Before I had the fortune and pleasure to meet her in person, I met Donna Gephart through the wonderful Death by Toilet Paper, and was impressed by her keen eye for the small detail that makes all the difference. Her books are packed with humor, honesty and passion, which will be readily apparent to you when you read her newest book, The Paris Project (Simon and Schuster Books for Young Readers)
Cleveland Rosebud Potts came to me in a wild burst of inspiration one day and feels like a gift. I thought I was writing a funny book about three Jewish boys, but Cleveland marched onto the page with her determined voice and strong story and refused to budge. I’m glad for her stubborn insistence. This book is filled with humor and heart and touches on important societal issues.
One of the things I wanted to do with this novel was honor the unique relationship that sisters have. While my one sister and I didn’t get along when we were younger, I knew she’d always be there when I needed her. We have always had each other’s backs and still do. So I crafted a deeply committed relationship between Cleveland and her big sister, Georgia. Life isn’t easy for either of the girls. They both need to work a lot in addition to going to school. We get to peek into their world and see what each is willing to give up for each other. Hint: Everything!
It’s not easy to grow up in a small town, like the fictional town of Sassafras, Florida. Some towns can feel stifling, especially if you can’t fit yourself into the narrow box that the community has laid out for you. I’ve been in places like that where you can almost feel it in the air that you can’t comfortably be different from that community’s norm. That’s why Cleveland’s relationship with her buddy, Declan, in this book is so important. Declan is a wonderful friend, who is always there for Cleveland. But she’s tested when Declan falls hard for a boy who happens to be Cleveland’s sworn enemy. She is sure this boy’s dad is the reason her dad is in jail. Can Cleveland still be friends with Declan after she feels he betrayed her? And why was he keeping this part of himself secret from her, his best friend?
Another part of this story deals with financial insecurity, which of course becomes more pronounced when a family member is incarcerated and there is one less income in the house and added expenses to visit and take care of a loved one in jail. There are so many young people whose families struggle financially. It’s important they see themselves on the page. A recent book that highlights this beautifully is The Benefits of Being an Octopus by Ann Braden. It’s also vital that young people of privilege get a look into the world of financial insecurity to help create understanding and empathy. I grew up with a single mom who worked hard to take care of her girls the best she could, but still we got free lunch tickets, hand-me-down clothes and the public library was the only place I could explore the wild, wonderful world of books. I infused Cleveland’s mom with all of my mom’s grit and determination and her strong work ethic. I also gave Cleveland’s mom big dreams that are never fully realized, as often happens when one deals with life-long financial insecurity. Cleveland’s mom does all she can to provide for and support her daughters, especially after her husband’s incarceration.
Perhaps the most interesting relationship growth happens between Cleveland and her dad. She loves her dad with all her heart. He’s always been a fun and stable presence in her life, but because of a gambling addiction, he’s done something awful. Cleveland is torn between wanting to visit him and to hanging onto her righteous anger about what he’s done. Those visits are only through a video visitation center — no actual contact — which is something that happens more and more in real life. (There’s a Bill of Rights for Children of Incarcerated Parents at the back of the book, along with sobering statistics about the state of incarceration in our country.) Cleveland Rosebud Potts needs to dig deep . . . deeper . . . no, deeper still to figure out how to forgive her dad and learn to bloom where she’s planted, even if it’s in the tiny town of Sassafras, Florida, which doesn’t even have a French restaurant.
I think this book will expand reader’s hearts and minds as they root for Cleveland and her family.
The talented book designer, Lizzy Bromley, and brilliant artist, Bijou Karman, created a cover I fell madly in love with. It captures Cleveland’s reality living in a trailer home in a tiny town versus her intense desire to move to someplace filled with culture, like Paris, France. (Wait till you see the adorable pooch on the back cover!)
I hope this books gets shared in classrooms all over the country. There is much to think about and discuss!
Donna Gephart has been writing middle grade novels for Penguin Random House and Simon and Schuster for over a dozen years. Her books have won awards, received starred reviews and landed on many state reading lists. Donna loves visiting elementary and middle schools, connecting with young readers at book festivals and giving creative writing workshops. She lives in the Philadelphia area with her family, where she enjoys hiking, biking and exploring small towns, especially their indie bookstores and vegetarian restaurants. Her first picture book, Go Be Wonderful, comes out early in 2021 from Holiday House. The Paris Project comes out October 8th from Simon & Schuster Books for Young Readers. (You can order a personalized copy from the world’s best indie bookstore here. For resources, writing tips, a singing/dancing hamster video and more, visit her website, Twitter or Facebook.