One of the things that makes CLiF so special is the 64 talented authors, illustrators, poets, graphic novelists, and storytellers we work with who inspire a love of reading and writing in the low-income, at-risk, and rural kids we serve all over Vermont and New Hampshire. These inspiring VT and NH storytellers get kids excited about reading and writing, share their processes for creating books, and spread the joy of literacy wherever they go. They visit elementary schools, public libraries, homeless shelters and affordable housing developments, summer programs, childcare centers, after-school programs, and just about anywhere kids are.
This summer, author Ann Braden joined our team of presenters and visited the Cutler School in Swanzey, NH and Green Mountain Girls Camp in Dummerstown, VT. Her novel, The Benefits of Being an Octopus, was released this fall and has received many accolades, including a starred review from the School Library Journal, and is a contender for the 2019 Global Read Aloud. We asked Ann about her writing and what she’s learned in the process.
Q. What is it like seeing your first book in print? What’s been the most exciting part?
What were your biggest challenges when writing The Benefits of Being an Octopus?
The biggest challenge I had to overcome to write this book actually took place before the writing process started. This book exists only because in my work advocating for the common ground on the issue of guns, I had discovered that I was a whole lot braver than I had ever imagined. And that I really did have the courage to tell the truth — and to not worry if other people didn’t like it. But that was not exactly an easy thing to figure out. 🙂
What kind of responses to the book have you heard from readers? Anything surprising?
Yesterday I heard about an 11-year girl who said, “I didn’t know anyone wrote books about people like me.” It both broke my heart, and simultaneously made me even more determined to get books like this into the hands of kids who need it.
I also just got a beautiful (and huge) poster made by two sixth grade classes in Hinsdale, NH that read the book. One boy wrote that “this book touched me in a way that few have.” A girl wrote, “My favorite part is how Zoey didn’t let anything stop her.” THIS is why I write!
How did your work as a community organizer influence your writing of the book?
My community organizer work taught me how important even one small step can be. Wide-spread change doesn’t happen quickly — it happens one tiny individual decision at a time. And that’s how characters change, too—and how they can change their situations, no matter what kind of hand they’re dealt.
Do you have any advice you’d like to share with aspiring writers?
You are the hero of your own story. Live boldly. Find ways to help you walk in another’s shoes. Every experience gives you new perspective, especially the bad ones. See everything as an opportunity to become both a better writer and a better human.
What have been your favorite parts of visiting schools and programs (like the CLiF programs you visited this summer)? Any stories you’d like to share?
I love getting to connect with students. Since I used to be a middle school teacher, it’s like coming back home and in the best of ways. During the visit we talk about how strong the main character Zoey is, and how when things get tough she draws an octopus tattoo on her shoulder to remind herself of her inner strength, and we talk about how each of them have their own kind of strength. My favorite part is at the end when I give each of the students their own #TeamOctopus temporary tattoo and tell them to use it remind themselves of their OWN inner strength. At one school a girl, who had earlier said that her strength was taking care of her cat, told me that she was going to save the tattoo for when her cat died so it could help her remember she could get through it. It was such a reminder that children have a tremendous capacity to be strong, to go deep, and to face what life throws them. But that it’s so important to make sure that they know they’ve got adults who believe in them and have their back every step of the way.
Why do you think CLiF programs are important?
Kids need to understand that their voice matters, and a really powerful way to do that is to see an author (not just as a name on a book) but as a living, breathing, mistake-making person who talks about how many times they had to rewrite the beginning of their novel and how many rejections they got. Kids need to see what’s possible, and no, they don’t have to dream that they’ll grow up to be a writer, but they DO need to believe that they have something to say and the tools to say it. Their perspective matters, and we need to hear about it! (And, of course, we need to make sure we’re ready to listen.)
Anything else you’d like to share?
I can’t quite believe it but I just found out that The Benefits of Being an Octopus was selected as one of NPR’s Best Books of 2018! I would say that it’s a dream come true, but honestly it never occurred to me that it could happen. But I’m thrilled that so many more people will be able to meet Zoey, and I love thinking about all the new conversations the book will spark.