ALL FOUR KIDS: An Interview with Jessica Lawson, author of The Actual & Truthful Adventures of Becky Thatcher

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Mike Grosso here at the blog wheel, and today I’m excited to interview Jessica Lawson, whose debut takes the world of Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn and spins it in wild and unexpected ways through the lens of Becky Thatcher. She’s no longer a minor love interest anymore. Now she’s the star of her own mischievous book, and what a book it is.

Here’s the specifics on THE ACTUAL & TRUTHFUL ADVENTURES OF BECKY THATCHER:

Becky Thatcher

Becky Thatcher has her side of the story to tell—and it’s a whopper—in this creative spin on Mark Twain’s beloved The Adventures of Tom Sawyer, complete with illustrations.

Tom Sawyer’s and Huckleberry Finn’s adventures are legendary, but what about the story you haven’t heard? In 1860, eleven-year-old Becky Thatcher is the new girl in town, determined to have adventures like she promised her brother Jon before he died. With her Mama frozen in grief and her Daddy busy as town judge, Becky spends much of her time on her own, getting into mischief. Before long, she joins the boys at school in a bet to steal from the Widow Douglas, and Becky convinces her new best friend, Amy Lawrence, to join her.

But the theft doesn’t go as planned, and Widow Douglas ends up being unfairly accused of grave robbing as a result. So Becky concocts a plan to clear the Widow’s name. If she pulls it off, she might just get her Mama to notice her again, as well as fulfill her promise to Jon in a most unexpected way. That is, if that tattletale Tom Sawyer will quit following her around.

THE ACTUAL & TRUTHFUL ADVENTURES OF BECKY THATCHER is available today at Indiebound | Barnes & Noble | Books-A-MillionAmazon | Powells | Book Depository

MG: Thank you for taking the time to do this interview! I really enjoyed Becky’s story! There are a lot of unique characters in Twain’s universe, but your book does something bold by shining the spotlight on quite a few side characters. Why did you feel Becky Thatcher was the one who needed a bigger story?

JESSICA: Mark Twain’s The Adventures of Tom Sawyer is a classic and I love, love, love the book exactly as it is, so I would never say that she needed a bigger story. I think it was a matter of me always relating more to Tom and Huck, and thinking that it would be neat if Becky Thatcher got to have a little fun as well. I had written several manuscripts before this one, so I didn’t necessarily think it was going to be snatched up. It was more that I got a spark of an idea and when I went to explore it, this different version of Becky had a voice that…well, she had a lot to say J

MG: Becky’s “relationship” with Tom is much different in this version of the story (to put it lightly!). What do you see as the main reason they don’t get along?

JESSICA: He’s a tattletale, which is just about the worst thing a kid can be (in Becky’s eyes). In her mind, his loyalties lean toward adults rather than fellow kids, which is unforgivable in the miniature Kingdom that kids create for themselves. I felt a little bad for Tom when writing the story, because there are times when Becky is pretty harsh with him. I thought about softening a few key phrases, but that just wasn’t true to her character.

MG: Speaking of relationships, Becky and Amy have a fascinating friendship rather than a rivalry. What made you feel these two needed to bond?

JESSICA: Adventures are always more fun when you have a co-pilot. Tom had Huck, and my version of Becky Thatcher has Amy Lawrence. It started out as a little joke—in The Adventures of Tom Sawyer, Amy is the girl who Tom was “engaged” to before Becky, so their relationship was one of jealousy (on Becky’s part). In my version, their mutual dislike of Tom Sawyer is one of the things that brings them together. Also, both girls have parental absences and that serves as something that draws them together and makes them fast friends.There are departures from the original story sprinkled throughout my novel, and this was one of my favorites to develop. I love how, at certain ages, best friends can be formed almost instantaneously, with loyalties declared and fiercely guarded.

MG: You’ve nailed Twain’s voice and setting perfectly. How did you go about creating such an authentic feel for the book?

JESSICA: That’s incredibly generous of you to say—thank you! It was the kind of voice that came fairly naturally to me, maybe because I know Tom Sawyer’s story well. But I hadn’t read the actual novel in several years when I got the idea. I actually made a point not to re-read The Adventures of Tom Sawyer right before drafting the story because I was concerned that I’d try to emulate Twain’s voice too much, which would have been an epic fail on my part. Instead, I just listened to this lively liar who had a big heart and wrote down what she had to say. My dad grew up in southeastern Missouri, and the accent and vernacular for my Becky T. is probably a combination of voices I heard in my childhood while visiting grandparents and fictional phrases that popped into my head. The setting is one that is so well-known, so I wanted to keep my own descriptions light. My version of St. Petersburg is a smaller version than Twain’s, but I hope it has the same general feel.

