Tuesday, August 23, 2016

#MGGetsReal--A Conversation With Kerry O'Malley Cerra

Hi Kerry, Thanks for answering my questions about middle grade novels in general, and your own book, JUST A DROP OF WATER in particular!

Thanks for inviting me.

What book or books from your childhood left a lasting impression and why?
This is a wonderfully easy question for me to answer. Hands down, the book that changed me, has stayed with me to this day, made me a life-long lover of books, and inspired me to become a writer myself is Tales of a Fourth Grade Nothing, by Judy Blume. I can’t say it showed me the world in some profound way, yet it allowed me to love and appreciate the gift of story.

Prior to fourth grade, I honestly don’t recall books in my life. I’m sure I read them. I vaguely remember cozying up in the quaint reading nook of a daycare while my mom cleaned it after hours. But I don’t remember a book. Or books. Not until I was lucky enough to be assigned to room 4B with Mrs. Strelauski in fourth grade. She didn’t just preach about reading, she embraced it fully and read aloud to us at the end of each day. When she began reading Tales of a Fourth Grade Nothing—her voice inflections and expressions are still vivid in my memory—I laughed throughout chapter one and every chapter thereafter. I can still hear her interpretation of Fudge calling for Peter…Pee-tah! Loud and clear.

Yes! Read aloud time is so important. My fourth grade teacher, Mrs. Barbara Hutchens read CHARLOTTE'S WEB to my class, and I can still hear her voice.

Exactly. I lived for read-aloud time each day. When she finished that book, and I learned it was the first in a series, I checked out every single one of them, locked myself in my bedroom for days, and cracked-up silly with every scene. Who knew books could be so funny? So real? I felt Peter’s triumphs and cried when he lost Dribble. I wanted to live in New York City, play in Central Park, have a dog named Turtle. Secretly, I rejoiced that Peter had no feelings for Sheila Tubman and may have wished for teen librarian, Isobel—AKA Peter’s crush in Fudge-A-Mania—to stumble through poison ivy and get off the pages of my book so my friend Peter and I could hang out some more. This series was like one great movie in my head, playing on repeat for months. I could picture everything. I wanted that life, even if it included a pain-in-the-butt brother named Fudge. Ultimately, these stories were a great escape. And that’s what I’ve come to love most about books!

What book or books served as mentor texts when you were writing JUST A DROP OF WATER?

Historical fiction, as you well know, Shannon, takes a lot of serious research—which means much time is spent with my nose in a book/newspaper before I even begin to write. Luckily, I love research! I love history! But also, my story, though based on an event now considered history, was not, in fact, before my time. I have vivid recollections of that fateful day, September 11, 2001.

Though I was living at the time this terrorist attack occurred, I’m especially glad that I took the time to go back and scour newspapers while I was writing. It allowed me to include what may essentially seem like unimportant details, and yet those minute additions to the book allow young readers—who didn’t experience the events of that day first-hand—to grasp the enormity of the events. For example, I’d forgotten that the NFL canceled all football games the weekend following the attacks. Of course, once I read that in the newspapers, I remembered, but I would never have included it in the book without the reference to it from the Sun-Sentinel and Miami Herald. That one small detail is often brought up by kids when I do school visits. It helps them put in perspective just how far and wide the tragedy struck. It makes it real for them.

I’m a real hard-nose when it comes to getting facts correct. Kids are smart and they know when we’re trying to pull one over on them. For that reason, and for the fact that I fully believe kids learn more about a time period by immersing themselves in a good book rather than a teacher lecturing, I’m especially particular about details. In my book, I have a tropical storm blowing through town three days after the terrorist attacks. That really did happen, just like so many other scenes and events that take place in my book. Details are important to me.

To answer your question then, for me, newspapers were my main go-to source in writing Just a Drop of Water. Here is a list of the resources I consulted.

Reference Books
Mecca and Main Street: Muslim Life in America After 9/11 by Geneive Abdo
The 9/11 Report A Graphic Adaptation by Sid Jacobson and Ernie Colón
Islam for Dummies by Malcom Clark
Muslims in America After The Catastrophic Tragedy of 9/11 by Edwin Ali
The American Muslim Teenager’s Handbook by Dilara Hafiz, Yasmine Hafiz, and Imran Hafiz
With Their Eyes first-hand accounts of the 9/11 tragedy from students at Stuyvesant High School. Edited by Annie Thoms
Growing Up Muslim by Sumbul Ali-Karamali
Sun-Sentinel Newspaper Broward County, Florida Issues September 12 through October 16
Miami Herald Newspaper Issues September 12 through October 16

Happy reading, my friends! And thanks for having me here, Shannon.

Thank you for answering my questions and being a part of #MGGetsReal!

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