A podcast interview in partnership with Ona Gritz, author of August or Forever
The Children’s Book Review
In this episode, Ona Gritz talks about her latest novel, August or Forever.
August or Forever is an incredibly thoughtful, heartwarming, and well-written story that explores the complexities and joys of sisterhood.
Listen to the Interview
Ona Gritz is the author of two previous children’s books, including Tangerines and Tea, My Grandparents and Me, a Nick Jr. Family Magazine Best Alphabet Book of the Year and Scholastic Parent & Child Magazine Teacher’s Pick. Her essays and poems have been published widely. Recent honors include two Notable mentions in The Best American Essays, a winning entry in The Poetry Archive Now: Wordview 2020 project, two 2021 Pushcart nominations, and 2022 Best of the Net nomination.
Read the Interview
Bianca Schulze: Hi, Ona. Welcome to The Growing Readers Podcast.
Ona Gritz: Hi, Bianca. I’m so happy to be here.
Bianca Schulze: You’re here today to talk about your novel for kids, August or Forever, which is beautiful because since it isn’t your first book for kids, would you share a little bit about your writing background and maybe share some of your other published books just to get us started?
Ona Gritz: Oh, sure. Well, my background is actually in poetry. I had the privilege of studying at NYU many years ago. And somehow, though, upon graduation, instead of continuing with poems, I started to get really interested in children’s books. So, my first published book was a children’s novel for about the same age range—I’d say seven to ten—that August or Forever is for. But in the intervening years—if that book came out in 1998—I returned to my hometown of poetry and began writing nonfiction. So, I’m kind of a little over the map.
Bianca Schulze: So, you are a well-rounded writer. What would you say motivates you specifically to write for children?
Ona Gritz: I think it’s a combination of how much I love children’s literature, and I remember how important children’s books were to me growing up, what good company I found them to be, and how important they were in helping me understand myself and form my own thoughts. I specifically remember having the thought when I was about twelve years old, oh, I know what I want to do when I grow up. I want to write books for kids like me.
Bianca Schulze: That kind of works with the idea that to be a writer, you need to be a reader first. So, was there a pivotal moment in which you considered yourself a reader?
Ona Gritz: It was when I first picked up Are You There, God? It’s me, Margaret.
Bianca Schulze: Yes.
Ona Gritz: Like so many of us, it was the end of fifth grade, which was, for me, the end of going to the same school for, you know, since kindergarten, the only school I knew. And so, it was a scary summer, and I picked up this book about a girl who’s just moved to a new neighborhood, and it felt like even though our situations weren’t exactly the same, I felt like her narration sounded like the voice in my head. And it just was such good company, and it was so intimate, and that’s what I fell in love with.
Bianca Schulze: Yes. Have you seen that there’s a movie about to release?
Ona Gritz: I have. I’ve watched the preview for it, and it felt like watching a home movie with all my favorite childhood friends in it.
Bianca Schulze: Yeah, I know. I’m so excited to go and see it. So, Judy Blume obviously was a big inspiration for you. I suspect it’s influenced your writing now, but what other children’s books or authors would you say have specifically influenced your writing? And I just want to say that when I was reading August or Forever, I kind of felt like maybe you have, at some point in your life, read Katherine Paterson’s Bridge to Terabithia because it felt similar to Judy Blume. And it felt similar to Katherine Paterson’s writing.
Ona Gritz: I have. And that’s quite a compliment. Thank you. Another really strong influence on me is Patricia MacLachlan. Sarah Plain and Tall was a really important book to me when I discovered it, and of course, I discovered it as an adult. But the poetry of it, the simplicity of it, that spare, spare language, but also that how she conveys such an incredible portrait of a family and the longing of those children. That book was very much in my mind when I was first conceiving of August or Forever.
Bianca Schulze: How meaningful to you is it to have literary friendships and community just to you as a reader and as a writer?
