Drop everything you’re doing (well, except for reading this!) and get thee to a bookstore! Today is the official release day of Audrey Vernick’s WATER BALLOON, a young adult novel that made me laugh out loud one moment and brush away tears the next.
Marley Baird is dealing with a lot. The book chronicles a summer of juggling losses—her parents are newly separated, her best friends are peeling away, she must live with her dad for the summer in a new place, and she is saddled with a summer babysitting job that she doesn’t want. However, with all of the losses, there are gains for her, as she navigates change, learns to trust her instincts and be honest with herself. Also, meeting Jack, a cute boy who loves dogs as much as she does doesn’t hurt either.
In a word, this book is authentic. The characters are rich and layered, drawn like real people with many sides. I loved Marley Baird immediately and the more I got into the book, the more I loved her. She is a real kid. An honest kid. A kid who thinks and feels and acts authentically. Does she always make the right decisions? No. But, Marley Baird is so real and I love that.
One of the subplots I loved was Marley’s dad-imposed babysitting job. The twins in Marley’s charge are hilarious and Marley’s take on them is equally so. Not chuckle funny—laugh out loud funny.
Another impressive facet of this book was the friendship triangle. Vernick does a masterful job of setting up a situation where the reader knows that Marley will commit social suicide. As a reader, you want to yell, “No! Don’t do it!” but I love this subplot for so many reasons. Yes, my heart broke for Marley, but I love how she is socially naïve because there are so many kids like that and they aren’t often drawn in books. Television, especially, tends to depict the kids who’d rather grow up overnight. A book like this would be wonderful for those *many* kids out there who’d rather take their time.
In fact, let me just say that I loved this book so much, that I will find the space in my heart to forgive the dartboard with the Red Sox in the middle. And that’s really sayin’ something.
Okay. Enough from me! I’m thrilled to have Audrey Vernick here today to answer some questions about her debut novel, WATER BALLOON.
1) What were the initial seeds of WATER BALLOON?
I decided it was time to write a novel. I had no idea where to begin. No story. No character. Zip.
A family in our neighborhood was going through the early stages of divorce, and I thought a lot about the emotional cost of a family breaking apart. I didn’t know them well, but you could see the strain on the girl, the younger of two children. That was my starting point—a girl struggling with the dismantling of what had always been her daily world.
I wrote the first draft so long ago that I can’t remember where the rest came from. Oh, except for the two friends—Leah and Jane. The trauma of middle-grade friendship is something I remember very well.
2) How much of you is in Marley Baird?
A ton. That’s been the big difference for me between my picture books and this novel. It’s always felt like my picture books are…my books. And my novel is me.
3) The word that pops into my head about your book is “authentic.” For example, I feel like I’ve met real children in the twins and the friendship triangle with Leah and Jane is heartbreakingly real. Can you tell us about something in the book that was completely fictional and tell us why and how you created it?
First, this isn’t something I’ve thought about, but if I were asked what Water-Balloon-describing adjective would be the most satisfying and happy-making, I think I’d have said “authentic,” so thank you so very much for that. As a reader I am deeply put off by inauthentic moments in books and my greatest concern was avoiding such moments.
Second, to answer the opposite of your question, the only thing that’s really true in this book is Rig, who is based on my beloved dog, Rookie (with the one difference being that Rig never takes off when unleashed while Rookie’s greatest desire seems to be to get very far away from me as quickly as he is able).
Third, a real answer: I made up that Monopoly game. I wanted something that was unique and important to those three friends. Their version of the game, along with the water balloon blitz tradition, is meant to convey the weight and worth of their years of intense friendship.
4) Can you tell us about your own young life as a Yankee fan?
I wasn’t a young Yankee fan! I grew up in Queens, home of the Mets. I tried to love that team of misfits, but I just couldn’t.
I imagine the Yankees started to rub off on me when I was attending high school in the Bronx. But there was something about living in Boston in the late eighties that brought out the Bronx in me.
My great Yankee fan years have been adult years. I’ve been fortunate to be at some stadium-shaking games in the old stadium, and over at the new house with my son when Derek Jeter got his 3000th hit. That was an awesome, electric day. (Check this out, Red Sox fans: Hunt’s devoting time and space in her blog to great Yankee moments!)
5) Which relationship in the book did you find the most satisfying to write?
I thought a lot about how to answer this one. I think Marley grows a lot in almost all her relationships, even those that ultimately end. But I think the one I enjoyed writing the most was the one that was unchanging—Marley’s relationship with her dog, Rig.
Rig is just in the background a lot, but he’s always there, the way we can count on our pets to be when life’s too hard to talk about with other humans. He’s steady, that Rig. I’m glad Marley had him.
6) How did the book change during the revision process with your editor?
First with my agent, and then with my editor. The big change with the agent-revision was to strive to make it a less quiet book. All the water balloon material was added in this revision—which means the most painful scene, the one in which Marley pretty much commits social suicide, is new. While things were very difficult and complicated with her friends in earlier drafts, the addition of the balloon blitz tradition helped me raise the stakes in a way that was absent from earlier drafts.
I think what my revision with my editor achieved was to make Marley more likeable. She grows more in this version. It was so interesting to me—with a few light strokes, a self-pitying scene flipped into one that was more likely to evoke compassion in readers. My editor also suggested the addition of a couple of scenes that now feel like they have always been there, including the last scene.
Audrey, thanks so much for coming by today. And, a huge congratulations on this wonderful debut. Can’t wait to read the next one!