March 20, 2018

The Advocate's Toolbox

SLJ’s 2012 Day of Dialog: Stellar Debuts

From left: Emily Danforth, R. J. Palacio, Ellis Weiner, J. Anderson Coats

It was R.J. Palacio’s brief encounter with a little girl who had a facial deformity that motivated the author to finish her first book.

“This girl was seared in my mind,” says Palacio, whose Wonder (Knopf, 2012) was released earlier this year to critical acclaim.

Palacio and three other first-time children’s book authors spoke at the “Stellar Debuts: Celebrating new and noteworthy arrivals to the publishing scene” panel during SLJ‘s Day of Dialog on June 4 at New York’s Jacob Javits Convention Center.

Five years ago, Palacio says, she and her two young children sat next to a girl who looks like Auggie, the fifth grade main character in her book, about an ordinary kid with an extraordinary face who’s about to enter a mainstream school for the first time. “My youngest son, who was three at the time, started crying. And my oldest son looked shell shocked.” Palacio and her kids fled the scene in a hurry, but it “ignited this well of feeling in me, and I thought what life must be like for them.”

A graphic designer by day, Palacio says writing Wonder was cathartic and “a giant act of atonement” because she wishes she would have acted in a “kinder way.”

Ellis Weiner, a writer since 1976, says he was inspired to write for kids after reading a description of pasta puttanesca in Lemony Snicket’s first book. “I wanted to write something funny,” says the author of The Templeton Twins Have an Idea (Chronicle), about the hilarious and wacky adventures of 12-year-old twins. “But if I wrote a comic novel for adults, I’d have a small readership-and a small advance.” Weiner ended up putting a full recipe for meatloaf in his book.

J. Anderson Coats’s says she’s been writing since she was 13, but the 11 previous attempts “were awful.” When she wrote her debut novel The Wicked and the Just (Houghton Harcourt), about two feisty teens in 13th-century Wales, she thought it would never be seen. “But I consciously chose to write something the way it needed to be told.”

The voices in her novel “come from a geeky place: research,” say the author, explaining that her book is about an obscure event in history, the violent and bloody 1293 Welsh rebellion. “I listened for voices that emerged,” says Coats. “The characters [in her book] come from history, but I had to make it accessible for a modern audience.”

When asked if she had an audience in mind or just wrote her book hoping it would find a readership, Emily Danforth says The Miseducation of Cameron Post (HarperCollins), a coming-of-age novel about a girl who had been kissing another girl hours before her parents die in a car crash, stemmed from the “gay 14-year-old me.”

“I would have benefitted from Cam’s story,” says Danforth, who received her MFA from the University of Montana and initially wrote her novel as a short story. “But I only write for me, initially.”

About Debra Lau Whelan

Debra Whelan is a former senior editor for news and features at SLJ.