Becky Wojahn is an awesome writer. I say this as someone who has read her work in various forms since I met her in 2004 at the Writer’s Workshop at Chautauqua. For a while, we were in the same online critique group (until we both got swamped with work). We sold our first middle grade novels just a few weeks apart, and they both debut this year! Becky writes as W. H. Beck and her novel Malcolm at Midnight will soon be featured at BEA as one of the most buzz-worthy new books of the year! Malcolm at Midnight is a wonderful novel about rat whose talents include solving mysteries, and of course, reading. In addition to being an author, Becky works full time as a librarian. (I don’t know how she does it.) That is a picture of her at her library on the left. If you want to see the rest of her, you’ll have to visit her WEBSITE! Thanks so much Becky for joining us today. Can you tell us a little about where you work and what you do?
Hi Kami. I am currently an elementary school librarian in the Eau Claire Area School District in Wisconsin. I spend my days talking about books, helping teachers, and teaching research and technology skills. It’s a great job—even more so in that I work at my kids’ school (well, not Eli any more—eep!) and that it’s close enough to walk to.
In the past, I’ve taught (middle school and fourth grade), worked at a public library, and as the education librarian at the University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire. I’m active in state (WEMTA) and national (ALA) library organizations and used to write pretty frequently for school library publications (there’s a list on my website under “other writing”).
What do all these things have in common? Throughout it all, my love of stories, especially ones for kids!
If you could give your middle school or high school self one piece of advice, what would it be? Only one? Don’t do the really short feathered haircut! Your hair is too straight to go the way you hope it will and you will look like a boy. For many months. Man, that took a long time to grow out.
More seriously? Well, this is a tough one, and I’m not sure my middle school/high school self would ever even believe it, but I’d advise that it’s okay to be quiet. I am not a very outgoing person by nature, and I’ve spent a lot of my life, especially those years, wishing I was funnier and louder and more sparkly, and feeling really uncomfortable when I tried. Somehow people think you’re not having fun if you’re not the life of the party. It’s taken me a long time to realize: how would they know? Only I know, and I need to listen to myself. It’s okay to watch and listen—and have fun doing it. Ironically, this realization has made me more willing to speak up and express myself!
So now that you are willing to express yourself tell us one of your favorite way to flaunt your brain power! Aside from being a rocket scientist or a computer engineer, I probably have the most stereotypical job for flaunting my brain power! My day in the library is a mix of trivia (Mrs. Wojahn, what is the fourth book in Cressida Cowell’s Dragon series? [HOW TO CHEAT A DRAGON’S CURSE]), detective work (Mrs. Wojahn, do you remember that book you read to us two years ago about the colorful dirty squirrels and the vacuum cleaner? [RHYMING DUST BUNNIES]), and “fixer” (Mrs. Wojahn, why won’t this formula work in Excel??).
What aspects of your career (writing or being a librarian or both) are most stimulating to your brain? Part of the reason I went into teaching and libraries (and probably why I write, too) is that I LOVE learning new things. I am curious about so many things and writing, teaching, and working in a library positions me perfectly for uncovering all sorts of great tidbits of information.
It seems like loving to learn is a recurring theme on this blog. For good reason! What is one of your favorite achievements that you can credit to being a nerdy chick? Well, when I was a kid, I always felt like I wasn’t never THE BEST at anything—and I desperately wanted to be. The closest I came was in reading. I tied my best friend for doing the most book reports in the second grade, and I never stopped reading after that. Eventually, even my reader friends slowed down, but I kept going. (I was the epitome of nerdy chickhood, walking home from middle school with a clarinet case in one hand and an open book in the other.)
But if you keep doing something long enough, you get good at it, and when you’re good at something, you usually enjoy it. So even though I was never THE BEST writer or student growing up, I’m proud of where I’ve ended up—with not one, but two jobs that I love.
That is super rewarding! Do you ever give nerdy traits to any of your characters? One of my favorite characters in Malcolm at Midnight is Amelia Vang, the fifth grade girl that Malcolm bonds with. She’s one of those hyper-organized students that I’m guessing many teachers will recognize. She’s totally color-coded and labeled—notebooks match folders; socks match hair elastic—and she’s also the class schedule keeper. However, despite (or perhaps because of) this, she has trouble connecting with other students in her class. Malcolm ends up helping her with this.
Amelia is a wonderful character! Did you do any particular research when writing Malcolm at Midnight? For being a funny mystery starring a talking rat, I did a lot of research for Malcolm! First of all, I’ve never had a rat as a pet, so I had to learn about rats—what they could do (swim through plumbing!), their strengths (resilience) and weaknesses (food). It was really fun to twist those around into Malcolm’s character traits and actions. The same was true for the classroom pets’ “slang.” I figured that if food was really important to them, then their vocabulary would reflect that. So I got to get out my trusty thesaurus and looked up alternate words for eating and snacks and crumbs and turn them into sayings the animals could use.
Working with an illustrator (Brian Lies) also opened up a whole new level of research for me. Malcolm at Midnight is set in an old school, and when I write, I like to use a lot of visuals, so I spent way more time than I needed to clicking around on the internet, looking at aging schools and clock towers. But this all came in handy later on, when Brian had questions about the school’s layout. I forwarded him a lot of my links and sketches and photos for his illustrations.
And finally, because I’m a nerdy chick, I did a lot of research in planning and plotting a successful mystery—what parts are necessary? How do you hide the clues in plain sight? I really loved learning about how to fit the pieces of the story together.
I love hearing the ways that authors bring their stories alive with research! Very nerdy. And I love interviewing my friends because I always find out something new about them. Like, I didn’t know Becky could draw. But look at this early sketch she made of Malcolm. Pretty great, right?
Becky and I are both in a group of debut authors called the Apocalypses. Check the Apocalypsies blog for updates on our books and other books debuting in 2012.
Thanks again Becky joining us. I’ll be posting more Malcolm news here as it rolls in! Readers, you can look for Malcolm at Midnight in bookstores in September!