Boy oh boy, do I feel blessed to count Gennifer Choldenko as a friend. Yes, she’s an amazing writer; not only prolific, but she creates such a wide variety of work — middle grade historical fiction (the Al Capone series; Chasing Secrets); middle grade realistic fiction (Notes from a Liar and Her Dog, No Passengers Beyond this Point) and picture books (Dad and the Dinosaur, Louder, Lili). She has one of the best laughs in children’s literature and one of the biggest hearts. She is such a true blue friend she once attempted to take on San Francisco traffic just to get to one of my book events (sadly, the traffic won). And she is a great encourager. Her warmth, kindness and generosity certainly underpin her newest novel, One Third Nerd (Wendy Lamb/Random House).
A novel is a long and complicated organism that feeds on ideas – thousands and thousands of ideas. I find it fascinating to hear authors share the first idea that sparked what can be one year of hard work or ten or twenty. What idea triggers that experience? One of my novels began with a car accident that happened to a friend of mine. (If a Tree Falls at Lunch Period) One with a historical event: the plague outbreak in San Francisco 1900. (Chasing Secrets). Others have started with a setting. (Al Capone Does My Shirts and the novel due out in 2020: Orphan Eleven). Al Capone Shines My Shoes, Al Capone Does My Homework, Al Capone Throws Me a Curve all began by playing endless games of what if . . .
But for me, the easiest way to start a novel is to have the character knock on my door and insist to be let in. That’s what happened with One-Third Nerd (Wendy Lamb Books). In the Fall of 2015, I was sitting in an SCBWI conference on writing nonfiction, which I’m not, by the way, really interested in writing. The presenter was talking about science books, when suddenly Dakota popped into my head. Dakota is an extremely earnest third grader full to bursting with ideas and ambition. She has a strong will, a clever mind and hopelessly misguided social skills.
I was thrilled when Dakota made her appearance. But what did I want to do with her? My first question was: did I want her to be my viewpoint character? I played around with that for a bit, but ultimately decided against it, because the book felt funnier from the point of view of her big-hearted, intensely self-conscious older brother, Liam. And the fun began.
I am known for my offbeat humor. I admit sometimes I think things are an absolute riot, I’m doubled over, slapping my leg, holding my stomach, rolling on the floor, and when I look up . . . I see I’m the only one laughing. My family calls my humor: Gennifer Jokes. So yes it’s a risk for me to write a book like this.
But humor aside, there is significant gravitas in One-Third Nerd. The Rose family is experiencing financial and emotional strains due to the parents recent divorce. Izzy, the world’s most adorable little sister, has Down Syndrome. Plus the Rose’s beloved dog is no longer welcome in the apartment where the kids and their mom live. These are the kind of challenges that many families face. As I write this, we are on day #28 of the government shutdown. The news is full of stories about kids trying to help out parents who are suddenly without paychecks.
At its core One-Third Nerd is about a family who love each other despite the growing pains of its members. A family which is stronger than the sum of the problems it faces.
With more than 2 million books sold, Choldenko is best known for her Tales from Alcatraz series, which Kirkus called: “A cornerstone series in contemporary children’s literature.” Al Capone Does My Shirts was a Newbery Honor Book and the recipient of twenty other awards. One-Third Nerdis Gennifer’s fifteenth book for children. It is a Junior Library Guild selection and has received starred reviews from PW and Kirkus which said: “Reminiscent of Judy Blume’s work, this endearing story will make many children laugh and allow some to see a part of themselves.” Gennifer lives in the San Francisco Bay area with her loyal husband and naughty dog.