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Interview: August 2008

Kidsreads.com's Terry Miller Shannon recently spoke with Megan McDonald, author of the popular and long-running Judy Moody series. In this interview, McDonald describes how she came up with some of the innovative games and ideas from the series's latest installment, JUDY MOODY GOES TO COLLEGE, and discusses the real-life counterpart to her rambunctious main character. She also explains how she is able to accurately capture the voices of children from a wide range of ages, recalls how her very first book was published, and shares details about her latest project --- a sequel to her novel THE SISTERS CLUB.

Kidsreads.com: How do you come up with the plots for the Judy Moody series, which so delightfully combine a compelling tale, laugh-out-loud humor and educational tidbits?

Megan McDonald: I follow my instincts and my own interests. A plot has to be one that compels and excites me, something I'm willing to spend a LOT of time thinking about, since I'll imaginatively be living with it for months. A good plot is one I find funny and holds great potential for humor.

I try to resist sending Judy to camp, having her play soccer, or giving her a happy birthday...if only because it's the standard, the expected. For me, Judy's personality is closer to the UN-expected.

A Band-Aid might become the inspiration for Judy to enter a Band-Aid contest in SAVES THE WORLD, or a mood ring sparks PREDICTS THE FUTURE. College was a way-rad time in my own life, and I just had to think of a way to get Judy to go to college (even as an eight-year-old).

Certain elements come to me and I find them irresistible --- Judy Moody operating on a zucchini, Judy Moody writing her own Declaration of Independence from Stink, Judy Moody dancing the tarantella (a four-person, eight-legged dance) all by herself, Judy Moody using her little brother Stink to talk to her best friend Rocky when he's angry and won't speak to her.

KRC: Is Judy Moody based on a real person?

MM: Oh yeah. Me! I'm a moody person, and I LOVE to collect stuff. I used to collect scabs and Barbie doll heads when I was Judy's age. And I was an original member of the REAL Toad Pee Club with my four sisters.

KRC: In JUDY MOODY GOES TO COLLEGE, Judy initially detests math but eventually learns to enjoy many aspects of it. How did you feel about math when you were her age? (And how do you feel about it now?)

MM: I really hate to admit being part of the I HATE MATH club, because it feels like a stereotype for a girl to hate math, but I hated it so much that I chose my college based on the fact that they did not have any higher math requirements. I do love problems and puzzles that lead to satisfying answers, I just never liked having to get there one particular way. I disliked math when I was Judy's age because we had speed races, and the boys always won. Education is so different now than it was in my day, and there are so many interesting ways to learn math. Maybe I need to go back to third grade. Or better yet, maybe a trip to the Attitude Tent is in order for an attitude adjustment.

KRC: JUDY MOODY GOES TO COLLEGE is, in part, a love letter to tutors. Have you ever been tutored, or worked as a tutor?

MM: I've never been tutored, except maybe informally by my four older sisters, who always helped me with my homework and thought up funny mnemonics to help me memorize all those history and geography and science facts. But my niece had a tutor, and once when I got to go with her, I was so surprised to see all the cool games they had for her to play.

KRC: A theme of creativity runs through JUDY MOODY GOES TO COLLEGE. Judy invents games, creates art projects, renovates her bedroom, changes her mode of dressing to reflect a college student's wardrobe, and so on. Other than writing, what creative endeavors do you enjoy?

MM: I love growing flowers, cooking stuff without a recipe, working with clay and throwing pots on the wheel, making mosaics out of old broken dishes, sewing sock monkeys, and lately, collecting vintage beads and making anything out of beads. Did I mention I'm trying to learn to crochet?

So far, I've made ONE granny square!

KRC: Chloe offers Judy a wide variety of innovative math-related games and projects: The Game of Life, graphing VW Beetles by color, Tic-Tac-Toe with Oreos, etc. How did you go about brainstorming these ideas?

MM: The Game of Life came from my own childhood. Making a graph of the VW Beetles sprung from my imagination and the Oreo game was probably just wishful thinking.

KRC: Do you like to play games? If so, what are your favorites?

MM: I love to play board games, card games, any word games. The games of my childhood are my favorites. The Game of LIFE, of course, is a classic. I love Boggle, Canasta, Sorry, Yahtzee, Pictionary, Taboo, Trivial Pursuit (especially the Book Edition, which includes Judy Moody!) I'm hooked on Jeopardy! and Cash Cab, Joggle and Super Text Twist, and I solve at least one crossword puzzle a day.

My current favorite is to play Park and Shop with my nieces --- very retro! They have the exact same version I had when I was a kid. I like to play made-up games with my niece, too. We have one called the Dylan game that is based on trying to stump each other using lines/lyrics from Bob Dylan songs. She's 11 and always beats the pants off of me!

KRC: You are tuned in to the interests, lifestyle and language of third-grader Judy and also to those of college-aged students. How do you stay current?

MM: I spend a lot of time with kids of all ages. My husband and I have 32 kids in our two families, and I love hanging out with them all, from babies to college kids and beyond. I talk a lot with my readers and fans at schools, libraries and bookstores, and for JUDY MOODY GOES TO COLLEGE, I hung out at the local coffee shop and the baristas, college kids all helped me out with hip college slang words, like NCP for "nincompoop!" Or should I say "crucial" college slang. It's no longer hip to say hip, I'm told.

KRC: When you first started writing the Judy Moody series, did you think it would go on this long?

MM: Never. It took two years to write the first book and I thought that would be the only one. Now Book #8 is just coming out, and I'm told it's my funniest Judy Moody adventure so far. I must confess it was the most fun to write of all the Judy Moody books.

I always have many more ideas for Judy Moody than I have time to write!

KRC: Please describe how you and illustrator Peter H. Reynolds interact. Is there collaboration? Do you see the illustrations in progress?

MM: I do get to see sketches in various stages along the way, which is always such a thrill. Peter brings so much warmth and humor to the characters of Judy and Stink. Mostly I give feedback for accuracy. For example, if I write that Chloe wears her hair in a messy ponytail and he draws her with short hair or some such, we have to make sure the words and illustrations match. Our collaboration is through our brilliant editor, Mary Lee Donovan, at Candlewick Press.

KRC: You also write stand-alone novels such as THE BRIDGE TO NOWHERE and picture books including ANT AND HONEY BEE: WHAT A PAIR!, along with series chapter books featuring Judy and Stink. How different is it to write in these diverse formats?

MM: Each format is completely different and has its own challenges and delights. I try to hear the voice of each one in my head, but sometimes, if I've been writing, say, a Judy Moody book, and I go on to write a longer novel like THE SISTERS CLUB, I'm still carrying some of Judy with me. That's when my editor asks, "Why are all the sentences so short?" or "Why is this written all in dialogue with no description or narrative?" KRC: Will you please tell us about your path to publication? MM: My first book was a picture book called IS THIS A HOUSE FOR HERMIT CRAB?, which I wrote while working as a children's librarian at a public library. I attended a conference there and happily met Richard Jackson, who became my first editor. I kept sending him the manuscript and it kept getting lost in the mail, but in the end, he took a chance on me.

KRC: What writing project are you working on now? When will your next book be available?

MM: I have just finished a companion/sequel to THE SISTERS CLUB called THE RULE OF THREE, which will be released in Fall 2009. And I'm wrapping up a rewrite of the next Stink book (Number Five), which is tentatively titled STINK: SOLAR SYSTEM SUPERHERO.