An interview with author Dan Gemeinhart
The Children’s Book Review
In this episode, I talk with Dan Gemeinhart, author of the acclaimed novel The Remarkable Journey of Coyote Sunrise. We discuss his newest middle grade novel, The Midnight Children.
Dan Gemeinhart is a former elementary school teacher-librarian and lifelong book nerd. He lives with his wife and three daughters in a small town in Washington State. He’s the author of some other books, too: The Honest Truth, Some Kind of Courage, Scar Island, and Good Dog. He’d love to talk about books with you if he ever meets you.
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Dan Gemeinhart: Hello. Thank you so much for having me.
Bianca Schulze: Oh, it’s an absolute pleasure because I was so obsessed with your 2019 middle grade book, The Remarkable Journey of Coyote Sunrise, so I immediately got excited when I saw you had your new book coming this year, and rightly so, because The Midnight Children is fantastic.
Dan Gemeinhart: Thank you. Thank you so much. As always, a mixture of exciting and nerve-racking when a new book goes out in the world, and you have all your doubts and your insecurities and your fears and your anxiety. So, any time you start to hear anything kind of good, it’s always a bit of a relief and a reassurance for sure. So, thanks. I’m so glad you liked it.
Bianca Schulze: I have so many positive things to say, so I feel like you’ll feel very relieved at the end of our chat today. I found that it really has something for everyone, even reluctant readers. It’s got realistic fiction with a hint of magical realism. There’s mystery, suspense, thrilling action, and it’s even philosophical. So, let’s start with where the crazy idea to write a book for kids set in a town named Slaughterville came from.
Dan Gemeinhart: To get to that, which is a great question, I almost have to go back a little bit to the process I went through of writing the story, which was a very long process, and I hope I don’t step on any later questions, but it is really relevant to that question, in particular, is this story was a long time coming for me. I’ve been working on different versions of the story for more than ten years.
It started as a story that I was telling my three- or four-year-old daughter, trying to get her to go to sleep at nap time. And I started that first chapter, which is pretty much intact, with this boy waking up in the middle of the night and seeing a mysterious group of children moving into the empty house across the street. That’s how the story started. That’s how the story is now.
But along the way, it went through a million changes. Changing plot, changing the setting, changing characters, changing tone, changing voice, changing everything. Sometimes it was a novella, sometimes, it was twice as long as it is now. Sometimes it was half as long. Really a hard process for me to find the best version of the story and how this story needed to be told, and how this story was best told.
All that’s a long way of saying what I finally landed on was what it is now. Obviously, it is kind of scary, it is kind of suspenseful. It’s kind of magical. It’s an adventure. It’s also kind of emotional. To make it all land, I went for this kind of old-timey tone. It’s a third-person narrator who’s really voicey and everything is a little overdrawn in kind of a Roald Dahl kind of way, where the villains are purely bad. Like the hunter is this villain, he’s purely bad. And it’s all overdrawn in a way that I hope is fun because when I tried to make it hyper-realistic, it wasn’t fun because of a lot of the other content in the book. It became too harrowing and not fun.
And so, the Slaughterville here, I promise I’m getting to your question. The slaughterhouse in Slaughterville came from that like, okay, how can I turn this up to a comical degree where it’s not actually scary and not actually horrifying, but that kind of uniquely kidlit version of terrifying in a fun way and gross in a fun way and disturbing in a fun way. Like a lot of Roald Dahl stuff where it’s overdrawn but in a way that’s cartoony but not silly. I don’t know, I’m kind of rambling, but that’s the idea.
So, I thought, okay, I’m going to go over the top. I’m going to make this setting, this initial setting where this kid lives, as kind of comically grim and dark as I can. So, he lives down the street from a slaughterhouse and all like, the streets in town are named after slaughter terms, and his dad works in the slaughterhouse, and there are scenes that happen in the slaughterhouse just to show, like, what is this kid’s life like before these new kids move in? And how can that change and improve? And so, yeah, all that ridiculous kind of over-the-top kind of gross-out with me trying to turn everything up a little bit in a way that would make it, ironically, more fun and less scary and disturbing.