MG: As long as we’re on the subject of how authentic your book reads, it’s worth mentioning that a lot of familiar faces (many of which I did not expect) manage to pop up in Becky’s tale. Which of Twain’s characters was the most fun to include?

JESSICA: I’d say Mr. Dobbins, the teacher. Meanies are always fun to write, especially in an ever-so-slightly exaggerated style.

MG: Becky Thatcher works wonderfully as both a standalone novel and a companion to Twain’s stories. Why do you think a reader unfamiliar with Twain’s work should still read your book?

JESSICA: Well, I hope it’s a fun read. I tried to write it so that any glimpses of the original (and nods to other works by Twain) would be noticed by anyone familiar with The Adventures of Tom Sawyer, but that wouldn’t detract from the narrative or confuse readers who hadn’t read Twain. I think I was kind of aiming for something like those inside jokes in Pixar movies—some people get the jokes and appreciate them, but they don’t diminish the experience or slow down the movie for those who don’t necessarily realize that there’s a specific reference behind a joke. And I think maybe the grieving element makes it a different sort of novel that might be a good match for certain readers who haven’t connected with Twain’s work yet.

MG: I noticed The Adventures of Tom Sawyer and The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn have new covers that match up with yours. All three of them look fantastic! It also looks like readers will have the option to purchase Becky Thatcher as part of a boxed set. How did the idea of packaging Becky Thatcher with Twain’s books come about?

JESSICA: I wasn’t privy to conversations about that—it was an idea/decision that came completely from the good people at Simon & Schuster. If I were to guess, I would say that it’s because Mark Twain’s classic books are in the public domain (meaning publishers have free reign to print new editions) and they are always going to be popular (particularly those two). My book was a nice reason for them to release shiny new editions with gorgeous covers and illustrations by artist/illustrator Iacopo Bruno. Since Becky Thatcher is a beloved part of Tom Sawyer’s world, I think they decided it would be neat to have a three-book set, each book featuring one of those key beloved characters (even if my version puts a spin on things). Trust me, I never thought I’d see my name on a boxed set with Mark Twain. My husband and I have gotten similar questions about the collection and have joked that I was the one who approached the publisher with:  “Listen, I’ve got an idea. Let’s put my book in with Twain’s books. And then I’d like to be in a boxed set with Dickens, or maybe Hemingway.”  We get a good laugh about that. But really, it’s a very unlikely, amazing, cool thing to happen and I’ll definitely be buying a couple of sets to pass down to my kiddos one day.

MG: And because this community is fearless, what’s something you’re afraid of and something you’re not afraid of?

JESSICA: I’m terrified of those Pillsbury biscuit/pizza dough cans that tell you to pull the label strip until it pops open (or to press a spoon against a dotted line until it opens). Those things freak me out like crazy. And I’m not afraid of spiders~ if I find one in the house, I always capture it and set it free outside.

MG: Thanks again for agreeing to this interview, and sharing some of your insight into how THE ACTUAL & TRUTHFUL ADVENTURES OF BECKY THATCHER came to be. I’ll be waiting to see what you write next!

bioshotJessica Lawson enjoys living/playing in the mountains of Colorado with her husband and children. She has to seasonally inform the landlord about bear damage to the trash bin at the end of her driveway and regularly sees a fox family trotting around the neighborhood (which makes her feel like she’s in one of her favorite Roald Dahl books). She fell in love with books at an early age, and is a sucker for Roald Dahl, Mark Twain, RL LaFevers, Charles Dickens, Barbara Park, Maryrose Wood, Barbara Cooney, Anne Ursu, Gail Carson Levine, Arnold Lobel, Sharon Creech, Eva Ibbotson, Dave Barry, Shannon Hale, Fannie Flagg, Maeve Binchy and many, many, many other wonderful authors (and illustrators). She writes middle grade fiction, lots of to-do lists, and songs about diapers.

Visit Jessica Lawson’s website at http://jessicalawsonbooks.com

Visit Simon & Schuster’s Becky Thatcher webpage.

Mike GrossoMike Grosso writes, teaches, parents, and plays a variety of instruments at all hours of the day for all possible reasons in Oak Park, Illinois, where he lives with his wife and two-year-old son. He loves coffee, teaching, writing, reading, and making lots of noise with whatever objects he can find nearby. His debut contemporary middle grade novel, I AM DRUMS, will be released by Egmont USA in September 2015. Until then, you can follow his journey to publication at mikegrossoauthor.com or by following him on Twitter.
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