It’s the last week of poetry month. Today I’m very excited to interview poet and middle grade author Laura Shovan.
Laura Shovan’s debut middle grade novel, The Last Fifth Grade of Emerson Elementary, was a NCTE 2017 Notable Verse Novel, a Bank Street College of Education Best Children’s Book of the year, and won a Cybils Award for poetry, as well a Nerdy Book Club award. She is a long time poet-in-the-schools and the author and editor of three books of poetry for adults. Laura co-hosts Wilde Readings, a literary reading series in Howard County, Maryland, where she lives with her family.
Welcome, Laura! On your twitter profile you list yourself first as a poet. When did you start writing poetry?
The first poem I remember writing was in second or third grade. (I remember the poem only because it was published in my school’s PTA newsletter!) It compared the sounds of nature on a summer night to an orchestra. I’ve always written both poetry and prose, but poetry is what I’m most passionate about.
Tell us about your journey. How did you go from being a poet to a middle grade author?
I’d been publishing poetry in literary journals for several years. When my children were small, I started making up songs for them – little ditties to keep them entertained in the grocery store. That was the beginning of my interest in writing for children. I took my first kidlit class and attended my first conference in 2003, but I didn’t sign with my agent until 2014. It was a long process.
In those eleven years, I sold a few pieces to Highlights, wrote a middle grade prose novel that will never see the light of day, completed at least three picture book manuscripts, and drafted about 75% of two YA novels. I think The Last Fifth Grade was “the one” because it’s rooted in my work with children as a visiting poet-in-the-schools.
The last big push with the book was working on it with a mentor, YA verse novelist Joy McCullough-Carranza, during PitchWars.
Your book, The Last Fifth Grade of Emerson Elementary, is a novel in verse told from multiple points of view. How did you keep track of all the different voices?
I used every method I could think of to develop and keep track of the characters. There were spreadsheets, character resumes, and classroom seating charts. In order to create distinct voices, I revised one character at a time instead of working chronologically through the story. My famously gigantic revision binder has one section for each of the students’ in Ms. Hill’s class. I like to bring it with me on school visits, so students can see how much work and how many drafts go into a book.
Your next novel is written in prose. Why the switch? Could you see yourself going back to poetry at some point?
That’s right. My next book is a prose novel in two voices. TAKE DOWN is about two middle school wrestlers—Mikayla, the first girl to join an all-boy team, and her training partner Lev, who’s convinced that having a female partner will ruin his dream of competing at the state championship. The book began as notes and poems I jotted down years ago, when my son was wrestling.
When I sat down to write the novel, there was an expansiveness to Lev’s voice. He’s literally wrestling with what it means to be an athlete, and he can be pretty wordy about it. Lev does have a few poems in the book.
Mikayla showed up later in the writing process. Like Lev, her character had a prose voice from the beginning.
I’d love to write another novel in verse at some point. Meanwhile, I’ve contributed work to two children’s poetry anthologies publishing in the next year or two. One is from J. Patrick Lewis and the other is by Amy Ludwig VanDerwater.
Is there anything about being a published author that has surprised you?
Before THE LAST FIFTH GRADE, I’d published three books of poetry with small, independent presses. My biggest surprise was how different the experience of publishing with a big house has been. In many ways, it was like starting from scratch. I had a lot to learn about how a large publisher operates and works with authors.
Any advice you would give to a writer just starting out?
The most important things to cultivate are perseverance and a literary community. Both will sustain you through the querying process, and – later on – through challenging revisions, as well as the successes and disappointments that are part of an author’s life. I’ve had a huge amount of support from the literary scene here in the Baltimore area, the Sweet 16s debut author group, and the PitchWars community. When I need a pep talk, they’re there for me.
Is there anything else about you or your books you would like to tell us?
Now that I’ve completed two books and am thinking about my third novel, I can see that there’s a focus on communities in my writing. THE LAST FIFTH GRADE is about how classes like Ms. Hill’s can form a strong sense of community. In TAKE DOWN, Lev and Mikayla are figuring out what it means to be part of the wrestling community and members of a team.
Maybe this is because, growing up, my own family was bi-cultural. As a child from two families separated by an ocean, finding a community where I fit in was a difficult for me. Many of my characters are asking the question: “Where do I belong”?
Thank you so much for joining me on my blog! Readers, make sure to get your copy of The Last Fifth Grade of Emerson Elementary. You can find out more about Laura on her author site, on Facebook, or on Twitter.