Today we're excited to chat with Ruth Freeman, author of One Good Thing About America.
Read on for more about Ruth and her book, plus a giveaway!
YABC: What gave you the inspiration to write this book?
In two words: my students. I walked into my first English language learning (ELL) classroom in 2012 when I went back to graduate school for a teaching degree. There was this amazing mix of cultures, ages (grades 6 - 8), and languages. At any one time, there were running conversations in Somali, Arabic, French, Portuguese and English. The students, together with their determination to understand English and the American culture, were inspiring.
Since 2013 I’ve been in an elementary school, but the students’ determination and curiosity are the same. The other ELL teachers and I spend our days teaching vocabulary, grammar, social studies, science and math. And we answer questions, so many questions, about everything, from “How do you spell ‘8?’” to “What’s this new class called Puberty?”
I wanted to put my students’ voices on paper for two reasons. I wanted them, and students like them, to be able to see themselves...in a book! And I wanted other readers to get a glimpse of how difficult it is to be a newcomer in this country. Our ELL students have so much to learn and to process while they are still children! I can only say that we are lucky to have them here.
YABC: Who is your favorite character in the book?
I have to say it is Anaïs, the protagonist in the story. I had never written a story in letters before, but this seemed like a natural way for her to get her point of view onto paper. Once I started writing from her point of view, she became very real to me. She was a blend of several of my students I’d had over the years. When I was writing, I could almost hear her voice in my head. I liked the odd phrases she picked up from her friends and teachers and made them her own. I liked her determination, her sense of humor and her curiosity. I also liked her bad moods because they made her more real.
YABC: What scene in the book are you most proud of, and why?
The last scene in the book felt like it evolved all on its own. I knew I needed to tie things up and bring the story to satisfying end, so the surprise housewarming party with all her friends felt right, if a little predictable. I was working my way through it, trying to include as many of the story’s characters as possible, while still keeping some tension about whether Anaïs would eventually feel the new apartment was “home” or not. It wasn’t until literally the last paragraph when I suddenly realized that the stars/Christmas lights in the apartment wouldn’t be what really mattered to her, it would be her friends, teachers and family gathered there who would make the apartment feel like home. Because new twist to the ending felt like pure serendipity, I don’t feel I can exactly take credit for it, but I am proud of it. Perhaps Anaïs was simply taking over to make sure the ending was what it truly should be. Thanks, Anaïs!
YABC: Thinking way back to the beginning, what’s the most important thing you’ve learned as a writer from then to now?
When I think way, way back to the beginning: from stories and poems in high school to my first attempts at writing children’s stories in my 30s, I remember thinking the first draft was perfect! No changes were needed. It was the way it should be and any messing around would either hurt or diminish the original (perfect!) idea. Well, I learned, as we all must do, that revising can actually make the writing better. Yes, the original idea can have a rawness and energy and wonderful, out-of-the-blue ideas to it, but it can also get skewed and wander way off course.
I now really enjoy revising because I can see the original idea, together with new ideas, becoming stronger and brighter. And clearer. We can’t underestimate the importance of clarity. I tell young people it is so easy to lose readers. In order to keep readers on the journey with us, the authors, we need to make our writing as sharp and clear as possible. It is a never-ending challenge to do this, but when a revised piece of writing turns out the way you want, polished and strong, it is the most satisfying feeling ever.
YABC: What do you like most about the cover of the book?
I am in awe of editors and art departments! Because I’m not an artist, there is no way I could decide what to put on a book’s cover. I was delighted to see the cover for One Good Thing About America when Holiday House sent it to me. There are blue stripes and a red title which are reminiscent of the American flag. There are also small green stars. Stars are a theme running through the book as Anaïs looks for the same stars in America as she used to see in Africa. And, in between the blue stripes, there are drawings of some of Anaïs’ one-good-things-about-America: chips, ice cream, writing cards and letters (some of my favorite things, too!).
