Last week, I went to a Children’s Literature Network event featuring Gennifer Choldenko. It was a lovely dinner and then a simple Q&A talk with Gennifer, author of the the Newbery Honor book Al Capone Does My Shirts and the brand new sequel, Al Capone Shines My Shoes. (More on the sequel as soon as I finish reading it!)
I had met Gennifer over the summer at ALA in Chicago, and we had had a nice walk and chat one morning. I hated to monopolize her time, since I’d at least had the opportunity to talk with her before, and the home we were at was jam-packed with accomplished authors and illustrators and eager librarians and parents, all waiting to talk with her. So, although I said hi, I didn’t really have a one-on-one conversation with her. On the way home, I wished I’d been more assertive and had done more than ask how her travels are going. I’m so bad at party-setting chat, though.
Anyway, here are a few tidbits from the Q&A session.
Before writing Al Capone Does My Shirts, Gennifer had one picture book out and hadn’t sold another book in seven years. (Her breakout novel Notes from a Liar and Her Dog sold and came out–if I got the timeline correct–while she was working on Shirts.) She saw an article in the newspaper about families who lived on Alcatraz when it was a prison and thought, "Now this might get a New York editor’s attention."
She modeled the relationship between Moose and Natalie (the main character, who lives on Alcatraz in the 1930s because his father works there, and his autistic sister) on the one between her older brother and her older sister, who had autism. Her brother said, "That’s not me." His best friend said, "You nailed him."
She knew it was going to be a trilogy when she started. "But to think that I was going to write three unpublished novels…" was too much, so she just concentrated on book one, not worrying about sowing seeds for later storylines or anything.
On Al Capone: "He’s not all that interesting. It’s all that mythology about him" [that is].
Scholastic Book Club lobbied hard for title changes (before book publication) to exclude Al Capone’s name from the title.
On finding Moose’s voice, which she really struggled with at first: "I realized there were millions of boys alive in the 1930s, and they didn’t all sound the same."
On her writing process: "I do write outlines, but if I stick to the outline, I know the book will suck."
On balancing the business side with the writing side: "I try to give my best time to the writing and then push the other stuff to when I’m tired."
Gennifer was funny and charming. I’d love to see her do an actual presentation, too. I’m sure she captivates the crowd. Meanwhile, her books have definitely captivated tons of readers. I’m halfway through Shoes and wishing I was going to have time tonight to finish it. But we’re going to the So You Think You Can Dance show (yay!), so Moose, Natalie, and all the cons (and I include Piper in that group) will have to wait one more night.