Editor’s Note: This exchange is part of a series of brief interviews with emerging writers of recent or forthcoming books. If you enjoyed it, please visit other interviews in the I’ve Got Questions feature.
- What’s the title of your book? Fiction? Nonfiction? Poetry? Who is the publisher and what’s the publication date?
Just Maria is a middle-grade novel that will be published by the Fitzroy Books imprint of Regal House Publishing on January 7, 2022.
- In a couple of sentences, what’s the book about?
Just Maria is the story of Maria Romero, a blind sixth grader who is trying her hardest to be normal. Not amazing. Not inspiring. Not helpless. Not weird. Just normal. Her task is complicated by glass eyes, rutabagas, rubber chickens, and a child gone missing on the streets of Marble City.
- What’s the book’s genre (for fiction and nonfiction) or primary style (for poetry)?
- What’s the nicest thing anyone has said about the book so far?
Most gratifying for me has been the feedback from former students of mine – I’m a teacher for the blind and visually impaired, and Just Maria was inspired by conversations with the kids I’ve taught. Some of those students (and their parents) have read drafts of Just Maria, and without their blessing I would not have published it.
My favorite review so far has come from Layla, who was ten years old when she listened to an early audio draft of Just Maria: “As a blind child, I really enjoyed this book because it spreads information about blind people and what they do. I also loved the characters and the plot. I thought it was very suspenseful. A great read for the sighted or blind. I would highly recommend it.”
- What book or books is yours comparable to or a cross between? [Is your book like Moby Dick or maybe it’s more like Frankenstein meets Peter Pan?]
This is a tough one for me. When I decided to write a Middle Grades novel featuring a protagonist with a disability, I intentionally stopped reading books with similar themes for fear of unwittingly plagiarizing their work. But one of my first inspirations was Rodman Philbrick’s Freak the Mighty, and an early reader compared Maria’s spunk and spirit to Beverly Cleary’s Ramona Quimby. I’d be comfortable with Freak the Mighty meets Ramona the Pest.
- Why this book? Why now?
I wrote Just Maria because I thought it needed to be written. I went looking for books that featured kids with disabilities as protagonists, and didn’t find many. Most of the ones I did find tended toward the sentimental or mawkish. I wanted to write a book that had a character who was blind but also flawed – one who makes mistakes at times, and gives in to her baser impulses.
To put it another way, so often in books featuring characters with disabilities, the narrative purpose of those characters is to motivate others to change and grow. I wanted to explore what would happen if it was the kid with the disability who needed to do some changing and growing herself. Like all kids do.
- Other than writing this book, what’s the best job you’ve ever had?
That one’s easy: I still have it. As a Program Manager for IFB Solutions, I run summer camps for children who are blind and visually impaired, including a weeklong residential Adventure Camp where we hike, raft, climb, and zip in the Nantahala Gorge of the Great Smoky Mountains. I never thought I could get paid to take blind kids ziplining, but I do.
- What do you want readers to take away from the book?
I certainly hope the reader comes away with a more subtle and nuanced understanding of what it’s like to live with blindness, but more than that, I hope the reader sees something of themself in Maria. Hopefully they will identify with her competing motivations and conflicting feelings, her struggle to do the right thing, and understand once again that what makes us the same is greater than what makes us different.
Plus, the world needs more weird.
- What food and/or music do you associate with the book?
For food, I’ll have to say mashed potatoes, and if you read the book, you’ll know why. For music, I’ll go with the instrumental groove “Soul to Go” by the Civil Tones: it’s the theme song for one of the day camps I run, and whenever I hear that song I think about all the crazy and irrepressible kids I’ve had the good fortune to teach in my career – the same kind who inspired me to write this book.
- What book(s) are you reading currently?
I’m currently reading the southern gothic fiction of William Gay; specifically, his posthumous novel The Lost Country. The last book for younger readers I read was Allan Wolf’s The Snow Fell Three Graves Deep, a powerful YA novel in verse about the Donner Party.
Learn more about Jay at his website
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Register to attend Jay’s hybrid (online and in-person) reading at Malaprops on January 12.