Erin Soderberg Downing and Anica Mrose Rissi first met fifteen years ago at Scholastic, Inc. in New York City, where they both got their start in publishing as editors. Years later, after Erin switched from editing to writing, they collaborated as author/editor on two of Erin’s YA novels for Simon Pulse (Drive Me Crazy and Kiss It). Now, after many twists and turns in both of their publishing lives, both Erin and Anica are writing chapter-book series starring dogs, and they’ve teamed up once again to talk about how their pasts in publishing—and their adorable pups—have shaped who they are as writers.
Erin: After working with you for so many years as the (very talented) editor of my edgy teen novels, I have to admit…I was a little surprised when you told me you were writing a chapter-book series. Why chapter books? Why such a dramatic shift from the novels you had been working on as editor?
Anica: To be honest, it surprised me, too! As a YA editor, I specialized in boundary-pushing books for older readers, filled with edgy storylines and raw truths. As a chapter-book writer, I’ve stepped far away from that edge, but I’m still interested in telling stories with emotional intensity and honesty.
The ANNA, BANANA series is an exploration of what it means to be a good friend, especially in moments of conflict. It taps deep into the reserves of my own elementary-school experiences with friendship triangles and tensions, jealousies and fights. Best friendships are intense, and when things go wrong, it’s confusing and painful, especially when you’re younger and those emotions are newer.
But this is a chapter-book series, and chapter books are fun, so even when Anna is working through very real conflicts with her friends, I try to tell her story with humor and hope, and give readers a chance to laugh. Anna’s wiener dog, Banana, provides a lot of opportunities for lighter moments in the series, as well as giving Anna a soft, furry shoulder to lean on. She was most definitely inspired by my own dog, Arugula, who never fails to make me smile. (Rooga is also a fantastic writing partner and invaluable to my drafting process. Like all dogs, she loves routine, so she encourages me to write every day. She provides companionship and moral support, and supplies ideas and inspiration for the doggiest scenes in my books. Plus, she reminds me to take regular walks and snack breaks. My best advice to any writer is: Get a dog!)
What inspired you to write stories for this age group and what’s been the best part of making the move from books for older readers to chapter books? When I read PUPPY PIRATES, I can tell you’re having so much fun with it.
Erin: Thank you! I do have fun writing these stories. I’ve really enjoyed coming up with a ton of terrible dog puns and developing a huge crew of silly characters (most of the pups on board the Salty Bone are inspired by dogs I’ve known and loved!).
I first started writing younger middle-grade novels and chapter books when my oldest daughter was in Kindergarten. She became a strong reader at a very young age, and we struggled to find enough books—specifically series—for her that were fun to read, but weren’t too challenging (or scary) thematically. I wrote THE QUIRKS series for her. When my twins were in Kindergarten, my son Henry—also a strong reader—begged me to write an adventure story. Around the same time, we got a goldendoodle puppy named Wally and dressed him as a pirate for Halloween…the rest is history.
There are a couple things I especially enjoy about writing books for younger readers. One big highlight is that I get to work with my kids to develop the stories. At eight, eight, and ten, they’re so great at helping me come up with funny little details and scenes. I also steal a lot of material from our dog Wally to add realistic puppy details. The other wonderful thing I’ve discovered while writing chapter books and younger middle grade stories is a very supportive community of teachers and kids (like the Nerdy Book Club!). The YA author community is very strong, of course, but I really feel like I found my people when I started writing middle grade. Middle grade novels shaped me as a person, and as a reader and writer. Now, I love that I get to regularly connect with educators who care so deeply about nurturing the love and habit of reading in their students. My goal with the PUPPY PIRATES series is to take kids on a fun adventure in each book, and make them want to come back for more.
What’s your favorite part about writing ANNA, BANANA (I’ve told you my daughter Ruby is a big fan of the series, right?)? And I have to know…do you like writing more than editing (I do!)?
Anica: Ha! I’m not sure I could say which job I like better. I loved being an editor, and I feel so lucky to be writing, but my relationship with my own manuscripts-in-progress is much more…complicated than the love I felt for the projects I got to shape and champion. As an editor, a key part of my job was to have confidence in and vision for every project I took on. Being a writer involves a lot more vulnerability and uncertainty. It is a lesson in letting go of control. I’m finding that to be both beautiful and terrifying.
