I was lucky enough to be able to interview the amazing Ami Polonsky, author of the brilliant book Gracefully Grayson.
Ami Polonsky (www.amipolonsky.com) is a sixth grade English teacher, a mother to two young children, and an author, among other things. She is passionate about guiding children towards a love of books and helping create life-long readers. Ami lives outside of Chicago with her family. You can find her on Twitter (@amipolonsky) and Facebook (www.facebook.com/
1) How did your background in teaching influence the story and characters of Gracefully Grayson? (As a fellow teacher who loves to write, I love seeing teachers succeed like you are!) What would you want your students to take away from your book?
I wouldn’t have been able to write GRACEFULLY GRAYSON if not for my teaching experience. An adult reader once said, “Only a teacher could have written GRACEFULLY GRAYSON,” and that was a fantastic compliment.
I’ve spent many years getting into sixth graders’ heads as I’ve taught them to interpret literature and write, so I have a good sense of how sixth graders think and what’s important and scary to them. While the characters in GRACEFULLY GRAYSON aren’t based on particular students I’ve taught, qualities of all my students found their way into the characters in the book. I also tend to visualize the school setting in GRACEFULLY GRAYSON as similar to Onahan Elementary School in Chicago, which is where I used to teach.
I want my students to learn about bravery from GRACEFULLY GRAYSON. I want them to understand that it takes courage to show the world your true self. Taking a risk can be scary but is always worthwhile.
2) The topic of someone not identifying with the gender they have been assigned to has really come into the public consciousness. What made you decide to write about this topic, and how did you go about preparing to write the book?
The idea came to me when my two children were in preschool. I have a son and daughter and neither seemed to fit into the stereotypical “gender box.” I began to wonder about gender—how much of gender identity is a social construct? Then I wondered what a child’s experience would be like if their true identity was different from how the world saw them.
I wrote a draft of GRACEFULLY GRAYSON before I began to research, and I did this so nobody’s personal story would seep too deeply into Grayson’s. I didn’t find it difficult to relate to a transgender child—Grayson’s wishes and desires to be seen as her true self are, in the broadest sense, universal. I tapped into her emotions by finding common threads between her experiences and my own.
After I wrote a draft, I did thorough research including a lot of reading and interviewing, but the heart of the book never changed as I went through the revision process. I think this is incredibly important. We, as human beings, are perfectly capable of standing in others’ shoes. We are all able to empathize and draw parallels between our own life experiences and others’.
3) If Gracefully Grayson was made into a movie, do you have a dream cast in mind?
As long as this is a fantasy, I get to time travel, OK?
Grayson: Leonardo DiCaprio as a boy—circa What’s Eating Gilbert Grape.
Paige: A young Emma Watson
Aunt Sally: January Jones
Uncle Evan: Dustin Hoffman, thirty years ago
Jack: Robert MacNaughton as a boy (I might have had to look this one up—he was Elliott’s older brother in E.T.)
4) Grayson really begins to find herself through theater. Did you do any theater in high school or college, and what was your experience like?
No! I was an incredibly shy kid, and I wish I’d had the courage to step out of my comfort zone when I was younger. I had to do a lot of research to get the theater piece right. The last time I was on stage was when I was in 4th grade—I was in the chorus of my school’s Snoopy production, hiding in the back row behind two tall kids.
5) Can you tell me about your new book coming out in fall 2016, Threads?
THREADS was inspired by an article I read about an Australian woman living in New York who found a handwritten note and photograph in a shopping bag from an African man in a Chinese prison factory. The man wrote that he had been wrongfully convicted of a crime and needed help. It blew my mind that two very different lives could become suddenly and dramatically linked. I wondered: What if there was a young girl who wrote a similar note, and another young who girl found it? What if their lives became intertwined? THREADS is the story of two girls’ journeys—one Chinese and one American—and how their lives intersect.