Bianca Schulze: What’s really cool—and I’m assuming you find this cool—but parallels have been drawn between your writing and the wonderful and amazing Kate DiCamillo’s. And the reason I agree with this is that you both create novels with such a fantastic cast of fascinating characters, and the main protagonists always seem to be working their way toward finding a sense of belonging and a sense of home. And what does home really mean? Is that human desire of needing to belong and finding one’s way home, so to speak, something that you’re deeply aware of when you’re writing?
Dan Gemeinhart: Yes. I mean, I was consciously and subconsciously. And I would agree that that is really a theme of all of my books. I’m going back kind of through my head, that sense of figuring out who you are and where you belong and the sense in an emotional sense like, who am I? Where do I belong in the world? But also literally, physically, where is home? Where do I want to be? Where should I end up literally in real life? I think that it’s something I do consciously.
I think subconsciously, it comes out of my childhood in my life when I was a middle grader because my family moved a ton. We moved, like, every year, sometimes more than once a year. And so, we were always packing up our stuff and heading off to a new state, a new town, a new house, a new school. So, for my whole childhood, I was always the new kid, the new kid in class, the new kid in school. We were ruthless. And home to me was never like, a place because that was always changing or a home or a bedroom because that was always changing. Or even friends and school and teachers because that was always changing. Home is like where you are theoretically and where your family is, which was totally fine.
It was not some traumatic childhood, although it was really hard at times. But I think that’s deep in my conscious now, and that little middle grader inside me is still exploring that and still kind of asking those questions, where do I belong? Where is home? What does home mean? What does family mean? And so, when I sit down to write a story, those themes seem to always come to the front. But I also think they were very specific for me. But I think they are also pretty universal. I think that even if you still live in the home you grew up in as a child, we’re all still daily figuring out who we are now because we go through different phases of our life and where do I belong now in my life. And so, I think those themes are also pretty universal.
Bianca Schulze: Let’s dive into your characters. Every character mentioned in the story, even the ones with the smallest but often integral parts, come across as fully formed to me. So, let’s start with your main protagonist. What do you want us to know about Ravani?
Dan Gemeinhart: He’s a good kid. He’s a smart kid. He’s a strong kid. He’s a brave kid. But when the story starts, he doesn’t know any of that because he’s quiet and he’s introverted, and he doesn’t fit in in this slaughterhouse town in which he lives. And so, he is friendless, and he is lonely, and he is bullied.
There’s one pure villain. There are two pure villains, but one pure villain in his life before the story starts that permeates throughout, which is Donny, this bully kid who torments him and makes his life miserable, physically beating him up and also just bullying him, ridiculing him. So, he has a very poor self-image, and he thinks that he’s worthless because he’s been told that he’s worthless. And it’s going to take someone else telling him a different kind of story for him to see himself in a better light. And that’s what the story is about. That’s not what the plot is about, but that’s emotionally, thematically, what the story is about. And he is my most autobiographical main character.
Any kind of story, but I think especially middle grade, so much of a story hinges on that main character and their personality. And like Coyote Sunrise, for instance, a whole different protagonist than Ravani. She’s loud, she’s got a big personality. She’s all self-confidence. She’s got this great attitude and this great voice. And Ravani is the polar opposite of that.
Ravani is much more like what I was like as a middle grader because of the moving around. And I was a skinny little bookish, quiet, shy kid. There were a lot of times in my life when I didn’t fit in, and a lot of times in places where we lived where I didn’t have any friends, and I got bullied and picked on. And so, as a result, I was very quiet and very full of self-doubt up until much later in life. And so, he is a little bit of me on the page, or maybe even a lot of me on the page.
I really liked writing him because he was so different than all my other heroes, and in the end, he’s much more along to becoming the kind of person that he could have been and should have been and would have been all along if other people hadn’t been telling him differently.
