Monica Sherwood is a former teacher and current UX designer for an educational technology company. I spoke to Monica about her forthcoming middle grade book, The Ice House — which wasn’t supposed to be a middle grade book at first. We also chatted about her move from teaching to UX design, middle school friendships, and writing about isolation and climate change. I know you’ll enjoy this interview.
Monica is also giving away a copy of The Ice House to one reader. Find out how to enter at the end of the interview.
Interview with Author Monica Sherwood
Hi Monica! I’m glad to be chatting with you about your forthcoming debut middle grade book, The Ice House. Could you share a bit about yourself with readers?
Thank you so much! I’m a huge fan of Reading Middle Grade, so this is an exciting moment for me!
I’m a writer and designer living in Brooklyn, New York. I’m a former New York City Public School teacher, and teaching writing and reading were always my two favorite parts of the day.
Now, in addition to writing, I work as a product designer and researcher building digital products for teachers and learners.
I’m so curious: How did you go from teaching elementary school to becoming a UX Designer?
While I was working as a special education teacher, I was introduced to many digital teaching products. As I watched my students interact with different apps, I became increasingly interested in exploring how decisions were made around their user experience. Teachers have to develop strong problem solving skills, and I wondered if former educators were on product teams leveraging these skills to inform design decisions. I wanted to research more about the process.
As I learned more about edTech, I saw the opportunity to solve problems on a digital scale, which was an exciting new challenge. I completed a UX Design bootcamp part-time while I was still teaching, and was eventually lucky enough to join the team at Backpack Interactive, a strategy, UX, and design company dedicated to building digital edTech products.
Now, as UXR Lead, I conduct research with real teachers and students and apply their authentic insights to our client work.
The Ice House is your first middle grade book. What is it about?
The Ice House tells the story of twelve-year-old Louisa, whose life has been upended by the Freeze – a dangerous global climate event that caused her grandmother’s death. She’s been snowed-in to her apartment for months with her grieving mother, her annoying little brother, and her firefighter father, who is increasingly stressed by the Freeze’s treacherous conditions. Her downstairs neighbor (and former friend) Luke is the only kid her age in the building, and when his dad is seriously injured, she’s forced to keep him company.
A mutual desperation to escape their scary new realities brings Louisa and Luke outside, where they build a massive snow fort in their yard. In the ice house they share with each other what they want most: for Louisa’s mom to recover from her grief, and for Luke’s dad’s memory to return. When they begin to see visions of their families happy and healed, they embark on a mission to stop the Freeze and bring about this better future they’ve envisioned.
I read that you didn’t start writing this book for a middle grade audience? Is this true? When and how did you decide that this would be a middle grade book?
I’ve always loved middle grade books and I knew that eventually I wanted to write for middle grade readers, but when I began writing The Ice House I wondered if the premise of being isolated and snowed-in to an apartment building for months would resonate with middle graders. Of course, given everything that’s happened since 2020 this seems silly, but at the time I began writing, I never could have imagined that.
As I began to develop the world of The Ice House, it became clearer to me that middle grade readers would see parallels between their own lives and the conflicts Louisa and Luke face. Louisa and Luke have no control over the parts of their lives that frustrate and sadden them most. The middle grade audience innately understands this feeling. Middle graders are usually living in a world shaped by rules they didn’t create and generally don’t have much control over. At a time in their lives where they are discovering more about their own identities and who they want to be, they still have to abide by rules they feel they’ve outgrown.
Louisa became a clear middle grade heroine for me because she voices how frustrating this conflict is — being unable to make your own decisions about or have control over things that directly impact you — while eventually demonstrating the pragmatic skills needed to create positive change where she can instead of just wishing that things were better.
How long did it take you to write The Ice House — and how did you balance writing this book with a full-time job (if you were teaching at the time)?
It took me over two years to write The Ice House, and I didn’t start querying the manuscript until a year after my last round of revisions. I would write late into the night and on weekends. In retrospect, it was definitely exhausting, but I felt so committed to this story that I never considered giving up.
Louisa, her family and her community are trapped in icy weather, even though it’s spring — a testament to climate change and its impact. Why did you want to write against the backdrop of environmental issues?
When I began writing The Ice House, I knew that I wanted Louisa’s story to take place in a world that had been impacted by something global, mysterious, and unprecedented. The fact that even the trusted adults in Louisa’s life don’t have definitive answers for her on when or how the Freeze might end felt important. There isn’t a single, clear solution, and that lack of clarity can be anxiety-producing.
I’ve seen the growing anxiety many children are facing around climate change. I wanted readers to see an example of kids making a difference by working together to improve their own little corner of the world. I hope readers will be inspired to think about how their positive decisions can make a difference, and help them to feel more optimistic and empowered about the future.
Louisa and Luke are former friends forced to come together to help their families. Did you ever repair a broken friendship when you were a child?
I have so much empathy and compassion for kids in the middle grades, because it’s a time when you’re trying to gain independence and figure out who you want to be, while simultaneously (sometimes) becoming hyper-aware of what others might think of you. It can be a tough time for friendships, which I think is all the more reason to represent accepting, loving friendships when we can. I definitely went through cycles of friendship breakups and repairs as a kid.
For me, the friendship Louisa and Luke rebuild is so special because they come to accept each other fully for who they are. Louisa finds safety and trust in Luke, and because of this she learns how to be a better friend to him. I love Luke’s innate sense of self. He teaches her so much about what a good friend should be.
Which great middle grade or YA books have you read and loved recently?
What do you hope readers gain from reading The Ice House?
I would be so thrilled if The Ice House encouraged more honest conversations about grief. I think witnessing a family member grieving can be very confusing for kids, because it doesn’t look the same for everyone, it can be unpredictable, and it’s not always talked about or explained well. Along similar lines, I hope that readers who have had to watch a family member or friend deal with any form of memory loss might feel less alone, and might be able to point to Luke’s story to express some of what they’re feeling.
Most of all, I hope that Louisa and Luke’s story reminds readers that we have control over how we respond to events in our lives, and that we can create important change, even if we start in our own backyards.
Thank you, Monica!
Enter the giveaway below! It’s open to US addresses only and closes next Tuesday, November 2.a Rafflecopter giveaway
Buy The Ice House
Meet Monica Sherwood
Monica Sherwood writes middle grade fiction. She is a former elementary school teacher with a master’s degree in Childhood and Special Education from Hunter College, and currently works in edTech designing digital products for teachers and kids at Backpack Interactive. She lives in New York.
Her debut novel, The Ice House, will be published November 2, 2021 with Little Brown Young Readers. You can add it on Goodreads here! She is represented by Steven Malk at Writers House.