The first title in the Derby Daredevils series debuted this spring and won praise from the American Library Association for its “fierce” female characters. The second in the series, Shelly Struggles to Shine, came out in September. We caught up with the author by phone at her home in Albuquerque.
Why roller derby?
I had wanted to do a chapter-book series that was kind of progressive, maybe had some queer themes. At the same time, I was starting to get really into the roller-derby scene. My husband and I had just moved to Austin, Texas, and that’s where roller derby was reborn as the sport that it is now. The wonderful thing about derby is that you do see a really diverse array of ages, of body types, of cultural backgrounds. I mean, anything, really, and especially in the LGBTQIA+ spectrum. I really wanted an inclusive cast.
How did you find a publisher?
The first draft came quickly. My agent loved it, which I was shocked by, because usually she really puts me through the wringer—which I’m glad she does. We were in submission in a couple of months, and then within weeks we had interest. We ultimately went to auction [when publishers competitively bid for a particular manuscript]. Abrams pushed for it to be a younger, middle-grade series rather than chapter books. And they wanted illustration, which we thought was really great for having a lot of visual representation on the page.
Did being a teacher help with writing for this age?
I taught sixth-grade theater and eighth-grade English, and they both were very special in their own right, but the sixth-graders really just cracked me up. I enjoyed their company so much. I thought they were hilarious and innovative and adventurous. They influenced my voice.
Any advice for aspiring authors?
I went to a talk by Cheryl Klein, an editor at Scholastic. She said, the thing about publishing is, you only need two things to make it. You need to not quit, and you need to learn each step of the way. I’ve held onto her words through some really low points. I hope that anyone who is interested in getting published holds on to that kind of advice, too. We hear enough how hard it is to break into publishing, but I’m just not sure what it accomplishes to discourage anyone. So I always say, if you keep learning and you don’t give up, that’s the winning combination.
Catherine O’Neill Grace, a senior associate editor for this magazine, has written nonfiction books for middle-school readers.