Bianca Schulze: Yes. And you mentioned something kind of important that leads me to the next character I’d love to talk about, which is that he really does have a lot of self-doubts, and he has Donny who’s a bit of a bully or a lot of a bully in his life, and he has taken these things that Donny says to him to heart and believes them. So, there’s a character, Virginia, and I don’t want to give any spoilers away, so I only want you to share what you want us to know about these characters. But Virginia is definitely a character that helps him see the good qualities that he truly has. So, what do you want us to know about Virginia?
Dan Gemeinhart: Nice. Virginia. Yes. Virginia is in a lot of ways the star of the story, even though she’s not the main character, because she’s the foil in a good way to our protagonist, to everything that Ravani isn’t, she is, and vice versa, but in a good way. A lot of times that foil can be a villain, and they’re all the things the main character is not in a bad way. But she’s all the things that Ravani is not in a good way.
Also, I appreciate your lack of spoilers. My family will be rolling their eyes right now because I’m so aggressively anti-spoiler. I hate spoilers. I say, if we’re going to watch a movie, we’re not going to watch the preview. Like, if you want me to take you to a movie, we need to turn off the TV when a preview comes up because all you’re doing is robbing yourself of the experience of watching the movie. Like I go off sometimes.
Bianca Schulze: Some trailers do give away the entire movie. It’s like, who made this trailer? You just spoiled the entire movie.
Dan Gemeinhart: And if I know I’m going to read a book, which a lot of times an author that I love, or a book that I’ve heard good things about, I will refuse to read the blurb or the back of the book. Like, no, I want to discover the story as the story, not as whatever. So, I really appreciate no spoilers. That’s kind of an odd touch point for me, and I’m not sure why, but yeah.
So, Virginia is great, and she is everybody. Every character and every person are who they are because of how they’re reacting to things that have happened to them. And so, Ravani has gone deep inside himself because of the trauma that he’s faced. And Virginia has gone kind of the opposite way because she’s also had quite a traumatic childhood.
And this is not giving too much away because this is kind of the premise of the whole book. She is some version of a runaway and some version of an orphan, although she has a family, and that’s an important thing to note. But as a result of that, and also moving around a lot, like as a kid, and she went the other way, she decided to be very secure in herself. So maybe there’s no one else I can count on. Maybe there’s no place I can count on. So, I’m going to count on myself. I’m going to believe in myself. I know who I am, and no one’s going to tell me different. And that, of course, is exactly what Ravani needs to see.
And she also thinks the same thing about Ravani. She sees all the great potential in Ravani that’s been beaten down, literally and figuratively, by the town, by Donny, by life. And so, she is a really important character. She has changed a lot over the course of my rewriting and rewriting and rewriting the story and all sorts of different genres and versions. But she’s always had that same colonel. Sometimes she’s been more loud and brash, like a Coyote. And the version that she is now, which I think is her best version, she’s not loud and brash. She is her own kind of version of quiet and a little off to the side, but on the inside, she’s always been the same. This is who I am. This is who I think you are, and we’re not going to let them tell us differently.
Bianca Schulze: I feel like I have an excerpt that really sums up everything we’ve talked about.
“I’ve known plenty of Donny’s.” She reached into the bag, ripped off a chunk of the loaf, then tore it in two and handed half to Ravani. She popped the other half into her mouth. “The thing about this world is that there’s all kinds of people in it, and there’s nothing you can do about that,” she said through a crusty mouthful. The only thing to do is decide what kind you are and then be it. Don’t worry about anyone else. Especially the Donny’s.”
Dan Gemeinhart: Yeah, exactly. That is absolutely that’s her. The theme of her heart and distilled into one little conversation, for sure.
Bianca Schulze: Well, with themes of standing up to a bully, what it means to be a friend, and the desire to belong to something greater than oneself. I really could have kept writing down quotes from your book. You have such a way with sentences.
There’s an author, Nina Schuyler, and she’s a teacher of creative writing at the University of San Francisco, and she has this book titled How to Write Stunning Sentences. And when I was reading The Midnight Children, I thought that your writing has so many examples of stunning sentences.
So, I have another paragraph example from the first page that I think just really set the tone in the scene. And I feel like I was like, there’s so many examples of how stunning your writing is, and I probably didn’t even pick the best one, but I love this because it really set the tone.
