May 07, 2013
Baltimore-born Elisabeth Dahl has published short fiction, essays, and poetry but scored her debut novel, Genie Wishes, in an unlikely but emerging market for writers—middle grade (MG) fiction. Genie Wishes, which was released in April 2013 from ABRAMS/Amulet, is the story of Genie Haddock Kunkle, who, when the novel opens is starting fifth grade with her best friend, Sarah. Fifth grade brings a host of little earthquakes for Genie—she is elected class blogger and is forced to speak her mind to the entire fifth grade, a new girl—sophisticated Blair—joins their class, and worst of all, Blair and Sarah are becoming fast friends. As Genie approaches the first major crossroads of her young adult life, Dahl handles her with grace, charm, and quiet insight. I spoke with Elisabeth about the difficulties of transitioning from literary fiction to MG and why the books of our youth still hold such power over us.
I can’t tell you how much I enjoyed Genie Wishes. The book has a modern, yet timeless feel, and I found myself wanting to be in the fifth grade again. You mentioned in another interview that you think of Genie Wishes as a breakup book—a breakup that is typical of girls around the fifth grade, when cliques begin to solidify. Did you experience a similar breakup during that time of your life? What was the hardest breakup you’ve gone through with another girl or woman?
Yeah. Like long division, dioramas, and lice, cliques are just a fact of elementary school—the upper grades, at least. I had a single best friend through those years, but the social storms that swept our class left other people marooned. So while Genie’s experience doesn’t match my own, it draws on what I observed back then.
My first major friendship breakup didn’t happen until my early twenties, and it happened because of my own shortcomings. I wasn’t a schoolgirl anymore; I had a job and a boyfriend, and I lived on a different coast from this friend. Even though the loss of this once-primary relationship wasn’t reflected in my day-to-day activities (it’s not like I had to find a new lunch table or cross her name off my binder), it left a hole in me. I felt responsible for the damage I’d caused. Beyond that, I missed her.
A few years later, we began to repair the damage. Now we’re close friends again. The hole has healed, and I’m much the better for it.
Genie, when faced with no longer being best friends with Sarah, acts with great maturity and calm. Surprisingly so, for a fifth grader. In fact, I was expecting Genie’s mother (who, in the book, passed away the year before) to play a larger role in Genie’s feelings about loss. Yet, Genie handles the situation so well, and her mother hardly factors into the emotions she experiences as her friendship with Sarah slowly unravels over the school year.
Was this composure a conscious decision? I found it odd at first, but then as I continued reading, I remembered also being less reflective at Genie’s age and living more moment to moment, from my birthday to summer vacation to the Fourth of July, etc. I wonder if that is your experience as well.
It’s interesting that you ask about this. Originally, the book had a huge subplot involving the mother, who had bipolar disorder and had left the family and moved west many years earlier. Abrams was interested in the book generally, but they felt like this subplot detracted from what they considered to be the book’s strength, which was its portrayal of school life and friendship. So I gave Genie a mother who’d been dead long enough (and from a relatively uncomplicated cause—a car accident) that Genie’s grief would no longer be fresh. So in the end, it’s almost like she misses the idea of her mother more than her actual mother. You still see her processing her old grief sometimes, like when she discusses the “little mom shrine” in her room, or when she fixates on other people’s mothers and their attributes (highlighted hair, buttery leather gloves). But the early loss of her mother also gave Genie a bit of fatalism—or at least the sense that change is an inevitable part of life. Maybe that helps explain why losing her best friend isn’t as traumatic for her as it might have been for another girl?
Yeah, generally I think children—boys especially, but girls too—just aren’t built to reflect in the same way that adults do. They experience life in discrete units of time, just as you’re saying—from, say, Ice Cream Wednesday to Ice Cream Wednesday. But eventually time-markers like graduations come along, and these prompt greater reflection. When all the adults in your life are pointing out milestones in your life and asking you bigger questions, you do start to pay attention. You see this happen for Genie at the end of the book, around the elementary school graduation. That final chapter—first with the reflective conversation in the car with her dad while driving to the graduation party, and then with the cog design she sees and considers in relation to the passage of time—marks her graduation to being a more consciously reflective individual.
That’s an interesting comment about the book’s initial scope and the direction that Abrams wanted to take it. It’s so interesting in my own work to see a book evolve or change through the first and second—second and third drafts, so when I’m reading, I’m always wondering how a book started for a writer, and where it wound up. Was it hard to let go of the subplot, the kill your babies aspect of writing?
