For kids enjoying their first years of social independence, negotiating new friendships can be overwhelming. Bonds are quickly made and broken, leaving confusion and tears in their wake. In her newest novel, Until Niagara Falls (Dundurn), author Jennifer Maruno tells the story of one such relationship. Timid, book-smart Brenda is enchanted when she meets the brash and confident Maureen, but when the initial thrills of Maureen's risky shenanigans give way to feelings of hurt and betrayal, Brenda must decide what kind of person she is, and what kind of people she really wants to be friends with.
While set in the tourist mecca of Niagara Falls, Maruno's characters and their problems are relatable to kids living anywhere. A thoughtful lesson on being true to yourself, Until Niagara Falls will resonate with kids going through their first tumultuous friendship, as well as adults who still remember what it was like.
We're very excited to have Jennifer at Open Book today, where she discusses the importance of her local writing community, why books for young readers don't always need perfect endings, and how growing up in Niagara Falls wasn't always as idyllic as it might seem.
Tell us about your new book and how it came to be.
Most people think that life in a famous city like Niagara Falls means nothing but fun. But growing up in a famous city was just like growing up in anywhere else. We had our happy times of birthdays, baseball, and swimming competitions just like kids anywhere else. But we also had angst over self-esteem and friendships. My novel Until Niagara Falls is based on the everyday life of middle grade kids trying to figure out friendships. Brenda understands how to communicate and manage Harvey, the special needs man that lives next door, because she has grown up with him, but she doesn’t know how to manage Maureen, her new neighbour from the big city of Toronto. Brenda also has the disadvantage of having “skipped” a grade, making her a very young, impressionable grade five student. This story comes from my own experience of middle grade acceleration, which made me feel like a fish out of water.
Is there a message you hope kids might take away from reading your book?
There is no manual on friendship. Children learn about friendship through trial and error. Parents for the most part oversee friendships in the primary grades. In the middle grades, kids begin to team up with classmates or ones they meet at the local park or swimming pool. The kids that they always find the most exciting are usually the ones parents want them to avoid! This is where friendship brings a sense of secret emotional tension. Children don’t understand that they don’t have to like or be liked by everyone which can often lead to heartbreak. It takes a long time to learn that friends should make you feel good about yourself, not the other way around. Friendship is really all about self-esteem.
How do you cope with setbacks or tough points during the writing process? Do you have any strategies that are your go-to responses to difficult points in the process?
The writing process is much bigger than putting words on paper. A good story, whether novel or picture book, requires a lot of thinking. When I get stuck, I turn to another form of creativity such as gardening or cooking. People don’t realize I am writing when I work in my garden. My hands aren’t tapping out words, but my brain is working hard at finding just the right solution to a problem. I remember shouting out the word YES while clipping roses as I had finally figured out where a pair of much needed running shoes would come from in Cherry Blossom Baseball, my last novel.
Of course, weeding is impossible in the winter and this is when some of my best cooking takes place. Standing over the stove stirring up my latest batch of soup leads to a lot of ideas. My husband and I tend to travel in the winter and the experience of different cultures is also inspirational.
How would you describe the writing community in Canada in terms of authors writing for young people? What strengths and weaknesses do you observe within the community?
I am so very fortunate to live in a city with a large population of creative people. Twice a month, twelve Burlington children’s authors and illustrators come together to listen to each other’s work, edit, and talk about the industry. Ian Elliott, owner of A Different Drummer bookstore, named our group the Burlington Author’s Mafia (BAM) because we show up everywhere, attending launches, promoting each other’s work and celebrating our successes!
The children’s writing community is well represented by the Canadian Society of Children’s Authors, Illustrators and Performers (CANSCAIP). As Vice President of that organization. I see so many young creators take their first steps into the world of publication and professional recognition. CANSCAIP holds an amazing conference each year called Packaging Your Imagination which focuses on the development of one’s craft. No matter what stage you are at in your career this conference helps you to continue to learn and develop.
Both BAM and CANSCAIP run on trust, goodwill and attendance. We grow as creators when our members use their voices to share their knowledge, which helps us all to grow. There can be no room for judgement or criticism. We leave that to the reviewers!
One drawback to the writing life is the general attitude that those who write for children are not as talented or important as those who write for adults, although J.K. Rowling has done a lot to change that.
There was a time when children’s authors visited schools on a regular basis to talk about inspiration and the craft of writing. These visits have declined due to new funding models and lack of grants. This is a problem for all forms of creative arts such as music and drama as well which is sad. Today’s youth need creative inspiration more than ever with the never-ending intrusiveness of technology.
Once again, children in Burlington are fortunate to have a very supportive public library system. Each year they conduct a tween writing contest, which I have the honor of judging along with Sylva McNicoll. Each year the number of entries and talent grows.
Did the book look the same in the end as your originally envisioned it when you started working, or did it change through the writing process?
My writer’s group heard every chapter of Until Niagara Falls as it was being written. We had a very long discussion about the ways to end the story, each person reliving their own difficult friendship when they were in the junior grades.
My first ending was too abrupt, which I thought didn’t reflect Brenda’s character. I worked on softening their story by having Maureen commit her first selfless deed. But I didn’t want Maureen to go through a change of personality just because Brenda rejected her friendship. I also couldn’t have Brenda and Maureen completely resolve their differences and make it a happily-ever-after ending. Young girls do not need a fairy tale ending each time they read a book. They need a touch of reality and something to think about.
What are you working on now?
I have lots of projects on the go right now; the start of a new novel, several picture books, a couple of board books and, for the first time, an adult novel. Experience has taught me that there is no straight-ahead road into publication. Markets and interests vary. It’s always good to have something waiting in the wings.
Jennifer Maruno is a long-time educator and author. Her debut novel, When the Cherry Blossoms Fell, was shortlisted for the Hackmatack Award and the Pacific Northwest Library Association Young Readers Choice Award. She lives in Burlington, Ontario.