“The town was dark except for the silver of the moonlight in the little block of buildings on Sinister Street that Slaughterville called downtown. The sheriff was in her office, but her feet were up on her desk, her head thrown back, eyes closed and mouth open, streaming along to the opera, music soaring from the record player spinning beside her.”
I just love how incredibly visual that became. You could have just named that the sheriff was there, and she was sleeping. But no, instead we can picture her with her feet up on her desk and her head thrown back and her eyes closed. So, I would just love to know about your writing process. And because I feel like you clearly put a lot of thought into every single sentence, when do you feel satisfied that your paragraph is done?
Dan Gemeinhart: The short answer is never. I’m definitely my own worst critic, and I pretty much hate everything I write while I’m writing it. After it’s written, all I see are things I could have done differently or maybe I should not have done ever. Is this right? Is that wrong? Is this too much? Is this not enough? I’m not a happy writer in a lot of ways. Even though I love writing, I love being a storyteller, I feel very grateful for what I’m doing. For me, writing, even though I love my stories, and I get really into it—and obviously, at the end of the day, it must be on some level fun or satisfying, or fulfilling because I keep doing it. Nobody’s making me do this—but the whole time I’m just pulling my hair out and thinking, this isn’t good enough. This isn’t good enough.
So, thank you for your kind words. I really appreciate that. And you know what? A lot of writing, especially the line writing for me is in the revising, for sure. And a lot of for me, the revising is tearing down because as a writer, you’re working on stuff as you’re developing your skills and becoming a writer, basically. And I spent years and years before I got anything published, I’ve thrown away entire books that never got published, figuring out how to tell a story and what my voice should be and what I wanted to say.
And a big part of that is kind of learning what your own flaws are and what are the weak parts of your writing. And for me, it is 100% overwriting. That’s what I tend to do. I love words and I love language and I love descriptions and metaphors and similes. And so, I do too much of that. And so, a lot of my revising is cutting stuff out. Like, okay, I’ve got a whole paragraph here about the sunset. I loved writing it. I think some of these sentences are really nice, and it’s all completely unnecessary. I can just say the sun set, it’s wasting the reader’s time.
And so, I spend a lot of time as a reviser trying to zero that in. Because you do want tone and you do want some images and you do want some poetry because that is—at the right level—fun to read and nice to read. And it paints a picture. And it drops the reader into a world. And it establishes tone and all those good things. But too much. It just wastes your reader’s time and slows it down. So, I’ll look at a paragraph and say, wow, I’ve got six metaphors in this paragraph. I’m going to cut that down to the best two or whatever, but you don’t want to cut out too much.
I do, long answer short, I do agonize over every line, and I do a lot of cutting things out and putting things back in and changing things out and all that kind of stuff, trying to make it right, especially for a young reader. Like, I take that responsibility really seriously, that these kids have a lot going on in their lives, these younger readers, and a lot you’re competing with, you’re competing with sports in school and PlayStations and all these things and Tik Toks, phones and all that stuff. And so, I want my books to be books that young readers enjoy, and they want to read the next chapter, and they’re drawn into it to the magic of the story. And I don’t want to waste their time because they’re pretty busy.
So, yeah, that’s a constant source of agony for me, is trying to get all that stuff as right as I can, and I’m changing it up until finally, the publisher says, stop, we’re going to printing. This book is done. Because I always see little, medium, and even sometimes big things that I can and should change to make the story hopefully as good as it can be.
Bianca Schulze: Yeah, well, you do an amazing job. I truly mean it. Like, I really did write down so many different quotes. I want to read one, and I promise this will be the last one I read to you, but I feel like it just sums up what you just said. It’s really simple. It sort of has a description of one of Ravani’s thoughts, and then you have this beautiful descriptive sentence, and then there’s a little piece of dialogue. And to me, I think it’s just the perfect blend of everything. Also just shares an amazing little nugget of wisdom that you hope plant a seed in a kid’s mind that says:
“He was sure that for every smart bit that Donny had, Virginia had at least two. There was a fire in her eyes, twice as hot as the embers glowing behind her, but her voice was still solemn and flat. I don’t like people who try to make me feel smaller than I really am. You should know that, Ravani.”
