I first encountered Elissa a couple of years ago when I was on the Cybils Middle Grade second round panel. Nerd Camp was on our shortlist, and we ended up picking it as our winner. I’ve had a special place in my heart for it ever since, and as a result, chose it as one of my 3-5th grade book club summer picks. The kids liked it too, and we thought it’d be fun to ask Elissa some questions (they came up with all the questions).
How do you come up with book ideas?
EW: Some ideas spark from things that happen to me or I hear about in real life. I decided to write Nerd Camp, for instance, after teaching at a summer camp for smart kids. My students were so fun and clever and funny and warm, I just had to try to capture that atmosphere. The idea for The Short Seller came to me when I discovered the fast-moving, exciting fluctuations in stock prices from one minute to the next. But none of these experiences translate directly into books; I usually take something real and begin stretching the situation with my imagination, asking myself, “What if…” Following those “what ifs” leads me to characters, and, from there, to their stories.
In Nerd Camp, why did you choose to write from a boy’s point of view? Was it hard?
EW: I started Nerd Camp with a setting (a summer camp for smart kids) rather than a character, and I attempted to write the book with many different characters—mostly boys, but some girls too— before hitting upon Gabe. I fell in love with Gabe the moment I started writing about him, and I just knew that his story was the one that was going to work. Also, there’s just something about a boy yearning to be liked by his new stepbrother that is so endearing and honest, it just makes the central conflict more compelling than if it were a girl wanting the same. It wasn’t too difficult to write from Gabe’s point of view, though perhaps that’s because he’s such a nerd, and I am too. In Nerd Camp 2.0 (due out May 2014!), I also write from Zack’s perspective, and he’s so cool it was harder to do!
How did you come up with the idea of SCGE? Is it a real place?
EW: SCGE is not a real place, but it’s based on one: the Johns Hopkins Center for Talented Youth (CTY). I taught at CTY for four summers, but only at day sites, so the campers didn’t stay overnight. (CTY does have sleepaway camps as well, on college campuses.) Apart from the idea, the type of kids you find there, and to some degree the structure of each day, SCGE is entirely fictional. Wouldn’t it be fun if it were real, though? I’d love to go!
What do you think a NERD is? Do you think everyone has a cool side, too?
EW: What a great question! I think nerds are people who love to learn. The stereotype is that nerds are good at school but awkward in social situations, which is why they could be perceived as uncool. In an environment where it’s cool to not care, nerds, of course, would be ultimately uncool. But at a place like SCGE, where everyone loves learning and cares a great deal about school, being cool is defined differently. The key is to embrace what you love and resist the pressure to conform to someone else’s concept of what’s cool. (Which, let’s admit, is no easy task!) If we think about nerds as being people who are passionate about something, not only does everyone have a cool side, but even the coolest people have a nerdy side, too.
Tell us about your new book. What’s it about?
EW: The Short Seller is the story of seventh grader Lindy Sachs, who’s stuck at home with mononucleosis and bored, bored, bored—until she discovers she’s got a knack for trading stocks online. Her parents give her $100 in her own account to invest as she sees fit, and before long, she’s a stock-trading whiz, doubling her money and then some. It’s when she decides to start trading with her parents’ money too that she finds herself in some risky business—and some major trouble. I could tell you more about the plot, but it’s more fun to watch this short book
Thanks so much to Elissa for her time, and to my book group kids for coming up with the questions!