I first became aware of Dawn Malone when I snagged a copy of Bingo Summer on a freebie deal, hoping my daughter would like it. My daughter enjoyed it, and I absolutely loved it. Shortly after, I read The Upside of Down and was blown away by the character depth. I had to get to find out more about her because she’s going to win a Newberry Award for Children’s Literature some day, and I’ll be able to say, “I knew her when …” Her books are on my Favorites List. So here you go, the lovely and talented Dawn Malone.
LIA: Bingo Summer and The Upside of Down are two of my all-time favorite books for tweens. What inspired you to write for that age group in particular?
DAWN: Thank you so much for saying that! As a tween, I wrestled with the usual struggles—fading friendships, worrying about being ‘cool’ (or just trying not to look awkward), body changes—you know, the ugly, growing-up stuff. I had a great friend group in junior high, but unfortunately that changed once I entered high school. I lived in a different high school district than my friends, so they went one way and I went another. It was awful at first until I found a different set of friends. I once heard at a conference that you tend to write for the age group in which you suffered the most angst. The tween years were definitely my most challenging, so maybe that’s why I’m drawn to writing for that audience.
LIA: In Bingo Summer, you address a lot of the status-seeking mentality of many youth, and the story resonated with me because I was the poor kid at the rich school back in the day. What advice do you have for kids who find they are in the “wrong” socio-economic bracket? How can the proceed with confidence even if they aren’t wearing all the designer clothes, etc.?
DAWN: My high school was in an affluent area of the Chicago suburbs, but my upbringing was very much middle class. I was acutely aware of the ‘stuff’ my peers had—designer clothes, nice cars, etc.—and it made an impression. Luckily, I had a pretty strong sense of who I was and what I liked—softball and writing. I threw myself into those two things and made friends with those who had the same interests as me. So my advice for kids who feel they don’t ‘fit in’ would be to find their passion—art, music, sports, whatever!—and once they’re involved with something they love, that other ‘stuff’ seems a lot less important.
LIA: I read on your website that you grew up on Nancy Drew and Ranger Rick. Me too! What was it about the mysteries and/or the nature stories that you loved most?
DAWN: As a young writer, it was an insatiable curiosity and sense of adventure that drew me to those stories. I wanted to solve ALL the mysteries, study ALL the animals, and visit ALL of those places!
LIA: You are active in the Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators. Can you tell us what that organization does and what you have learned from your time there?
DAWN: I first heard about SCBWI in 2002 when I started looking for people in my area who were writing for kids. Luckily, I found a great critique group shortly thereafter and we met face-to-face twice a month for several years to exchange and critique each other’s work. What I love about SCBWI is the strong sense of community and the willingness to help those just starting their writing careers.
LIA: You’ve done a lot to encourage young writers over the years. What advice might you give to a child or teen who is thinking about writing a story but doesn’t know where to start?
DAWN: In the writing class I teach for junior high kids, we actually start with an exercise that requires them to think about a time they got into trouble. It’s like instant conflict! They swap out themselves for fictional characters, and the real-life situations suddenly take on a life of their own when the kids start writing. That old adage—write what you know—can help young writers get started if they’re stuck. The anxiety of the blank page is the worst to overcome. If they have a vague idea for a story—maybe a character, a piece of dialogue, a description of the setting—get it down on the page. Then they at least have something to build on.
LIA: Like me, I see you’ve worked with Scouting, and you enjoy hiking if someone else carries the backpack. Do you have a fun scouting / nature / outdoorsy experience you could share with us?
DAWN: My family and I hiked into Grand Canyon several years ago and camped at Phantom Ranch for two nights. It was physically and mentally grueling, but also amazing! We endured a snowstorm the night before we were due to walk out which was terrifying. The wind howling through the canyon sounded like a lion’s roar. The next morning we woke to the scene from a postcard—powdered sugar snow against the red cliffs, green junipers, and a cloudless sky. Incredible! Walking nine miles out with a 30-pound pack, I vowed I’d never do it again, though. But once I made it to the rim, I was already thinking about our next trip.