Let’s focus now on the little nuggets of wisdom that you plant through because nobody likes a book that’s preachy or telling kids how they should be, but somehow you plant these little pieces of wisdom that I just think are so wonderful for kids to hear in a character that could be the same age as them and relatable. So how do you decide which bits of your wisdom you want to plant into the book?
Dan Gemeinhart: Great question. And that is also really tricky. And that’s something I also agonize over because you’re absolutely right. I think anytime anyone’s writing a book, a fiction book, a novel, you’re at some point trying to say something, you’ve got something to say about life or people or growth or relationships or death or whatever, and you want to say that. I don’t start with my themes. I start with the idea, the concept, and the hook. But the themes come out as you start telling a story, and so you start writing that stuff in, and as the situation happens and you feel something that you want to say about it, you will want to say that.
But also, like any reader, especially because readers can see that preaching a mile away and on a couple of different levels, that’s just bad, right? It’s bad writing. If I have a character saying something that they wouldn’t say, it’s just something I would say, or they’re saying it in a way that they wouldn’t say, then it’s just not good writing because then it’s not really the character talking, it’s me talking. But also, it’s not good writing for kids because they say, here comes another didactic book that’s trying to teach me a lesson about kindness or working hard or not giving up, and it’s just like another after-school special, and then you’ve lost them.
And so, I do like, yeah, you want to say stuff, and you want to leave a reader with something to think about and something to mull over and ponder, but you also just want the characters to feel real, and you want the story to be fun because if the characters don’t feel real, the reader won’t connect with them. And if the story isn’t fun, even if it’s a sad story or a scary story, it can still be a fun story, fun in that you want to keep reading it, then they’re not going to keep reading it. They’ve got a million other things to do in their life. And so, for a couple of reasons that are very important, I do really work on that.
Okay. And again, just like I said with the lyrical stuff, that’s a lot of what I do is I go through and say, okay, here’s Ravani, or here’s Virginia saying something that’s me talking. So, should I cut that? Should I have the narrator say it? Should I put it in a different language so the content is what I want to say, but it sounds like something they would say that’s a lot of what I do, this sentence or this line feels false. It’s bumping me out as I’m reading this.
And also, what can really help with that is reading aloud. So, one of my steps of revising, because I’ve got three kids, is when I finish a rough draft, I then read it out loud to my family because we read books together every night anyway. And so, when I finish a book okay, now we’re going to read Dad’s terrible rough draft, and reading it out loud is a great way to find those false notes where it looks good. You on the page, in your head, it sounded fine, and then you read out loud, and it sounds fake, or it sounds cheesy, it sounds too much, or it just sounds false. Like, no, Virginia would not say that as I’m reading this out loud. This does not sound like her talking. This sounds like me talking or a teacher talking or whatever.
So, yeah, you do want to hopefully get that as right as you can, and it can be really tricky, and that’s where other voices can help. Editors are super important for everything we’ve talked about. My editors have been amazing in helping me make the stories better. My wife is a great editor, saying, this works. This is not working. I’m not buying this. My kids are great with that feedback. So, yeah, it’s one of those things you really want to get as right as you can.
Bianca Schulze: Now, I would love to know a little bit about what led you to become a writer because you’re on book number six, and I’m assuming that writing is your day job now, is that correct?
Dan Gemeinhart: It is, yeah. Now I’m a full-time writer. I have been a full-time writer since I guess it would have been, like, October 2016. In my mind, it’s been one or two years, but I guess that’s six years.
Bianca Schulze: Okay, so what were you doing before you became a writer? Because I feel like this is an interesting job that you had that actually probably helps and informs a lot of your writing.
Dan Gemeinhart: Yes, I had the best job in the world for 13 years. I was an elementary school teacher-librarian. So, working in the library of an elementary school and here in Washington State, that’s a certified teaching job, just like a classroom teacher. And so I was a teacher in the library, and it was the best job ever because I love books. I love kids. I love kids’ books. And it was just fantastic and I loved it, loved it, loved it, miss it all the time.
