Maribeth Boelts will be the visiting author for the graduate course I’m teaching about children’s literature and the teaching of writing this summer. I’m SO EXCITED to meet her in person since I’ve been corresponding with her through e-mail and Facebook for the past four years. Her writing has served as a mentor for many of my former students. Therefore, when I found out I had the budget for an author to visit my class, I immediately contacted Maribeth to see if she’d be interested in coming to Pennsylvania to inspire my graduate students. Once they read her books and hear her speak, I know they, too, will be holding up Maribeth’s texts in their minilessons and saying to their students, “Let’s study this text together and notice the things Mrs. Boelts did as a writer that we can do as writers too.”
I learned about Maribeth’s new book, Happy Like Soccer, months before her publisher, Candlewick, sent out a copy. When Maribeth told me about the story, I knew I couldn’t wait to get my hands on it. Sure enough, once the review copies arrived at my house, I opened yet another treasure of a book written by Maribeth. I was teary-eyed by the end of the book since the ending is more than satisfying. In addition, there is so much rich craft that can be taught to students from Happy Like Soccer. (Two page spreads follow towards the end of this post.)
Since it’s doubtful you’re going to travel to Central Pennsylvania to take my graduate course this summer, I wanted to interview Maribeth so she could share some of her thinking about the story and about the writing process with you. As always, Maribeth was gracious, answering my questions at length. Here’s a peek into the inner workings of Happy Like Soccer and into the life of this incredible writer.
SAS: Is there someone who inspired Happy Like Soccer?
MB: Are you prepared for a lengthy answer?
I coached soccer with a team of volunteers in an under-resourced neighborhood. Happy Like Soccer was written to capture three distinct memories of that experience.
The first memory involved a girl we coached for two years. Each week, she’d hope, hope, hope that her mother would be able to come and cheer for her at her game. And even though we had a cheering squad of volunteers, she’d scan the sidelines looking for the one person who mattered most in her life. When that one person wasn’t there, she was crushed.
The second memory centered on one particular game. We practiced on a neighborhood field that was less than ideal. In fact, one of the goals was set up at an angle, which is the only way we could fit the field on the lot. Somehow, we convinced a small town team to play a game on our wonky home field, rather than having us travel to their small town, or play at a very nice complex on the edge of our city. We were sure that more parents and family members would attend if we held the game in the neighborhood and we were right. That night, our kids had parents, neighbors, relatives and teachers at the game and they played hard and had the time of their lives because of the sense of community that was present.
The last memory had to do with a mother who walked miles just to see her son play, with a toddler in tow. I never forgot that effort of love, or her flip-flops.
The mixing of those three impressions and the emotions they evoked lead to this story.
SAS: Tell us how you developed Sierra as a character we could all root for/cheer with?
MB: I’m not exactly sure on the “how” but I do believe that in order for a reader to root for and cheer on a character, the writer has to care deeply for the character and give him/her increasingly difficult obstacles to overcome. In this case, Sierra was so real to me—I had a sense of how much she loved playing soccer, what it felt like for her to feel like an outsider on the new team, and how scared she was to voice her idea to coach Marco. I’ve met girls as resourceful, brave and well-loved as Sierra, and that played a big part in developing her character.
SAS: Several of your books (e.g., Those Shoes, P.S. Brothers, and now Happy Like Soccer) have main characters whose families face financial hardship. As a result, many of the children I have taught are able to relate to the obstacles your characters face. How come you choose to tell stories about characters whose happy endings don’t always fit the classic happy ending so many readers are used to?
MB: This question brings tears to my eyes! In some ways, it’s an example of “write what you know”, as I grew up in a large family with financial struggles. Part of that “knowing” has also come from the relationships I have with kids and families in tough situations, and witnessing stories of beauty, love, courage and redemption first-hand. Writers often write the kinds of stories they like to read, and for me, that’s the case. I love realistic fiction, and I love a character wanting something big but receiving something different, but better.
