I still remember the first time I stumbled on Kristin Mahoney’s Annie’s Life in Lists. I was intrigued by the concept of a book written entirely in list format, and I loved the main character even before I started reading the story. It was such a pleasure to hear that Elfie Unperfect was forthcoming and even a greater delight to snag a review copy.
Elfie is a young perfectionist whose tendency to control others and enforce rules gets her expelled from her new elementary school on the first day! Today, Kristin and I chat about Elfie Unperfect, perfectionism, tips for writing a funny middle grade book, and ways to support kids with a perfectionistic streak.
Kristin is also giving away a copy of Elfie Unperfect. See how to enter at the end of this interview.
Interview with Kristin Mahoney
Hi Kristin! It’s such a pleasure to chat with you about Elfie Unperfect. I loved this book, especially because like Elfie, I have strong perfectionistic tendencies. What inspired you to write about a child dealing with perfectionism?
I was interested in writing about a fifth grader with perfectionism because it’s something that can be such a unique challenge at that age. As adults, we can try to focus our perfectionist tendencies on things that really matter to us, but that can be hard to discern for kids, who are learning how to navigate the world’s expectations in so many areas.As adults, we can try to focus our perfectionist tendencies on things that really matter to us, but that can be hard to discern for kids, who are learning how to navigate the world’s expectations in so many areas. Click To Tweet
Annie, the character in your debut novel, was much gentler than Elfie is. Which of the two characters did you enjoy writing more? And which one do you feel most similar to?
I would say I’m more similar to Annie. While I may have thought things like “we should do this group project my way because I know I’m right,” I never would have had the nerve to actually say it aloud the way Elfie would!
But Elfie was very fun to write…it was a kick to try to embody a character who’s not always likable. One of my favorite books as a kid was Judy Blume’s Otherwise Known as Sheila the Great. Sheila is very flawed but also very funny, and somehow you wind up rooting for her in spite of her foibles. I hope readers will feel the same way about Elfie.
Elfie has the best of intentions but when you have such high standards as well as social anxiety, it can be tough to focus on anything else but yourself. As a result, she misses that Jenna is also struggling. Why was this something you wanted to highlight?
Oh gosh, I think this is something that we’re all always learning, isn’t it? That the person who rubs you the wrong way or does something you think is rude or seems perpetually grouchy could very well be going through a struggle you know nothing about. We all get lost inside our own heads sometimes, but if we try to open up to others even a little bit, it can help build understanding.
We get a look at some private school politics, and I’m curious, do you have any experience with private school dynamics and how they compare with public schools?
I went to public schools as a kid, I taught in public schools, and my daughters go to public schools now. As you might guess, I’m a big fan of public schools (and public-school teachers and communities), and I think this comes through in the book. My experience with private schools is mostly second-hand, through stories I’ve heard from others. I know private schools can be terrific places too, but I think public schools get a bad rap, and I wanted to show them a little love here. (Like book characters, public schools can be flawed but wonderful!)
Rhoda is practically Elfie’s best friend, and I thought their relationship was so sweet. Was there a Rhoda in yours or your kids’ lives?
My kids and I had beloved babysitters, but no one who was as much of a constant throughout infancy and childhood the way Rhoda is for Elfie. I know, though, that a long-term babysitter—someone who’s not quite a parent, not quite a friend—can play an important role in a kid’s development, and I wanted to explore that a bit with Rhoda and Elfie.
Elfie’s parents are true champs in managing her emotions while allowing her to be her own person. How do you think parents today can support children with a perfectionist streak?
That’s a tough one. I know kids pay close attention to what matters to adults, so as a parent I try to find ways to communicate that while things like good grades can be something to celebrate and take pride in, that doesn’t mean that a lower grade is cause for shame. Curiosity is much more important than test scores, team spirit is more important than scoring goals, and emotional well-being and a drive to help others are more important than all of it. (This is all much easier said than done, though; there are so many voices in the world telling us to be satisfied with nothing less than perfection.)Curiosity is much more important than test scores, team spirit is more important than scoring goals, and emotional well-being and a drive to help others are more important than all of it. Click To Tweet
I love the sense of humor in this story. Despite all the challenges, I caught myself laughing at several points throughout the story. What are your tips for writing a funny middle grade book?
When I think about the things that make me laugh most, I usually come up with moments that were particularly embarrassing and awkward, and the middle grade years are fertile ground for that. (It’s called the awkward age for a reason).
So I draw on my own embarrassing memories for inspiration, and either put a twist on them, or try to come up with similarly awkward episodes for my characters. It makes for a funny story, but I also hope that by putting a humorous spin on these cringe-worthy moments, I can show readers that awkwardness is part of being human, and that we all experience it.
(That’s also a great writing prompt for students, by the way…I find that younger children like writing about a time they were injured, and middle-grade kids like to write about a time they felt embarrassed.)Kristin Mahoney I draw on my own embarrassing memories for inspiration, and either put a twist on them, or try to come up with similarly awkward episodes for my characters. It makes for a funny story. – @kmcmahoney Click To Tweet
Which middle grade books have you read and loved recently?
Both books are about kids dealing with truly heavy, weight-of-the-world types of worries, and the stories are engaging and suspenseful, and told with such care. The authors also were very skilled at capturing their main characters’ more everyday concerns and interests (art, baking, complicated friendships, etc.). And both books have good, convincing narrative voice; that’s probably my most important criterion for a great middle grade read!
What do you hope readers take away from Elfie’s story?
Most of all, I hope they enjoy it and that it makes them laugh. But if they also see themselves in one of the characters and think about going a little easier on themselves, or on someone in their life who might be going through a hard time, that would be a great bonus!
Thank you so much, Kristin!
You’re very welcome; thanks again for all these great questions!
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Meet Kristin Mahoney
Kristin Mahoney is the author of The 47 People You’ll Meet in Middle School and Annie’s Life in Lists. She grew up in a small town in North Carolina and eventually moved to Brooklyn. Now she lives in New Jersey with her husband, two daughters, and a goofy dog. Connect with her through her website, Instagram and Twitter.