And we're off to the races! With three little girls in three different schools in three different parts of town and a fourth Stars Sisters book on the way, September is off to a busy start. But you all know that tune and, honestly, aren't you tired of hearing everyone complain about how busy they are? So I'll move on and just say that when this time of year hits, something that I particularly treasure is reading to my kids at night. It's the one time of day when everything else comes to a stop and we can just be together. (And cuddle. Man, I love cuddling with my babes!).
I've been on the hunt for a new series to read to my first grader and I am thrilled to have discovered Julie Sternberg's Like Pickle Juice on a Cookie, Like Bug Juice on a Burger, and Like Carrot Juice on a Cupcake. These books follow the trials and tribulations of Eleanor Abigail Kane, a spunky little girl with big emotions and a big heart. Sternberg's writing is wonderful to read aloud, with a great flow and lots of touching and humorous moments that adults will appreciate. But where I think these books really shine is in capturing Eleanor's emotions and presenting them in a way that children can relate to. For instance, in Like Pickle Juice on a Cookie, Eleanor's life is turned upside down when her beloved babysitter moves away. Eleanor is determined to dislike her new babysitter (despite her pretty hair). Add in the beginning of a new school year with a brand new teacher and you've got a little kid making a lot of big life adjustments. What's great about Sternberg's books is that these problems are resolved with a graceful subtly that bears no hint of grown-up writer preaching moral values to child reader. Eleanor gradually comes to terms with the situation the way a child would: slowly, with some steps forward and some steps backward. After much stalking of the mail lady, Eleanor finally gets a letter from her old babysitter reassuring her that she will always have a special place in her heart. Her new teacher doesn't criticize her handwriting, trims his crazy hair, and turns out to be a pretty good guy. And her new babysitter doesn't try to replace her old one, just to be the best second babysitter a kid could have. In other words, life isn't quite as bad as pickle juice on a cookie after all.
I've said it before and I'll say it again, part of the reason I wanted to write Star Sisters is because I think the early chapter book genre is tricky. At least for girls, there's a strong tendency to veer cookie-cutter princess/fairy/puppy/snarky, which can be painful for adult readers and uninspiring for child listeners. In contrast, Sternberg's series blows it out of the park! Add in great illustrations on almost every page and I officially love these books. Just as importantly, so does my six-year old daughter.
Of course, the minute I finished reading to my daughter I raced downstairs to check out Sternberg's website. (I always expect that author's I admire will have some kind of magic formula on their websites that explains how they write so well. So far, no dice). But I did send Sternberg a fan email and she was kind enough to answer some of my questions:
1. How did you come up with your titles because they are genius!
JS: I'm so glad you think so! The marketing team at my publisher, Abrams Books, came up with the idea. They liked the language "pickle juice on a cookie," which I used a couple of times in the first book. (The main character, Eleanor, is having an August that's "as bad as pickle juice on a cookie.") So they suggested LIKE PICKLE JUICE ON A COOKIE as that book's title. Then it made sense to stay with the juice theme, and a consistent cover design, for the sequels.
2. How would you describe your writing style? To me, it almost seems poetic. Did you set out to write your books this way or was it a matter of formatting, ease of reading for young readers, etc.?
JS: I love hearing my writing described as poetic. Thank you! But I didn't set out to write poetry. I chose frequent line breaks for the books because they help me track the rhythm of Eleanor’s thoughts and because I want the books to appeal to both strong readers and kids who struggle with longer lines.
3. When you write, are you writing for parents as well as children? There are so many wonderful moments, like when Eleanor is sitting in bed stubbornly pretending to read Moby Dick or when she climbs into bed the night before school starts and tucks herself under her mom's arm, that made me, as an adult, fall in love with her. Was this intentional?
JS: My drumbeat when I write is, Will this work for kids? I don't have adults in mind. With that said, I have to like what I'm writing. I can't move forward if don't. So one parent's taste is shaping everything.
What do you think is the most challenging thing about writing for this age group and what is the most rewarding?
JS: Conveying complicated emotions simply and fully. That's the most challenging and the most rewarding.