“We are NINJAS, and NINJAS are BRAVE!”
M: Hi, I am so excited to be meeting you and discussing your entertaining story. I feel like it is Christmas morning.
L: That is so sweet of you–although Halloween night might be more accurate for this particular book!
M: I am always inspired to write a story by something I see. For example, my first book, Petrifries! was inspired by a dried-up French fry underneath a car seat. Where do your stories start? Where do you draw your inspiration from?
L: My four kids definitely provide a lot of inspiration. My picture book Dibs! was inspired by one of my sons calling “dibs” on everything in sight, and My Pillow Keeps Moving was inspired by a game I used to play with my youngest son. Another way that many stories start for me is when a playful phrase pops into my head (with the phrase then becoming the title of the book). This was the beginning of my picture books One Big Pair of Underwear, Peep and Egg: I’m Not Hatching, Except When They Don’t, and Happy Llamakkah, among others.
M: What inspired you to write The Ninja Club Sleepover? And why was the main character a werewolf?
L: This story actually started with the basic idea of a little werewolf whose friends don’t know he (yes, it was a male werewolf in the very first iteration!) is a werewolf. The story changed in many ways as I revised and revised and revised, but that initial heart of the story stayed the same. I think the book’s theme of knowing that your true friends will accept you despite your differences/weirdness/quirks came from my daughter navigating friendship issues at school.
M: Do you eat dark chocolate when you write? 😉
L: Not while I am writing, but definitely before I write, and during writing breaks. I like to melt dark chocolate with cream to make an ice cream topping. Best writing fuel ever!
M: I spent a year researching gender bias in math and science education for a paper I wrote. I absolutely love that the female characters in your story are ninjas. They are not playing with Barbie dolls. Tell me about your decision to make them ninjas.
L: The idea that kids shouldn’t be limited or defined by their gender is important to me, and I appreciate any chance to push against gender bias in my books. Except When They Don’t addresses the issue head on, but my other books approach gender bias in other ways. The girls in The Ninja Club Sleepover are strong and brave, like ninjas, inside and out (even if they don’t fully realize it at first). In another one of my recent picture books, Judge Juliette, not only is the main character a strong girl who is the judge of her neighborhood, but we also see her dad baking cookies while her mom builds a bookshelf.
M: One thing I was struck by was that the girls were doing the obstacle course as each of their own obstacles were revealed. I thought that was brilliant. How did you arrive at that decision?
L: Yes, they are doing a physical obstacle course (in the dark!) and also overcoming their fears about being accepted despite their differences. I was playing with the idea that being physically brave can be hard, but being emotionally brave is even harder.
M: You talked about weird becoming a theme in the story. I have taught 6th grade for 17 years. Most 6th graders are certain they are weird. Do you think we need more books that normalize weird? Or at least help bring to light that all students, including the most popular ones, still think they are weird and have insecurities. As a teacher, I don’t see it being addressed. I see children struggling. It is never talked about. Are there enough books that deal with this theme?
L: I think there are two parts to this: first, the fact that everyone has insecurities and feels weird. And second, that everyone really is weird in one way or another, and that we should just embrace that fact. There are a number of picture books that deal with this idea: Normal Norman by Tara Lazar and S. Britt helps kids understand that there really is no such thing as normal, as does A Normal Pig by K-Fai Steele. I actually try to avoid using the word “normal,” because the concept that some people are “normal” and others are not is ridiculous. The idea that we are all weird in different ways is the flip side of the coin. I am always thrilled when middle school teachers use The Ninja Club Sleepover and other picture books to start conversations about topics like this, often as part of #classroombookaday. Picture books can be the perfect way to open up a difficult conversation with older kids, as well as younger ones.
M: You also bring up bravery as another theme in the book and The Brave Chant, which I am 100% chanting right now. I am curious about the connection between the weird theme and the brave theme. Was there one? What was your thinking? (being a weirdo, I see one…) But, I am curious to know what your thoughts were.
L: The simple answer is that it takes bravery to let our friends see how weird we are, and to have the confidence that they will still love us when they know our deepest, darkest secrets. But I would go a step further and say that this book is about being brave enough to truly let our friends into our lives. This may mean revealing secrets, or it may mean asking for help when we need it, or it may mean being brave enough to confront our friends when we think they are making bad decisions.
M: Do I have another Ninja Club Sleepover to look forward to? A sequel? Especially Now that we know the girls all have other secrets? I hope so, because I would definitely read that book!
L: No sequel is planned at the moment, but you never know! I would love the chance to write another book about these girls, who are all near and dear to my heart.
For more Information about Laura Gehl and her teachers’ guides check out her website.
Purchase Laura Gehl’s Book, The Ninja Club Sleepover on Amazon Here