Any time you ever get to read a Middle Grade book that finds a smart, funny way to talk about the Bechdel Test, you should read it. Now.
Lee Gjertsen Malone's book, THE LAST BOY AT ST. EDITH'S, also reveals, with great hilarity, the best way to steal garden gnomes.
Seriously. How could you be reading anything else right now?
Seriously. How could you be reading anything else right now?
I was thrilled to be able to chat with Lee about her debut novel:
What was the inspiration for your book? Did you go to an all-girls’ school?
Lee: I did not -- actually I went to a coed public school. My husband, however, went to an all boy’s high school that changed to be coed a few years after he graduated. We get mail from them sometimes -- fundraising appeals, and the like -- and it was after reading one of those that was talking about all the ways the school had changed, I began to get curious. Why would a school decide to go coed? And how would they know it would be successful? What if it wasn’t, and instead of being one of a few kids at a school that every year has more and more kids like you, things were going in the other direction? At the same time I had been thinking about a story with a strong, completely platonic boy-girl friendship at its core, and this failed coed school felt like the perfect setting.
As a kid, were you a prankster like Jeremy?
Lee: Not really. I was more “prankster-adjacent.” I knew a lot of kids who did pranks, but I wasn’t really involved in most of them. College, however, was a different story. My freshman year was full of pranks. It was a dorm-wide endeavor, and I still laugh thinking about some of them.
At its heart, THE LAST BOY AT ST. EDITH'S is about standing out/fitting in and learning to be comfortable in your own skin. Why do you think this is a theme that might resonate especially well with middle-grade readers?
Lee: This is a huge issue for middle grade readers! One thing I remember vividly from that age is that push-pull between wanting to stand out and be perceived as interesting and cool but on my own terms. All too often the world decides why you stand out, which is not nearly as appealing. Jeremy doesn’t really want to fade into the shadows, what he wants is to be viewed as himself, not as just “the last boy.” There’s a huge difference there and it’s something that many kids struggle with well into high school and beyond.
What's the best thing your readers have told you about the book? Have any of the comments you've received surprised you?
Lee: Probably the one comment that I’ve gotten that surprises me the most is that I’ve had a few people assume I’m anti-public school, which I’m not -- I’m a proud graduate of the public school system and send my daughter to one as well. I’ve also had people -- grown up people -- say that it was unrealistic that the local public school in the book could be bad enough that Jeremy’s mom would do whatever she could to provide him with other options. That blew my mind, the idea that people could be completely unaware that there are struggling public schools in this country that are underfunded and oversubscribed, with high teacher turnover and burnout, and that some people do things like move towns, homeschool, or find a way to send their kids to private school to avoid them and it’s not just because they are biased or snobby or whatever.
I get that someone’s own local schools might be just fine but to encounter multiple people who were oblivious to the idea that’s not true for everyone was really eye-opening for me. It also gave me some insight into maybe why these struggling schools are not a bigger part of the national agenda. There are people who look around and only see good schools and are unaware of the larger issues facing public education in this country.
As for kid readers, my favorites have been the ones that come up with their own theories about why certain things happened in the book! Sometime their theories of the characters’ motivations are, truth be told, way better than mine. I’ve also had a few kids beg me to write a sequel -- and more than one insist that if I didn’t, they would do it for me! I love that kids want to see what happens next with these characters.
It's interesting to note that The Last Boy at St. Edith's started life as a YA book. How difficult was it to convert this to a middle-grade novel and why did you choose to do so?
Lee: I got some very, very good advice from someone I trusted and decided to run with it. But I knew that there was no way that the book could work if I couldn't make the word count work, since middle grade novels are much shorter than YA novels.
So…. I cut 35,000 words in a day and a half. Just slashed and burned, basically. (This is the part in my story where many of my fellow writers make an audible gasping noise)
Lee: The biggest difference is that the romance subplot, and Jeremy’s love life in general, was a much bigger part of the YA novel. He has a crush in the MG book, and that character, Anna, was also in the YA version -- but as you might expect, it was a lot more fully developed. What surprises people is that there weren’t actually many more pranks in that version. Because of that, as the scale of the book changed, the pranks took on a bigger part of the plot. Which is probably good since those are most readers’ favorite parts!
Is there a scene that broke your heart to cut when you were going through the revision process?
Lee: Hoo boy. There were a few, but one that stands out in my mind was the scene that actually caused me to set the book in Western Mass. It took place at one of my favorite places in that part of the state, Natural Bridge State Park in North Adams. It’s just unbelievably beautiful, and the perfect setting for a budding romance. But since I cut so much of the romance, that scene had to go. I will use that setting again in something else, though, because I promised myself that when I cut it.
Any last words about LAST BOY AT ST EDITH'S?
Lee: Early on I encountered a few people who thought that some of the themes I explore in the book wouldn’t work for middle grade readers. I was lucky enough to find an agent and an editor who did not agree, and now that it’s out in the world, I’m getting to see readers engage with those themes and it’s incredibly gratifying. People sometimes forget how smart middle grade readers are, and how much they really do think about important things like identity and gender roles.
And of course, no Debut Author Bash blog post is complete without a