Author Janae Marks’ debut novel From the Desk of Zoe Washington is one of my most anticipated 2020 middle-grade books. Thankfully, I read an ARC and LOVED it! Today, I’m speaking with Janae about why she wrote about an incarcerated parent, middle-school friendships, and her most valued advice for writers. She also shares four of her most anticipated 2020 middle-grade debuts. You can expect my review of ZOE on the blog tomorrow!
Hey Janae, thanks so much for agreeing to this interview! I LOVED reading your debut middle-grade novel, From the Desk of Zoe Washington. Zoe is such a spunky, clever, and determined character.
Thank you so much for having me! I’m thrilled that you enjoyed the book.
What inspired you to write about an incarcerated parent, especially a young Black man like Zoe’s father, Marcus?
I was actually inspired by real-life events. In 2014-15, I was hooked on the podcast Serial and Netflix documentary Making a Murderer, both of which told the stories of men convicted of murder who may actually be innocent. I also watched Ava DuVernay’s powerful documentary 13th, which talks about systemic racism within the US criminal justice system.
I knew if I wrote about the issue of wrongful convictions, I’d want it to be about a Black man, because Black people are 7 times more likely to be wrongfully convicted of murder than white people (source).
As an African American writer, it was also important to me to have my book feature a Black protagonist. Since I write for kids, I started wondering what it’s like to be the child of an incarcerated parent, and Zoe was born from there.
Another important arm of this story (at least to me) is Zoe’s friendship with Trevor and the initial squabble they’re having at the start of the book. Did you have any memorable tiffs with a best friend growing up — especially one hard to forgive like Zoe and Trevor’s?
I was also involved in some pretty unfortunate friendship drama when I was Zoe’s age. My situation revolved around another girl’s jealousy over my friendship with my best friend at the time. The girl basically tried to turn my bestie and our other friends against me!
I did lose a couple of friends through this, but thankfully NOT my bestie, who was always on my side. These kinds of situations stick with you! So I definitely wanted to incorporate a friendship conflict in the book.
Zoe loves baking and is constantly creating ingenious recipes like the famous Froot Loops inspired cupcake. Do you also enjoy baking?
I enjoy watching other people bake! Ha! One of my favorite ways to unwind and relax is to watch baking competition shows on the Food Network and Netflix. I especially love the ones featuring kids, so when I needed to give Zoe a hobby, baking immediately came to mind.
I don’t bake too often myself, but since writing the book, I’ve been trying it more and more! I actually created a challenge for myself to bake a new cupcake recipe each month for the few months leading up to the book’s release. Including the Froot Loops cupcakes! It was a lot of fun, and you can see the pictures on Instagram under #ZoeWashingtonCupcakes.
I love a good mystery, but mysteries in middle-grade novels are not as common as I’d like. Why did you choose to include a good dose of mystery in your debut novel?
True crime stories have become so popular lately, especially in podcasts like Serial, and what’s so appealing is not knowing who is guilty or innocent until you get to the end. (And sometimes, you never find out the truth.) I wanted to add that sort of suspense and intrigue to my book.
You have an MFA in Creative Writing (Writing for Children). Why KidLit? What’s your favorite thing about writing books “for children”?
I took creative writing classes in college, but wrote literary short stories for adults, like everyone else in my class. But then in my senior year, I took an English literature elective called “Girls’ Books.” In the class, we re-read children’s classics featuring female protagonists, like Harriet the Spy, The Secret Garden, The Golden Compass, Blubber, and more.
In reading those books, I remembered how much I loved literature for children, and still connected to them as an adult. So when I was looking for MFA programs, I specifically looked for ones with a Writing for Children concentration. My favorite thing about writing books for kids is how hopeful they are. I think middle grade books in particular offer such honest portrayals of the world.
Is writing your full-time job? If not, how do you find time to write? What’s the best writing advice you’ve ever received?
Writing is not my full-time job. I juggle writing with a part-time job, as well as parenting my daughter. I actually started writing From the Desk of Zoe Washington when my daughter was only a few months old. She, thankfully, was a pretty good sleeper, so I’d wake up early to write, and write during her naps. Now, I have two days during the week dedicated to writing, and I still squeeze it in in the early mornings and weekends when I can.
The best writing advice I’ve ever received is to not give up. My publishing journey was long and filled with a lot of rejection along the way. But I kept believing in myself and kept writing. I can’t remember who said it, but I once read that the difference between a writer who gets published and a writer who doesn’t is the published one never quit. It’s so true!
Which middle-grade and YA books have you read and loved recently?
I was lucky enough to read some amazing 2020 debuts early! I recommend Mary Underwater by Shannon Doleski, How to Make Friends with the Sea by Tanya Guerrero, The Lonely Heart of Maybelle Lane by Kate O’Shaughnessy and Three Things I Know are True by Betty Culley.
What can we expect from you after ZOE? Can you share anything about what you’re currently working on?
I’m currently editing my second middle grade novel, which will come out in 2021. I can’t wait to share more about it soon!
What else do you wish I’d asked about?
What my favorite cake flavor is. It’s chocolate, just like Trevor’s. 🙂
Thanks again for your time, Janae! And congratulations on such a lovely debut!
About Janae Marks
Janae grew up in the suburbs of New York City, where she always wrote. She started out writing illustrated autobiographical stories in kindergarten, and then journal entries, stories to submit to Seventeen Magazine‘s short story contests, and letters to her pen pals and summer camp friends. She read a lot too, of course. Her books were among her prized possessions.
After college, she got an inside look at the publishing world while spending seven years working for a Big 5 publisher. Now, she lives in Connecticut, and when she’s not writing fiction or working in education, she’s spending time with her husband and daughter – at the beach, when it’s warm enough!
In 2017, Janae’s novel From the Desk of Zoe Washington won the Tassy Walden: New Voices in Children’s Literature Award in the middle grade category. It will be published on January 14, 2020 by HarperCollins Katherine Tegen Books. She is represented by Alex Slater at Trident Media Group.
Other Middle-Grade and YA Books Featuring Incarcerated Parents
- No Place Like Here by Christina June
- All Rise for the Honorable Perry T. Cook by Leslie Connor
- One for the Murphy’s by Lynda Mullaly Hunt
Related Book List: Best middle grade books about food