answers January 27


How a Bad Case of the What-Ifs Turned into a Book by Kate Messner

I need to start this blog post with a bit of a confession.


I am a what-iffer.  If you are one, too, you already know exactly what I mean, but for those who don’t, here’s an explanation.


What-iffers are world-class worriers.  You probably know one or two.


Fail to answer your phone when we call? Within seconds, we have constructed half  a dozen vividly detailed scenarios that leave you dead, maimed, or otherwise incapacitated.  Late meeting us somewhere? In our logical minds, we know that you probably just took too long in the shower, but that does not stop our what-if brains from imagining you in a fiery ten-car pileup on the highway, even if there is no highway in your town.  We excel at imagining worst-case scenarios.


People who live with what-iffers find ways to adapt to this and comfort us. One summer a few years ago, my son was going camping on an island a couple miles from our house. He was taking the rowboat out with his friends to set up camp.


“Call when you get to the island,” I said. This should have taken about twenty minutes.


Those minutes went by, and he did not call. I texted. He did not reply. It got dark. I called. He did not answer. It got darker. I called my husband at work. “Should I take the boat out with a flashlight & start looking for them?”


“No,” he said. (He is very good at living with a what-iffer and has mad calming skills.) “They are fine. They forgot. They’re setting up their tents. He’ll call when they get back to the phone and see your messages. Relax.”


This is, of course, exactly what happened. But by then I was worked up enough to give my poor camping kid an earful. “Don’t you understand how stressful it is when you forget to call? I write novels. It is my job to imagine the absolute worst thing that can happen to people, and I am very, very good at it! So I just need you to text every once in a while and let me know that you are having fun and being safe and that no bears have eaten you. Is that too much to ask?” He agreed that it was not.


Twenty minutes later, I got a text.


We are being safe and having fun and no bears have eaten us.


I laughed, texted back a thank you, and settled down with my book.


Twenty minutes later, I got another text.


We are being safe and having fun and no bears have eaten us.


And twenty minutes after that…


We are being safe and having fun and no bears have eaten us.


Camping son (he is also a computer/electronics guy) had programmed his phone to text me every twenty minutes, whether a bear had eaten him or not.


This is a funny story, but if you are a what-iffer, you know that this kind of worrying can be exhausting. I’m much better about it than I used to be but still have my moments.  A couple of years ago, during one of those moments, wondering and worrying about something I couldn’t know, I imagined how great it would be to have a magic pen that I could use whenever I wanted answers.


Right away, I realized that while this was impossible in real life, it might make for an interesting book. So into my writer’s notebook it went.




Those five words were the spark for Ava Anderson’s story in ALL THE ANSWERS. Like me, Ava is a what-iffer who worries and wishes for magical answers. Unlike me, she finds a pencil that provides them. (I chose a pencil instead of a pen because of the whole sharpening issue – a pencil that shortens with every sharpening makes a great ticking clock!)




Here’s what the book is about:


What if your pencil had all the answers? Would you ace every test? Would you know what your teachers were thinking? When Ava Anderson finds a scratched up pencil she doodles like she would with any other pencil. But when she writes a question in the margin of her math quiz, she hears a clear answer in a voice no one else seems to hear. 

With the help of her friend Sophie, Ava figures out that the pencil will answer factual questions only – those with definite right or wrong answers – but won’t predict the future. Ava and Sophie discover all kinds of uses for the pencil, and Ava’s confidence grows with each answer. But it’s getting shorter with every sharpening, and when the pencil reveals a scary truth about Ava’s family, she realizes that sometimes the bravest people are the ones who live without all the answers.


An interesting thing happened while I was writing this book. I started my first draft feeling truly jealous of Ava as I made up all the hilarious things she and her friend did with the pencil. I wanted that pencil. I really did. And I had a big list of things I was going to ask it if it ever became real.


But as Ava’s story progressed – as I saw how she used it to ask bigger and bigger questions, how she grew dependent on it – I realized that my amazing magic pencil would be nothing short of a disaster in my hands. I would ask it too many things I couldn’t know, shouldn’t know, and didn’t really want to know. And then I would worry even more.


Making peace with life’s questions has always been one of my great challenges. Writing this book helped. And I so hope that reading it will do the same for young readers.


Kate Messner is the author of more than two dozen current & forthcoming books for kids. Her titles include OVER AND UNDER THE SNOW (Chronicle), the Marty McGuire and Ranger in Time chapter book series, the Silver Jaguar Society Mysteries (Scholastic), and novels like WAKE UP MISSING and ALL THE ANSWERS (Bloomsbury). A former middle school English teacher, Kate lives on Lake Champlain with her family. She loves reading and spending time outside. Follow her on Twitter @KateMessner and visit her website: