“Middleview” Interview with Debut Author Jen Swann Downey

Posted by Tamera Wissinger

Today, Jen Swann Downey is joining Smack Dab In The Middle Blog for a guest “middleview” interview. Jen’s debut middle grade novel, THE NINJA LIBRARIANS, Sourcebooks Jabberwocky , released on 04/15/2014! Congratulations, Jen!

author Jen Swann Downey
Here is a bit about Jen:

Jen Swann Downey’s non-fiction pieces have appeared in New York Magazine, the Washington Post, Women’s Day, and other publications. Her debut novel, The Ninja Librarians, will leap onto bookstore shelves in Spring 2014. Jen has never visited a library in which she didn’t want to spend the night. She lives in Charlottesville, Virginia with her husband and three children and feels very lucky they have not yet fired her.

Here’s a description of THE NINJA LIBRARIANS:

Just a little story about your average sword-swinging, karate-chopping, crime-fighting ninja librarians.

Dorrie Barnes had no idea an overdue library book would change her life. When Dorrie and her brother Marcus chase her pet mongoose into the janitor's closet of their local library, they accidentally fall through a passage into Petrarch's Library -the headquarters of a secret society of ninja librarians who have an important mission: protect those whose words have gotten them into trouble. Anywhere in the world and at any time in history.

Dorrie would love nothing more than to join the society. But when a traitor surfaces, she and her friends are the prime suspects. Can they clear their names before the only passage back to the twenty-first century closes forever?

Here are the links to Jen online: Website, Goodreads, Twitter, Facebook

Now it’s time to hear from our guest:

Smack Dab Middleview with THE NINJA LIBRARIANS author Jen Swann Downey
1. In a nutshell, what does your main character, Dorrie want, and what is in her way?

*clears throat ostentatiously* If I may quote from THE NINJA LIBRARIANS, my own and only published work (Don’t worry, I checked and the quote does fit into a nutshell if you dunk it in a vat of Woolite’s evil twin and then toss it in a high heat dryer for a day or two. The quote not the evil twin. Also it helps to use a shell formerly occupied by a coconut) *Sips water. Adjusts microphone so that it squawks in a mildly ear-splitting way*

Dorrie wants to find a way to oppose the villains of the world with her beloved if fake sword. “…though [Dorrie] wanted to wield a sword against evil, modern evil had no intention of making itself available for spearing. Not in the cooperative way it used to once upon a time, at least according to the books she liked to read. Not in the form of a scar-faced villain in a black cloak with a nicely obvious fiendish laugh that she could corner with a piece of dazzling sword-work.

No, modern evil was…complicated, and its spectacularly vile, wicked villains—the ones who really knew how to brew up trouble, the ones who invisibly lurked in the radio’s news stories about war and hunger and poisoned rivers—were masters of disguise.” --

2. Did you know right away that this was your story, or did you discover it as you wrote? How did the story evolve?

The VERY first inspirational seed for the story came out of a scribbled entry in my journal about an imagined moment between several imaginary characters at the imagined creation of the first ever written alphabet – all of which I realize sounds irritatingly mysterious and oblique – but I have to be cagey because that moment became the imagined pivotal last scene of the last book in the five-book series I hope I’ll have the privilege of completing – the first book of course being, THE NINJA LIBRARIANS.

Soon after that, I knew I wanted the story to physically center on a library with wings that stretched out into various times in history. More slowly into focus came Dorrie, her sword, and her predicament; and finally, the secret book and writer protecting society of warrior lybrarians called the Lybrariad.

3. Was THE NINJA LIBRARIANS always for middle grade readers or not? If so, why did you choose middle grade? If not, what had to change for it to be considered a middle grade novel?

Always and forever and completely and utterly for the any-age enjoyer of middle grade books! Middle grade books have always been my favorites. Well, not every one. Perhaps its more accurate to say: A great many, even most, of my perpetually favorite books are ones with protagonists in the 10-14 year old range, written by authors in such a particular way that you don’t have to be 10-(1)4 to enjoy them. Some of my favorites are Understood Betsy, Mistress Masham’s Repose, A Wrinkle in Time, Which Witch, Maurice and his Educated Rodents, The Penderwicks.

4. What is the best part of writing for middle grade readers?

Hard to say what’s best or worse because I’ve never written any stories for adults. (Or for boulders, or robots for that matter!) I did write one short play for adults. About what happens when an on-the-lam criminal attempts to take the attendees of a PA (Procrastinators Anonymous) meeting hostage. It doesn’t go well for the would-be hostage taker. You wouldn’t believe how long it can take a committed procrastinator to get around to responding to a hostage-taker’s orders. And it’s a miracle the play didn’t go on…and on…and….

But whether its best or worst or just the heart of the matter for me in terms of writing for middle graders. A true middle grade novel must – and I have to thank my father for the metaphor - represent a forward pass. A young person is not standing still. Such a person is in big motion barreling with every blooming disappearing day towards new understandings and experiences, and ultimately towards the adult he or she will become. You have to lead such a receiver, tossing the ball further than the spot the runner has already reached, but in the direction they are most certainly running.

5. Is there one question you wish you could answer about writing, your book, or the author's life, but have never been asked? Here's your chance to Q &A yourself.

Do you ever wish you could thank that one English teacher who taught in the tiny Anchorage Public School, in Anchorage, Kentucky, for maybe one year in 1979 whose idea of teaching writing consisted of one day sitting a gourd on a tabletop and inviting us to describe it, another day dropping the record player arm down on a pop-scratchy Dan MacLean singing “Vincent (Starry Starry Night)”, and inviting us to write whatever came into our heads, and never saying a critical word no matter what you did or didn’t put down, and dealing out a whole bunch of days like that with nary a word said about topic sentences, and three supporting statements?

Why, yes I do.

Thank you for joining us on Smack Dab in the Middle Blog, Jen. Again, congratulations on the release of THE NINJA LIBRARIANS!


  1. Jen, I want to read (and possibly produce) that hilarious-sounding play! Also, I want to be like that teacher. Wow.
    So glad this book is out! Congrats on your debut, Jen!

  2. Louise and Jen...if you need a stage manager, lemme know! That play sounds hilarious!

    Great interview. Loved to seeing even further into Jen's head...kinda cool in there I must say.

  3. What MG reader can resist that title?


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