Sara Pennypacker Talks with Roger

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Packed off each day to a recreational program for the summer, Ware, star of Sara Pennypacker’s Here in the Real World, instead sneaks out to find a most unlikely place — and a most unlikely person — to do what he wants to do, and become who he wants to be.

Roger Sutton: The driver of this story is two kids with a plan and a project. Tell me about that.

Sara Pennypacker: This is definitely a book in response to things. It wasn’t that I wanted to write about kids with a project. The project happened to be the vehicle for what I wanted to talk about.

RS: What did you want to talk about?

SP: After 2016, I felt an enormous pressure to respond to what I thought would happen to kids under this administration, with the kinds of policies and “role models” they were likely to see. I wanted to address how kids would be marginalized, lose resources, or lose status, because kids always lose most when a big shift like this happens. I knew that my book needed to be a response, but I also realized that all children’s books are responses to that kind of a shift. All art is, probably. The other thing that happened was I spent a good year out on the road with Pax, which I hadn’t done for a while. I spent a lot of time with kid audiences, and because of the nature of the book we talked about really hard things: what it was like to be a refugee, how you couldn’t bring your pets, and how pets are abandoned during war. What struck me over and over was that with all the kids, everywhere I went, their reaction was: “What can we do to help?” Not the adult response, “I can’t do anything about that. That’s for someone else. I don’t have enough power.” But instead they would go off and attempt to do something, which is so heartwarming and wonderful about kids.

RS: How did that lead to your characters’ church project?

SP: I’m not sure, but I think it was because I had moved to Florida for the winters, and there are a lot more churches here than in Boston. Some are abandoned, and they’re all different shapes. They don’t look like what we New Englanders think of as churches.

RS: They look like banks.

SP: Or strip malls. So all those themes tied into creating this story. I started realizing, “Man, the world is getting tougher, and it’s also tougher to keep things from kids.” And maybe they don’t want so much to be protected as to know what we can do about it. On one hand, there’s Greta Thunberg with her “I will solve it!” action. But there are a lot of other responses, a broad range, to things that are not right here in the real world — what do you do?

RS: What you’re saying is kids are more naturally prone, or more naturally able, to jump into that acceptance of reality and think about what might be done to make it better.

SP: You need a sense of vision, of unreality, of a magic world to realize that there could be something done, instead of just saying, “This is the reality; there’s nothing we can do.” You need that sense of imagination. It’s also important to keep in mind Ware’s mother’s advice: you look around the edges, you find the part that you can do something about — you’re not going to solve everything. Let’s be real. But find a piece and go work on it. And the other thing about this book — after writing all my other books — is that it finally felt safe, or alright, to write a kid who was actually me. You tend to hide yourself or to explore other ways of being.

RS: The you you could have been.

SP: Right, what could have been. I wish I’d been Clementine — oh my gosh. But I was Ware. I think a lot of creatives were that person, that introverted, quiet kid.

RS: How did your parents deal with you?

SP: They had four kids, and I think they were quite happy to have a quiet kid. I would just read and draw — as long as I could read and draw, I was fine.

RS: I was thinking about that particularly harsh scene in which Ware confronts his mother about what he overheard. As a writer for children you must think back to your own position as a child, dealing with an adult authority figure like that, right? But you’ve been that adult authority figure, because you’ve raised children. Between Ware and his mother, where do you find yourself?

SP: Actually, I hope to be Ware’s uncle. My own son, who was very creative, had attention issues, definitely out of the mainstream — I was very supportive of that, being an artist. I have tried to be that person for other kids who might not have had an artistic parent.

RS: Do you feel like you’ve projected an idealized sense of yourself into the uncle?

SP: Yes, I think that’s probably fair. He is the hero, to me, in that story, just by standing up for who he is and saying to Ware: “You could be like me.”

RS: And he’s also a way for adults to find themselves in the story. One thing I really like about this book is that your characters, both young and old, are all well rounded. They all have complications. They all have things that are a little irritating and things that are admirable. You’re fair to everybody.

SP: Well, Ware’s parents are in a tough situation. They’re not rich. They’re trying to buy a house, and that’s very important, and their plans got screwed up. They’re just making the best of it. I’m sure they love Ware, but there wouldn’t be as much of a story if they were more understanding of kids like him.

RS: Is it a challenge to create an introverted character, since so much of their life is interior?

SP: I think it might have been, had this been an in-school situation. Whenever Ware was around a big crowd of kids he tended to shrink. But once he decided that he was going to work with Jolene, there was no need for him to be quiet. He could voice what he needed to.

RS: He can still be himself. She lets him. And he gives her a lot of space too. She’s pretty aggravating.

SP: Yeah, but I kind of like her.

RS: I like her too. The one line from your book that I really want to stick up on my computer is: “You never know who will see your work, and you can’t predict how they’ll react.” That’s something everybody in our field needs to keep in mind. Very often we think a certain book is going to do something for kids or to kids, but we don’t know.

SP: Right. And it’s a huge mistake to base your work on how it will be received. Not just by critics but also by readers. I’ll tell you the way I think about that: I remind myself I am writing for children, not in the sense that I’m giving them a present or something with my work. But I write books for them in the sense that they can’t do it for themselves yet, so I’m doing it in their place. It’s a slightly different way to think about the word for when you write for children. In the end what I’m always asking myself is: Is there some kid somewhere who’s going to hold this book up and say to a parent or teacher, “This is what I need; this is how I feel”? That’s what I’m trying to do — rather than saying, “Oh, they’re going to love this part.” That doesn’t matter.

