Joan Bauer is a NY Times Best-selling author, screenwriter, songwriter, and speaker who has won numerous awards for her fourteen novels for young readers.
Those recognitions include: the Newbery Honor Medal, the American Library Association’s Schneider Family Book Award, three Christopher Awards, the LA Times Book Prize, the Chicago Tribune Young adult Literary Prize, the Golden Kite Award of the Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators, the St. Katherine Drexel Award of the Catholic Library Association, New Jersey Reading Association M. Jerry Weiss Award; the New England Booksellers Award; the Arkansas Charlie May Simon Children’s Honor Book medal; and the Boston Public Library’s “Literary Light” Award.
Joan has twice participated in the US State Department’s Professional Speakers Program, traveling to both Croatia and Kazakhstan. She is a member of the Writers Guild of America East, the Authors Guild, PEN, and the Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators. She is currently working on a musical adaptation of her first novel, Squashed. She lives in Brooklyn, New York with her husband Evan and their intrepid wheaten terrier Max.She enjoys cooking, playing the piano, and hiking.
Joan has also been a recipient of the Judy Lopez Memorial Award; the ASTAL Award for Outstanding Contributions to Literature for Young People; the Michigan Thumbs-up! Award for Children’s Literature; the Delacorte Prize for a First Young Adult Novel; the Pacific Northwest Library Association Award; the New Jersey Reading Association M. Jerry Weiss Award; the New England Booksellers Award; and the Boston Public Library’s “Literary Light” Award. Her novels have been featured extensively on state award book lists, in addition to appearing on ALA Notable Books, ALA Best Books, ALA Quick Picks, American Bookseller Pick of the List, School Library Journal Best Books, Smithsonian Notable Children’s Books, VOYA’s Perfect 10s. Her novel Rules of the Road was chosen as one of the top young adult books of the quarter century by the American Library Association.
I write the stories I need in my life, and it means so much when I find out that other people need them, too.
Four Questions for Joan Bauer
by Publisher’s Weekly
This is your 14th book; how long have you been writing for young people at this point, and what does it feel like to have created such a library?
I’m sitting here in my office, looking at the poster for my first book signing, for Squashed, and it came out in 1992. Squashed was born out of a real time of adversity in my life. I’d had a car accident and all this stuff was going on and I’d never even thought of writing something with a teenager in it. And this crazy voice of Ellie started rising as I was going through my recovery. And she was so compelling. She was strong and I wasn’t; she knew what she wanted, and I had no idea. I had sort of let my dream [of writing books] go and said, “Oh, this isn’t going to work; this car accident was awful.” I’d never known that a character could kind of grab you by the hand and say “Look, you need to write this story.” It wasn’t audible or anything like that, but it was that compelling. And so I knew that I was in good hands and I hoped that she was too.
I also found that the humor of that book, and the metaphor about having a big dream, is something that I’ve carried through a lot of the stories I’ve written. I always had a job when I was a kid and I loved that. It was responsibility and I earned money; I loved all those things. It’s wonderful to look back now. There’s just something about the number 14. It feels like I should be a boxed set or something. It’s fun and it’s satisfying and they’re all still in print—it’s a good place to be.
What drew you to the world of guide dog training and puppy raisers? And why did you want to write about it for young readers?
I have always been fascinated by service dogs, ever since I was little. I don’t really understand what that crack in the universe is that you have an idea you’re sort of interested in and then all of a sudden it’s like, “whump,” this is the time. I’d had a very successful dog book with Almost Home [Viking, 2012] and my editor and I were talking about what would be another good way to continue that love of dogs because I really enjoyed writing about them—and there it was. I love writing about heroes, too. So, all of a sudden it just seemed to me that service dogs and the people who train and raise them are very much my kind of hero, one who isn’t going around saying “I’m a hero, here’s my cape.”
Puppy raising is something people do because they want to give back. I love that what’s required is 24/7 commitment to just put yourself out there. I knew that this was a community of people I wanted to get to know, because they really are everyday heroes.
When I started doing research, all the books that I could find were about the older dogs that would lead a blind person and do all sorts of marvelous things. But there wasn’t anything about the actual training of these little dogs. What does it look like to be a pre-hero? What does it look like to have the right stuff, what are they looking for? That fascinated me. Because you don’t think of a little baby hero as having to pee every 13 minutes, but they do!
But the trick then was, who was my protagonist? Then one of those life coincidences happened. A couple of years ago, I was asked to speak at a bereavement camp in Morristown, N.J. called Good Grief. They were using my book Almost Home at this camp to help tell their stories. I went, and let me tell you, I loved these kids. They were just amazing. They were walking through grief and they were honoring their loved ones who had died. They were laughing, they were not awkward, they were right out there talking about it. It was just so real and powerful. The moment I arrived at that camp I knew that my 12-year-old protagonist Olive was one of those kids. She was walking through the loss of her dad in this real and powerful way.
Then my brain clicked to all the resilience research I’ve read over the years about kids. One of the best things you can do for a hurting kid is to help them focus on something they’re good at that gives them joy. Well, Olive is, in her words, the greatest dog lover in North America. I knew putting all that together that I’d found my next story.
