Rebecca Stead has been writing since childhood but became a lawyer before pursuing a professional writing career. She says that "one day, my then-4-year-old son, though fabulous, accidentally pushed my laptop off the dining-room table, and the Very Serious Stories [she had been working on] were gone. Poof. So, it was time to write something new. Something joyful (to cheer me up: I was pretty grouchy about the lost stories). I went to a bookstore and bought an armload of books that I remembered loving as a kid. I read them. I went back to the store and bought more books. I read them. And then I began to write, and I began to love writing. That's when I became a writer." Her first novel was "First Light," which The New York Times reviewed very favorably. Her second and current novel, "When You Reach Me" (Random House Children's Books) received the 2010 Newbery Medal, one of the most prestigious honors in children's literature. Stead lives in New York.
Previous National Book Festival Appearances
From the 2010 National Book Festival
Can you tell us about your newest book –When You Reach Me? Where did you get your inspiration?
When You Reach Me is about Miranda, a sixth-grader living in late-1970s New York City with her single mom, who is preparing to be a contestant on the $20,000 Pyramid. Miranda’s best friend, a boy named Sal, has mysteriously shut the door on their relationship. And she’s receiving anonymous notes that slowly convince her that she must help prevent a future tragedy. It’s an eventful year.
Inspiration comes from everywhere – a radio report, a conversation overheard at Starbucks, early-morning dreams . . . the list goes on. This particular story came mostly from newspaper articles and my own memory of childhood.
Congratulations on being selected for the 2010 Newbery medal. Can you share your thoughts about winning this award?
It’s been a truly wonderful experience – it’s hard to feel fully deserving of it. Books are central to my life, so this kind of honor means more than I can say. And the last eight months have brought me closer to readers, librarians, teachers, and booksellers, which has been just terrific.
You have always loved to write, but pursued a career as a lawyer. What made you decide to become a full-time writer?
I decided to take a year off from my law job after my younger son was born. During that year, I started writing my first novel for children, First Light. Writing for a living seemed like an impossible dream, but I wanted to see how far I could take it. It’s been almost ten years. Of course, many of those years were years without income, so I’m very lucky to be part of a two-income family.
What challenges do you face in your writing process? How do you overcome them?
My biggest challenge is always discovering my story – deciding what happens next. There’s no easy way to come up with good ideas, unfortunately, so the main objective is not to lose heart while I’m waiting for things to fall into place.
What tips or advice can you share with young students who hope to start writing?
First: Read. It’s been said over and over, but reading is the most important thing an aspiring writer can do. Read what you love. Read something you think you won’t like at all. Experiment with your reading, but don’t stop reading.
Second: Don’t be discouraged by your first draft. For many writers, the first draft is a pretty terrible translation of what might be a terrific idea. Don’t stop and think, “this is awful.” It doesn’t help. Revision is just as much a part of the job as the first draft. If you aren’t willing to revise, you can’t be a writer.
Can you suggest a fun topic to get them started?
You have just discovered that someone in your life has a real, comic-book-worthy, secret power. What is it, and how did you find out?
What is your list of favorite children or teen books?
It’s impossible to make a comprehensive list. Here are a few of my favorites:
- Jennifer, Hecate, Macbeth, William McKinley, and Me, Elizabeth (E.L. Konigsburg)
- Red Planet (Robert Heinlein)
- Holes (Louis Sachar)
- Walk Two Moons (Sharon Creech)
- The All-of-a-Kind Family (Sidney Taylor)
- Chains (Laurie Halse Anderson)
- Charles and Emma (Deborah Heligman)
- The Golden Compass (Philip Pullman)
How do you decide on themes for your books?
I don’t decide on any kind of theme before I write. When I have finished a first draft, or something close to a draft, I search for whatever is buried there and develop the ideas that I find.
How important is research in the development of your books? Can you explain the process as well?
It depends on the book. For my first novel, First Light, which takes place mostly in Greenland, I interviewed arctic researchers and found some great online photo- journals. I also read a few nonfiction books about Greenland (no fiction, though), and a couple of books about dogs, because dogs are a big part of that story. There’s a science-fiction element to the book that required research as well. All told, I spent a lot of time researching. Most of it, of course, didn’t end up in the book – I used some of it for the book’s website, which was a fun way to share some of what I learned (www.firstlightbook.com).
My second novel, When You Reach Me, required very little research because it’s set in the time and place of my own childhood. All I had to do was remember. A good friend of mine made me a CD of music we listened to in sixth grade – Sometimes listening to it helped put me in the right frame of mind. A very different kind of research, I guess.
What is your advice to parents for passing the joys of reading on to their children?
Don’t stop reading to them! Some people stop reading to their kids once they outgrow picture books, but I think that’s a mistake. Reading a novel together is a complete joy, and I think it turns kids into passionate readers.
Can you tell us about any new books that you will be working on during the coming year?
I’m working on a new novel for kids – no details available yet, but it’s not related to either of my published books.
If you weren’t creating children’s books, what do you think you would be doing?
I’m guessing I would still be a lawyer. I hope I would be working for criminal justice system reform, because that’s something I care about a lot.
Do you have a website where young people can learn more about you and your work?