SELECTIONS FROM DONNA GEPHART’S LIBRARY
How to Survive Middle School, Delacorte, 2010.
As If Being 12 ¾ Isn’t Bad Enough, My Mother is Running For President!, Delacorte, 2008.
Olivia Bean, Trivia Queen, Delacorte, TBA.
Donna Gephart’s first novel, As If Being 12 ¾ Isn’t Bad Enough, My Mother is Running For President!, was the recipient of the 2009 Sid Fleischman Humor Award. When she reflects on what drew her to humor, she recalls, “The big family dinners where my aunts and uncles and cousins and everybody would be sitting around the table laughing our heads off and telling stories and pigging out.” She also read the humor columnist Erma Bombeck, as a kid—even though Bombeck’s column was written for a more mature audience. “I was interested in humor even back then,” she says.
Somewhere between the ages of eight and ten, her mother made a fuss over something she had written and Gephart knew she wanted to be a writer. However, the path to writing for children was long and circuitous, with stops at writing greeting cards, magazine articles, and short stories. Gephart had always enjoyed reading children’s books to her two sons, but when they began to veer away from the children’s section, she stayed.
At first, Gephart floundered in the world of children’s literature. “I knew no one. I knew nothing,” she says of the business. She stumbled onto a critique group of like-minded children’s writers. One of the members told her about an editor searching for mother-daughter short stories for a soon-to-be published anthology. Gephart fired off a submission about a girl whose mother’s political career kept her away from home a lot, incorporating her own love of politics and a story she’d heard about President and Mrs. Clinton and their daughter Chelsea. The anthology editor said the story did not fit her needs, but suggested Gephart turn the story into a novel.
Feeling more confident, Gephart then mailed a query letter to an agent about a different middle-grade novel she had written and included one line about some of her other work: “I’m also writing a book about a shy, awkward, gawky girl who wants to stay out of the spotlight, but she can’t because her mom’s running for President.” The agent rejected the original novel, but expressed interest in the book about the candidate’s daughter. Gephart says, “I didn’t have a book.”
She did what all writers do whose bluff had been called. She got to work and turned in 340-page book centered on a romance. The agent requested a revision that focused more on what it felt like to be the daughter of a Presidential candidate. Gephart researched and revised for four months and the agent sold the book in three weeks. To celebrate the publication of As If Being 12 ¾ Isn’t Bad Enough, My Mother is Running For President!, Gephart posted a “Welcome Baby” stork sign on the lawn outside her home to announce the new arrival (weight: one pound).
In her newest book, How I Survived Middle School, Gephart relives some of her own problems in middle school. “Those feelings definitely came through in [this book],” she says. But the germ of the idea actually came from her younger son when he began middle school. “He hated school, hated himself,” she says. “It was such a departure from how he was in elementary school. It was so hard to watch.” At that time, she attended a writer’s conference and confesses to tuning out the speaker to make a list of challenges that middle school students face. Eventually the list became the brainchild of a character named David Greenberg, a funny Jewish kid whose role model is Jon Stewart of The Daily Show. Gephart thought David might possibly write a book to help others survive middle school. “That morphed into—well maybe he can create videos [starring his pet hamster, Hammy] and put them on YouTube to help other kids and himself survive middle school.”
Gephart works from her home in south Florida, dividing her time between writing and family. She prefers to create in the morning when she is fresh, leaving revision, promotion and other business-related activities for the afternoon. Usually she ends her writing day when her sons (now 15 and 17) return home from school, but there are times when deadlines loom and she’s forced to work evenings and weekends.
“My editor has a gift for seeing what’s missing,” she says. For As If Being 12 ¾ Isn’t Bad Enough, My Mother is Running For President!, Gephart’s editor mentioned that Vanessa, the main character, does not have a best friend, so Gephart wrote one for her. “How to Survive Middle School went through three BIG revisions,” Gephart says. “[Each time my editor] drew more and more out from me and from the story. Ultimately, she was right on target and [her comments] always helped the whole.”
Gephart says, “Before my teen years, I did not have a lot of friends. The library was my second home and books were my friends…Children’s literature is so important. It provides a friend for a child and the context to understand [himself] and the world better, and a strategy for coping [within the confines of] a safe environment.”