What kind of research did you do?
It was arduous. I hugged so many puppies, I would come home exhausted [laughs].
It began with a puppy raising group in Silver Spring, Md. They invited me in, and I got to meet the dogs. The group’s leader was an extraordinary source of wisdom for me as I went along the path of this book. I watched all the interaction. They really want to have the dogs together and dogs have to work certain things out for themselves. You could see the community and how they support each other. They would meet a couple times a week and just tear up this man’s backyard. It was so wonderful. You see this naturalness of dogs, because they have to learn that part too.
There’s another part of the research that’s fascinating to me—even when the puppies are very young, the raisers acclimate them to noises so they begin to feel comfortable and not feel worried about that. Apparently, but not always, there are rare puppies that are just OK with all of that, thank you very much. They definitely have their own attitudes that they bring into the world.
I want to give a shoutout to two places. I went to Guiding Eyes for the Blind and visited the puppy raising class. Then I went to The Seeing Eye, which is the oldest group—I think they’re over 90 years old now. I got to spend half a day on their campus. I was so impressed with all the people involved in this. The whole thing is about dignity. And all of these hands and hearts coming together to help one dog help one blind person have freedom… I tell you, it wrecks me, it really does.
It was amazing to see the training, to see these dogs being loved as part of a family and trusting people. I came away feeling this world’s a pretty good place. I had way more research than I needed, and my great task was just to take the diamonds of it and show that year [of puppy training].
After the training, when these dogs get their blind companion, that is their whole world. You see them looking up. And that’s one of the hardest things [as a puppy raiser], when you say goodbye. [In the book] Olive is Lumie’s world, she is everything, and now to change that focus and to not have that black nose looking up at you is hard. I love some of the life lessons for us about where are we really supposed to look in life. Look at the good stuff. Look at the people that you trust. Look at the ones who are helping, and train yourself to really want to do something for somebody else.
What are you working on now?
I can’t really talk too much about what’s coming next. But I’ve been asked to work on a screenplay for one of my books so that’s kind of fun. I started out as a screenwriter.
You know, with all these things happening in the world right now you think, “Oh my goodness, my book’s coming out in the middle of a pandemic,” and yet, I’m really glad it is. I think there’s something in this book that encourages readers to keep going and to not give up, to hold on to who you are and to walk through grief. And sometimes grief has hope sitting there in the backseat. So, I’m excited for it to come out and I do hope that it will help people and really get kids to see a new role that they can play, to find a voice and to step out and make a difference.
Laughter is like oxygen to me.
My grandmother had the biggest influence on me creatively. She taught me the importance of stories and laughter. She never said, “Now I’m going to tell you a funny story,” she’d just tell a story, and the humor would naturally flow from it because of who she was and how she and her characters saw the world. She showed me the difference between derisive laughter that hurts others and laughter that comes from the heart. She showed me, too, that stories help us understand ourselves at a deep level. She was a keen observer of people.
I kept a diary as a child, was always penning stories and poems. I played the flute heartily, taught myself the guitar, and wrote folk songs. For years I wanted to be a comedienne, then a comedy writer. I was a voracious reader, too, and can still remember the dark wood and the green leather chairs of the River Forest Public Library, can hear my shoes tapping on the stairs going down to the children’s room, can feel my fingers sliding across rows and rows of books, looking through the card catalogs that seemed to house everything that anyone would ever need to know about in the entire world. My parents divorced when I was eight years old, and I was devastated at the loss of my father. I pull from that memory regularly as a writer. My dad was an alcoholic and the pain of that was a shadow that followed me for years, but I’ve learned things from that experience that have made me resilient. I attempted to address those issues in Rules of the Road, and I took them even further in the companion book, Best Foot Forward. The theme that I try to carry into all of my writing is this: adversity, if we let it, will make us stronger.
In my twenties, I worked in sales and advertising for the Chicago Tribune, McGraw-Hill, WLS Radio, and Parade Magazine. I met my husband Evan, a computer scientist, while I was on vacation. Our courtship was simple. He asked me to dance; I said no. We got married five months later in August, 1981. But I was not happy in advertising sales, and I had a few ulcers to prove it. With Evan’s support, I decided to try my hand at professional writing. It was a slow build — writing newspaper and magazine articles for not much money. My daughter Jean was born in July of ’82. She had the soul of a writer even as a baby. I can remember sitting at my typewriter (I didn’t have a computer back then) writing away with Jean on a blanket on the floor next to me. If my writing was bad that day, I’d tear that page out of the typewriter and hand it to her. “Bad paper,” I’d say and Jean would rip the paper in shreds.
The theme that I try to carry into all of my writing is this: adversity, if we let it, will make us stronger.
I had moved from journalism to screenwriting when one of the biggest challenges of my life occurred. I was in a serious auto accident which injured my neck and back severely and required neurosurgery. It was a long road back to wholeness, but during that time I wrote Squashed, my first young adult novel. The humor in that story kept me going. Over the years, I have come to understand how deeply I need to laugh. It’s like oxygen to me. My best times as a writer are when I’m working on a book and laughing while I’m writing. Then I know I’ve got something.