Kid Reporters

A Chat with Author Gennifer Choldenko

TIME For Kids spoke with the author of the popular Al Capone series about her new novel

March 18, 2011

Author Gennifer Choldenko is best known for her Al Capone series. Her first book, Al Capone Does My Shirts, won a Newbery Award. Set in 1935, the book is about a boy whose father is a guard for Alcatraz Prison. The boy and the warden's daughter end up in hot water when they start a business in which school children pay to have their clothes washed by the prisoners.

Kid Reporter Francesco Franzese poses with author Gennifer Choldenko
COURTESY FRANZESE FAMILY
Kid Reporter Francesco Franzese poses with author Gennifer Choldenko

Recently, Choldenko dared to tread new territory with her first fantasy novel, No Passengers Beyond This Point. The story is about the exploits of three children whose airplane lands in a mysterious city known as Falling Bird, where nothing is as it seems.

TFK Kid Reporter Francesco Franzese chatted with Choldenko at Anderson's Bookshop in Naperville, Illinois, and discovered why she became an author, how she wrote her first novel and what she plans to write next.

TIME FOR KIDS:

Have you always wanted to become an author?

GENNIFER CHOLDENKO:

I knew when I was in third grade that I wanted to become an author, but it took me a long time to muster the courage to pursue that dream. My father tried to publish a book his whole life, but it never happened. That really scared me. I became an English major in college, because I always loved books. I tried student teaching, but I was terrified to stand up and talk to other people. I ended up getting a job in advertising. I got to do what I like, which is stringing words together. Plus I learned how to meet deadlines, how to revise, how to deal with clients and how to write all day. I would show up at work, and I would write for eight or nine hours. After a while, I was no longer interested in writing with the goal of selling something. It was then that I knew I was ready to follow my heart.

TFK:

Where did the idea for No Passengers Beyond This Point come from?

CHOLDENKO:

That is a good question, and I don't have a good answer for it. [With] some books I know exactly where the idea came from, and [with] other books the idea just seems to pop into my head. No Passengers is in the pop-in-the-head variety. I've always wanted to write a fantasy. I had already developed the characters, so I knew who they were. I thought, "Why not give it a try?" I decided to write one chapter, and not tell anyone I was doing it. After that one chapter, I was completely hooked. I couldn't wait to write the next chapter, and it really was one of the most thrilling writing experiences I've ever had.

TFK:

I read that you have a degree in illustration. What inspired you to pursue a writing career instead of a career in illustration?

CHOLDENKO:

From advertising, I went back to school to get a second degree in illustration, simply because I thought there wouldn't be as much rejection. But I realized that I am a writer who occasionally has ideas for illustrations, rather than an illustrator who occasionally has ideas to write about.

TFK:

What did you learn from writing the Al Capone books?

CHOLDENKO:

I gained confidence from writing the Al Capone books. I felt ready to write a fantasy novel. I thought, "Okay, I did well with those books!" Every time I finish writing a book, I ask myself, "What did I do well and what can I improve on?" That's how you grow as a writer.

TFK:

Was it difficult to write No Passengers Beyond This Point from a first-person point of view?

Kid Reporter
Francesco Franzese

CHOLDENKO:

I always liked writing in first-person. To me, third-person always felt a step away. I never felt like I was inside the characters. I really like first-person present tense, which is less common, because I want to feel like I am that person. I think the challenges I had with this book were that I had to write from several points of view, because the kids went to different places and I wanted to capture all of them. I could have written from a different point of view from the start, such as third-person omniscient. But I wanted readers to feel close to the characters. When I'm writing, if I don't feel like I am the character, then I stop, because I know that something's wrong.

TFK:

Are you happy with the way No Passengers Beyond This Point it turned out?

CHOLDENKO:

My biggest problem with No Passengers is I love it too much. Things changed in the revision process. The beginning and the end are very similar to how they were from the start of the revision, but the center needed work. I needed to create more tension. Once I did that, the whole book changed in a big way.

TFK:

How did it feel to write a fantasy tale instead of historical fiction?

CHOLDENKO:

The thing that's fun about doing historical fiction is that there's so much research, and that research feeds your book. All the great ideas that are true, that you would never have imagined, help you build the book, and that's really exciting. When I do research, I'm underlining the things I find interesting, and in the margins I'm writing ideas that come to me. When you're writing a fantasy, there are some things you can research, but not as much. Generally, the ideas had to come from me.

TFK:

Are there any works of literature you have drawn inspiration from?

CHOLDENKO:

I think the book that inspired me the most for No Passengers is Holes by Louis Sachar. I thought Holes was such an incredible, magical, realistic experience. I think No Passengers is more magic realism than fantasy. I had a feeling that I wanted to do magic realism, so I read some books by adult authors, like Gabriel Garcia Marquez, who wrote 100 Years of Solitude. That helped me open my eyes to the possibilities of magic realism.

TFK:

As I read your book, I was amazed at how lifelike the characters were. How did you create such realistic characters?

CHOLDENKO:

I just think that's how I write all my characters. They have to be realistic. I have to believe them. Fantastical characters that don't have that snap of recognition aren't believable to me, so that's why I think this is a bit more magic realism. Kids will be able to relate to the characters, who were inspired by my own siblings. The oldest sister [in the book] is like my oldest sister, and Mouse [the youngest sister] is a little like me since I also had an imaginary friend named Bing, like Mouse does.

TFK:

Do you have any ideas for future books?

CHOLDENKO:

The Al Capone books are actually a trilogy, and I'm about to turn in the third book. I'm handing it in for the first revision, though, so there will be a long process before I'm done. I always have lots of ideas for novels. Sometimes, I get an idea and it won't let me go. It grabs me by the neck, and I just have to write it down. A book has to come from my gut more than from my head. The revisions and thinking about it come from my head.


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