Make It Personal: Finding the Reality in Fiction by Sally Engelfried
I’ve noticed that many kids gravitate toward fiction that features a clear personal connection to
the author. When I show kids at my library the picture of Kelly Yang working at her parents’
hotel on the back flap of Front Desk, it helps make the fictional Mia feel real to them. When I
tell them that Firoozeh Dumas’ historical fiction novel It Ain’t So Awful Falafel is based on the
author’s personal history, it intrigues them.
But what if your fiction doesn’t reflect your life? How do you find a personal connection to your
work to make it feel real to the reader? When I was writing my debut novel Learning to Fall, that
question became more specific: how does someone who was picked last for every team game in
PE make a personal connection to a sports book? (To give you a picture: during our baseball
unit, I was assigned the way, way outfield, and I spent my time there sitting in the grass looking
for ladybugs.) How did I end up writing a book about a girl who loves to skateboard?
Skateboarding came into my life through a group of dads, my husband included. They hadn’t
skated in years but got into it again as some of their own kids started skating. One of the dads
built a skate bowl in his backyard, and they all started having weekly skate sessions. One of the
skaters who joined them happened to be coaching a then-twelve-year-old girl. That sparked my
interest. I was playing around with an idea for a new book. What if my main character was a
I started researching. At the time, just about every search result for “twelve-year-old skater girls”
was about Sky Brown. I watched video after video of the awe-inspiring feats that garnered
Brown medals in the X Games and the Olympics. (Nowadays that same search will also reveal
skater Kokona Hiraki, who at twelve years old became the youngest Olympic medalist ever in
2021.) As much as I admired Brown, however, I didn’t see my main character Daphne as being a
skating prodigy like her.
I dug more deeply into the subject. What about the girls who weren’t amazing yet? I learned
about Skate Like a Girl, a West Coast nonprofit whose goal is to create an inclusive skating
community for kids. The organization’s leaders use skateboarding as an experiential way to teach
kids resilience: in skateboarding, you’re going to have to learn to take a fall if you want to get
I also watched the Oscar-winning documentary Learning to Skate in a War Zone (When You’re a
Girl) about another nonprofit, Skateistan, which started a school in Kabul, Afghanistan to teach
girls from impoverished neighborhoods to read, write, and skate. These girls aren’t doing ollies
and shredding at the skatepark—quite the opposite! The film shows teachers holding the girls’
hands as they make their first run up a quarter pipe. More importantly, it shows the courage they
use to get on their board spilling over into their lives.
I loved this metaphor. I was getting closer, but I still hadn’t found the personal connection.
Newbery Award-winning author Meg Medina once said, “We write for the child in all of us
who’s still asking the questions that we didn’t dare ask.” How could I connect my skater girl
character to my own childhood and the questions I didn’t dare ask?
One of the questions of my childhood that I never found an answer to was why my father was an
alcoholic. Why did he drink? Why couldn’t he stop? How did his drinking affect the lives of my
mother and my brothers and sisters?
These questions helped form the emotional underpinnings of my story. Daphne’s father is a
skater, and their shared passion for the sport draws the two of them together. He’s also an
alcoholic, and that’s what pushes them apart.
Although Daphne’s dad bears no resemblance to my father, I wanted to explore what I’ve
noticed is a common denominator in most kids’ relationships with their alcoholic parents: the
parent can’t be there for them in the way the kid wants them to be. In Learning to Fall, Daphne’s
dad’s drinking prevents him from hanging out with her much. When she’s young, Daphne is
tolerant of his flakiness and loves spending time with him whenever he can, because that’s when
they immerse themselves in the world of skating. Then his drinking leads to him breaking a
promise to her, leaving her hurt and stranded. It drives an emotional wedge between them that
Daphne doesn’t think she can ever forgive.
I’d found the personal connection to my skater girl story and it drove the narrative forward: I
wanted to give Daphne the courage to confront her dad and ask him those questions I was never
brave enough to ask my own father. When the book opens, Daphne arrives at her dad’s house
determined to remain cold to him all summer, but when they eventually start skating together she
begins to thaw. She wonders if she might trust him again. Just as in skating, she takes a few falls
before she can get the understanding she needs in order to forgive him, but she keeps trying.
During my first author visit with a class of fifth graders, I talked about the challenges of growing
up with an alcoholic parent. I was surprised at how many kids gave me the “I agree” sign. My
hope is that Daphne’s perseverance in both skateboarding and life feels real to readers. Who
knows? It might even inspire them to ask difficult questions of their own.
Sally Engelfried was the recipient of a writer’s merit grant for a residency at the Vermont Studio Center in 2018 and the Golden Gate Writer’s Award from SCBWI in 2014. She is currently a children’s librarian in Oakland, California, where she lives with her husband, two cats, and a dog who is fond of stealing slippers. Learning to Fall is her first novel. She invites you to visit her website at sallyengelfried.com.