Interview with Sydney Dunlap, author of It Happened on Saturday


Short and Sweet: Hit us with the elevator pitch for It Happened on Saturday:


This is the story of thirteen-year-old Julia, who nearly becomes a victim of human trafficking and must find the courage to tell her friends what really happened so none of them become victims too.



Why this particular subject? In the Author’s Note, you indicate you’re part of the anti-trafficking movement. How did you get involved?


I was an elementary school teacher in Virginia when I saw a movie about human trafficking that involved children who were the same age as my students, and I immediately knew I wanted to join the fight against this horrible crime. Not long after that, my husband’s company transferred us to Houston, which happens to be a trafficking hub. I began volunteering with local anti-trafficking organizations right away and became a community outreach leader for one of them. An aspect of this involved presenting a monthly trafficking awareness and prevention program to tween and teen girls in a Houston juvenile detention facility, then talking with survivors and connecting them with needed resources. As I was going through training to present the program, I learned that eleven-to-fourteen-year-olds are especially susceptible to being lured or forced into trafficking, and I realized there was very little written on this topic for middle-grade readers. That’s why I decided to write a novel that would be kid-friendly and age appropriate, while introducing this subject matter to young readers before or during the time they were most vulnerable to this happening to them.



I loved the fact that you included so many friendship scenes, filled with complete normalcy. Was it hard to balance the normal and the definitely abnormal? Did it ever seem to mess with the tone of the book? Or did that all come naturally?


I'm glad you enjoyed the friendship scenes! I had a lot of fun writing them, as well as the scenes at the stable. For me, balancing out the difficult parts of the story with relatable, everyday tween situations was part of the fabric from the very beginning, so it felt like it happened pretty organically. Also, I am part of a weekly writers' group that includes seven wonderful and supportive women who were very helpful to me as I worked on this. All of us are longtime SCBWI members and conference organizers or volunteers, and we've each studied the craft of writing for years. The feedback I got from sharing my work with them and other friends and family members as I went along kept me on track!



In the book, I thought it was especially powerful for the messages with Tyler to start when she was feeling especially vulnerable / feeling like she was losing her friend. Those lines “He was still thinking about me” and “at least someone wanted to talk to me” hit hard. I imagine this is pretty common? For people to get hauled into trafficking situations during times of vulnerability?


Absolutely! Traffickers are sometimes called street psychologists because they quickly figure out what a person is looking for—perhaps a father figure, a friendship, or a romantic relationship—and trick that person into believing they will fill that void. In addition to Julia being especially vulnerable because of the difficulties with her best friend, the isolation she felt within her family was also part of the problem. Traffickers and recruiters are looking for people who are unhappy at home, so when Julia mentioned that her parents weren’t around much and made other negative remarks about her mom, Tyler got the idea that it could be worth his time to pursue her.



I also found my stomach twisting in knots as you depicted how the situation progressed with Tyler: crossing over into real world meetings, for example, and the way you depicted how the messages continued when the rest of the world felt crummy. Tyler was the one place things felt good or fun. The line “Horses always remembered how people had treated them before” really resonated for me. Julia was remembering how Tyler had treated her, and was growing ever closer. I also liked that after it was all over, Julia’s friends agreed: “He looked like a regular dude.” Are there some common red flags young readers should be aware of when interacting with anyone online?


I’m so happy to hear that the horse references resonated with you. I thought it was important to draw parallels between Julia’s experiences at the barn and what was going on in other aspects of her life. As far as red flags, first and foremost, any time someone says to keep a relationship a secret, that is cause for concern. When Tyler asked Julia not to mention him to her family, that was a huge sign that he was up to no good, but he twisted it around to make it look like he was protecting her from getting in trouble. Other warning signs include a person making excuses for why they can’t meet your family or friends, or promising something, especially if it sounds too good to be true. As Danielle warned Julia, “Anyone can say anything online.”



How did you decide how far to take the subject matter with this age group?