If I had to pick what I like most about the cover, it is that it shows images of writing and the kinds of drawings a 9-year-old girl might put in letters to her grandmother. I was really glad there is no image of Anaïs herself on the cover because I’d like readers to imagine what she looks like for themselves.
YABC: Which was the most difficult or emotional scene to narrate?
The scene towards the end of the story when Anaïs’ little brother burns himself with boiling water and has to go to the hospital was certainly the most emotional scene to write. Anaïs is already upset at missing a sleepover that night with her friends, her mother is away from the apartment, and then the accident occurs. Anaïs is only 9 years old but she has to step up and take care of her brother. And she does! She sends neighbors to look for her mother, she rides in the ambulance with her brother and keeps him calm, and she gives needed information to the doctors and nurses.
When you’re writing a scene like that, you’re feeling every emotion your character is feeling. You’re seeing the hospital and feeling the cold, hard chairs in the waiting room. To make things even worse, I imagined an older couple in the waiting room looking at Anaïs and whispering audibly, “Where are they all coming from? Why can’t they stay in Africa?” (Questions I have heard people ask.) Even though the scene was an emotional one to write, I knew I needed a scene like that for Anaïs to get through to show her determination and resilience. It makes the ending so much better for it.
YABC: Which part of the writing process do you enjoy more: Drafting or Revising?
Above, in question #4, I wrote about how I have come to appreciate and enjoy the revision process. It’s true, I do, but if I have to choose a favorite between drafting and revising, I would have to go with drafting. Of course, it’s terrifying to look at a blank page or white computer screen. But the terrifying part has an exhilarating side to it, too. There is nothing like feeling you are free to go and explore wherever you want to go. No one before has ever written what you are going to write. You are heading off into the unknown.
To do this, you have to first absolutely banish the critical, judgemental voices sitting on your shoulders. They don’t stay away for long, so you send them away over and over again. It helps me to know that revising will come in time. The piece doesn’t have to be perfect! I like to imagine the first draft as a mud puddle, a place to wallow in and make a mess. That’s why I like drafting: it’s creative and exciting and messy!
YABC: What would you say is your superpower?
Do all writers say “Time Travel?” Fun to think about a superpower I’d like to have, though some would be better than others. I’d take the ability to fly to Paris for the afternoon or make dinner appear magically on the table any day over being invisible. But I think the only superpower I, and other writers, would probably come close to possessing would be the ability to travel through time or space. And that superpower really comes down to having a lively imagination.
I’ve always liked making up stories in my head. I remember having to miss recess in third grade because I was daydreaming too much. The first time I fell in love was when I found chapter books and was able to read them. Stories about fairies, magic, castles, knights...I loved them all. When a writer can create a believable world with characters, sounds, smells, conflicts and write it well enough so that the world is recreated in the reader’s mind...that is, I think, as close as we can get to true magic and superpowers!
Meet Ruth Freeman!
Ruth Freeman grew up in rural Pennsylvania but now lives in Maine where she teaches students who are English language learners, including many newly arrived immigrants. She is the author of several acclaimed nonfiction picture books. One Good Thing About America is her first novel.
Meet One Good Thing About America!
ONE GOOD THING ABOUT AMERICA is a sweet, often funny middle-grade novel that explores differences and common ground across cultures.
It’s hard to start at a new school . . . especially if you’re in a new country. Back home, Anaïs was the best English student in her class. Here in Crazy America she feels like she doesn’t know English at all. Nothing makes sense (chicken FINGERS?), and the kids at school have some very strange ideas about Africa. Anaïs misses her family . . . so she writes lots of letters to Oma, her grandmother. She tells her she misses her and hopes the war is over soon. She tells her about Halloween, snow, mac ‘n’ cheese dinners, and princess sleepovers. She tells her about the weird things Crazy Americans do, and how she just might be turning into a Crazy American herself.
One Good Thing About America
By: Ruth Freeman
Release Date: March 14th, 2017
One winner will receive a copy of One Good Thing About America ~ (US Only)
*Click the Rafflecopter link below to enter the giveaway*