‘Writing was my Identity’ | An Interview with Author Barbara Dee

Frances DowellAuthor Interviews

By Frances O’Roark Dowell

When I started teaching story-writing workshops for upper elementary and middle school kids, I discovered that most of my students had ideas by the dozen and lots of enthusiasm, but they often got bogged down mid-draft and gave up. Over time, I developed a workshop called “How to Build a Story,” in which my students and I walked through the writing process together, from coming up with story ideas that worked, to finishing a first draft. (The book based on my workshop, How to Build a Story, or The Big What If.)

As I developed the “How Build a Story” workshop, I thought a lot about my own experiences as a young writer – I tried to remember about what was easy for me and what I struggled with. What inspired me to sit down and write in the first place? Recently, I’ve reached out to some writing friends to ask them about their own lives as young writers. Their answers have proved wonderful and illuminating, and they’ve giving me a lot to think about as a writing teacher.

Get notified when we post new How to Build a Story interviews and resources!

Writer’s First Words | Barbara Dee

It’s no secret by now that Barbara Dee gets middle school kids. As a writer, I admire her ability to move a story along without sacrificing substance or style, and as a reader I just plain love her books. Barbara is one of the first authors to come to mind when I set out to do this series on writing in childhood. For more about Barbara and her books, visit her website.

What was your interior life — the life of your imagination — like when you were a kid? Were you a daydreamer? Did you tell yourself stories, make up movies in your head?

Barbara Dee: I wasn’t a daydreamy sort of kid, but I was always making up stories with Barbies and Colorforms. And when I was very little, I invented a game I called Bench. I’d fill my parents’ Scrabble racks with tiles, have them knock each other off the “bench,” and make up conversations (“I was here first,” “Okay, well, now it’s my turn to sit”). I guess I’ve always been interested in conflict and dialogue! blue

What is your earliest memory of wanting to write a story or poem?

BD: I wrote (and illustrated!) my first books at age five–Mitchell Colleps, about a boy with a robot who smokes pipes and eats Spanish rice, Jolly Ga-Lolly, and Little Frances. I still have them all, and I like to share them with kids to show that early efforts aren’t throwaways, whatever their literary merit.

What was a book, movie or comic book that incited your imagination? Were there particular kinds of stories that inspired you? Did other forms of art and entertainment — songs, illustrations, TV shows, etc. — spark the desire to write?

BD: As a little kid my favorite books were witty, character-driven stories with lots of dialogue–like The Story of Ferdinand and Bread and Jam for Frances (which inspired my non-badger opus, Little Frances). When I was old enough to read on my own, I remember loving the Little Bear series.  All of these books–and later, anything by Beverly Cleary, and of course Pippi Longstocking–I read over and over, along with poems by Hillaire Belloc (Cautionary Tales for Children), A. A. Milne (Now We Are Six) and Robert Lewis Stevenson (A Child’s Garden of Verses). I think committing books and poetry to memory helps a young writer develop sensitivity to language, timing, character–as well as that mysterious thing called “voice.”

Was there an oral storytelling tradition in your family? Did you yourself like to tell stories?

BD: There wasn’t much oral storytelling in my family, and I’ve never been even a decent oral storyteller. I’ve always been more comfortable telling stories on the page.

How important was it for you to share your writing with others? Who did you share it with?

BD: When I was a little kid, I shared my books with my mom (who sewed the binding in pink yarn), but I don’t remember sharing them with anyone else–not family or friends.  In elementary school I was always “the kid who wrote,” so I guess I must have shared some stuff with classmates. I remember in second grade writing a story I thought was hilarious–and  being devastated when the teacher gave it back to me with the comment “A bit silly.” Teachers and their opinions mattered to me–a little too much, I think.

In middle school and high school I was editor-in-chief of the school newspaper, the literary magazine, the science journal–anything with words. Writing was my identity, and I was very driven.

What were your biggest challenges as a young writer? What parts of writing were easy for you?

BD: I remember how in fourth grade, my classmates were obsessed with Star Trek, and a few enterprising kids started a Star-Trek-knockoff comic book series, for which they charged a quarter a copy. I’ve never been able to plot science fiction or fantasy stories, and I felt terribly left out. I remembering wondering if anyone would ever be interested in my non-Star-Trek stories, and I certainly couldn’t imagine getting kids to pay me for my work! But I kept writing the stuff I liked to write, even if it wasn’t considered cool at the time. I always loved learning (and trying out) new words, so I never struggled with the feeling that there were things I didn’t know how to say. And I was a voracious reader, so I always had stories in my head.  I honestly can’t say writing ever felt too hard, or unnatural.

Did you know you wanted to be a writer when you grew up? Did you consider yourself a writer as a child?

BD: I always considered myself to be a writer, even as a little kid. When people asked me what I wanted to be when I grew up, I’d say: “An authoress.” Not sure where I got the idea that writing was gendered!

What  or who helped you become a better writer over the years? Did you spend time studying the craft of writing, say, by reading books about it or taking classes?

BD: I have to say that what’s helped me most is reading a ton of fiction–not just middle grade, but all genres, including literary adult fiction and YA. Sometimes I read for  sheer pleasure, but sometimes I read wearing my writer’s hat– noticing stuff like how an author ended a scene or communicated something indirectly.

I never read “how-to” books about writing, because I think they’d make me too self-conscious.  When I was in college I took a few writing classes. But the professors had the approach of “This is how I write, so this is how you should write too”–and it turned me off.

BD: Did you have a teacher or some other adult in your life who encouraged you to write?

The faculty advisors for my high school newspaper and literary magazine were so important to me. I was close with them both, and their support for my writing kept me going through a very rough patch in my life.

BD: What’s the best way, in your opinion, to teach creative writing to kids?

I think the best way to teach creative writing to kids is to encourage them to write any way, in any genre, that feels natural–and then to share their work with peers. Teaching kids to respond to feedback calmly, without defensiveness, is essential to their growth as writers. And teaching kids to read others’ work with an eye to providing constructive criticism sharpens their own abilities as writers, readers, and editors.

I also believe that we should encourage kids to read their work aloud even if they’re just reading to themselves. I always tell kids that their ears will pick up things that their eyes won’t.  Reading aloud–along with memorization–can be so helpful for kids as they develop a writing voice.

Author Barbara Dee (photo by Carolyn Simpson)

About Barbara

Barbara Dee is the author of ten middle grade novels published by Simon & Schuster, including Maybe He Just Likes You, Everything I Know About You, Halfway Normal and Star-Crossed. Her next middle grade novel, My Life in the Fish Tank, will publish September 15, 2020. Barbara’s books have earned several starred reviews and have been named to many best-of lists, including the Washington Post’s Best Children’s Books, the ALA Notable Children’s Books, the ALA Rise: A Feminist Book Project List, the NCSS-CBC Notable Social Studies Trade Books for Young People, the Bank Street Best Books of the Year, and the ALA Rainbow List Top Ten. Her books have also been included on many state library lists. Barbara lives with her family, including a naughty cat named Luna and a sweet rescue hound dog named Ripley, in Westchester County, NY.