My favorite parts of the writing process are the beginning and the end: the initial flurry of new ideas, and the final rounds of revision. All that work in between—of cranking out a first draft so I’ll have something to revise, and shaping it into something resembling the book I want it to be—is for me the hardest part. That’s the stage where the biggest flood of insecurities rushes in, and it’s tempting to give up and let the book drown in my self-doubt. But here’s my writerly life vest: I know, deep down, thanks to all those years of working with other writers, that it can be done, that there are many different ways to turn an idea into book, that it’s okay if it’s very, very messy along the way, and that I’ll get there too if I just keep going. I’m grateful for all the authors (including you!) who let me in on the ups and downs of their writing processes and allowed me to witness their challenges and triumphs along the way.
Another thing I learned about writing from being an editor: You don’t have to go it alone. In fact, you shouldn’t! Every writer needs an editor, and finding friends, collaborators, commiserators, and community within the children’s book world has been hugely important to my productivity, perseverance, and mental health. Plus, it makes the work of writing much more fun.
Erin: I totally agree! In fact, here’s a little secret many people don’t know: I don’t just brainstorm PUPPY PIRATES ideas and scenes with my kids, I also work with a friend (my “silent partner”) to develop the outline for each book. If I had had to write this series alone, it wouldn’t be nearly as fun. It’s really exciting to bounce ideas back and forth with my writing buddy and laugh about the stories together. I also love collaborating with my illustrators (Russ Cox and Luz Tapia) to make scenes and characters really pop. That’s one of the other fun things about writing chapter books vs. YA—you get to see your stories come to life in pictures!
I hear you on the self-doubt thing. I’m so grateful I have a dog who loves me no matter what…and also that I got to spend a few years as an editor before starting to write my own books. My experience as an editor helped me realize that every writer struggles with self-doubt and sometimes-stinky first drafts. Though I’ve had a couple of low periods where I’ve struggled to keep my chin up, I really do love my job—despite the constant fears and insecurities. Knowing you’re not the only writer worrying and fretting and wondering if you’re a total fraud doesn’t necessarily make this job easier (or my first drafts any better), but it does help a bit. Still, I freak out every single time I send a draft to an editor or reader—what if it’s terrible? What if she/he hates it? What if I have to rewrite it from scratch?! (For the record: All of those things have happened a few times…) But I know that until I take that first step toward getting feedback, my story can’t improve and move on in the process. When I visit schools, I talk with kids about how important it is to share your work with others. Even though it can be hard to get critical feedback, it’s also the only way your writing can get better.
Anica: So true! It can be hard to hear critical feedback, but often the comments I most want to push back against at first are the ones that prove most useful in the end. When I get that kind of feedback on a manuscript, I try to approach it like a puzzle or game and ask myself, “Okay, if I had to incorporate this clearly terrible feedback from this person who does not recognize my genius, how would I do it?” And more often than not, I discover my editor or critique partner was the real genius all along.
I talk a lot about revisions during school visits, too. I love seeing the excitement and surprise on kids’ faces when they hear how often and extensively a manuscript gets revised, and that giving myself permission to write a truly terrible first draft is the only way I can get a draft written at all. No story comes out perfectly from the start! But messes can turn into magic, if you just keep stirring with everything you’ve got.
Erin: This—this—is why you made such a great editor, Anica! You always gave those cheerful little speeches before delivering the dreaded revision letter. It’s thanks to editors like you that I have written—and then revised and polished—way more books than I could have ever imagined possible.
Writing, revising, self-promotion, speaking at conferences, presenting to a gym filled with kids—all of those things are really hard and scary and daunting, but I’ve realized they’re all an important part of this process. If we don’t put ourselves out there and risk failure or embarrassment, we won’t ever get anywhere. As Old Salt, one of my favorite pups in PUPPY PIRATES, says: “Being brave isn’t about having no fear, it’s about being afraid of what you have to do and doing it anyway. You just have to believe you can do it, and you have to want it. Look deep in your heart, and decide what you really want.”
Thanks, friend, for sharing another adventure with me! I love working with you. Want to wrap up with one of your favorite ANNA quotes?
Anica: Oooh, I love that Old Salt quote. And, ditto: I love working with you, too…even when you put me on the spot about choosing a favorite quote, and make me feel like Sadie in this exchange:
Sadie scrunched up her nose and shook her head. Her curls bounced. “I can’t answer this one,” she said.
