Friday, April 5, 2013

Dancing Squirrels, Bad Egg Salad, & Other Horrors by Trudi Trueit (April Theme)

Recently, I had the pleasure of speaking to some amazing young readers; the finalists in a 'battle of the books' type competition where one of my books was on their reading list. Over the past six months, the competition had been whittled down from 2,000 students to just 30! I told these avid readers that when I was their age, I felt a little lost. Unsure of myself. Like I didn't fit in. I told them that is a big reason why I write for middle grades, and that it was okay for them to feel that way, too.

Art by Jim Paillot (c) 2013
Life is hard. Being a middle grader is really hard. That’s why I put my characters through so much turmoil. In Mom, There’s a Dinosaur in Beeson’s Lake, I force my main character, Scab McNally, to parade in front of his swimming class wearing trunks printed with dancing squirrels.
In Stealing Popular, budding artist Coco Sherwood is all but abandoned by her mom and may lose her best friend, as well as her dream of painting a mural in the school cafeteria.

But no character of mine has suffered more than Julep O’Toole. Poor Julep. Throughout the trilogy, my perky, quirky sixth grader deals with catastrophe after catastrophe. Her nemesis, Calvin, reads the pages of her journal out loud over the school P.A. system. She barfs egg salad all over the gym floor during a jump roping contest. She passes out during a class spelling bee wearing a sweater she stole stealthily borrowed from her sister. Her mother embarrasses her in front of a sales woman when they go bra shopping. And my pièce de résistance: Julep’s skirt—the one she legitimately borrowed from her sister and promised not to get nary a smudge of dirt on—gets caught in the automatic flush toilet at school.

I love backing my characters into tight corners (literally!), and then trying to figure out how to get them out of trouble. Higher stakes, of course, make for a more exciting story. Plus, the harder a character has to fight to overcome the odds, the more he/she grows. And that’s what I want – a more confident, resilient, stronger, and wiser protagonist. In What I Really Want to Do is Direct, Julep finds herself in the precarious position of directing the school play. She’s excited about her new leadership role, but when she gets in a little over her head, she refuses to ask for help. To help her learn, I knew I had to put her in a situation where she was forced to ask for assistance or suffer dire consequences. But what? Automatic toilets scare me (as do automatic doors, escalators, elevators or anything else I can be trapped in, squashed by, or sucked down). It was the perfect choice. Stuck in the automatic toilet, Julep must choose between her pride or reaching out to the one adult she is hesitant to trust. 

It isn’t easy for me to write these scenes. I use humor in the text quite a bit to help the medicine go down. And I tend to write quickly, because I am as anxious as the character to get through the pain. But I know it must be done, for on the other side is the growth the makes all of the torment worthwhile and the story worth telling. Just like life. 

Last fall, I was in the middle of a Skype Q & A visit with some eighth graders and a young girl stood up and said, “I don’t have a question. I just wanted to say thanks for writing Julep. I have read the book, at least, twenty times. She helped me survive middle school. So thanks."

That moment will live with me for a long, long time.

Yes, I think even Julep, poor long-suffering Julep, would agree that all her suffering paid off. Not only for her, but for her reader friends, too.

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Trudi Trueit is the author of the Julep O'Toole series, the Secrets of a Lab Rat series (Simon and Schuster) and a bunch of nonfiction for children. Check out the trailer for her newest tween title, Stealing Popular (Aladdin MIX), and visit her website at


  1. Thanks for this reminder of how tough life is for middle graders. I love how you use humor as part of your difficult scenes - something I need to keep in mind! What a great comment from that 8th grade student! Makes that writer's angst worthwhile.

    1. Indeed it does, Tamera, and I have plenty of middle school angst to draw on for much more material! But then, don't we all?

  2. I agree--what a fantastic moment you had with that 8th grader! Just priceless...