I feel the same way, Jen—I always want to know how books evolved from first draft to bound version, because if the work is done well, the editorial stitchery doesn’t show. If editorial feedback—from either my agent or my editor—feels sound, I’m more than happy to revise. Since, like you, I do freelance editorial work myself, I know firsthand that an editor can often see a text’s ideal final form more clearly than an author can. Besides, as the great and wise George Saunders pointed out at Baltimore’s CityLit Festival this month, excised text doesn’t have to be dead text; sometimes it gains new life as a spinoff project.
You are raising a son—so was it difficult writing from the perspective of modern a fifth-grade girl? Do you think boys and girls go through the same issues of belonging and identity at the same time, or did you have a different experience than that of Genie Wishes when your son went through the fifth grade?
It wasn’t that difficult. When I wrote the book, my son was Genie’s age, and of course I was spending lots of time with not just him but his classmates and their siblings. You can learn a lot in those everyday moments—waiting in carpool lines, getting snacks at the pool, picking out birthday presents, and so on. I quickly realized that, although the world has changed since you and I were kids, the emotional truths of growing up and being a fifth-grader, girl or boy, really haven’t.
Although Genie shares some of my son’s calmness in the face of change, in creating her story I drew more on my own experience as a fifth grader than on my son’s. I do think boys and girls, in general, experience growing up a bit differently. For instance, friendship is just a much bigger thing for girls, more tightly bound to issues of identity and belonging.
I must confess—I still read a lot of MG and young adult (YA) novels! Why do you think they’re so appealing to adults, and what do you think adult readers can take away from Genie Wishes?
I suspect that reading them gives adult readers a two-pronged escape. There’s the usual escape that can come with reading fiction—that propulsion into a new and different world. But adults reading YA may be getting a bonus flight as well: a flight from adulthood. I don’t know about you, but I was a very different reader as a child. I read more deeply and widely and far less critically. Maybe adults sometimes long for the readers, and people, they used to be?
Anyhow, there’s some really great MG and YA being written today. For instance, Rebecca Stead’s Newbery-winning When You Reach Me (2009) is one of the best books I’ve ever read, YA or not.
Until I started Genie Wishes, I’d written only for adults. This was my first attempt at writing for a younger audience. And the book is definitely for them, first and foremost. But I’m gratified that the adults who’ve read the book have found things in it to like as well. I’ve had adults tell me that reading Genie Wishes made them feel like a fifth grader again, in both joyful and paper-cut-painful ways.
Are there favorite books from your formative years that you used for guidance when writing Genie Wishes?
I remember reading everything from stories about poltergeists to nonfiction books about science. But one book really stood out for me: Judy Blume’s classic Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret. I must have read that book fifteen times. Its direct, confessional style spoke to me in a way that other books—and people—hadn’t. I didn’t consciously think about Margaret as I wrote about Genie, but now that the book is finished, I can see that Margaret’s voice very much influenced Genie’s.
So you’ve written both MG and literary fiction; in fact, I’ve heard you read from your wonderful novel that’s on submission, and you show such range (and ease) in transitioning between the two. So how do you approach a MG or YA book as opposed to literary fiction? Is one more difficult than the other, or are they difficult in different ways?
No matter what I’m writing, my strengths and weaknesses remain the same. I’m always fairly confident about character and voice but rather miserably challenged by plot. But yeah, there are differences too. Writing for younger readers feels more playful than writing literary fiction, partly because readers are more accepting and slower to judge. And there’s not quite the same concern about a shrinking marketplace, the way there is with literary fiction. But writing for younger audiences necessarily restricts you; some topics and styles are essentially off-limits. With literary fiction, you can take on almost anything in almost any way you’d like—as long as you can make it work. (Aye, there’s the rub.)
What’s the best advice you can give to a writer who may be interested in branching out to the MG or YA genre?
To try it! (I suppose that’s more encouragement than advice, but I’ll stand by it.)
The community of YA publishers and writers is supportive and growing, with new imprints popping up regularly. There’s room for more of us in the YA world. And young readers are some of the most appreciative readers you’ll ever encounter.
A final technical note: Publishers, booksellers, and agents these days use YA to refer to books for ages 12 and up (roughly) and MG (middle grade) to refer to books for roughly ages 8 to 12 (that’s what Genie Wishes is). The terminology isn’t important until you start querying; take it from me, who learned the hard way.
Thanks so much for the interview, Jen!
You can learn more about Elisabeth Dahl and Genie Wishes here.