“We’d still love you if you smelled like school lunch,” I promised her.
“We’d just love you from a little farther away,” Isabel teased.
Growing up, I longed to be less weird. I spent much of my youth obsessing over how different I was from all of my friends: taller, stranger, less coordinated, always-saying-the-wrong-thing-at-the-wro
It took me a long time—too long—to realize just how wrong I was. To discover that there is no secret to fitting in…in fact, there is no such thing as fitting in, not really. We all have days, weeks, years when it seems we’re just not the right shape or size or (insert other worries here) to squeeze into the life we’ve been given.
When I visit schools to talk about writing and books, I often ask: “Have any of you ever had a time when you felt like you didn’t quite fit in?” I watch kids look around nervously for a second, then the hands go up. Eventually, every hand—including mine—goes up (unless it’s a room full of fifth graders…they almost never admit to being different). I see the relief on kids’ faces when they see the other hands and realize they’re not alone. Everyone feels a little quirky now and then. We’ve all felt like we’re miles away from what others perceive to be “normal”—and knowing you’re not the only one who has experienced that feeling makes it better somehow.
A few years ago, my own babies (now eight, eight, and nine) started to grapple with the concept of fitting in. I watched them begin to worry about how other people in the world saw them, and I realized I was entering a new era of parenting. My job was shifting: from changing their diapers to changing their attitudes, from keeping them safe to keeping them strong.
One late-September day, my just-turned-four-year-old twins and I went to get my Kindergartener at the bus stop. The little ones were in the middle of a game of pretend, so my son made his way to the bus stop wearing a pale pink, lace-trimmed, flouncy dress (as a boy with two sisters often does). He had worn this dress—or others like it—outside the house many times before without a care in the world. But that day, something changed. It was an instantaneous shift. As we approached the bus stop, he slowed and then stopped. I looked back and saw him cowering inside a bush, trying to hide from all the bigger kids scrambling off the bus.
“What’s up?” I asked, urging him out of the branches. “You okay?”
Tears welled up in his eyes. He scowled at me. “I look stupid.”
“You look great,” I promised. (He really does look lovely in pink—see photo evidence!)
“I hate this dress.” He stomped off, ran home, and changed—certain the bigger boys jumping off the bus were laughing about the little boy in his sister’s dress (for the record, they weren’t). He never wore a dress outside the house again. This was the first time he realized how icky it felt when people laughed at him.
From the day they were born, I’ve tried to help my kids understand that there will be times in life when people will make fun of what you’re doing, tease you for how you look or act, or laugh about things you say (and not because you tell great knock-knock jokes). I hope I’ve done a good job of convincing them that if we’re strong and believe we are exceptional no matter what—and call for support from family, teachers, friends, church, etc.—it might be a little easier to handle any teasing thrown our way. If we believe our differences make us unique in a good way, that’s a great first step in tackling the yuckiness of feeling like an outsider. I’m sure every parent has a slightly different message. Mine might be wrong, but I can only tell them what I know from my own experience.
The same holds true for my writing: I write stories that reflect the life and feelings I know, and hope that my (often lighthearted and humorous) way of dealing with tough stuff on the page can be a comfort to someone else who is going through a similar situation. I don’t write books with a goal of imparting a message—I just want them to be fun!—but I do write books that I hope will resonate. I write stories that I hope reflect kids’ own experiences and fears and worries and dreams.
It was shortly after the pink dress incident that I started writing The Quirks, my middle-grade series about a family of magical misfits. The Quirks are a delightfully strange family who have spent years moving from town to town, desperately trying to hide the magic powers that make it hard for them to feel like they “fit in.” When the series opens, the family believes their Quirks are a problem. They try to squash and hide their magic, hoping they can trick people into thinking they’re “normal,” just like everyone else in town. But over time, they begin to realize that their differences can be a good thing. The most exhilarating thing for me was writing the last line of the four book series, when the Quirks—led by a brave ten-year-old girl—finally decide it’s time to peel away all of their masks and disguises, step out their front door as themselves, and “finally show the world how fabulous it is to be a Quirk.”
