True Friends: The Who, What, When, and Where Behind Four Special Books

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ever wondered about the origins of authors’ ideas?

One of the most common questions asked of writers is, “Where do you get your ideas?” It’s not unusual for authors to find inspiration in their own real-life experiences, as you can see here. We asked the four authors of the #TrueFriends campaign to share the who, the what, the when, and the where behind their newest middle grade books. Check it out!


by Augusta Scattergood

If I’m lucky, my characters show up and talk.

But when a Chinese American boy climbed a tree in my narrator’s grandma’s backyard, I was surprised. Billy Wong? Where’d he come from?

Then I thought about it. And I remembered a fellow high school newspaper staffer whose family owned grocery stores all over the Mississippi Delta. Surely Bobby Moon could help me understand the boy in the tree. I fired off questions: What do you recall about working at your store? Were you and your siblings always allowed into the white schools? Bobby remembered details down to the smell of his grocery after a morning’s cleaning.

Characters are composites of people we know, research done, and ideas that appear out of nowhere. So while Bobby’s not truly Billy Wong—and I’d venture a guess that my friend never once climbed a tree to write poetry—he did help me fit together a crucial part of the story puzzle.

On a recent Texas trip, Bobby Moon and his wife Jeannie, whose family also owned groceries in the south, filled me in on Chinese immigration history, as well as Houston’s art scene.

Bobby emailed this photo of our Cleveland (MS) high school newspaper staff. He remembers every student in this picture, as would Billy Wong.


by Susan Hill Long

Sometimes a story starts in the writer’s mind with a thing—an umbrella, a wardrobe, a fortune-teller’s tent. You’d think with a title of The Magic Mirror: Concerning a Lonely Princess, A Foundling Girl, a Scheming King and Pickpocket Squirrel, I’d have started writing the book with a mirror in mind. Or a princess. Or a tricky squirrel. But moments ago I dug up the embarrassing scribbles that were the very beginnings of The Magic Mirror. And the scribbles reminded me that I’d recently read Kate DiCamillo’s The Magician’s Elephant, which Kate explained was a story of love and magic. “I want to write a story of love and magic, too,” I scribbled. “Who wouldn’t?” (See? Embarrassing!)

I’ve always believed in magic. In fact, my sister and I were sure a fairy often visited us in the room we shared. My brother (with Dad’s help) made me the fairy-sized table and chair in this picture, and I keep it in my writing room. Maybe the fairy still visits, and sits right there. Who knows?


by Kirby Larson

As I kid, I wanted to be Encyclopedia Brown, digging for clues and solving mysteries. And my dream came true! I am a detective, with a passion for unraveling the mystery of the “when” of a story. This detective work is like beach combing: digging up details as tumbled and worn and well-hidden as beach glass in the sand. Nothing is more rewarding than pushing back cobwebs and common assumptions to find out what really happened in the “good old days;” what people wore, ate, thought; what things cost; how folks got from here to there. My discoveries have ranged from the amusing (President Taft adored Terrapin Soup) to the amazing (some 25,000 families loaned their dogs to Uncle Sam during WWII). I work hard to uncover these clues about the world of “when” because such concrete and specific details are the stepping stones which transport today’s readers to the past.

She wants to be Encyclopedia Brown when she grows up.

My great grandmother’s story turned me into a historical fanatic.


by Barbara O’Connor

After 26 snowy winters in New England, I recently moved to the Blue Ridge Mountains of North Carolina. I grew up in the foothills of those mountains and have many happy memories of day trips up the winding roads. My family picnicked beside icy cold creeks with giant boulders that were perfect to jump on. I went to summer camp in those mountains and explored the woods lush with ferns and cool, damp moss. The days were hot and sultry but at night, I shivered in the cool mountain air, listening to the bullfrogs down in the creek.

So I knew my next book would be set in those mountains that are my heart’s home and that the setting would be a vital part of the story. WISH is set in the fictional town of Colby, in the Blue Ridge Mountains of North Carolina. The character of Charlie explores the woods, jumps on boulders in the creek, and listens to bullfrogs on cool mountain nights.

This is a picture of me jumping on boulders in a mountain creek.

And this is me, all grown up and loving Blue Ridge Parkway near my house.

Thanks so much to these four great authors—and real, true friends!—for sharing these behind-the-curtain peeks at the inspiration for their new middle grade novels.

Be sure to visit the #TrueFriends YouTube account to watch Susan, Augusta, Kirby, and Barbara talk about their books and offer writing prompts for students!


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About the Author

Hannah Barnaby

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Hannah Barnaby is a former children's book editor and indie bookseller turned author. Her debut young adult novel, WONDER SHOW, was a William C. Morris Award Finalist in 2013. She is also the author of SOME OF THE PARTS (Knopf 2016) and several forthcoming picture books. Hannah lives, writes, and teaches in Charlottesville, VA.

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