Interview with Lindsey Stoddard, author of Just Like Jackie
Helen: Today, I am delighted to welcome Lindsey Stoddard, my VCFA classmate (from The League of Extraordinary Cheese Sandwiches) to the Tollbooth. Lindsey’s debut middle grade novel, Just Like Jackie, (HarperCollins) was released in January. In it, Robinson, a feisty, tough-as-nails fifth grader, stands up to a school bully, struggles to cover up her beloved grandpa’s Alzheimer’s, and and learns that family is who you get but also who you find and keep. Just Like Jackie has been compared to books like The Great Gilly Hopkins, Katherine Paterson’s timeless bestseller. I loved the story for the way Lindsey was able to blend humor with heartbreak in her writing and for her sensitivity in tackling difficult topics like Alzheimer’s and loss for young readers.
So, Lindsey, tell us a little about yourself and your path to becoming a writer.
Lindsey: Growing up, I loved books. I read everywhere—in the car, at home, at school, in my tent on the Appalachian Trail, everywhere. I knew that I always wanted my life path to wind through books, so I went to Carleton College and majored in English, took all the creative writing courses I could, became an English teacher in an amazing little public school in New York City where I taught for ten years, got married in The Housing Works bookstore, and received my MFA in Writing for Children and Young Adults from VCFA. It was there that I sharpened my focus on writing, met amazing mentors, and was inspired, even more, to write.
Helen: How did you get the idea for Just Like Jackie?
Lindsey: [When I first began writing] I wrote stories for the actual students in my middle school classroom. I was writing a story for Malcolm, for Franmy, for Ilcy, and David. I liked having a direct audience, one that I was with every day. However, in my second semester at VCFA, my advisor, Tim Wynne-Jones, told me that it won’t always work to write for my students, and that I had to write for myself. My ten-year-old self. JUST LIKE JACKIE came from that bit of Tim-wisdom.
When I sat down to think about the big emotions I felt when I was ten or eleven, I thought immediately of my grandpa and how uncomfortable and sad I felt when he wouldn’t be able to remember the end of the sentence he was saying. For most of my childhood, he suffered from Alzheimer’s and he would shake his head and go silent and look lost. I wouldn’t know if I should pat his hand to tell him it was OK, or if I should finish the end of his sentence for him or change the subject. I imagined what it would be like if grandpa were the one taking care of me, how scary that might be and how protective I might get.
Helen: Your protagonist, Robinson, is strong, feisty, funny and memorable with a unique voice that grabs you from the start. She’s also heartbreakingly angry. What’s the story behind her character? Is she like you in any way?
Lindsey: There are lots of traces of Lindsey in Robinson, but she’s also her own little feisty, fierce self. I grew up in Vermont, with a maple-sugaring grandpa of my own. I loved sugaring for many reasons, but one was that the Alzheimer’s didn’t seem to affect my grandpa in the same way when he was out there chopping wood, stoking the fire, flushing the lines, and boiling the sap in the sugarhouse. I have since learned that it’s common for people with Alzheimer’s to lose their more recent memories first, and the ones that have been with them the longest, that are encoded deeply, can sometimes stick. Out there, in the woods, making syrup, Grandpa was just Grandpa.
To develop Robbie’s anger, I focused on one childhood moment that made me see red. A neighborhood boy swung his whiffle ball bat in the branches of a tree I’d been watching because there was a nest with tiny little robin’s eggs [in it] that I’d been waiting to see hatch. The eggs splattered on my lawn and he laughed, and before I knew it, my little fist was connecting with his face. I used that moment to channel Robbie’s anger, that bubbling over she sometimes feels.
Helen: Can you speak briefly to your strategy of how to present a protagonist, who can be angry and off-putting, without alienating your reader?
Lindsey: Robbie doesn’t always do the right thing, for instance punching a boy on the first page. However, I know that middle grade kids have a strong sense of justice, of what’s right and wrong, or “messed up.” So, I try to make sure that all of Robbie’s actions (even if unsavory) come from a place of reacting to injustice.
Another way I try to soften Robbie is through her relationships. She is very tender with Grandpa, and her friendship with Derek shows her sensitivity and ability to connect.
Helen: Tell us about a challenge you faced in writing the book. What parts of the story came easily to you and what did you struggle with?
Lindsey: I love beginnings. I loved writing the school scene, getting Robbie’s voice out on the page, introducing the key characters, etc. The murky middle is always the hardest for me. What will keep readers reading? I noticed as a teacher that kids most often abandon a book right after the first few chapters. They LOVE it, then it gets “boring.” How does a writer keep tugging you through the middle, making you want to know what’s going to happen? That part is always the hardest for me.
Helen: Personally, I find endings the most difficult to write. Yours struck a beautiful balance between offering hope and the possibility of happiness for Robbie without minimizing the very real hardships, loss and grief she experiences. How did you accomplish this?
Lindsey: I think it’s really important to be honest with kids. There are so many who are growing up with big emotions and real challenges, and I want to be honest with them—that there are some things they cannot change and are are just downright unfair. But that doesn’t mean there’s no hope for change or happiness, or, as Robbie would say, for things to be “pretty OK.” Grandpa’s Alzheimer’s won’t get better; in fact, it will get worse. To not let Robbie, and her readers, in on that feels wrong. There is no wrapped-up-with-a-big-bow ending here, but I also want to teach Robbie, throughout the novel, how to equip herself to find family and a place where she belongs and feels safe. It’s this lesson that I hope resonates with kids who find themselves in hardship.
Helen: Are you a plotter or a pants’er?
Lindsey: I don’t think I fall easily into either category. I certainly don’t plot everything out ahead of time using outlines or a system of sticky note story mountain art on my wall. I do, however, have to hear the character talking to me. Voice is always first for me. I also don’t start writing until I know the first and last line of the book (though of course, they may change).
I still do most of my writing in a notebook with a pen. My brain works so much better when I’m writing that way than it does on the computer. I use the notebook to jot down things I hear the character saying, get the cadence of their speech, write out scene ideas, etc. Then, when I’ve got my voice, my first line, and some scene ideas, I jump on the computer and become more of a “pants’er.”
Helen: Did your NYC teaching experiences inspire parts of this book?
Lindsey: Being a teacher, I learned a lot about the ways that middle schoolers feel and read and react. I got to watch them read for ten years, [which] was incredible and invaluable. However, my second book, Right As Rain, draws a lot more from that experience. Stay tuned!
Helen: What is your typical writing schedule?
Lindsey: I got the two-book deal from HarperCollins when I was pregnant with my son. It seemed like a natural time to transition from teaching to writing “full-time” and becoming a mother. I’m currently taking time out of the classroom (though I do hope to return to teaching, in some way, in the future). Right now, Miles goes to daycare in the morning while I write in a busy, noisy, perfect-for-me café in my neighborhood and then I’m with him in the afternoons. It amounts to about three hours of solid writing each morning and knowing that I can count only on those three hours helps make me extremely focused and motivated during that time.
This is all about to change when I have my second child next month! I’m so excited and looking forward to continually finding new routines as life and family change.
Helen: What are you working on now?
Lindsey: I just finished another middle grade novel called RIGHT AS RAIN due out in January 2019. This one is set in Washington Heights, NYC where I taught for ten years and have lived for twelve. And I just started hearing the voice for a third character, a third book, that I’m really excited about. I’m going to let him talk to me a little more, ink up some notebooks, and see what comes…
Helen: Congratulations, Lindsey. Sounds like your life is wonderfully full! Thank you for taking the time to share your thoughts on writing and your path to publication. I can’t wait to read your next book when it comes out.