SAS: Happy Like Soccer provides the reader with a satisfying ending, just like all of your books do. What’s your secret to providing readers with a satisfying and realistic ending?
MB: That’s so nice of you to say because endings are tricky business. I know there’s a certain chord I need to hit, but most of the time, it feels like I am playing the piano with a blindfold on! I experiment most with the ending as well as the first few sentences. One key to a satisfying ending is making sure you know what’s driving what the character wants. For example, Jeremy wanted “those shoes”, but what he really needed was friendship and acceptance. So the ending needed to address his deeper need, not his on-the-surface want.
I think what matters just as much if not more than the happy ending is the hopeful ending.
SAS: Lauren Castillo’s illustrations compliment the prose in Happy Like Soccer beautifully. Did you collaborate at all or was it a typical author-illustrator relationship where you did not work together on the book?
MB: I think Lauren did such beautiful work, too. Her style is so lovely and expressive—in fact, one of her prints is hanging on my wall right now. (You can check out her site on Etsy!) While we didn’t collaborate, per se, we did email enthusiastically as the art evolved and as nice reviews arrived.
SAS: Would you share more about your writing process with us? How does an idea you have turn into a picture book you publish?
MB: Hmmm…I’ll use last week’s writing as a typical example. I thought about a certain picture book idea for several weeks, and tried to “enter” the story last week, to no avail. After a few frustrating days of trying to figure out how I was going to tell this story, I woke up at 3:00 AM with an idea about how it could work. I wrote the first few paragraphs in first-person, paying attention to how it felt. Now it’s time to flesh it out and see if the storyline strengthens and takes shape or collapses.
I have another picture book manuscript on my editor’s desk right now, and the process was similar. I percolated (or “stewed” depending on the cooking analogy you like) on the idea for some time, then experimented with point of view, opening sentences, animal vs. human characters, and so on. With this story, I worked for about two weeks, then scrapped it—knowing it wasn’t coming together. I then asked myself an important question… “What is the story I want to tell?” This is very different than, “What should I write?” or “What might my agent or editor like me to right?” Once I answered that honestly, the story flowed. Maybe not flowed, but at least trickled.
With middle grades, I always attempt to have the biggest bones of the story thought through and plotted out, albeit simply, before I begin to write. I have to know the major characters, what the characters want, and a few of the obstacles that will stand in their way. My husband is keen at suggesting layers to make the story more complex, so once I have the skeleton written, he’s my first reader. Not until then, though. Early in my career I ruined many a story by talking it through before writing. Now I make sure I have a rough draft at least before I solicit opinions or ideas.
Beginning in February, I also started using a treadmill desk, walking and writing at the same time. There is definitely something to giving your body something to do while your mind is at work. So far, it’s been a successful experiment!
SAS: What are you working on next?
MB: Right now, I have a middle grade in the works and a picture book. The middle grade will be what has my major focus these next several months.
Some page spreads from Happy Like Soccer:
THE NITTY-GRITTY ABOUT THE GIVEAWAY: This giveaway is for one copy of Happy Like Soccer for one of our readers. Many for thanks to Candlewick Press for sponsoring this giveaway.
To enter for a chance to win a copy of Happy Like Soccer each reader may leave one comment about this post in the comments section of this post.
All comments left on or before Tuesday, May 15th at 11:59 p.m. Eastern Time will be entered into a random drawing using a random number generator on Thursday, May 17th.
I will announce the winner’s name at the bottom of this post on May 17th. Please be sure to leave a valid e-mail address when you post your comment so I can contact you to obtain your mailing address and have my contact at Candlewick send the book out to you. Please note: Your e-mail address will not be published online.
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Congratulations to pruski4 whose comment number was picked using the random number generator.
I can’t wait to share parts of her interview with my students. Especially the parts about “memories” as inspiration for creating stories.
Literacy Consultant. Author. Former 4th and 5th Grade Classroom Teacher.