JoAnne Stewart Wetzel’s debut middle grade novel Playing Juliet came out last fall from Sky Pony Press. JoAnne’s main character, twelve-and-a-half-year-old Beth Sondquist, is heartbroken when her beloved children’s theater is slated to be closed. Beth dreams of playing Juliet, and she could have her chance–the director has decided to stage Romeo and Juliet as the theater’s final play. There’s one problem. Beth is grounded for two weeks and can’t even audition. From her room, Beth has to figure out how to save the theater AND play the role of a lifetime.
JoAnne is a regular Lunch Breaker, and I appreciate her candid insights into craft as we discuss middle grade books. Here’s what she has to say about writing Playing Juliet.
KidLit Craft: What were your inspirations for Playing Juliet?
JoAnne Stewart Wetzel: Here are the top three:
- I saw Peter Pan on Broadway when I was seven. The children flew! I’ve been hooked on theater ever since.
- I discovered Noel Streatfeild’s books when I was in grade school: Ballet Shoes (which was much more about acting than dance), Theater Shoes, Circus Shoes . . . book after book about kids training to become professional performers. That theme of wanting to become a professional actor and training for it is repeated in Playing Juliet.I was so pleased when I learned The Helen Hayes Youth Theater in Nyack, New York, had included Playing Juliet on its list of Fiction for Young Readers. But what made me proudest was when I saw Ballet Shoes and Theater Shoes included in the ten books on the list.
- My first book, Onstage/Backstage (Carolrhoda, 1987), with Caryn Huberman Yacowitz, was a photo essay about the Palo Alto Children’s Theater. Caryn and I shadowed the production of one of their plays, photographing everything from auditions to striking the set. When we’d finished that book, I had more than enough information left over to put into a novel about a children’s theater.
KidLit Craft: What is your favorite scene in Playing Juliet?
JSW: The scene at the end of Chapter Nine, when our heroine, Beth, bicycles home in the rain knowing what she’d done that night—sneaking out of the house, breaking into the theater, putting her friends in danger—was all for nothing. She hadn’t found the one thing that could save her theater. Defeated, drenched and cold, the rain slashing at her face so hard she can barely see, she thinks:
“I didn’t think it was possible to feel worse than I did at that moment.”
And the next two sentences, which end the chapter, show her how very wrong she is.
Why is this my favorite scene? Beth is shown in a totally miserable situation, and then, unexpectedly, the last two sentences make it much, much worse. Score! This is what a writer tries to do to her protagonist, again and again, so that her reader can not stop reading but must turn the page and go on to the next chapter.
KidLit Craft: What advice would you give a first time novelist?
JSW: Finish the first draft before you polish your writing. I worked on the first chapter of Playing Juliet for months. It was polished and perfect before I went on to the second chapter. But by the time I finally finished the first draft, the characters had changed, the plot had changed, and the whole first chapter had to be thrown out.
KidLit Craft: Can you tell us a little about your current project?
JSW: I just finished the final revisions to my next picture book, MY FIRST DAY AT MERMAID SCHOOL, which will be coming out from Knopf in the summer of 2018. It was so much fun writing about this underwater school.
Now I’m starting to concentrate on a new middle grade, a time travel to Minoan Crete which doesn’t yet have a title. So far it’s being told in three voices, one modern American girl, and two kids from 1600 BC, a kidnapped boy from the royal family of Kush, and an orphaned girl sent from Athens as a tribute to King Minos. The common problem they share: they are all to be sacrificed to the Minotaur.
Thanks for your time, JoAnne. We’ll be waiting for your upcoming books!
Find out more about JoAnne and her books online at joannewetzel.com
Anne-Marie Strohman (co-editor) writes picture books, middle grade novels, and young adult short stories and novels. She is trained as a teacher, an editor, and a scholar, specializing in Renaissance Literature. She holds an MFA in Writing for Children and Young Adults from Vermont College of Fine Arts and is an active member of SCBWI. Find her at amstrohman.com and on Twitter @amstrwriter.