I wrote this series for myself, for my kids, and for any other kids who have ever felt like they were a little unusual or have had a hard time fitting in—at home, at school, at the bus stop or cafeteria or after-school program. I wish we were all a little better at embracing our Quirks and flaunting them without fear. I sincerely hope that my kids will grow up believing that being called quirky or weird or strange can be interpreted as a kind of compliment. Because if there’s one thing I’ve learned about being a bit of an odd duck, it’s this: when you exist outside the “normal” box, life is never boring.
Anna and the French Kiss (Stephanie Perkins)
Eleanor & Park (Rainbow Rowell)
Jellicoe Road (Melina Marchetta)
Going Too Far (Jennifer Echols)
Sean Griswold's Head (Lindsey Leavitt)
Perfect Chemistry (Simone Elkeles)
Dirty Little Secrets (CJ Omololu)
The Boyfriend List (E. Lockhart)
Breadcrumbs (Anne Ursu)
Bigger than a Breadbox (Laurel Snyder)
Harriet the Spy (Louise Fitzhugh)
The One and Only Ivan (Katherine Applegate)
Twelve (and all the other "Winnie" books by Lauren Myracle)
The Incorrigible Children of Ashton Place series (MaryRose Wood)
Princess Academy (Shannon Hale)
The BFG (Roald Dahl)
Bras & Broomsticks (Magic in Manhattan series by Sarah Mlynowski)
11 Birthdays (Wendy Mass)
Younger Middle Grade/Chapter Books/Great for New Independent Readers
Ramona series (especially Ramona Quimby Age 8, Beverly Cleary)
Tales of a Fourth Grade Nothing (Judy Blume)
Puppy Place series (Ellen Miles)
THE QUIRKS (by Erin Soderberg - me - of course!)
Spiderwick Chronicles (Holly Black)
I don't read a lot of adult, but the best I've read lately: The Husband's Secret (Liane Moriarty)
To Kill a Mockingbird (Harper Lee)
The Westing Game (Ellen Raskin)
What are your favorites?!
While I'm in Boston, I'm looking forward to meeting a ton of authors I admire. I was lucky enough to be invited to join Kate Messner in a morning jog/run/walk with other authors and teachers and librarians. I said yes, because it will be fun, but it's BEFORE 7 AM! I do not usually do anything before 7 am, so I really hope librarian and teacher friends show up and make the early morning extra rosy. If you happen to be in Boston next week for NCTE, wouldn't you love to get up early and join us for some crisp Boston air? If you snap a picture of yourself with one of the authors hobbling along that morning, bring it to the Bloomsbury booth on Saturday during my signing (2:30-3:30) and they will give you a copy of THE QUIRKS! Yay! Free books and exercise. A true score.
CHEATING ON MYSELF is a novel I've been working on for the last few years, and now it's finally available for YOU to buy and read and recommend to all your friends. I really hope women everywhere love this one. Please let me know what you think if you read it!
Here's the description:
What happens when good enough just isn't enough anymore?
Stella Dahl assumed her life was as good as it was ever going to get. But after twelve years with a man who's more a habit than husband material, she walks out on her bland existence, determined to start over. Goaded by her friends and a group of crass retirees she befriends at water aerobics, Stella plunges back into the dating pool. After a few false starts, she meets Joe, the sexy banjo player in a popular children's band. He's cocky, a smirking flirt, and a musician...everything she's not looking for in a guy. Even still, she begins to fall - hard.
Just when Stella is beginning to think she could find true happiness, a family tragedy turns her world upside down. As she tries to hold together everything that's crumbling around her, Stella starts slipping back into old habits - and away from Joe. Soon, she begins to wonder: Is she really destined for anything more than a life that's good enough?
For fans of Jennifer Weiner and Kristan Higgins, Cheating on Myself is a touching, laugh-out-loud romantic comedy about starting over and finding your happily ever after.
The reason I've been able to spend so much of my writing time in the classroom over the past few weeks is because of this incredible grant I got from the State of Minnesota Arts Board. I received an Artist Initiative grant this spring that helps me dedicate more time to chatting with kids about writing and books. These grants are intended to support the arts throughout the State of Minnesota, and I've loved having the chance to visit schools I never would have been able to visit without the grant funds. So, thanks, Arts Board. These kids loved talking about writing and getting some inside secrets about The Quirks!
Next week, my publisher is sending me out on tour - to California - to launch The Quirks on the West Coast. I can't wait!!