Ona Gritz: So important. So important. I’m married to another writer. I’m lucky that I have a writing community right in my house. But writing is such a solitary preoccupation. I can spend so many hours in my own head and doing that work. But at some point, when I need to reach out into the world, I tend to reach toward writers because they’re also living that life.
I think it’s important to have writers that you can share work with and get ideas from. My husband and I are part of a critique group that meets about once a month, and they are so helpful. It’s always just so helpful to see you don’t always know if you’ve gotten onto the page of what’s in your mind. So, it’s important to have people you can share it with.
And I also feel like, and I know this is probably behind The Children’s Book Review for you, that it’s important to be a good literary citizen, to support other writers, to just be there for each other and be excited about each other’s work.
Bianca Schulze: Yes, absolutely. It can be really scary to open up and share your work with others. And it’s so beautiful when you get that positive feedback and that reassurance. But I don’t know about you, but some of the best feedback that has helped me is the true critique; it’s not necessarily negative, but the feedback where somebody shoots a hole in your story. And I feel like sometimes that’s where the biggest growth comes from. And it’s so important to have a critique group that you can be vulnerable and be open to hearing both the positives and the negatives.
Ona Gritz: Yes, definitely. Because mostly, what they’re doing is they’re pointing to the holes that are already there. So that’s really important. And I think over time, and I’m saying this for new writers, that over time, you get to know for yourself, oh, that’s good advice. That’s exactly right. Or you know what? That doesn’t resonate with me. Ultimately, you are the ultimate arbiter until you’re working with an editor. Yes, but I think that develops. That develops by working with other people. I would imagine it’s hard to develop without that community, without that sounding board.
Bianca Schulze: Let’s dig into your book August or Forever. So, while it’s primarily a story about sisterhood, it also explores the notion that not all families are made up the same way or how friends can become family. And it also touches on various forms of grief. All of the elements, from the premise to the plot to the characters, as the reader, blend so seamlessly. I’d love to know what the writing process looks like for this story. And how long did it take you to pull everything together so thoughtfully?
Ona Gritz: I’m laughing because I actually just published an essay called From Drawer to Bookstore in Just 24 Years.
Bianca Schulze: I love it.
Ona Gritz: I realized, looking back, that the spark of the idea came to me not long after my first book came out, which was 24 years ago. And it took me a really long time while working on other things.
But it took me a really long time to figure out what the story was. I had Molly right away. I had her voice in my mind. I knew how she thought about things. I knew what she longed for. But I was so hesitant, I think, to let anything bad happen to her that it really stopped me from writing a story with any kind of plot for a very long time until I realized that, in some ways, it’s not to say she was her own worst enemy, but I don’t think that’s quite accurate. But she had to make mistakes, and she had to have some preconceived notions that she needed to explore and have somewhere to grow. So that was the thing that helped me finally find that story.
But for a long time, I just kind of spent time with her, hearing her and understanding her feelings before I—and part of this is being a poet. And so, I’m not naturally a plotter, and I can spend days and days and days and days polishing sentences, and I will be so happy spending those hours doing that. But in terms of production, it kind of slows things down when you say.
Bianca Schulze: That you’re not a plotter. I typically am not a plotter, either. And I have been exploring the concept of starting from the end, like having my ending, and it’s just a new exploration. But I’m just curious about what it feels like to be a plotter.
Ona Gritz: I’m curious about that as well.
Bianca Schulze: Yeah. All right, well, so what was it that was that initial seed of inspiration for this story? You said you’ve had this idea since your first published book.
Ona Gritz: I want to say first that August or Forever is not very autobiographical in terms of the people and what happens, but the seed comes from my own life. I had an older half-sister that I didn’t know. In fact, I didn’t even know she was my sister until I was quite a bit older. But we had photographs of her in our house tucked away in a closet, and she looked like me. And I was so fascinated that this person who was a child many years before I was there’s a big age difference. And so, these black and white photos, and she’s dressed in 1950s clothes, but she had my face, and I would just stare at them, stare at it, and just wonder about her.
