impulse to write what you want and what you must. Writing to the market might pay off in book sales for a while, but if you do, writing becomes a job like ditch-digging or sardine-canning. No fun, a daily grind, and you finish the workday not smelling so good. Bottom line: write what you love.
Sometimes we hear that writing is a lonely occupation. Would you agree?
There’s a big difference between embracing time alone and being lonely. Time alone has immense possibilities! You are in a world that is separate from the one going on all around you, which means no distractions or interruptions. You’re in “the zone” and feeling very happy there. You’re pulling things out of your mind and heart that might not be accessible to you if you had to interact with others. And best of all, you’re never lonely because you have the companionship and challenges of all those people fighting for attention in your head.
I once was stuck for 14 hours in a blizzard at the airport in New York. People all around me were grumbling and bemoaning the delays to important events on the other side of the continent, the other side of the world. Me? I found a quiet corner on the floor and crawled into my own world for the duration. It was one of the best days of my life. So, no, writing isn’t a lonely occupation.
Download the free discussion guide for Eddie Whatever!
This packet is the perfect place to start a community service project. Created by author Lois Ruby, you’ll find suggestions for volunteering, extra resources, and sheet to record service hours. Don’t forget to check out the free online Jamboards that help readers review vocabulary and plot points!
Praise for Eddie Whatever
“Short chapters and snappy first-person narration give this wide appeal. . .An enjoyable intergenerational story.”—Kirkus Reviews
“[A] winning and unexpected combination of mystery, intrigue, and social commentary, interlaced with wisecracks and school woes.”—School Library Journal
“Readers looking for a quirky ensemble cast, a breezy mystery, and just a bit of middle school angst will find this fits the bill quite nicely.”-The Bulletin of the Center for Children’s Books
“Filled with humor, poignancy and mystery, Eddie Whatever explores the realities of aging in a fast-paced story that will draw in middle-grade readers.”-Sydney Taylor Shmooze
“Eddie will win your heart.”—Vaunda Micheaux Nelson, author of No Crystal Stair
More Titles by Lois Ruby
Grade Level: 6 – 8
Age Level: 11 – 14
Thirteen-year-old Marty Rafner wants to spend the summer of 1953 warming the bench for his baseball team, listening to Yankees games, and avoiding bar mitzvah preparations. Instead, FBI agents are staking out his house because they suspect his parents are communist sympathizers. Marty knows what happens to communists: They lose their jobs, get deported . . . or worse. A court convicted their friends of being communist spies; the Rosenbergs are slated to be executed in two months.
As rumors fly, his friends turn on him, and agents track his every move, Marty isn’t sure what to believe. Are his parents working against the United States? Or are they patriots refusing to be bullied?
Connect with the Author
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