As a writer, Kate Messner draws from her life—and she has a full one. The mother of two, a full-time classroom teacher and a writer, the author’s schedule demands that she move fluidly from one role to the next. Here, Messner discusses the origins and themes of Marty McGuire, illustrated by Brian Floca.
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What were the seeds of the idea for a third-grade tomboy playing a princess in a class production of The Frog Prince?
The book grew out of two things. I’d just finished writing two regional historical novels having to do with war. They were pretty intense and challenging to write in the emotional sense. This was my goof-off book, all fun and positive. Around that same time, my daughter, who has taken ballet lessons, was signed up to perform in our local production of The Nutcracker. I’m not particularly good with hair and make-up. I failed miserably at getting her hair into the perfect bun. She looked like a porcupine with her hair sticking out, and we had to hairspray it in place. I couldn’t help thinking about a girl like me being in The Nutcracker. A lot of my books have a “what-if” element. I thought, “What if a girl who loves the forest and the mud ended up onstage, forced into a dress and a tiara?”
You really hit on that third grader’s mind-set. Was it hard to find Marty’s voice?
Marty’s voice was there when I started writing. When you’re in third grade, you know who you are. It’s before the self-consciousness of junior high creeps in, before you’re viewing boys as anything other than people you catch frogs with. When I was 8 and 9 and 10 years old, I knew who I was. I loved to explore and have adventures, and I didn’t worry about if my jeans got muddy. My daughter is in fourth grade now; she was in first grade when I started this book. She asked me about my junior high books and said, “That’s nice, but when will you write a book for me?” This is her book.
Marty coins such great nicknames for her classmates, like Veronica Grace as “Princess BossyPants.”
We all know a Princess BossyPants, whether we’re 8 years old or 30. One of the great lessons you learn is those nicknames are best kept in your head.
Marty’s parents are so good with her, addressing things as they come up, such as the “emergency pants from the nurse” and later the Bullfrog Incident.
I think that comes from living with two kids who experiment a lot. I have a son who’s in high school now and is very much an engineer. At age 9 and 10, he’d have alarms that would go off based on pressure paths. You could be walking through the living room and the alarms would go off. With my daughter, you might find something gross soaking in water on the kitchen counter. We know there’s some good in there. We’ll ask, “What’s going on here?” Maybe this can’t live on the kitchen counter for two months, but we can find another option.
Marty’s mom probably could have guessed why she was wearing the emergency pants again. Those are the same kinds of exchanges that are in my head as a parent and a teacher. If a kid makes a mistake, I’m interested in why, and maybe there’s something going on, and you don’t accomplish anything by yelling about it. That thoughtful parenting is what I was envisioning for Marty’s parents.
You must have a very busy schedule as a teacher and a mother of two children. How do you fit in writing?
I’m at school during the day. At about 4-4:30, I go pick up my kids, take them to skating and track practice, then we’ll eat dinner, read and do all those things, then they go to bed. And I write then, usually from 9-11 or maybe a little later if I’m on a roll. That may not sound like much, but it results in about 1,000 words a day. In a few months, that’s a book. I tend to do my drafts pretty quickly and spend a lot of time on revision, which is my favorite part of the process.
We built a writing room, and I’ll do some writing on the weekend. Research trips are quite often a family thing. We went to Costa Rica last summer and Washington, D.C., the summer before. At the Smithsonian, everyone was trying to figure out how we’d steal the Star Spangled Banner [for The Star Spangled Setup, due out next year from Scholastic], including the curator.
Check out the flash-mob poetry reading Kate Messner and her seventh graders staged in a shopping mall in Lake Champlain, N.Y.