So, it came from that idea, the idea of photographs. Because by the time I thought of August or Forever, of course, I did know what our relationship was, the idea of having a sibling that’s yours and not yours at the same time that’s in your life, but not in your daily life. So that was the initial.
Bianca Schulze: As you mentioned, the story didn’t necessarily come fully formed in your mind, and you had to sit with Molly for a while and really kind of get to know her or experiment. So how did you go about that process, like sitting with your character and figuring out the story’s direction?
Ona Gritz: By writing it badly first. Not bad on a sentence level, but kind of writing a plotless version of the story and being told something more has to happen, and that’s where we come back to having writer friends, right? Something more has to happen. And to me, it felt complete. But of course, looking back on it, I realized basically the premise of it at that time was just her sister was finally coming to visit, and she was nervous that it won’t go well. Her best friend was annoyed with her little sister, which amplified that in the story. But it’s not a story yet.
And I remember taking a class through SCBWI on plot maps and talking to my friend who I’d gone there with, and when I told her what the premise was, she said, oh, that’s not enough to hold my interest. And then I asked her, I said, well, what if Molly tries to get her sister to stay? What if she wants her to stay forever? And she said, now you have my interest. At that moment, I had at least more to build on.
Bianca Schulze: You mentioned that Molly has a best friend, so I want to ask you about favorite supporting characters. So, we have Molly as the main character, and if there’s anything else you want to share about Molly before we go onto side characters, that’s totally fine. But if not, I’m so curious about who your favorite supporting character is because mine was Molly’s best friend. Diane.
Ona Gritz: Yeah, I love Diane a lot, and finally, I love her little sister; even though she doesn’t have a big part in this story, she is the one who would kind of go off script and say things that would make me laugh while I was writing. But, yeah, I love Diane. Dianne is someone, in a certain way, the opposite of how Molly came to me fully formed as a person, and Diane was more a circumstance if that makes sense. What I knew about her at first was just that she had a bustling household and a lot of siblings, but I actually got to know her as I began to write the scenes where she and Molly talk.
Bianca Schulze: Do you have a favorite moment or a specific highlight that you could share with us? And you’re welcome to share a short exit if you have your book handy.
Ona Gritz: I could go get the book.
Bianca Schulze: I would love it.
Ona Gritz: There is a scene pretty early in the book where Molly is walking with her father, and oh, here it is. Okay. So, there’s a moment when Molly is walking with her father, and she’s only just starting to worry about what it will be like when Alison visits them. Until this point, she was just pure excitement. And this is something that was in my very earliest pages, way before the story had a story. But it was a moment I was really happy with when it reached the page.
We reach a clearing, and even though it’s still light, we can see the moon. It looks like it’s made of smoke. Like you could take a deep breath and just blow it away. Dad, I hear myself ask, do you think Allison will like me?
Bianca Schulze: It’s so it’s so just beautifully written. You didn’t waste space with unnecessary information. What you deliver in one little paragraph can sometimes take up two pages in another writer’s book. And it was just so concise and beautiful.
Ona Gritz: Thank you. Thank you. I guess that’s the gift of coming to prose as a poet is knowing how to be concise and what to edit out. The hard part is every time I try to plot something, I feel like a newbie. But it has a strong suit, too.
Bianca Schulze: In that paragraph you read, we also hear about her dad. And her dad is an interesting character in the sense that he has been married before. And Allison is the daughter of his first wife, Patricia. It seems as though he’s learned a lot about what it means to be a husband and a dad since his first go-round at it. And he’s a loving guy, but what I really liked about it is that though you see that he is really trying to be a better husband and father, on the second try, he’s still himself, and he’s a workaholic.
So, what went into creating that character? And is he based on anybody that you know? How did you go about just sort of creating him?
Ona Gritz: Oh, interesting. He’s not based on anyone I know. And I guess, like with Diane, he kind of showed me who he was. When I put him in scene with Molly, I knew I wanted her to have a very loving family.
