Laura spoke with fellow author Ellie Terry about her debut novel, a contemporary middle grade book written in verse, which was just published by Wendy Lamb Books/Random House. Laura’s a member of the Sweet Sixteens, an online group for authors debuting in 2016; Ellie rolls with the Swanky Seventeens.
ABOUT THE NOVEL
THE LAST FIFTH GRADE OF EMERSON ELEMENTARY is a time capsule of one class’s poems during a transformative school year. Families change and new friendships form as these terrific kids grow up and move on in this whimsical novel-in-verse about finding your voice and making sure others hear it.
one year of poems,
one school set to close.
Two yellow bulldozers
ready to eat the building
in one greedy gulp.
But look out, bulldozers.
Ms. Hill’s fifth-grade class
has plans for you.
They’re going to speak up
and work together
to save their school.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Laura Shovan is former editor for the literary journal Little Patuxent Review. Her chapbook, Mountain, Log, Salt and Stone, won the inaugural Harriss Poetry Prize. Laura edited the Maryland Writers’ Association anthology Life in Me Like Grass on Fire: Love Poems and co-edited Voices Fly: An Anthology of Exercises and Poems from the Maryland State Arts Council Artists-Residence Program, for which she teaches. Laura is a Rita Dove Poetry Award finalist and won a Gettysburg Review Conference for Writers scholarship. The Last Fifth Grade of Emerson Elementary, her novel-in-verse for children, debuts in April 2016 (Wendy Lamb Books/Random House).
You can find Laura at http://www.laurashovan.com and on Twitter.
TALKING ABOUT ‘THE LAST FIFTH GRADE’
Ellie: How did you first come up with the idea for THE LAST FIFTH-GRADE OF EMERSON ELEMENTARY?
Laura: My first full-time job was teaching high school. The verse novel Spoon River Anthology was part of our curriculum. The book is a series of over 200 persona poems. Together, they tell the history, scandals, and love stories of one small American town. I loved that so many of the poems were spoken by unreliable narrators. My students had to find threads of the truth weaving through several characters’ poems. Later, after I’d been working with elementary schoolers as a visiting poet, I thought it would be fun to do a Spoon River style book focused on one fifth grade class.
Ellie: What was your revision process like?
Laura: My first draft was a collection of 30 poems, each in the voice of a different child in Ms. Hill’s fifth grade class. Readers liked it, but didn’t know what it was. Finally, someone pointed out that this could be a full-length middle grade novel. Expanding the book from 30 to over 150 poems took a few years. I worked with critique partners, cut characters, threw out the entire plot at one point, and had a great experience with Pitch Wars (I still call mentor Joy McCulloch-Carranza my fairy book mother). After the book sold, I worked with my editor, Wendy Lamb, to further narrow the characters and to add the food desert theme.
Ellie: There’s such a wonderful array of voices in your book (a classroom of 18 students). Which characters came to you first? Were some easier to write than others?
Laura: I still have the piece of paper where I sketched out my initial ideas. The most prominent thing on that paper is a sketch of Jason Chen’s concrete poem “Self Portrait”—Pretty much exactly as it appears in the book. (See below and zoom in.)
I had the most fun writing Jason’s character because he’s something of a class clown and loves to write parodies. No one is safe from Jason’s wit: not Dr. Seuss, not Shakespeare, not Prince. One of the last things Wendy and I did was to combine the “queen bee” of the class with a deleted character whose mother was in the military. It was late in the process, but I love how layered Hannah’s story is now.
Ellie: What was your reaction to receiving the news of your book deal?
Laura: It was a whirlwind. I signed with my agent, Stephen Barbara, on a Wednesday and the book went out on submission that Friday. Two weeks later, I was heading to a Friday night Orioles game with my husband and kids. Stephen called with the news that the first offer had come in. There was a lot of cheering in our car. The O’s won that night. It was pretty spectacular.
Favorite writing snacks?
Oddest job you’ve ever had?
Running errands for “On Golden Pond” playwright Ernest Thompson.
Big brother, little sister, in the middle, or one and only?
Proud big sister.
Favorite author when you were a kid?
Do you draft longhand? Or use a computer?
I draft poetry longhand and prose on the computer.
What are you working on next?
I am working on another contemporary middle grade for Wendy Lamb.
ABOUT THE INTERVIEWER
Ellie Terry writes about things that hurt her heart. Her middle-grade debut, I AM CALLIOPE JUNE, a free-verse novel about a girl with Tourette syndrome, will be published March 2017 by Feiwel & Friends/Macmillan. She lives in southern Utah with her husband, three kids, two zebra finches, and a Russian desert tortoise.