I’ve always wanted to be one of those authors who gets to go on a book tour to celebrate a new release. But tours are rare, and I never actually thought it would be ME hitting the road to talk about a book I wrote. In three weeks, though, a publishing dream is coming true: I’m going on tour!! The first book in my new middle-grade series (THE QUIRKS) is launching on June 4, and my incredible publisher – Bloomsbury – is sending me all over California to meet with schools, libraries, and bookstores. I’ll also be doing a ton of stuff at schools around Minnesota – check www.erinsoderberg.com for all the details.
Here's the plan for public events:
June 4: 5 pm: Mrs. Nelson’s Toy and Book Shop (La Verne, CA)
June 5, 7 pm: Barnes & Noble (Huntington Beach, CA)
June 6, 4:30 pm: Yellow Book Road (San Diego, CA)
June 7, 7 pm: A Great Good Place for Books (Oakland, CA)
June 9, 2 pm: Red Balloon Bookshop (St. Paul, MN)
June 15, 11 am: Wild Rumpus Books for Young Readers (Minneapolis, MN)
Simon & Schuster/Aladdin M!X
Isabella Caravelli is beautiful, stubborn, and perfect...or so people say. But she's actually a lot less confident than people think, so the idea of spending a month at a lakeside resort with her parents and some of her dad's new coworkers and their families is really not in her comfort zone! But it's even worse when she discovers that two of the kids, Bailey and Ava, go to her school. Truth is, she hasn't always been...well...nice to them.
Izzy quickly discovers that the other kids aren't impressed by her, and she's going to have to change if she wants to fit in. She even begins to realize that Bailey and Ava are nice and could be great friends. Izzy knows that things are probably going to be different when they're back home. Can the three be forever friends? Or is Izzy stuck playing the mean girl forever?
Last week, I was tagged by my brilliant illustrator, Kelly Light, to take part in the Next Big Thing, a global blog tour about children’s books—so here I am, answering some questions about my next book: THE QUIRKS: Welcome to Normal (out June 4, 2013). I wrote this book as Erin Soderberg, since it's so different from my tween and teen books (for more info about my books for younger readers, including THE QUIRKS, head over here).
Where did the idea come from for the book?
I love writing about lovable and silly families…but in my teen and tween novels, I often write about dysfunctional families who don’t get along very well. So I wanted to write a book about a family that loves and supports one another, people who are there for each other no matter what. The Quirks (who were originally called the Martins!) hatched from there. Every one of the Quirks (except Molly) has a special, magical power—something that makes them very unique. These "Quirks" make it difficult for the family to fit in with the rest of the world, so they're extra close to and supportive of one another. (Fun fact: I actually created the book's characters and their personalities first, and came up with their "Quirks" second...so that their magic would match their personality!)
What genre does your book fall under?
The Quirks is a middle-grade chapter book—perfect for kids who love books like Junie B., Judy Moody, Stink, Ivy & Bean, and other fun early chapter books, but are ready for the next step. The Quirks books are a little longer and more complicated than early chapter books—but the themes are not difficult or scary (ideal for 8-10 year olds who aren’t yet ready for older middle-grade titles)!
What actors would you choose to play the part of your characters in a movie rendition?
The thing I most love about the Quirk family is their uniqueness—in the way they look, and the way they act. (Their differences are what make them so special!) I can’t think of any actors who would be perfect for nine-year-old twins Molly and Penelope, but their five-year-old brother, Finn, reminds me a lot of my own son (who also has crazy blond hair and chocolate-colored eyes). I sometimes picture Finn as a younger, chubbier-cheeked Macaulay Culkin from Home Alone.
What is the one-sentence synopsis of your book?
I’m stealing this one-liner from The Quirks’ illustrator, Kelly Light: The Quirks is a funny, heartwarming story about a family of outsiders who are trying to find a place to call home…with a touch of silly, quirky magic.
Who is publishing your book?
How long did it take you to write the first draft of the book?
The first book in the series took more than three years to finish, which is a long time considering the length of the finished book. I rewrote the second half of the book three times, and had about seven false starts on the story! I just finished the second book in the series, and the first draft of that one (The Quirks in Circus Quirkus) only took me about three months—of course, there was a lot of revision after that!
What other books would you compare this story to within your genre?