And that is why I became a writer for kids. Like, I thought back in high school and college that I wanted to write books for grown-ups. And the first book that I tried to write, which was an absolute train wreck, was an adult book that was horrible. And then, I got a job as an elementary teacher-librarian. And I had not read middle grade books, kidlit books, since I was a middle grader myself. So, I had to read a bunch of books so I could do my job and recommend books to my students. And I was blown away by how amazing middle grade literature is and how far it’s come since I was a middle grader.
There was like a shelf when I was a middle grade reader. There was Beverly Clear and Judy Bloom, which were amazing, and there was Mildred Taylor, who was amazing, but there wasn’t that much. And now, today, for the last, whatever number of years, there are so many writers writing so many amazing stories of such depth and beauty and power. I was just blown away by middle grade. And so that’s why I said, this is what I want to write, these are the stories I want to tell. It still deals with all the big stuff, but in a way that I found to be so much more engaging and approachable and fun.
And so that’s hugely important and why I started writing for kids and how I write for kids because a lot of my students were reluctant readers. I worked in a school that was very challenging socioeconomically. Most kids were on free or reduced lunch, and for most of my kids, English was their second language and so a lot of them were reluctant readers. And that was my job, to try to get them excited about books. And I think that really shows in my writing style, where I tend to have really punchy first chapters with a big hook and I tend to have shorter chapters and chapters that end with a cliffhanger of some kind to try to keep those readers going.
So, yeah, it was great. I did not step away because I got a book deal and I’m going to quit my job. It was an uninteresting story about grown-up stuff, HR stuff. Like I switched to teaching half-time, and I was writing half-time and teaching half-time, which was great when my first three books came out, but then there were budget cuts and I was going to get involuntarily transferred to a full-time job, and I already had all these book deadlines, so I really reluctantly stepped away, but not because I didn’t love it. And I would love, and I hope, that I’m an elementary teacher librarian again someday because it was just the best job in the world.
Bianca Schulze: I want to segue with that into my next question. But I just need a tangent really quick. As I had Bob Shea, the author and illustrator, on the podcast a couple of weeks back. And he said something that you just touched on, too. It’s how your chapters start with that big hook. But then you have shorter chapters and then some longer chapters and then some shorter chapters. And I’m glad you touched on that because I love that because I feel like remembering as a kid myself when you were reading and sometimes some chapters felt really, really long, but it was always refreshing when you got to mix it up and it felt empowering that, oh, wow, I just got through that chapter really fast, and then maybe I’ll read an extra chapter tonight. So, I love that your books offer that flexibility with the sort of depth and length of the different chapters.
Dan Gemeinhart: Nice. Awesome. Thank you.
Bianca Schulze: So, with your teacher experience, your teacher librarian experience, and an author, do you believe that to be a writer, you should be a reader first?
Dan Gemeinhart: You know what? I hesitate anytime as a writer kind of questions because writers love to talk about rules. Like, if you’re a writer, you need to write every day. I don’t think that’s true. I don’t write every day. I’m a streak writer. I’ll go on like a crazy month where I’m writing 8 hours a day and then I won’t write for a couple of weeks. And so, some people say you’ve got to write first thing. And they have all the different rules because that’s what works for them. And maybe they tried a lot of things that didn’t work, and then they hit upon this thing that works for their whatever, their personality, their mindset, whatever. And so, they say, well, this obviously is what writers need to do. And so that they make these pronouncements about what a writer needs to do.
For me, yes, I was a huge reader, and that is absolutely why I became a writer. How I became a writer, it informs me as a writer to this day, absolutely. I’m still a huge reader, 100%. So, I would be tempted to say, yes, as a writer, you must start as a reader first.
Dan Gemeinhart: But I’ve heard so many bogus rules by other writers that I’m not going to say. I don’t recall ever having met a writer who wasn’t a reader first.
