Edith Cohn’s new middle grade book Birdie’s Billions is about a girl who finds half a million dollars (cash!) in an abandoned house and has to decide whether or not to keep it. Birdie’s dilemma is tougher because her single mother is broke and out of a job and one parent in their rich school district thinks nothing of Birdie because she’s not wealthy.
I talked to Edith about Birdie, writing realistic, impulsive characters, and writing stories about class privilege and poverty. You’ll enjoy this interview.
Edith Cohn is giving away a copy of Birdie’s Billions to one reader! See details on how to enter the giveaway at the end of this interview.
Interview with Edith Cohn About Birdie’s Billions
Hi Edith! I’m so happy to be chatting with you about Birdie’s Billions, your new middle grade novel. There aren’t many books with an intriguing and compelling premise as a kid finding half a million dollars abandoned. What inspired this story?
Hi Afoma! Thank you so much for having me. Birdie’s story was inspired by a family member of mine who found quite a lot of money hidden in her apartment. As soon as I heard the story, I started thinking about the situation as a moral dilemma a kid might face.
Birdie’s mom is struggling financially even while they live in such an affluent school district. Why did you want to write about wealth and status as forms of privilege?
There are actually several reasons. One is that I grew up aware that the popular kids had money for brand-named clothes, cable TV, field trips to Europe, and all kinds of things my family couldn’t afford. Two, I worked as a teacher in the south Bronx, and then a teacher in Long Island, and that was an education on the differences between public schools in neighborhoods with drastically different income-levels. And I think kids are always painfully aware of these differences and how the world isn’t fair in this regard. It’s something I grappled with as a kid, so I was interested in writing about it.
I liked Birdie, even though she was impulsive and often not the best moral example. Much has been said about writing likeable vs unlikable protagonists. Where would you say Birdie falls on this spectrum? And did you always intend to write such a flawed protagonist?
Birdie was always destined to be flawed–in fact in earlier drafts she was even more impulsive and flawed. She was inspired by a kid I taught who made horrible decisions but had the biggest heart and the best of intentions. And I hope that’s how Birdie comes across–flawed but likeable because she means well.
Birdie and her cousin have a sweet relationship and I loved that she could confide in him. Did you have close relationships with your extended family growing up?
Yes, I was really close with my cousins, because I have a really small family. And I’ve watched my younger cousins deal with the same issues surrounding money that I dealt with as a kid, and it makes those memories of my childhood really fresh.
I know you taught seventh-graders in NYC. Does that experience come in handy as a middle grade author? How would you say — if yes?
I would say the biggest way it helps is giving me insight into my teacher characters since I’ve now seen it from that side. For example in Birdie’s story there’s a teacher who pays for Birdie to go on the field trip when she doesn’t have the money, and I wanted to do that for my kids when I taught school.
I found Hailey and Birdie’s friendship interesting. Birdie learns quickly that it can be challenging to befriend people outside her social status — and real friends can prove themselves in time. What did you want to highlight with the girls’ friendship?
The main thing I hoped to accomplish with that friendship is to have Birdie gain confidence in who she is, so that when Hailey wants to do something morally questionable (as she often does) Birdie in the end can say, You know what, I don’t feel comfortable with that because it’s going to get us into trouble. In the beginning Birdie feels less than Hailey because she has less money and like she has to go along with Hailey’s plans to borrow a canoe that isn’t theirs, but by the end she can stand up to Hailey and be honest about who she is and who she wants to be.
Which great middle grade books have you read and loved lately?
I really loved Long Lost by Jacqueline West for its atmospheric story featuring a haunted book. And I was in awe of Corey Ann Haydu’s One Jar of Magic because it was such a unique story about perfectionism, which just happened to be perfectly written. 😉
Are you currently working on any projects you can share with readers? If yes, we’d love to know.
Yes, I am working on another middle grade novel called The Science of Sisters which is about two sisters living in a town hit by a meteor which causes them to question everything.
Thank you so much for your time, Edith!
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Meet Edith Cohn
Edith Cohn is the author of Spirit’s Key (FSG/Macmillan) and the forthcoming Birdie’s Billions (Bloomsbury). A former 7th grade English teacher, she loves writing for kids. She was born and raised in North Carolina and currently lives in Los Angeles with her husband and young daughter. For more information, teacher’s guide and extras, visit her online at www.edithcohn.com