Tara Sullivan took time for a chat with us about her debut Middle Grade novel GOLDEN BOY. GOLDEN BOY is a harrowing story of 13-year-old Tanzanian albino named Habo, whose family is forced from their small village due to prejudice and misunderstanding. This book stood out to me as a serious and fascinating example of the powerful work that Middle Grade authors are writing. Read on to find out more about how GOLDEN BOY fits into the Middle Grade genre, but also strongly resonates with older teens and adults.
LS: You are a high school Spanish teacher, as well as an author. Tell me about how your experience in the classroom affected your writing.
TS: I have to say, I don’t know that there was much interaction between the two worlds—I write for middle grade readers and I teach high schoolers. The kids are always excited to hear book updates, though, and that’s fun.
LS: GOLDEN BOY has been embraced by the Junior Library Guild and School Library Journal. How do librarians play such a big role in the success of books for younger readers? What about teachers and librarians in the schools?
TS: Librarians and parents are the gatekeepers for younger readers: their interest, or lack of it, can make a huge difference in whether a book reaches kids or not. Middle-grade readers don’t frequent blogs or other social media as often as their teenaged counterparts and therefore are less likely to engage directly with an author or fan-base. Among my debut class, for example, I noticed that nearly every YA author created a book trailer for YouTube, whereas very few of the MG authors did. I’m thrilled that the JLG and SLJ have endorsed my book: I know it will make a big difference in GOLDEN BOY’s reach.
LS: When you were writing the book, what age did you imagine your reader to be? What age do you think is most appropriate for this book?
TS: I hope that GOLDEN BOY will be enjoyed by a wide age range. That said, I wrote it with a middle grade reader specifically in mind. Though I refused to tone down the atrocity of the content I did make very intentional choices about wording and on- and off-screen violence. Interestingly, though I wrote it for middle grade, GOLDEN BOY tends to show up more on YA lists. I’m not sure if this is because of the gruesomeness of the human rights abuse behind the book or, more simply, because YA is a broader category.
LS: Your travels to Tanzania to research this book are really inspiring. Did you have the idea for the book before you went to Tanzania, or were you inspired to write about albinism in Tanzanian culture once you had visited? And what was your research process like?
TS: I knew this was a story that needed to be told when I read first the small article in a non-profit journal in 2009 that told about the kidnapping, mutilation, and murder of African people with albinism for use as good-luck talismans. This article really upset me, and led me to a haunting documentary by Al Jazeera English which touched a nerve and sent me down the path of writing GOLDEN BOY.
I wrote the first draft of the book based entirely using online and library-based research. It was only when I had a sense of the story that I booked myself a ticket to Africa. One there, I traced the path of the novel and made sure my writing was both accurate and evocative of the various settings I encountered.
LS: As a Middle Grade author, you must talk to kids about writing a lot. What advice do you give to kids who want to grow up to be writers that you could also give to grown-ups who write?
TS: Learn to enjoy the process of writing—the end result is wonderful, but never guaranteed, and you will spend the vast majority of your time climbing the mountain, not standing at the top. I went through nine full-book revisions of GOLDEN BOY. I re-wrote the ending over eleven times. My first editorial letter added over a hundred pages to the book, complete with new characters and plot lines. That’s what being a professional writer is: writing!
LS: GOLDEN BOY is a powerful story about prejudice. When writing for children, do you feel a responsibility toward including a strong moral lesson in the story?
TS: No. I think books with heavy moral overtones are unpleasant for all ages, and children especially pick up on when an author is trying to sell them something. However, it does matter to me to write books that show unknown facets of the world and invite the reader into a greater level of participation in the world around them. I hope no one feels preached-at when they read my books but, rather, that they feel they’ve received a glimpse into a corner of the world they knew little about before and an invitation to engage with it.
You might also like: Tapping Into the Middle Grade World: Robert Paul Weston on Writing for a Kid Audience.