These books are ultimately about family, and about fitting in. The themes are classic middle-grade—figuring out what makes you special and unique, and finding a place where you fit in with your family and the world…but the themes are, of course, amped up because of the Quirks’ special powers.
There’s sweetness and friendship in the book that reminds me a tiny bit of Ivy and Bean by Annie Barrows. Some of the chapters are a bit episodic—and Finn gets in quite a lot of trouble!—like Ramona. And there’s a lot of reality and family drama, like in Judy Blume’s Fudge books. But I like to think the series is something new that will fill a need for second, third, and fourth graders who are looking for slightly longer stories with sweeter themes and a lot of humor (no death or scary stuff!).
Who or what inspired you to write this book?
I’ve been writing young adult and tween novels for a while, but I really wanted to write something my own kids would enjoy. I wrote a story that I hoped they would adore—and they do! They’re my best brainstorming partners, and the perfect first readers for these books. It’s great to have my target audience sitting at the dinner table with me!
What else about the book might pique the reader’s interest?
The Quirk family has a pet monster—who is afraid of everything. He takes on a much larger role in the second book (due out in February 2014), since he’s just so cute.
Now I’ll tag a couple of my favorite authors (and friends) who have books coming out soon—check their blogs next week for their answers!:
Jennifer Echols: One of my favorite young adult romance authors, who also just released her first adult novel. She has two new books releasing in the next couple of months!
Stephen Shaskan: A picture book author and illustrator whose new book, The Three Triceratops Tuff, came out this week!
Suddenly, someone hollered and Johnny Rush came barreling through the crowd of guys. He stopped only long enough to yell, “Clear the decks!” and to check to make sure there was no one under the protruding rock. Then he unceremoniously lobbed himself off the edge minus frills and animal calls and without a puffed-up chest.
My stomach flipped nervously when I realized he was there. He seemed to be everywhere lately. Just when he was supposed to disappear forever, as my brother had done, Johnny was suddenly ever present. I held my breath as his body dropped and twisted before landing with a huge splash in the water below. I continued to hold it as I waited for him to pop back up to the surface, to prove that he had survived. I knew Johnny and Peter and a lot of the other guys in the sporty crowd did this all the time, but I couldn’t prevent myself from worrying. There was a reason I’d never jumped off Hanging Rock. The chance of death, specifically.
Johnny’s head popped up, and I could see his huge, silly grin in the middle of the swimming pond. He looked back up at the guys still standing along the edge and yelled, “Come on down. The water’s perfect.”
One by one, they all jumped as Johnny swam to shore and climbed out. He wrapped a towel around his waist and shook his head to dry his hair, like a dog might do—if a dog were like, I don’t know, a completely sexy, blue-eyed guy. He looked around with the confidence of someone who’d never worried about what anyone else was thinking about him—and eventually, his eyes settled on me. It seemed like his grin got wider when he looked my way. But maybe it was just the light.
I swallowed and tried to smile back. I’d never been totally comfortable around guys, and expected that a simple smile at Johnny would be just as daunting as a smile that was directed at any guy would. But instead, I found myself grinning easily and naturally, with no concern about what I might say to him or any worry about whether or not I’d be interesting enough to hold his attention. I hadn’t been that comfortable around a guy since, well…since my brother. Or Peter and the other boys who had lived in my neighborhood—but that was years ago, before boobs and other complications got in the way.
I didn’t know if my comfort was a good sign, or an absolutely terrible one.
Just as he began to make his way toward me, all confident swagger and wet torso, I realized I’d lost Ella altogether.
“Why does it seem like you’re everywhere lately?” I asked when Johnny was close enough to hear me. I smiled again and tried to keep my eyes off his lean body. His tan had only faded slightly, and droplets of water sat temptingly on skin that looked like it was probably warm, despite the chill of the swimming water. “Aren’t you ever at school?” I asked this teasingly, not expecting the answer I got.
“No, I’m not ever at school,” he said, and let his eyes dance across the rest of the crowd that had gathered at the beach. He smiled at me, but it didn’t reach his eyes. “I’m not going.”
“What happened to Madison?” I asked.
“Nothing happened,” he said. “I already told you—it wasn’t a valid choice.” He sat down on the rocks and toweled off his legs. I noticed that he didn’t wipe off his chest, and I was finding it increasingly more difficult not to stare.
