I got to chat with Paula Chase, author of two of my favorite middle-grade novels — So Done and Dough Boys. Talking to authors about their books is one of my favorite things to do. Especially so when the books are as thought-provoking as Paula’s.
In this interview, we discuss why she writes about teen friendships, her characters’ authentic voices, and why it’s important to portray diversity even when characters live in the same neighborhood. Of course, I also asked Paula about her future as a middle-grade author! Enjoy.
Hi Paula! Thanks so much for agreeing to do this interview. As you already know, I loved your debut middle-grade novel, SO DONE! The mix of female friendship, difficult decisions, and teens pursuing dreams against the background of a vibrant neighborhood in that novel is riveting.
In the forthcoming companion title, DOUGH BOYS, we return to the Cove—this time with boys, Rollie and Simp. Why did you decide to write this story?
My stories all come from the same place — me wanting to tell the story of a child that I don’t believe is reflected regularly. I wanted to tell the story of these two friends that are coming from the same neighborhood but are affected by it in different ways. Mostly, I wanted to humanize Black boys. I wanted to make it harder for people to stereotype kids who are forced to make tough decisions.My stories all come from the same place — me wanting to tell the story of a child that I don’t believe is reflected regularly. – @ThatMGBookChick Click To Tweet
Was a companion novel always the plan since you were writing SO DONE?
No. And the term companion novel is publishing’s term for it. To me, this is just another middle grade book. Yes, it contains characters from So Done, but a reader can come to this without having read So Done.
This book is 100% focused on telling a story from the perspective of Rollie and Simp independent of how they were portrayed in So Done. And if a reader who has read So Done had a certain image of who the boys were, I think having the lens focused on them probably changed it a little bit. I really want it to stand on its own and believe it does.
I love the language of this book’s narration. It adds a layer of authenticity when we hear the boys’ slangy-speak. Why did you choose to write the entire book in this way?
To do them justice, I wanted it steeped in who they are. In So Done, you have one character (Mila) who code switches more. But neither Rollie or Simp are prone to do that. So the book remains in their speak 90% of the time.
The thing is, when I wrote my YA series, I was often reminded to keep the slang to a minimum. Then I wrote So Done and again received a note to be mindful of the slang because readers would tire of it. It was then that I commented — what reader will tire of it?
For readers who talk like my characters, it means they have their own form of expression validated. For readers who may not talk like them, it introduces them to forms of expression they’re unfamiliar with. Still, ultimately the language is still easy to comprehend based on context clues.
We must be mindful that we invalidate forms of expression when try to force all characters to talk the way we expect them to. Young people, especially, are going to be very relaxed when interacting. I do my best to show that.We must be mindful that we invalidate forms of expression when try to force all characters to talk the way we expect them to. Young people, especially, are going to be very relaxed when interacting. I do my best to show that. Click To Tweet
DOUGH BOYS addresses the reality of so many boys living in neighborhoods rife with gangs and drugs. Although they both live in the Cove, Rollie and Simp have such different backgrounds and families. Was this deliberate on your part?
Deliberate yes, in that very few friends share an identical philosophy from A to Z, so obviously there were going to be differences in the two characters.
This was also connected to me breaking the stereotypes. There are going to be a lot of assumptions about two little boys who get into drug dealing. I like that people have to check those biases at the door when they realize the quiet one who is often in church (Rollie) is in it as deep as the “bad” boy (Simp).
Then we peek under the covers and see into Simp’s heart and have to question why we assumed the worst of him. It was important, to me, that the reader see how the boys’ home lives impacted their illegal dealings. Once they do, it makes it harder to assume.
I loved Mr. B’s approach to teaching and supporting Rollie. Did you have any such teachers in your teens?
I didn’t have an actual Mr. B in my life. But I was a very active teenager and the traits of Mr. B are those things I’ve seen in adults who take on leading youth activities. They all share a true passion for guiding young people and they all have a knack for doing so without being heavy handed. And, honestly, I’ve always been like Mr. B. as a cheer coach, youth mentor and even as a backstage mom helping with my daughter’s ballet company.
There are some teachers and mentors who are natural Mr. B’s. And then there are people like Coach Tez, who end up taking advantage of the young people under their guidance. Tez cares about these boys, but only for what they can do for him.
Both SO DONE and DOUGH BOYS focus on friendships and distancing that can occur as young people find their identities. Why is this theme so important to you?
Because it’s such a huge part of being young. These are the things that define our world view at a time when our world feels very very small. When you’re 13 you can’t really fathom life beyond that moment that you’re in. That becomes even more difficult when you’re in a circumstance like Simp and Rollie.
I love watching my characters process the world around them. I especially love helping to expand that world, however I can, because that means that maybe I’m also expanding it for the reader.
It was exciting to see Mila and Tai return! You don’t shy away from acknowledging that kids this age are starting to realize that they have feelings for members of the opposite sex. Was that something important for you to mention?
I’m really big on going with what feels authentic for those particular characters. When I’m writing I’m only in their head and only care about what I believe they’d truly care about. In this case, we’re talking about a group of kids who have grown up together and are now at an age where their bodies are changing and where they’re getting more and more freedom from the adults around them.
It’s just natural that there’s going to be curiosity and exploration of their changing feelings. And those feelings aren’t going to be neat and packaged. They’re going to be all over the place and sometimes breaking the “rules” like Rollie and his no-so-cool crush on a character who, based on how things went in So Done, he should definitely not be crushing on.I’m really big on going with what feels authentic for those particular characters. When I’m writing I’m only in their head and only care about what I believe they’d truly care about. – @ThatMGBookChick Click To Tweet
Rollie’s friendship with Mila makes me smile. Will we see more of them in your future work?
This made me smile too. Their friendship comes from such a genuine place and if this were a series, I’d say most definitely we’d explore where this can go. IF it could go anywhere. But no, the reader is left to imagine whether or not they’re able to sustain a friendship. There are no more plans to explore these characters.
Afoma: *insert broken heart emoji*
You’ve created such dynamic, hard-to-forget characters — even side characters like the Chris twins, as I call them — in both these middle-grade titles. What’s next for you? More middle-grade? Or will you be returning to YA?
The Chris twins. I love it!! I’m currently working on another middle grade that is definitely NOT a series although it will cover characters from The Cove. I wish publishing didn’t have so many unspoken rules because there are so many stories I’d love to cover from this one neighborhood. Alas, there’s worry people will think it’s a series. So this next MG will likely be the last from this particular setting.
For now, I’m sticking with the MG arena. I really like this age group and think my writing fits it. But I never say never. I doubt I’m done with YA, yet.
Thank you so much, Paula! I can’t wait for everyone to read Dough Boys and meet Rollie and Simp.
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Meet Paula Chase-Hyman
Paula Chase-Hyman doesn’t mind being known as a Jane of all trades, Queen of none.
But a single theme has followed throughout her career in communications—keeping her finger on the pulse of teen culture. From starting her own mentoring group at Annapolis Senior High School in ’94 to coaching her Green Hornet cheerleaders to Grand Champion (ahem, twice), Chase-Hyman refuses to squash her inner teen diva. Luckily, her long memory for all things young led to a career writing young adult novels.