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Author Elizabeth Atkinson: “I want everyone who reads my books to believe that they are a valuable, interesting, unique individual”

I want every reader to believe after they’ve finished one of my books, that they are a valuable, interesting, unique individual. Growing up is tough. And it’s much tougher for some than it is for others, which isn’t fair, but it’s how it is. The pre-teen years are particularly challenging because you’re in this strange […]

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I want every reader to believe after they’ve finished one of my books, that they are a valuable, interesting, unique individual. Growing up is tough. And it’s much tougher for some than it is for others, which isn’t fair, but it’s how it is. The pre-teen years are particularly challenging because you’re in this strange limbo as you begin to transition from childhood to adulthood. So I want my young readers to know that they aren’t alone in their feelings… that they need to hang in there and believe in themselves as their lives take shape and make that journey.


I had the pleasure of interviewing Author, Elizabeth Atkinson.

Elizabeth Atkinson’s award-winning middle-grade novels include FROM ALICE TO ZEN AND EVERYONE IN BETWEEN (Bank Street College’s Best Children’s Books), I EMMA FREKE (starred School Library Journal review, Bank Street College’s Best Children’s Books, 2010 Gold Moonbeam Award, Honor Book Award by the Society of School Librarians International, the Rebecca Caudill Young Readers Award shortlist, Sunshine State Young Reader Award), THE SUGAR MOUNTAIN SNOWBALL (2016 Gold Moonbeam Award, 2016 Maine Literary Finalist, LitPick Top Choice Award), and THE ISLAND OF BEYOND (2018 NYC READS 365 Book List, 2017 Maine Literary Award Finalist, National Council of Teachers of English 2017 Notable Book, New York Public Library’s 2016 Best Kids & Teen Books List). FLYBACK, AGNES will be released in Spring 2020.

Raised in Harvard, Massachusetts, Elizabeth received her BA at Hobart & William Smith Colleges, and her MA in Liberal Studies at Dartmouth College. She currently divides her time between the north shore of Massachusetts and western Maine.

Her favorite part of writing novels for children is visiting with (in person and virtually) schools, libraries, book clubs, and offering fun, interactive writing workshops to middle-grade students. Contact her at www.elizabethatkinson.com to learn more!


Thank you so much for joining us! Can you share a story about what brought you to this particular career path?

I grew up in a family of readers, but I only enjoyed books when my mother read to me in her lovely, soothing voice. Until I was 8 or 9 years old, my younger sister and I would curl up together before bed as Mom read a chapter of The Wind in the Willows or anything by E.B. White. Soon, I was expected to read on my own, so together we visited the library on a regular basis. I would check out the usual books pre-teens were reading back in the early 70’s, like Nancy Drew and Louisa May Alcott novels. But I would just skim them, mostly to please my mother. Then one day, as I yawned my way up and down the library aisles, I discovered Are You There God? It’s Me Margaret by Judy Blume. I was astounded to discover Margaret was privately thinking the same things was privately thinking! After that, I sought out any “realistic fiction” I could find. The only problem was very few authors, other than Judy Blume, were writing for budding adolescent readers back then. During those awkward, self-conscious years, nothing entertained or empowered me like a book I loved. So I knew, one day, I would grow up to return the favor. Thank you, Judy Blume.

Can you share the most interesting story that occurred to you in the course of your career?

My second novel, I, EMMA FREKE, was released in 2010 when people were still a bit giddy over the magic of social media and the world wide web. How things have changed! Anyway, a couple of weeks after the book’s release, I received a suspicious-looking email that I thought could be a virus. However, my insatiable curiosity got the better of me, as it usually does, and I clicked on it. The sender asked me if I had written a book about her and if so, why? She signed it Emma Freke. I was very confused and wrote back hesitantly, assuming one of my friends was playing a joke on me. As it turned out, the sender’s real name was indeed Emma Freke and she lived in the UK. Every once in awhile, Emma told me, she googled herself and this time she was surprised to see a long list of book announcements with her unusual name. Especially since she had never met anyone with the same name. The most surreal part of the exchange happened when the real Emma Freke sent me a photo of herself. She looked almost exactly how I imagined my Emma Freke would grow up to look.

What was the biggest challenge you faced in your journey to becoming an author? How did you overcome it? Can you share a story about that that other aspiring writers can learn from?

After my second novel, I, EMMA FREKE, was published and received great reviews, some awards, and a lot of attention, my agent and I assumed it would be easy to sell my third novel. And because of the success of I, EMMA FREKE, many editors requested to read my new manuscript, but no one ended up buying it. I kept restructuring the narrative and deeply revising for a couple of years, but still no one wanted it. My very patient agent, Susie, tried to encourage me to focus on letting it go and writing a new book, but by then I had lost confidence and convinced myself I would never get published again. Then I heard about a small, but well-respected, up & coming publisher in Maine: Islandport Press. I submitted my manuscript to IP and they loved it! And that novel, The Sugar Mountain Snow Ball, became a Maine Literary Finalist, won the gold Moonbeam award, and was translated into three languages! It taught me that the traditional publishing world is fickle, and even though you do need to write a good story, a lot of success in this industry is luck and timing and driven by trends.

Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lesson you learned from that?

I would say most of my early mistakes involved social media, as I was told by my editor at the time to promote myself virtually as much as possible. This was 2009 or so. I tried to jump into Twitter chats or Facebook discussions for middle-grade authors, but I never caught the rhythm and would end up being chewed out by someone. I was so inept it was embarrassingly funny. It turns out, I’ve learned you don’t need to make a lot of noise online to be successful. Quality over quantity is still best.

What are some of the most interesting or exciting projects you are working on now?

I’m branching out from writing and collaborating with organizations that empower kids through literature. The book launch for my upcoming novel, FLYBACK, AGNES, has involved a fun collaboration with the local Charter School. I’m also looking forward to working with Island Readers & Writers, a literacy organization in Maine, on a new school program they’re piloting. I have a couple of other similar projects in the works. In addition, I’m focusing more these days on writing essays and getting them published. Writer’s Digest just posted one of my pieces online!

Can you share the most interesting story that you shared in your book

I’m not sure I have a real story that I shared in any of my books? However,the most interesting true story that relates to one of my books happened with my first published novelFrom Alice to Zen and Everyone In Between. I had written two previous novels that didn’t get published, so I was on the lookout for anything or anyone to inspire a new story since it was difficult to keep going at that point. I began to notice a boy and a girl in our little New England town who walked to and from middle school every day together. In every way, they appeared to be opposites. The boy clearly dominated the conversations using dramatic gestures and wearing colorful outfits, while the tiny girl marched like a quiet little soldier right next to him. I tried to imagine how they became friends, so I made it up and wrote a book about it! And that story became my first published novel. A year after “Alice to Zen” came out, I was in the car with my daughter driving her to school. We drove by those two kids, who still walked everywhere together and were, by then, in high school. My daughter noticed them and joked, “You know, Mom, those two remind me a little of Alice and Zen.” I looked at her and said, “That’s because they are.” She was shocked!

What is the main empowering lesson you want your readers to take away after finishing your book?

I want every reader to believe after they’ve finished one of my books, that they are a valuable, interesting, unique individual. Growing up is tough. And it’s much tougher for some than it is for others, which isn’t fair, but it’s how it is. The pre-teen years are particularly challenging because you’re in this strange limbo as you begin to transition from childhood to adulthood. So I want my young readers to know that they aren’t alone in their feelings… that they need to hang in there and believe in themselves as their lives take shape and make that journey.

Based on your experience, what are the “5 Things You Need to Know to Become a Great Author”? Please share a story or example for each.

  1. You need to be disciplined: That doesn’t mean you have to have a strict writing regimen, but you do have to write a whole book. That requires self-determined goals and deadlines. You can have all the talent in the world, but that’s meaningless if you can’t find the discipline to actually write a book.
  2. You need to have talent: It can be difficult for many people to know if they’re talented enough to make it. I often wondered that myself. At some point, if nothing you submit gets published, you should take a hard look and see if it’s time to let your dream go. But don’t ever let anyone make that decision for you.
  3. Part of the business is luck: There are many moving pieces in the publishing machine. You have to find an agent, and that agent needs to have the connections, and those connections have to be interested in your work, etc… More than a few rejections from publishers I’ve received over the years specified “we already have a book like this one” on their upcoming list. It stinks, but the timing has a lot to do with your success as an author.
  4. Self-Promotion: You are expected to promote yourself, particularly online, but also in person. I once heard that authors should spend 25% of their time writing and 75% on promoting their work. Back in 2009, I was told I must have a website (where I should frequently blog), as well as “real estate” on at least four social media sites where I actively participated. Some of that has changed today, but it’s still important. And basic websites are much easier to create these days, especially with Youtube tutorials.
  5. You probably won’t make enough money to live on: I do have a few author friends who write prolifically and really hustle to land a variety of freelance writing gigs. But most authors have to supplement writing with another paycheck.

What is the one habit you believe contributed the most to you becoming a great writer? (i.e. perseverance, discipline, play, craft study) Can you share a story or example?

I like to be alone and write! If I didn’t, I couldn’t imagine ever completing a book. You know, I’ve never been to a writer’s retreat and I don’t belong to a writing group and I rarely attend a conference unless I’m invited to speak. You can spend a lot of time being with writers and feeling like you’re a writer, but the hard, boring truth of it is, you have to sit down and write to be a writer.

Which literature do you draw inspiration from? Why?

Adult contemporary novels by gifted authors, like Elizabeth Strout and Barbara Kingsolver, inspire me the most. The way in which they are able to peel back the layers of humanity with words inspires me to hone my craft and be a better writer.

You are a person of enormous influence. If you could start a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. 🙂

I’m not sure it would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, but for a long time, I’ve wished everyone wore a nametag (first name only) every day. That way, we could say hello to each other using our names, which would connect us and make us feel a little less like strangers. Maybe we would be kinder to each other.

How can our readers follow you on social media?

Website: www.elizabethatkinson.com

Facebook: @ElizabethAtkinsonAuthor

Twitter: @ElizzzAtkinson

Instagram: @ElizzzAtkinson

Thank you so much for this. This was very inspiring!

Thank you for the opportunity!

Stay True!

Elizabeth

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