“Wait…you’re saying that your parents told you Madison wasn’t good enough? So you decided to go nowhere instead?” I couldn’t keep the disbelief out of my voice. It seemed ridiculous. I mean, that’s taking rebellion to a whole new level. At least, for me it would be.
“I guess that’s sort of it, yeah.” He smiled at me. “So I’m one of those guys.”
“One of what guys?”
“One of the losers that sticks around here, waiting for people to come home from college to play with me over winter break and stuff.” He looked down and started to rearrange the rocks between his body and mine. “Admit it, that’s what you’re thinking.”
I stared at him. “Um, it’s not actually. But I am sort of wondering why you didn’t just say you weren’t going to college when we asked you about it last weekend,” I said, trying to think back to our conversation on pizza-and-camping night. “Are you intentionally misleading people?”
He looked at me, and I suddenly saw a little bit of the fear that I thought didn’t exist for people like Johnny Rush. “Yeah, I guess I sort of am.” He shrugged. “Not my good friends, but people like you.”
“People like me?” I wondered.
“Why broadcast my lack of ambition?” he asked, offering no further clarity. “I figure people will eventually realize I haven’t left. Until they do, I’m not going to announce that I’m one of the few sad sacks that didn’t go anywhere.”
“You couldn’t find anywhere else you wanted to go?” I asked, my voice ringing with disbelief. “It just seems so unlikely that your parents would rather you not go to college than go to Madison.”
He shrugged, and I could tell he was done talking about it. “Well, it is what it is. And it looks like I’m here for the long haul.” Johnny looked up at Hanging Rock, but no one was jumping. The sky had started to fade into the deep blue of twilight, and wisps of pink lined the edges of the clouds. “Aren’t you going to jump?” he asked. “I thought that was one of your big life goals. One of your dares, right?”
I’d completely forgotten that we’d talked about some of the dares the night of his party. But he hadn’t. Was that significant, or was he just good at making people feel special? I knew it was the latter. “Yeah, it is one of the things I want to do. Sometime.”
“Sometime?” He gave me a funny look. “There’s no better time than now.” Then he hopped up and reached for my hands. I let him take them, because I wanted to touch him, and he pulled me to my feet. I looked over at Ella, but she was too busy talking to Peter to notice me. Grace was off in her own little world, with Ian and no one else.
I’d always thought it was funny how the rest of the world seemed to drop away when guys entered the picture. It was like all clarity got washed away in a wave of lust or something.
Even though I knew he was an expert flirt, I felt special when Johnny lightly tugged at my left hand with his right and pulled me up the hill. I forgot what we were doing, and focused only on the way his fingers wrapped around mine—his index and middle finger were looped around my pinkie and ring finger. His hands were colder than I would have expected, and I wondered if maybe I’d been wrong about his chest. I almost reached out to touch the skin that wrapped around his shoulder blade and ran down his back to the top of his shorts. But instead of touching, I let my eyes go there—and then immediately regretted it.
My stomach knotted and my heart sped up, and that’s when reality hit. I dropped Johnny’s hand, wondering how I could have let myself get sucked into something so stupid. I wasn’t going to be his girlfriend, and I certainly wasn’t going to let him convince me to jump. “It’s almost dark,” I said, knowing how weak it sounded. “It’s cold.” I stopped walking up the trail, but he didn’t notice right away.
When he finally looked back, I was at least fifteen steps behind him. That distance was enough that I could hold onto my wits and say again, “I can’t jump in the dark.”
“It’s not dark,” he scoffed, then stepped back down the hill. He stopped right in front of me and put his hands on his hips. “You’re just making excuses.”
That was true. “No, I’m not,” I insisted. “I can’t do it today.”
“Then when?” he teased. “I’ll hold your hand. It won’t be scary, I promise.”
Holding your hand, or jumping? I wondered. Both sounded scary. “I don’t know…” I said, my resolve wavering.
“If you really don’t want to do it,” Johnny said, his hand outstretched, urging me up the hill. But his words were calming, absent of any pressure. “I’m not going to make you. It’s your call. Your life.”
There it was. My out. I could just turn around and tromp back down the hill. But then I thought about the list, which was still in my pocket, and how I’d made promises to myself to go for things. To try. To let myself take risks, even if it meant failing. “Okay,” I said finally, grinning. “I’ll try.”
Then I took Johnny’s hand, still outstretched for me, and climbed.