Hear author Lynne Jonell accept the Minnesota Book Award for the best written children's book in the middle grade fiction category.
Listen to Lynne Jonell talk about her award-winning novel Emmy and the Incredible Shrinking Rat
Was writing this sequel very different from writing the first book about Emmy?
Yes. The first Emmy was written in a meandering, follow-the-characters-wherever-they-lead sort of way. I had no strong sense of where the book was going, except that I was working toward an image I had in my mind of a particular scene. I chose that method because I needed to try something new.
See, I’d written middle-grade novels before, but none had been published. Editors would say, “great plot, clearly you can write, but the characters are a little thin.”
So when I came up with Emmy and the Rat—and I knew right away they were characters with depth, characters to follow—I decided to let them have their say, and not try to impose my own structure on the narrative. Unfortunately, this also meant that the story got bloated! I had to edit severely.
For Troubled Girls, I took the more traditional path of first generating ideas, then creating a storyline. The actual writing went far more quickly, and the end result needed only light editing.
How much of the storyline for this book did you have in your head while you were working on the first book?
The Troubled Girls showed up early in the first book, when Emmy sees through a shop window the lizard-skin shoes and wooden cane of her nanny, Miss Barmy. The cane was carved with miniature faces of girls; Miss Barmy said they were people she had “taken care of,” and that she was saving a blank patch for Emmy’s face one day. The adults who saw the cane said Emmy was lucky to have such a creative nanny, but Emmy herself found it intensely creepy. And, of course, I worded the passage so that the reader would feel the same way.
I cannot begin to tell you where that cane came from. But when I read the passage in a writer’s group, people were strongly intrigued by it. So I left it in, feeling that an image so powerful must have something behind it. And near the end of the first draft, I began to tell the story of those girls.
So the question—what on earth happened to the Troubled Girls?—was in my head early on. But since the first draft turned out way too long, whole interconnected storylines had to be cut, and this was one of them.
What were some of the other storylines that you cut?
Well, the Rat fell in love with a Bat. She was an Italian, opera-loving bat, intensely feminine yet knowing exactly how to manage Ratty—and he stood absolutely no chance, he fell head over heels. Some of Ratty’s funniest scenes were with Batti. It almost killed me to cut the sonnet that he wrote for her. I kept thinking she would show up in the second book, but she absolutely refused to fit in the story. Maybe someday!
Then as I generated ideas for Troubled Girls, even more storylines came up that I had to cut early on, involving cat wars, Ratty running for mayor, the question of where was Ratty’s mother now?, and so on. It’s the same problem every time—more ideas than I have space to explore!
How do you think Emmy’s character has changed throughout the two books?
In the first book, she’s ignored and dismissed in a multitude of ways; trying to figure out why and how is a mystery that compels her to take a lot of risks. She has to step out of her comfort zone and stop playing it safe in order to change her life.
In the second book, the focus is friendship and betrayal. She wants to acquire a multitude of friends to make up for her previous loneliness—but when there is conflict between her new human friends and a rodent friend, Emmy has a moment of cowardice that has major repercussions. The guilt consumes her as she gradually becomes aware of the extent of her betrayal, and so when she has an opportunity to redeem herself, she takes it, though the stakes are extremely high and the risk to herself is terrible.
I guess you could say that the big question of the first book is, “Am I going to stand up for myself?” And the question of the second book is, “Will I stand up for my friends?” The theme running through both is courage, but it is explored in different ways.
Are any of the characters in the books based on people you know?
Well, Emmy and the Rat are both like me. Half of me is the good girl, eager to please, get good grades, be nice to everyone. And the other half is like the Rat—the kind who slouches in the back row, snickers, and makes sarcastic comments. The Rat is also pretty full of himself... and a little thin-skinned, to boot. Put those two together and you have Lynne Jonell, sadly.
How has Ratty reacted to the success of the first book? Has fame gone to his head?
Yes, absolutely. He’s currently blogging with schoolchildren, leading the demand that I write a third book in which he is reunited with his mother. He’s not interested in doing any of the work, mind you—but he loves to critique. And he’s particularly incensed that I cut the storyline from Troubled Girls in which he joins a heavy-metal band, the Wretched Wrodents, as their lead singer. Snarler. Whatever.
Music plays an important part in both books about Emmy and Ratty. Do you have a special interest in music?
Yes. My mother is a musician, and taught me to play the piano—something she told me I would thank her for someday! (She was right.) I find the piano exceptionally useful during the writing process, and often find myself drawn to it when I’m working out problems in the manuscript.
I’m a singer, too. I remember winning a talent competition at age ten, and the incredible fun it was to march up to the microphone with every eye on me, and let loose with my voice. I put that experience into the Rat’s solos. The ego, the applause, the glory of being in the spotlight—yeah, that’s all Rat, that’s all me.