I’m an award-winning author, speaker, and middle school English teacher living and working in Chicagoland, but I like to spend my summers in Italy. While trying to balance teaching, writing, and an increasingly active speaking schedule, I’m also working on a doctorate in curriculum and instruction. That is actually what is bringing me to Italy this summer. I’ll be studying how they are handling immigrant and refugee children for a class I’m taking at Loyola University’s Rome Center. When I’m not busy doing all the afore-mentioned, I love to bake, but there hasn’t been much time for that lately!
What prompted you to start writing? Are you one of those authors who knew you were meant to write since childhood, or did it come as a discovery later in life?
I started writing stories in the third grade. Suspiciously, the main character always seemed to be a girl named Amy. Let’s just say, I get inspired by real life! However, writing as a career seemed like an unrealistic dream, so I focused on becoming a writing teacher instead. It wasn’t until I had been teaching for eight years that I decided to give writing a real shot. I was motivated by an ad I saw in my mom’s Better Homes and Gardens magazine for taking a class on writing for children. I sent away for the materials and soon started submitting small pieces to magazines. It was a long time before I got anything published, but it was worth the wait!
What character (book or movie) do you most relate to?
This is easy for me: Anne of Green Gables. Not that I was ever an orphan, but Anne was always a daydreamer and a reader, and so was I. We even “grew up” to do the same things: teach and write. One of my friends saw the movie version of Anne of Green Gables not too long ago, and she said, “I get why you like it so much. You and Anne have a lot in common!” Now if only I had a Gilbert!
Since we're all about exploring new worlds here at Lands Uncharted, if you could choose one place to visit, real or fictional, where would you go?
Well, I already visit Italy a lot, so I’m not sure that counts! My goal in getting my doctorate is to be able to teach at Loyola’s Rome Center in the summers when I’m not teaching middle school. And I’ve already been to Prince Edward Island, where Anne of Green Gables takes place. So if I were going to go someplace different . . . oh boy, my travel bucket list is a mile long . . . how about a fictional place? Then I’d have to pick Hogwarts. If I could be any teacher at Hogwarts, I’d be Professor McGonagall. Turning into a cat seems fitting given my last name.
How has your career as a middle school / high school teacher influenced your writing?
There are three great things about being an English teacher (who has worked at both the middle school and high school levels) that are very helpful when it comes to being a middle grade and YA writer. First, I read a lot of books in my age categories, which is very important as a writer. Sometimes, I can tell when another YA author hasn’t read a lot of YA. They don’t quite get the differences between YA and middle grade and often mislabel their work. Second, I hear what’s popular with my students, so I know what they like in a book and what they don’t like. Third, I know what kids today sound like, how they interact, what interests them. I’m with them all the time!
Please share one of your favorite writing tips with us.
I’m a huge fan of the book Save the Cat. It’s really a screenwriting book, but it covers the basic elements of any good storyline. I use the Save the Cat model for all my stories. I couldn’t imagine plotting a novel without it.
Your first novel, Angelhood, deals with the difficult topic of teen suicide. What inspired you to write Nanette's story?
In Angelhood, Nanette is very involved in theater, and her sister loves to dance. Did any of these interests stem from your own experiences?
I only did ballet for a couple years. I dropped out when they changed it to a ballet/jazz class. I wasn’t interested in jazz back then, but I love it now! Theater is something I’ve been interested in since sixth grade when my mom took me to see the local high school’s production of Guys and Dolls. I did theater all throughout high school, did some community theater in my early years of teaching, and even had a minor role in one professional production of Shakespeare’s The Taming of the Shrew.
What challenges have you faced in switching from writing Angelhood, a young adult fantasy, to 7 Riddles to Nowhere, a middle grade mystery?
I’ve always been a fan of middle grade (especially that upper kind of middle grade like the early Harry Potter books) and YA so to me it’s a natural switch back and forth between the two. My sixth grade students read both middle grade and YA. Each has its own voice certainly, but I enjoy them both.
And finally, no visit to Lands Uncharted is complete without Top 3s! Give us a Top 3 list in the category of your choice.
Top 3 Hero Stories:
I love a good hero story! I’m a huge fan of Joseph Campbell’s theory of the Monomyth, the idea that all hero stories across cultures are essentially the same. In fact, I spend a whole unit on this with my sixth grade students, and it’s one of my favorite times of the year. With that said, here are my three favorite hero stories:
1) Star Wars—Luke Skywalker is a great hero, but you know what? So is Princess Leia. I wrote a whole paper on her being a heroine in her own right and how that fit into Campbell’s theory for a classical mythology class I took in high school. This school year, one of my students took on the challenge of proving that Rey from the latest Star Wars movie also fits Campbell’s theory. Yep, she’s a heroine, too!
2) The Wizard of Oz—Yes, Dorothy is a heroine! She perfectly fits Campbell’s theory, and I’d be lying to you if I didn’t admit that The Wizard of Oz is so deep in my literary subconscious that I can see its influence on both Angelhood and Seven Riddles to Nowhere.
3) Harry Potter—I didn’t start reading the Harry Potter series until the third book came out, but by then it was pretty clear that Rowling was setting us up for a character destined to be one of the great heroes of children’s literature.
Thank you so much for visiting, A.J.! I just finished Angelhood this week, and it was a beautiful, unique story that kept me up too late reading on more than one occasion :) Purchase Angelhood here, or connect with A.J. on her website, Facebook, Twitter, and Pinterest.