Guest post written by author Daphne Benedis-Grab
Daphne Benedis-Grab is the author of the middle grade novel The Angel Tree and the young adult novel Alive and Well in Prague, New York. Her short stories have appeared in American Girl Magazine. She earned an MFA at The New School and is an adjunct professor at McDaniel College. She lives in New York City with her husband, two kids, and a cat who has been known to keep her computer warm while she is away from her desk. Visit her at daphnebg.com. Her latest novel, I Know You’re Lying, is out now.
I began my first school librarian job in the thick of Covid.
Schools in New York City had recently re-opened with strict new guidelines, I was in my final semester of (suddenly online) graduate school for my library degree—meaning I needed a job— and a public prek-5th grade school in Brooklyn was seeking a librarian. On a chilly morning in October I donned a cloth mask that coordinated with my outfit, boarded a half-empty A train at 125th Street, and rode 40 minutes to what would quickly become a life-altering destiny.
Being a librarian has challenged, delighted and truly overjoyed me in all the ways, but one of the most satisfying is how it has helped me grow me as a writer. Here are three things I have learned that changed the way I wrote my latest middle grade thriller, I KNOW YOU’RE LYING:
One: We All Have Reasons for Our Actions
I have a kindergartener who will get up in the middle of storytime and fling a bin of books across the room. I have a fifth grade student who will only read books about the beach. I have a preK kiddo who needs to be hugging me throughout our class or she runs wildly around the library. These things can appear disruptive, quirky and above all, irrational, but they never are. My kindergartener is unable to express himself in language so he needs to find physical ways to show us what he is feeling and what he needs. My fifth grader lives for summers when she goes to her grandmother’s beach house in Maine and wants her pleasure reading to take her back to the ocean. And my prek sweetie needs hugs because we all need hugs and she gets them by any means necessary J This is why the villain in my book has motive, things that happened to them, things they need deeply, things they believe can only be gotten by actions that end up hurting others. My villain, like my students, is not irrational or bad. Instead, they are a complex person with reasons for their actions that start to make sense when you get to know them.
Two: Every Minute Counts
I am a part-time librarian which means that not every grade gets class time in the library. So in the morning, at lunch, and sometimes at random moments in the day, a student will fly into the library begging to get a book. Obviously the answer is yes because getting books into the hands of kids is what I’m there for. But what impresses me every time is the intensity, the focus, even the ferocity with which this book search takes place. And that is because the clock is ticking. In thrillers you need that same intensity, that focus, that ferocity to find the culprit, and so IKNOW YOU’RE LYING is set in a single school day, with the clock ticking down to unthinkable consequences—kind of like searching for the perfect book before time runs out J.
Three: Every Day There Are Glorious Moments So Full of Beauty They Make Your Heart Explode
A kindergartener hugged me at the end of class and told me he loves me. My colleague was recently told he is a pre-k student’s best friend and was invited over for a playdate. I asked an author friend to sign a book for a fifth grader; when I gave it to the student she ran her fingers over the author’s signature, looked up at me with tears in her eyes, and asked, “He really signed it for me?” Every day there are things that frustrate me and things I struggle with, but at least once a day a kid shows love in a way so pure and precious my heart explodes. We all deserve moments that touch our hearts and let us know we are loved, and so I make sure to give them to my characters. A reader recently shared that LYING gave her “all the feels and made me cry in the good way” at the end. That is thanks to my students.
Bonus: We Should Have Fun
Kids are fun and it turns out I am more fun around them. I make up ridiculous songs that get them laughing, I lead us in silly dances, and just yesterday I insisted we all “swim” around the library like fish in preparation for our fish-themed read-aloud. Life can be serious, stressful, and scary—and it should also be fun. I try to make sure my characters have fun as the clock counts down and they solve their mysteries. And if you happen to read I KNOW YOU’RE LYING (and I hope you do!) may it be almost as fun as a swim around the library!