February Author of the Month Elly Swartz

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Let us introduce you to Elly Swartz—we guarantee you’re going to love her and her debut novel, Finding Perfect. Swartz’s warmth and charm are apparent in her answers to our questions, just as they are apparent in her portrayal of Molly, a typical tween but one whose adolescence is complicated by her obsessive-compulsive disorder. Get ready to be charmed!

Be sure to look for our review of Finding Perfect, which received a highly recommended rating in the January/February issue of School Library Connection. Subscribers can see our complete archive of reviews at reVIEWS+.

SwartzOnce we had read Finding Perfect, we knew we had to talk with the author, Elly Swartz. She kindly agreed to answer a few questions and we were rewarded with a glimpse into the creation of a story from beginning to end and also a glimpse into the heart of Swartz herself. When you’ve finished reading this, you’ll want to invite Swartz into your library and add Finding Perfect to your collection.

When did you know you wanted to become a children’s book author?

I have been creating stories since I was a little girl. Not with the idea of becoming an author, but simply for the love of the story. When I was young, I wrote short stories and a lot of terrible poetry. As a young mom, I channeled my creativity into storytelling. I would create characters and adventures with my sons and weave stories until they fell asleep, the magic passageway was discovered, the princess was found, or the world saved. Then, sixteen years ago, another creative spark was lit. I wanted to write. This time, I wanted to write a children’s book. That summer I started this journey. I wrote my first children’s book. Then I wrote another. And another. And another. And—finally—I wrote Finding Perfect.

That spark now burns even brighter. I love telling stories and writing for kids. I love the way the words weave and the characters unfold. Slowly. Gently. I consider it a true privilege.

What, in general, inspires you to write and, more specifically, what inspired you to write Finding Perfect?

Every story I tell begins with a character that is with me long before I write the first word of her story. With Finding Perfect, that character was Molly. I woke with her in my head and she came with me on morning walks with my dog, Lucy, and runs in the cold Boston air. The more I got to know her, the more she tucked into my heart. I knew she was scared and worried, but I also knew that she was braver and stronger than she realized. In this gap, I found the heart of her story.

I knew Molly had obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD) and I knew she didn’t understand what was happening to her. I also knew, like many with OCD, she saw herself differently than the world saw her. She was scared and vulnerable and struggling. But to the world, she was confident and smart and so capable. This disparity drew me in. I wanted Molly to discover her voice and her strength. To find her courage.

While inspired to write Molly’s journey, this was, at times, a difficult story to tell. To truly create an authentic character, I had to embrace Molly completely when I wrote. I had to remove my Mom hat, my writer hat, my lawyer hat. I had to allow Molly to go to those dark places. I could not fix her world. I had to write and write and write until Molly could find her strength and help herself. She did not need me. She needed the time and story to discover who she was. A strong, brave, amazing, young girl.

The general consensus about Finding Perfect is how well you captured the impact of OCD, how it affects Molly and her relationships with others. So why OCD? What was involved in researching this?

Molly came to me with OCD. I don’t know why. I just know that once she arrived in my heart and head that is where she stayed. And, since OCD was part of her, it was part of her story.

OCD has been in my world for a long time. I have adult friends with OCD and know a number of children with OCD. I knew if I was going to tell Molly’s story, it was paramount to ensure the manifestation, discovery, and recovery was authentic and respectful. And that meant researching, reading, and connecting with the doctors who diagnose and treat OCD.

I consulted with two OCD specialists, Dr. Paul Cannistraro and Dr. Kathleen Trainor. Dr. Cannistraro is the former director of clinical pharmacology at Massachusetts General Hospital OCD Clinic, and Dr. Trainor, the founder of the Trainor Center, has been working with children with anxiety-based disorders for more than thirty years, and is a senior psychologist on staff in the Child Psychiatry Clinic at Massachusetts General Hospital. She is also the author of Calming Your Anxious Child: Words to Say and Things to Do (John Hopkins University Press 2016). Both doctors shared their knowledge about OCD and how it could unfold in a child Molly’s age. As I wrote and revised Molly’s story, I continually met and consulted with Dr. Trainor to specifically authenticate Molly’s symptoms and treatment. Dr. Trainor graciously read many drafts of Finding Perfect to ensure that I had accurately represented OCD. I also watched videos and read articles and several books offered by the International OCD foundation to further research the disorder. The International OCD Foundation was an invaluable resource throughout this process. I encourage anyone looking for resources or to further understand OCD to access www.iocdf.org.

My greatest compliment has come from readers whose lives have been touched by OCD. They have reached out and shared their belief that Molly’s journey felt authentic. They have also confided they wish they had known Molly when they or their loved one was struggling with OCD. Truly, I am humbled and honored by their gracious kindness and courage.

What would you like students to take away from your book?

My hope is that students who read Finding Perfect and meet Molly begin to truly understand that no one is just one thing. Molly is not just OCD. She is a loving sister and a kind friend and an amazing poet. Like Molly, each one of us is a wonderful blend of many layers. It is this composite of traits that makes us special. Unique. Wonderful. If we can see that each one of us is a blend, then maybe, we can see that the quarterback on the school team and the girl who plays cello, the kids we think we have absolutely nothing in common with, are a blend, too. We can begin to see they are not just football or music. And, maybe in those layers we will realize that we are more alike than we are different. We can relate and empathize. We can forgive and understand. We can connect.

For a project related to empathy and identity, check out the Unfolding Identity Project. You can download it from http://ellyswartz.com/wp-content/uploads/2016/07/Finding-Perfect-Unfolding-Identity.pdf or find it on my site, www.ellyswartz.com. While Molly’s OCD makes her situation unique in Finding Perfect, we are all a little like Molly – who we present to the world is not always in perfect alignment with who we are on the inside. In this project, you can help your readers explore the layers of their identity with a series of writing prompts. The responses to the prompts, written in tiny spaces on the provided template, are folded and tucked to create an exploration of the layers of self. In the end, each reader can see that no one is just one thing.

Everyone is a blend of all their wonderful attributes, inside and out!

Keeping in mind that we are a magazine for school librarians, is there anything you’d like to add that we haven’t touched on?

One of my other hopes for the readers of Finding Perfect, is that they realize they are not alone. Never alone. And to this end, school librarians are my heroes. Every day they connect readers with books, with authors, with stories. They provide a sanctuary for kids to be who they are. To discover who they are. To cherish who they are. To not be alone. School librarians are a gift. So, I really just want to say a-deep-in-my-heart-of-hearts thank you! If I can ever be of help to the amazing work school librarians do, please reach out. I’m always happy to connect or Skype with classes or book clubs.

And finally, I want to say, stay tuned to meet some new friends. Eleven-year-old Frankie is spunky, loving, and all about family with a dash of mischief and mystery! She’s coming to a library near you in early 2018. And in 2019, you’ll meet twelve-year-old Maggie. Maggie has a big heart and must learn to let go. Of stuff. Of people. Of the past. With the help of her turtle Rufus, a baby named Izzie, and the almost all-girls trap shooting team, she begins to understand that people are more than the things that hold their memories. Stay tuned. Good things are coming!

You can learn more about Elly Swartz at www.ellyswartz.com and follow her on Twitter at https://twitter.com/ellyswartz

Other useful links:
Curriculum Guide:
http://images.macmillan.com/folio-assets/teachers-guides/9780374303129TG.pdf

Unfolding Identity Project
http://ellyswartz.com/wp-content/uploads/2016/07/Finding-Perfect-Unfolding-Identity.pdf

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