Months ago I asked Jo Knowles if she’d want to post on Nerdy Book Club - I knew that she had a new book hitting stands soon – a sequel to Jumping Off Swings called Living with Jackie Chan which follows Josh through his senior year of high school. He has chosen to move away and live with his Uncle Larry rather than see constant reminders of the decisions he’s made, of the young life he’s created that he’ll never know.
(Since Jo’s books often cause me (and everyone else apparently) to sob, I feel that I should tell you that I didn’t cry so hard as to alarm anyone near me like I did while reading See You at Harry’s, but I did need tissues.)
She graciously agreed – and then asked me if I wanted to do an interview. It sounded like a lovely idea until I started to check out some of the interviews that have been done with her – I did some research because I wanted to talk about the book, about reading, and I didn’t want to ask her the same things everyone else had. But then I stumbled across this interview she did with Libba Bray and I was utterly stumped for what to ask. When I explained, Jo tried to set me at ease and we struck up a bit of a conversation instead.
What follows is just that.
I definitely wanted to ask about your reading heroes – who or what shaped you as a reader, Jo?
My mom and sister were both ALWAYS reading. Everywhere. They could get lost in a book so easily. But I struggled throughout elementary school and into high school. I think part of it was that I preferred to be read to, and part of it was that I was an active, outdoorsy kind of kid. I just wanted to play all the time. But in high school, I finally got hooked thanks to a rebel English teacher who tossed our grammar books in the trash and “made” us read and discuss YA books all year. I learned more about writing and reading that year than in any other class I’ve ever taken. And I haven’t stopped reading since. That teacher changed my life in so many ways. I’m quite sure I would not be a writer (or reader) if it weren’t for him.
What kinds of books did you like as a teen, Cindy?
I love that you had a rebel English teacher! I suppose we should all be thankful!
I was rather omnivorous in my reading – everything from medical books (I wanted to be a super prepared pre-med student in college) to YA books to The Stinky Cheese Man (a lucky study hall find at the public library).
I am so impressed that you read medical books!! Wow. I’m a huge fan of The Stinky Cheese Man, but I was all grown up when it came out. I bet child me would have loved it even more, especially if my sister read it to me (she’s always had the best read-out-loud voice–and now she’s a school librarian!).
I’m a sucker for good read-aloud voices myself. Speaking of read-alouds, how does it feel to hear your books as audiobooks? Do the words sound different when you hear them than you were writing and revising them?
I’ve only had one book, See You At Harry’s turned into an audio book and I have to admit I could only listen to the first chapter. I think Kate Rudd is brilliant and did an amazing job. But I was afraid I’d hear something and want to revise! I’ve never read any of my books after they were published because of this fear. Even when I do readings in public, I often edit the words a bit. I just can’t stop!
(I feel like that about my blog posts – I can’t even begin to imagine how I’d feel about a book!)
Kate Messner talked about her mentors – from books and real life, known and unknown – when she spoke at AllWrite this summer. Who’d make your list of mentors for life and writing?
I have been extremely lucky to have had a lot of people in my life seem to say the right thing to me at just the right time. I credit my college teachers most. They helped me believe I could do anything, really. Lowry Pei, my writing instructor, wrote on a paper, “You are an artist.” And later Cathryn Mercier, my children’s literature instructor, told me I was a good teacher. I think having someone you admire and respect tell you something definitively like that really helps you believe in yourself. They made me try things I never would have if not for their encouragement. They helped me discover my potential. I owe them so much. A small phrase at the end of a student paper can change a kid’s life. I’m proof of that.
You have such a knack for making me cry! First your books and now this! Lord knows that is a great power and responsibility to hold in your hand every day as a teacher, to know that you can make that kind of change in a student’s life. I know authors carry that same power with their words. I don’t think either of us will ever know the full extent of what our words do to our audiences.
One of the things that I loved so much about Living With Jackie Chan is the fact that Josh seems to be very blessed by having a mentor like his Uncle Larry. He seems to be supportive as Josh is trying to make right with the universe despite reminder after reminder of what he’d done. I was grateful to see the continuation of Josh’s story because we don’t often see the teen father’s perspective, but I was thrilled to see that he had such a wonderful and quirky character like Larry to help him. What kind of research did you have to do to create and write about these two guys?
I didn’t have to do any research as far as developing Josh and Larry’s characters, but I did spend a lot of time at various karate practices. My husband and son take lessons together (and now teach together) and I’ve attended many practices and tests. One of their instructors made a big impression on me the first time I met him. He was just so enthusiastic and bouncy! He showed my son a lot of love, and I think that inspired the spark for Larry.
As for how powerful words are, it’s on my mind a lot. Not just in my writing, but in my own work as a teacher. I am always mindful of what I say and how it might be interpreted. I want to be honest but encouraging. Mostly I want my students to believe in their potential and know they all have what it takes to be what they want to be. I’m so grateful to the teachers who did that for me. I can’t say that enough!
I’m sure I’m not alone in saying that we – your readers – can’t thank your teachers enough either. I love that you’re paying forward that encouragement and mentorship for your students.
Thank you, Jo! And happy book birthday!
Thank YOU, Cindy, for the thoughtful questions! I love chatting with you and all my Nerdy Book Club pals.
Jo Knowles is the author of Living with Jackie Chan, See You At Harry’s, Pearl, Jumping Off Swings, and Lessons from a Dead Girl. Some of her awards include a New York Times Editor’s Choice and Notable Book of 2012, An International Reading Association Favorite 2012 Book, an American Library Association Notable of 2012, two SCBWI Crystal Kite Awards, YALSA’s Best Fiction for Young Adults and a 2012 Nerdy Book Club YA Award.
Cindy Minnich is a high school English teacher at Upper Dauphin Area High School. She lives among piles of books at home and at school and lives for the opportunity to talk books with anyone. She blogs at Charting by the Stars.