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Nancy J. Cavanaugh Talks with Roger

nancy j cavanaugh talks with roger

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nancy j cavanaughNancy J. Cavanaugh’s second novel, Always Abigail, is about a girl whose goal in life is to join the middle school pom-pom squad. Or so she thinks, but middle school turns out to offer a host of challenges — and even some new pleasures — that make (spoiler alert!) being named a pom-pom alternate seem of secondary importance.

RS: When I started Always, Abigail and read “The most important thing in my life is pom-poms,” my heart sank. I was worried that I was going to have to read a whole book about a girl whose goal in life was to be on the pom-pom squad. But in fact you’re doing something very tricky — and risky — here by starting out with a girl who sounds really shallow, then trusting your readers to eventually figure out that not everything she says is true.

NJC: That is the hugest compliment. As a former teacher who spent many, many years with children, I feel like I can understand them, but you often have to read between the lines.

RS: The narrative really is from Abigail’s perspective. It’s not an adult voice disguised as a kid’s voice, which is what we see more often. The perspective changes and grows as she grows.

NJC: I want kids to be able to read books in which they feel like, “Wow, that’s me” or “That’s my friend.” I work really hard at that, and yet at the same time the voices of my characters are where the ideas begin.

RS: It’s the voice you hear first, then the character comes from that?

NJC: Yes, and in this case, Abigail’s a lot like me. I always knew the right thing to do, but I often didn’t have the courage to do it. We talk a lot with kids about bullying, and I think almost every kid would be able to give you all the right answers about what they should or shouldn’t do, but I think we forget that knowing what to do is not the same as being able to do it. And we forget how hard it is — especially for kids, but even sometimes for adults — to make the right choice.

RS: If someone asked me what this book was about, I would never say it was a bullying book, because it isn’t an “issues” book. But when I think about it, there’s a whole range of bullying behavior that’s going on, and Abigail is a perpetrator as well as a victim as well as a witness.

NJC: Yes, definitely. This isn’t just a book about bullying. It’s about friendship and self-respect. It’s about the power of laughter to help take the sting out and get through. Sometimes you just have to move on.

RS: These days, children’s books that deal with bullying are more often about the victims than the perpetrators.

NJC: Realistically, not everyone is the bully, and not everyone is the victim. There are a lot of kids who are bystanders. If you would ask them, they would know that they should be doing something, but it’s finding that courage.

RS: That’s all of us.

NJC: It’s true. Even as an adult I don’t always stand up for the right thing when I should. Another idea from the book is that sometimes you want something so badly, and then you get it, and it’s not at all what you thought it would be. But you almost can’t let go because you’ve spent so much time wanting it. Abigail feels that way, and it’s just so disappointing. I think we have that in life all the time. Because you don’t really know what it’s going to be like when you get there.

RS: There’s no risk attached to wanting something. When it’s just in your head, everything’s wonderful, but when the actual thing is there in front of you, of course it’s more complicated than that.

NJC: And there can be extenuating circumstances. Sometimes it’s the other people involved, which is the case for Abigail with the other pom-pom girls. I taught middle school for only two years, but those two years gave me lots of material for many, many middle-school stories because the drama is there from the very first minute to the end of the day. A friend once told me: “Middle school kids — their goal is to get through the day without being embarrassed.”

RS: But again, Nancy, not just kids.

NJC: I agree. Some of us are stuck in middle school more than others. Maybe that’s why I write these books. I’m actually that girl. That big puddle Abigail falls into? I fell in that puddle. And it’s sort of a metaphor for my life. I sometimes fall in the big puddles.

RS: You can take these situations that, when you experience them, are horrible; but when you read about them, they’re bearable and even humorous.

NJC: Yes. And if you can learn to laugh at yourself, it’s a benefit to you. Abigail wanted to be friends with the popular girls because being popular was one of her goals. But she had a really good time with Gabby. I love the blossoming of their friendship, just doing fun, wholesome, kid kinds of things, and I hope it gives readers the feeling of, “Oh, that’s like my friends. We do that. We stay home and make frozen pizza and watch TV and that’s fun.” Those simple things can be a lot of fun if you’re doing them with someone you enjoy being with.

cavanaugh_always abigailRS: It takes her a while to admit to herself that she’s having fun.

NJC: Yes, because then it changes everything. If she’s having fun with Gabby, then what is she having with her supposedly best friends, Alli and Cami (“AlliCam”)? A lot of kids go through that period, sometimes it’s in sixth grade, sometimes it’s seventh, where friendships shift because people change and grow up in different ways and take different paths. That’s really hard, especially for kids that have been friends for a long time.