As a mom, I thought about what I’d be comfortable having my kids read when they were in middle school. Also, although I’m no longer teaching full-time, I still tutor young people, and I thought about how to take them on Julia's journey in a way that would be relatable and age appropriate. I wanted them to experience what happened along with Julia to see how easily trafficking can occur, but I thought it would be best to take it to the point of her being captured and having to escape, without it going further. The book is targeted for readers between the ages of ten and fourteen, and I wanted those on the younger end to be able to understand the risk without having to read about something that could quite possibly be too much at their age. That’s why I shared the story with two beta readers who were in middle school and discussed the events with them to make sure they understood the need to be careful without becoming frightened.



This book has a slightly different structure in that it doesn’t end with the protagonist being freed from danger. Instead, the rescue happens at the mid-point, and there’s almost a second story here, and to a great extent, it involves healing and facing the traumatic event. Why was that important to you to include this?


I think that the loneliness Julia experiences, and the danger she falls into, leading to her escape, are only part of the story. For me, her arc would not be complete without the change and growth that occur as she allows herself to acknowledge what happened and ultimately realize that an important part of her healing is doing what she knows to be right: risking the new-found friendships that are so important to her by telling the other girls the truth. In taking that chance, she is confronting her biggest fear and choosing to move forward. Additionally, I wanted to include the counseling scenes in hopes that they would be accessible to readers working through their own traumas.



What do you want kids to get from this book, more than anything?


Most important would be a growing awareness that will help them make the best possible decisions, especially as they go online or use social media.



Julia’s story provides a kind of roadmap for young readers–showing them how easy it is to fall victim to trafficking, how quickly everything can change. And also showing them (through Julia) how to get back out quickly. What can a young reader do if they suspect someone else has been or is in danger of being trafficked?


Julia was very fortunate to be able to get away when she realized what was actually going on. The fact that she only pretended to drink what Tyler offered her made a huge difference in her ability to escape. And she was also fortunate to have a quick way out through the balcony. Sadly, many young people who are tricked into going somewhere with a trafficker or recruiter are not in a situation where they can get away as Julia did.


If trafficking is suspected, I think the most important thing is to tell someone right away. A trusted adult can help the person, and depending upon the circumstances, contact the National Human Trafficking Hotline at 1 (888) 373-7888, for assistance, or call 911 if it’s an emergency situation. Trafficking survivors need a high level of care and there are many anti-trafficking groups that can help in that process. A nonprofit organization called Thorn builds and shares technology to protect children online, and their website offers a list of local anti-trafficking organizations in all fifty states:



Where else can kids (or teachers, parents) go to learn more about trafficking?


The Polaris Project operates the National Human Trafficking Hotline and its website offers much information about trafficking. Two other groups are Traffick911 and United Against Human Trafficking


What’s next for you?


After its release, I'm hoping to share It Happened on Saturday as part of a multi-media presentation in schools. Many districts now mandate anti-trafficking curriculum for students, and I'd love to be involved with helping kids understand the risks so they can make well-informed decisions.


As far as future projects, since my favorite books to read and write are heartfelt, hopeful middle grade novels that grow readers' awareness of difficult topics, I'm working on another book that will hopefully belong in that category. I'm still figuring out the details, but it's coming along! I love trying different things creatively, and I've also got some potential picture books in the pipeline, including a narrative nonfiction story that I’m co-authoring with a friend, one that’s fiction with lots of wordplay, and maybe even a spooky story!


Thank you so much for highlighting It Happened on Saturday! It’s an honor to have my book featured here, and I really appreciate your kind words and thoughtful questions!


Follow Sydney and order It Happened on Saturday


  1. What an intensely relevant topic!! Thank you for taking the courage to write it, too, Sydney.

  2. Timely and necessary topic indeed! The school my son teaches in has been in the news since a 29 year old woman pretended to be 15 and walked the halls of the HS for 4 days before she was found out. She befriended a few girls, encouraging them to meet her after school. Fortunately, none did. But it is so scary to think what could have happened. They only found out because the woman tried to leave school early and was told she had to be signed out by a parent. Then she confessed to being 29!


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