I’ve met some writers who were not readers when they were kids. And these are kidlit writers who were not readers when they were kids. I’ve heard Jason Reynolds, the amazing, incredible, remarkable Jason Reynolds talking about he was not a reader through middle school and through high school. And then he’s got into— I’m not going to tell you a story; you can and should go listen to him talk. He’s an incredible speaker and incredible person, but he was not a reader as a kid. But I believe if I got his biography right, I believe he became a reader before he became a writer. I think I remember him talking about that.
If some teenager or some middle schooler or some elementary schooler is not a reader and they’re hearing some authors say, you have to be a reader to be a writer, well, I guess I can’t be a writer. There are so many paths to ending up as a writer or as anything else. And yeah, everyone kind of has their own journey.
Bianca Schulze: Yeah, great words of wisdom. I also would be curious, too, if you had a specific moment in your life—since you do consider yourself a reader and that you were a reader growing up—was there a specific moment in which you identified as a reader?
Dan Gemeinhart: I would just say always.
I remember watching my parents read and seeing how wrapped they could look. I remember vividly once, okay, where were we living? So, this would have been first grade, and I remember my dad reading, and he was reading something funny. He was sitting in the recliner, and he was reading some sort of funny book, and he was laughing, laughing so hard that he almost had tears coming out of his eyes. And I remember thinking, man, there are things inside that book. There are worlds in there. You can sit in a quiet room with nothing funny happening and be laughing so hard, or you could be crying, or you could be scared or whisked away on an adventure.
I remember viscerally that feeling of saying, I want to do that. I want to see what’s in books, how you can have it like an emotional experience, just sitting there looking at a piece of paper.
And I mean, I already loved picture books before that, and I loved being read to before that, so that’s when I started being interested in books. But that was definitely a moment that I remember. But then, I was always that kid who would save up money to go to the bookstore and buy the next Hardy Boy book. Or every summer, I would walk to the public library and get a bag full of books, and I would read like, a book a day. That was like my life. And then, every week, I’d go back and drop them off and get another bag of books. So, yes, always. Just definitely been a reader.
Bianca Schulze: That’s awesome. Is there one book from your childhood that pops right into your head when I say that? Like, what one book?
Dan Gemeinhart: Not necessarily. I remember certain books that kind of really blew my mind, like Hatchet. It really hooked me. Hatchet. It was an important book to me. Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry was a big book for me because up until then, books had been fun. And I love books. I love reading. And when I was in fifth grade, the second half of fifth grade, because we moved in the middle of fifth grade, the first half of fifth grade, we read Hatchet, which was amazing. My teacher read Hatchet and then we moved. And the second half of fifth grade, my new fifth-grade teacher read Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry by Mildred Taylor. And it was amazing because that’s when I saw how powerful books can be.
And we talk about mirrors and windows and that’s so important and such an incredible thing. And it was for me, a window and holy cow. Like, there are people who have lived an entirely different life and experience than me talking about segregation and all those things and the life of the character in that book and the experiences and the hardships and the obstacles were miles and miles and miles away from my life. But also, in so many ways, that character was like me, and we’re still— at heart we want to be happy, and we love our families and all those universal human things, no matter the challenges of our circumstances.
So, Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry was important because I said, wow, books aren’t just a great way to spend a summer day or to entertain you. Like, you can learn something, you can say something, you can really experience something bigger than yourself through stories.
Bianca Schulze: Yes, that was a beautiful answer. So, on that note, is there anything else that we should know about The Midnight Children that maybe we didn’t touch on?
Dan Gemeinhart: I would say that if anyone’s read any of my other books and this one is different in a lot of ways, I think it’s my biggest outlier. If you compare all my other books, this one is the most not like the rest, if that makes sense. But I think in a lot of ways it’s my most. I think it’s my most magical and that it literally has the most magic in the plot. I think it’s my most scary. I think it’s my highest concept. I think it’s my most adventurous. It’s got a villain who’s the most scary. I think the hunter is definitely my scariest villain.
And so, if you like my other books, I hope you will like this one, too. And I think that readers will find it to be my most and maybe not my best, maybe not their favorite, who knows? That’s all very subjective, but I took some big swings in this one. I had a lot of fun writing it.