RS: Do you think there’s something gender-related in this? I see so many books about girls who have to leave old friends behind and make new ones as they grow. You don’t see that so much in books about boys, and I don’t remember it being so dramatic in my own childhood.

NJC: Well, I do think girls are more drama-infused. I taught third grade and seventh grade. Even some of the third-grade girls’ drama was way over the top. I would think, “Oh, lord, help these children when they get to middle school.” If the boys didn’t get along, they would go out on the playground and talk it over and figure it out themselves. With girls, that drama just keeps growing. They would take it personally and remember it longer. And then when they’d get to middle school it would be even worse.

RS: What drew you to middle school as a writer?

NJC: I have a lot of vivid memories about middle school, including that awkward feeling I always had, which is more universal than I realized at the time. Of course when you’re going through it you think you’re the only one.

RS: That’s why it feels so bad.

NJC: When I became a teacher I realized all the kids are feeling that way. You hit middle school and you’re more on your own. You’re breaking away from your parents a little bit and really having to find out who you are. What was interesting about my teaching experience is I had a lot of the same kids in third and seventh grades. It was amazing. These adorable little sweetest girls in the world who wrote me love notes and complimented me on my teacher outfits were completely different kids. They were fighting with their moms and having trouble getting along with their friends. It was interesting to see how even kids you wouldn’t think would have a hard time would get to middle school and experience such turmoil.

RS: I take it this is not a time in your life that you remember with particular fondness.

NJC: No. I mean, I had a good childhood, but it was a time when I was trying to do so many different things because I didn’t know, really, what I should be doing. “These kids are trying out for basketball, my sister’s a basketball player — I’ll do basketball.” But then I got onto the basketball team and realized “I don’t really like basketball. I hate when they throw the ball to me. I’m terribly nervous. I’m not that good.” I was much more of a follower than I wish that I would have been, and that’s also true of Abigail. Once she realizes that poms isn’t what she thinks it should be, she sticks with it anyway because she doesn’t know what else to do. I think a lot of kids are like that. And if good friends choose different things to do, it can be hard to keep that friendship going.

RS: Because the friend becomes so wrapped up in something else.

NJC: Right. I had a really close friend who was in band, and I wasn’t, and it took a lot of time away from our friendship, and that was really hard. So then you start thinking, “Well, should I start playing an instrument?” Even though I really didn’t want to play one and wasn’t good at it.

RS: Tell me about this unusual format that you use: lists, diary entries, letters…

NJC: The idea of trying to write a book like this intrigued me. I think it also appeals to the reluctant reader. I have a daughter who’s a reluctant reader, but even just as a former teacher I have a heart for those kids who look at a library book and think, “I cannot read this.” They’re probably right, because their reading level is very low. They see kids walking around with Harry Potter, and there’s no way they can read Harry Potter, even though everyone else in the class is reading it. So I wanted to write something that kids who aren’t such great readers can pick up and devour and enjoy the way other kids are devouring and enjoying books like Harry Potter. I am a very slow reader. I love telling kids this when I go to school visits, because I like to let them know that being a slow reader doesn’t necessarily mean you’re not a good reader. For me, as a child and even now sometimes, I would much rather choose the book that’s shorter, or choose the book with the quick, easy chapters, because it’s easier for me to read. I enjoy those books more.

RS: Did you write the pieces in Abigail in approximately the same order they appear in now?

NJC: I did write it sequentially for the most part. When I went back to revise after the rough draft, which really needed a lot of work, I didn’t always do it in order. One of the reasons writing in this format appeals to me is that if you don’t have big chunks of time to write, you can just sit down and write one section and feel like, “Oh, I just got something done. This is good.” When I was first writing it, my daughter was young enough to be taking naps. (She’s eleven now.) So during naptime it was easy to just knock off a few sections and be able to feel like I accomplished something and then just hope that I could get it all to work.

RS: And the reading is like that too.

NJC: It was easy for me to see a girl like Abigail scribbling away all her thoughts in notebooks as they came to her, just kind of blurting everything out.

RS: I love the way the teacher — Old Hawk — sees right through Abigail.

NJC: A lot of kids fly under the radar for a long time until they meet their Old Hawk. I’m a little bit like Old Hawk.

RS: Do you have the power to make kids afraid of you?

NJC: Oh, sure. I was a teacher for fifteen years. The old saying was: “Don’t smile until after Thanksgiving.” And if you have a really bad class: “Don’t smile until after Christmas.”

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Roger Sutton About Roger Sutton

Roger Sutton has been the editor in chief of The Horn Book, Inc, since 1996. He was previously editor of The Bulletin of the Center for Children's Books and a children's and young adult librarian. He received his M.A. in library science from the University of Chicago in 1982 and a B.A. from Pitzer College in 1978. Follow him on Twitter: @RogerReads.

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