But then, actually going back to that class, I took on plot maps. One of the things they taught was to add a clock, to add the pressure of time. So that’s where his workaholic nature actually comes from, this idea that he’s having meetings, he’s working really hard to fill that spot of being Molly’s art teacher. And it’s a job she really wants Allison to have, but she doesn’t want to be the one to say it. That came out of my attempt at plotting. So, it’s interesting how the various things you’re working on play on each other. The plot can give you character. I hadn’t thought about it that way until you asked the question.
Bianca Schulze: What impact do you hope August or Forever has on readers?
Ona Gritz: Well, I guess I really hope that readers find Molly Relatable and see something of themselves and find her good company if she can do for them what Margaret did for me in terms of feeling less alone in the world with my thoughts and feelings. I know that’s why I turn to realistic fiction for the companionship and the mirror and getting to know a character who maybe articulates something you’re feeling but don’t have words for. I would love it if this book could be that for someone out there.
Bianca Schulze: Yes.
Ona Gritz: One of the reasons I feel like this book is important to me and I hope it’s important to other people is I don’t think there are other stories out there or I haven’t found them that really look at second families, second or third, later marriages and the experience of being a half-sibling. I think there’s a lot of books out there about divorce or about a newly blended family where people are dealing with a lot of dramatic change. But there’s a very specific experience to having a family that maybe doesn’t quite take the shape that you imagined would make you happiest.
And I think that’s probably true of a lot of kids that their friends and neighbors have enviable-looking families. I feel like that’s a niche for this book that feels important to me, maybe because I grew up feeling like our family was very odd and unique and would have loved to have read a book where somebody else was grappling with a certain kind of loneliness that you’re born into. Does that make sense?
Bianca Schulze: Absolutely, it does. I do agree with you that I think the story being told from the perspective of Molly is really a unique voice. And I’m sitting here trying to think if I’ve ever read a story from this specific perspective, and nothing else is coming to mind. Well, Ona, I want to thank you so much for coming on the show today. Not only just because we talked about August or Forever, which I loved, but because you shared how fulfilling and important stories and books are and how they make such great companions, and how, as a child, reading alone, how that has influenced you now as an adult and how those stories stay with us. So, I love that we got to talk about that.
Ona Gritz: I do, too. Thank you so much.
Bianca Schulze: Yeah, you’re welcome. And as I said before, I think August or Forever is so thoughtful and well-written. I have no doubt that it will be a much-loved companion to other young readers, especially kiddos who love Judy Blume-esque realistic fiction like you.
Ona Gritz: Oh, thank you. Thank you. That makes me so happy.
About the Book
Written by Ona Gritz
Ages 9 + | 108 Pages
Publisher: Fitzroy Books | ISBN-13: 9781646033072
Publisher’s Book Summary: Ten-year-old Molly has always loved having a sister, but sisters are supposed to live together, right? Molly certainly thinks so. Unfortunately, her older half-sister Alison lives on a whole other continent. Their video chats are great, and Molly is thrilled when Alison’s hand-written letters arrive in the mail like surprise gifts.
Still, it’s not enough, not compared to what other siblings have. That’s why when Molly finds out that Alison is finally coming to visit over the summer, she devises a plan to get her sister to stay. But then Alison arrives with plans of her own, a fragile heart gets broken, and Molly stumbles upon a painful piece of her sister’s past. Molly has always loved having a sister, but this is the August when she’ll learn what it really means to be one.
Buy the Book
Learn more about Ona Gritz’z work at onagritz.com.
From Drawer to Bookstore in Just 24 Years by Ona Gritz
- About Ona Gritz and what motivates her to write for children.
- How books and writers like Judy Blume have influenced Ona’s work
- The importance of literary friendships and community
- Being a good literary citizen
- The inspirations and writing process for August or Forever
- Exploring characters and sisterhood and non-traditional families
Thank you for listening to the Growing Readers Podcast episode: Ona Gritz Discusses August or Forever. 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 Family Relationships, Ona Gritz, and Sisters.