Bianca Schulze: Yeah, well, let’s erase any self-doubt that kids aren’t going to enjoy this. And not every book is for every child, but for every child, there is a book. And there’s going to be a lot of children that are going to love The Midnight Children. And I suspect, for any kids that pick up The Midnight Children and love it, they’re going to want to go back and read your other books for sure. But what impact do you hope The Midnight Children has on readers?
Dan Gemeinhart: Oh, jeez, that’s a great question. And I always kind of feel the same with those kinds of questions. What do you think a reader— what do you hope a reader takes away? The short answer is just as a librarian and as a book lover, I hope they just enjoy reading it. Like, if they don’t walk away with any themes in their hearts or lessons in their head, but they enjoyed it and they were turning the pages and couldn’t wait to see what happened next, then I am 100% satisfied. Because anytime a kid reads a book and loves the book, they’re going to pick up another book.
And I do think that books can make us better people and books expand our horizons and books fire our imaginations. So just reading for pleasure is more than enough in itself. That being said, it seems especially for any kids out there who are like what I was like in middle school like Ravani is like where you don’t believe in yourself, and you believe a lot of the bad things that other people might have said about you. And to see that it doesn’t have to be that way, that the villains in your life who are saying these things aren’t right. And you do have worth, and you do have value and you do have a bright future out ahead of you, which is what Ravani learns. And so, yeah, if there’s a reader out there who feels like that and they walk away with that idea in their head, that would be a wonderful thing.
Bianca Schulze: Yes. Well, Dan, The Midnight Children will definitely have readers thinking and feeling and most importantly, having fun. So, thank you for writing this book and thank you so much for being on the show today.
Dan Gemeinhart: Thanks so much for having me. It was a fantastic interview. Great questions. So, thank you. It’s been a real pleasure.
About the Book
Written by Dan Gemeinhart
Ages 8-12 | 352 Pages
Publisher: Henry Holt and Co. | ISBN-13: 9781250196729
Publisher’s Book Summary: From Dan Gemeinhart, the acclaimed author of The Remarkable Journey of Coyote Sunrise, comes an extraordinary story about a family of runaways who take up residence in a small town, and the outcast boy who finds his voice and his people―perfect for fans of Katherine Applegate and Kate DiCamillo.
In the dead of night, a truck arrives in Slaughterville, a small town curiously named after its windowless slaughterhouse. Seven mysterious kids with suitcases step out of the vehicle and into an abandoned home on a dead-end street, looking over their shoulders to make sure they aren’t noticed.
But Ravani Foster covertly witnesses their arrival from his bedroom window. Timid and lonely, Ravani is eager to learn everything he can about his new neighbors: What secrets are they hiding? And most mysterious of all…where are the adults?
Yet amid this shadowy group of children, Ravani finds an unexpected friend in the warm and gutsy Virginia. But with this friendship comes secrets revealed―and danger. When Ravani learns of a threat to his new friends, he must fight to keep them safe, or lose the only person who has ever understood him.
Full of wonder, friendship, and mystery, The Midnight Children explores the meaning of “home,” what makes a family, and what it takes to find the courage to believe in yourself.
Buy the Book
You can visit Dan Gemeinhart at https://dangemeinhart.com.
How to Write Stunning Sentences by Nina Schuyler
- About The Midnight Children.
- The seed of the idea for the town of Slaughterville.
- The characters of The Midnight Children.
- Planting child-friendly nuggets of wisdom within a story.
- Writing, rewriting, and getting sentences and paragraphs just right.
- From teacher-librarian to an author and possibly back again someday.
- Being a reader and the big books of Dan’s childhood.
- Dan Gemeinhart’s hopes for readers of The Midnight Children.
Thank you for listening to the Growing Readers Podcast episode: Dan Gemeinhart Discusses The Midnight Children. For the latest episodes from The Growing Readers Podcast, Follow Now on Spotify. For similar books and articles, you can check out all of our content tagged with Bullying, Dan Gemeinhart, Mystery, Orphans, Runaway Stories, and Thrillers.
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