On Creativity: Gennifer Choldenko

My question to several writers I admire: “I find it profoundly difficult these days to be a writer. My inspiration and enthusiasm have been buried so far below an onslaught of awful news headlines and downright hate, trauma, and tragedy that I struggle to reach them. What’s a girl to do? In a world so woeful and broken, how can I dig beneath the heartbreak and create? Do you have the same thoughts? If so, how do you free yourself to write during these confusing and troubling times?”

I have received thoughtful and inspirational answers. I’m happy to share them with you here over the summer. I’m posting them in a random order, as I received their responses. If you have your own thoughts about these questions, I hope you’ll comment.


Gennifer Choldenko writes:

Gennifer Choldenko

There’s no doubt we’re living in trying times. I’m still reeling from the shock of yesterday’s news, when a new affront, even more disastrous, pops up on my phone. If fiction writers concocted the events in today’s newspaper, the plot would be hair-brained, Gerry-rigged and completely unbelievable. The characters leading our country would be too simple, too clearly deranged. Readers would not suspend their disbelief.

But the question is … how do I write during these confusing and troubling times?

From an intellectual standpoint I could say we have to write because otherwise we’re allowing the evil to wrap its fingers around our hearts and our minds. The Boston Marathon has gone on every year since the bombing in 2013. Ariana Grande is planning a benefit concert for Manchester. Charlie Hebdo is publishing every Wednesday just as it did before 2015.

We have to write because otherwise we’re pushing the mute button on our muses. And it is our voices that will set us free. And though I believe this, that isn’t really why I’m writing well right now.

I’m writing well because the worse things get, the more important writing is for me. Writing is my refuge. It’s the place I go to hide from the world.

I write for years trying to deepen my understanding of the complex environment of my characters. And in the universe I create, my characters grapple with skewed or upside-down morality such as we are experiencing today.

But when I’ve gone through the rough and tumble, uncovered the secrets, fears, lies, and downright insanity of my stories at the end, there is hope. I write for that hope. I need it now more than ever.


Gennifer Choldenko is the author of the Newbery Honor book Al Capone Does My Shirts and the two books that continue Moose and Natalie Flanagan’s story. She writes novels and picture books, the most recent of which is Dad and the Dinosaur, illustrated by Dan Santat. Visit Gennifer Choldenko’s website.


On Fantasy: Gennifer Choldenko

For the next few weeks, in celebration of my new fantasy novel, Grayling’s Song, this blog is featuring a few of my favorite fantasy authors answering four questions about their own writing. Next up, Gennifer Choldenko, whose book No Passengers Beyond This Point is set in an original fantasy world.

Gennifer CholdenkoQ: What is the hardest aspect of building a fantasy world for you?

A: The most challenging part is developing a completely original fantasy world. There are a lot of novels based on fantasy worlds that seem closely aligned with previous works. While you can make a case that a familiar trope fantasy can still be engaging, it isn’t what I am interested in writing or in reading. But how do you create something totally original? I believe fantasy worlds are a gift. I don’t think you can “try” to write a fantasy, so much as open your mind and your heart to the possibility.

Q: What do you feel is different for you, particularly, as a writer about creating a fantasy novel rather than writing a realistic or historical novel?

A: In some ways, writing fantasy is remarkably similar to historical fiction. In both, you create a place and a sensibility which is not in a reader’s frame of reference. In both you have to give your reader a lot of carefully selected details that make the world come to life for him or for her. With historical fiction you can depend on research to feed your process at every stage of the game. There may be parts of your fantasy world which are fed by research—and if there are, lucky you—but that is not a given. The pure creative idea generation is at its most powerful in the fantasy genre.

No Passengers Beyond This PointQ: Did you read fantasy novels before you wrote your book? If so, what’s your favorite fantasy novel and why?

A: I love to read. I especially love reading (and listening to) middle grade fiction. Generally, I read everything I can before I start writing. But I stay away from books I think might be similar to what I’m planning to do. I don’t want to inadvertently plagiarize. As for a favorite, I never like this question. Who has a favorite book? I adore: The Phantom Tollbooth, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, The Oz books, A Wrinkle in Time and Charlotte’s Web. These are all books I read as a child. One of the reasons I write for kids is because I believe books you love during the ages eight to fourteen become a profound part of who you are. Certainly that is true of me.

Q. Is there a character in one of your fantasy novels that you wish you could invite over for dinner? What would you talk about?

A. Kids always ask me what is my favorite of my novels. Generally I say: “the one I’m working on right now” which is true. On the other hand I have a special place in my heart for No Passengers Beyond This Point. Partly this is because writing it was such an incredibly intense experience. The ideas came to me as if I were looking through a kaleidoscope: a thousand different pictures I couldn’t write down fast enough. One of the characters in the novel is named Bing. He is the imaginary friend of the character Mouse. Since I had an imaginary friend when I was little who was named Bing, I would really like to invite him to dinner. I would ask him why he came to me. And why he left.

Thank you, Gennifer, for answering these questions with such candor. Do read all of Gennifer’s books: the historical Al Capone series, the contemporary If a Tree Falls at Lunch Period, and her recent and exciting historical thriller Chasing Secrets. Learn more about Gennifer Choldenko on her website.


bk_grayling_180pxGrayling’s Song will be available on June 7th from Clarion Books and your favorite bookseller. Lena Dunham wrote, “Like all Karen Cushman’s gorgeous novels, Grayling’s Song delves into the past to let us know what we must ask of our future. I want Cushman’s books to raise my children for me: that way I can be assured they’ll grow up witty, vastly knowledgeable, and tough as nails.”

Books set in California

Question: You grew up in California and two of your books are set there, The Ballad of Lucy Whipple and The Loud Silence of Francine Green. Do you have favorite books written about the state?

A Room Made of Windows, Eleanor Cameron—part of a series about Julia Redfern who lives in Berkeley in the 1920s.

We Were Here, Matt de la Pena—YA that “follows a journey of self-discovery by a boy who is trying to forgive himself in an unforgiving world.”

The Al Capone books by Gennifer Choldenko

Island of the Blue Dolphins, Scott O’Dell