RS: I was one of those introverted kids, and if your book had made me feel the way that you describe, though, I would have died before I told anybody.

SP: Probably true. We’re in a really good time for them because teachers are learning to give introverted kids a shot. Books like Susan’s Cain’s Quiet, about the power of introverts, the power of quiet (see her very moving TED Talk here), have made great inroads into schools. Teachers might mistakenly think that the kid with the hand up first is the one who knows the answer, more so than the kids who don’t have their hands up. That is not true. Some kids like to think about their answer first. Teachers are learning to say, for instance, “Here’s the question I’m going to ask, and in thirty seconds I’m going to want an answer,” in order to give those kids who need it a little time, a little space, the same shot. The other part is about leadership — the kids who are the first to talk, the loudest, the ones who are social may look like the leaders, but they’re not always the best leaders. There’s great leadership ability in quieter kids. Schools are becoming more aware of how to be a friendlier place for introverts. That’s a good thing.

RS: What I worry about is when we make too many demands on children about their reading. Like quizzes, for example. Or discussions about what the reader “should have” gotten out of the book, what the book is “supposed to” do, as opposed to what the book did for an individual child. We don’t know what individual books do to individual readers. I guess the reason your quote about “you’ll never know who will see your work” speaks to me is because that mystery is such a great part about reading. I’ll take a book into my own imagination, and I don’t have to do anything with it. I can just be with it. Or I can tell other people about it if I want to, but I shouldn’t have to. I really relish that quiet independence that reading gives a person.

SP: Yes, I agree. If there could be no tests or book reports, we’d have a lot more readers, but that’s not, I suppose, ever going to happen. When I talk to teachers, I tell them I couldn’t care less if a kid could answer correctly what a character did, what they said, when they said it, that kind of thing. I only care about if they know why a character did something. Did they do it because they were ashamed? Did they do it because they wanted to please their mother? Those are important questions, but none of the others are.

RS: And those are important questions for you as the writer, because obviously it’s your job to make that clear.

SP: That’s right.

RS: When you’re out on the road talking to kids, what do you do with the introverts? You don’t want to require them to respond in any particular way, but you want to make sure that they know it’s welcome, right?

SP: You’ve just asked me a question I need to think about for the next three weeks, because I’m going back out on the road, and I’ll be talking to these kids. Wow, thank you. That’s a really good question!

RS: We didn’t have visiting authors when I was a kid. Did you have them?

SP: I don’t remember them, although there are other people my age who say they had that experience. No, I didn’t have that, but what I tell kids all the time is if anyone had come into the school and said what I’m saying — this could be you; you could do this stuff — I would have thought: That is absolutely not true. Authors are special; they’re not the shyest person in the world, which I felt I was. It’s important to say that to kids, to say, “Actually, authors tend to be on the shy side.” Take a look at how great writing is for shy people. I think I’ll be talking a little bit about that.

RS: Is there anything you wish you could say to the shy you as a child, something you know now that you wish you’d known then?

SP: Sure. I wish I had known then that it would also be the thing I’m actually really grateful for. I’m so grateful that my response to a stimulus is to step back and accept it rather than to step into it. That’s not just being shy, that’s more the introvert in me. “Hold on, I need a minute, I want to put all the pieces together.” I’m so glad that I am that kind of person now. I think that’s how writers tend to be; they like to think about things for a good long while, then spend some time putting the words together before sending something out into the world. It’s a good definition of our job.

RS: When I was a kid, I was infamous for someone in my family telling a story or a joke and me just listening, and then two or three days later, I would say to no one in particular, “Oh, I get it.” You do — you want to turn things around in your head, over and over.

SP: To this day, I need time alone every day. I’m very glad that now I can just say that to people instead of feeling there was something wrong or I should fight that.

RS: Not to have to give a reason. “I need to be alone to do x.”

SP: Yeah. “I think I’m coming down with the flu. I’d better go lie down in my room and be by myself.” I don’t have to do that anymore.

RS: You can’t say, “I just don’t want to see your face for a couple of hours.”

SP: You know, it was Marla Frazee who helped me with that a whole lot. We were on tour together in the early days of Clementine, and at the end of the day I’d say, “I’m really so sorry, but if I don’t crawl into a room and shut the lights off I don’t know what’s going to happen.” And she said, “Well, of course.” She gave me a book later called The Highly Sensitive Person. It’s not sensitive the way you think of “sensitive.” It’s literally having a high sensitivity to visuals, to sound, to anything. The book was really interesting. It said that a lot of creatives fall into this category. If you’re sensitive to sound, you might be a great musician. If you’re sensitive to visual cues, you might be a visual artist. But in any case, it’s just something to know about yourself, and know that if you are on that spectrum, then get yourself out of stimulation if you have too much. Just do it. It’s no big deal. This is how you handle it. I think she recognized that she herself felt that way, and felt that a lot of the people she worked with are that way. It’s good to know that about yourself and to stop making excuses for it.

RS: It is good to know in the sense, too, that I would go years thinking I’m just so irritated with everybody, because I didn’t realize I needed a break. I need to go back to my hotel room and stare at the ceiling and listen to the Weather Channel or something.

SP: Yup.

RS: Oh, we just get wiser, don’t we?

SP: Sometimes.


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Roger Sutton
Roger Sutton

Roger Sutton was editor in chief of The Horn Book, Inc. from 1996-2021. 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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