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Ann Braden, A Judy Blume for This Generation


Meet Ann Braden, a modern day Judy Blume, who has written the most wonderful, sensitive middle grade books about that time in your life when you're struggling between being a child and being an adult.


Today we explore the inspiration behind The Benefits of Being an Octopus, Flight of the Puffin, and her latest book, Opinions and Opossums. Join us for a conversation that explores the challenges and joys of writing about real issues for this young audience and the importance of finding and using your voice.


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Note: EDUCATORS AND FAMILIES, check out these amazing educator resources on Ann's website.


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Finding the Path to Writing

Ann Braden's path to becoming an author was a fascinating one. It was book-based, although she grew up thinking writing was NOT something she would ever do for a living.

When I was growing up, I never thought that writing was something I could do. It was like on the top of the list of things I could not do. And part of that meant that I never wrote, I never considered writing. And part of the reason behind that was I never felt like I was as good as the people around me. There's plenty of reasons why that wasn't true, but it's still what I thought. -- Ann Braden

Her first turning point happened when she read Cynthia Voigt's Homecoming at the age of twelve. She reflected on this pivotal moment, saying, "For me, that really put into perspective my struggles. Like, they were nothing compared to what the hero on that page was doing. And it's not like she was slaying dragons, she was dealing with life. And that really sort of made me realize I could find a strength in myself that I hadn't been focused on before."


A Transformation Through Literature

Ann's journey into writing took an unconventional route, waitressing at a pizza restaurant, working at a drop-in center for homeless kids, and eventually becoming certified as a middle school social studies teacher.

And because I had sort of two part time jobs and I wasn't in college anymore, I finally had time to read for myself again. And I had never liked history the way it was taught. I really adamantly hated social studies, but I started reading books about politics and different presidents in the past and history. And in retrospect, I was realizing that history was made of stories, but I just knew, like, oh, my gosh, this is a thing I really love. I had no idea.

A Leap of Faith

Her foray into writing began when she found herself with ample free time while caring for her infant son. Picking up Louise Erdrich's The Blue Jay’s Dance was a pivotal moment. She recalled, "I picked it up because my son would not sleep unless I was holding him. So I was just stuck on the couch for hours at a time, bored out of my mind...But there's just one random line in the book where she's talking about going through the woods with her baby to a writing cabin. I thought, oh, it'd be so lovely to be a writer. It just sounds so... And but then my exact next thought was, well, writing is something I know I can't do." Despite these initial doubts, Braden gradually developed the courage to begin writing her first story.


But I was on the couch for three more hours. At some point, it was like, well, if I was going to write something, what would I write? And so it sort of then shifted into with enough time, you could come up with a little idea. It's not like I had a whole idea for a book, but it was like, maybe it could be this kind of setting. And then the next day was like, oh, could be this kind of character. And then the next day was another little detail. And I did that for two months. Then I started to actually have maybe a story merge. And then I started writing.

While exploring her own beginning writing, Ann read Anne Lemott’s Bird by Bird, which said if that first draft is really, really bad, then you're doing it right. "And I thought, well, I am doing this all right then," she laughs. "So I kept going, and eventually I got to the end of the story, and it was like, the people, I made them up, the things they did, I had made that up. And it was such a feeling of power. It was such a rush, too, because I had not thought I could do that."


And so that's when I was like, okay, I have, like, seven years between when I'll be a stay at home mom while my kids are little, I've got seven years before I need to go back to the classroom or do whatever it is, and I Googled how long does it take to get published? And Google told me seven years. All right, let's see if we can make this happen. So it took seven years to the month, actually. So Google was absolutely accurate...Books and the time to sort of really explore what I want to be thinking about and what I want to read have just really shaped my life.

Inspirational Authors

As Braden delved deeper into her writing, she drew inspiration from authors like Jacqueline Woodson, Jason Reynolds, and Padma Venkatraman, whose storytelling transported readers to different worlds. She emphasized the importance of diverse voices in literature, stating, "I love being reminded that stories can really transport you." When she's not writing, she fills up her well by reading.


I feel like we’re in a golden age right now in terms of that middle grade writing. -- Ann Braden

Characters with a Purpose

Braden's books feature a diverse cast of characters, each with their unique struggles and journeys. When asked about the inspiration behind her young protagonists, she revealed that many of them are reflections of herself.

In a lot of ways, I am in every one of those characters that you mentioned. And so it's like delving into a different part of your personality or a different part of your past or a different part of your worries about the future. And then also pulling on the kids that are around, like kids that you've taught and loved. Writing, compared to teaching is interesting because you can convince that kid on the page that you love them, even when it's hard to do that in the classroom.

The cover of The Benefits of Being an Octopus

Ann shared that the inspiration for Zoe, the protagonist of The Benefits of Being an Octopus, came after her first five manuscripts were rejected. She was talking to a fellow parent, who was a guidance counselor at our local elementary school. In their town, about 80% of the kids qualify for free and reduced lunch. "There's a lot of families like Zoe's, and she was like, our kids never see themselves in books," Ann recalls. "You're a writer. You should write that book." Ann initially resisted writing the book herself, but she couldn't let go of the idea, and Zoe, as a character came fully formed to her several months later.

She was my own, all my insecurities from when I was younger for significantly less good reasons than she has to feel insecure. So I didn't have the same obstacles that she has to face, but we both doubted ourselves, and I was able to just channel all of that in.


Opinions and Opossums: A Personal Journey

Her latest book, Opinions and Opossums, delves into the challenges of adolescence, religion, and self-identity. Ann revealed that the story draws heavily from her own experiences.

Opinions and Opossums was very much just right out of my own childhood. I am Agnes. I don't think I pulled on anyone else. It's like me as a book form. If I was going to turn into paper in a nice binding, that's what I would look like. I had a lot of questions about religion when I was growing up, and I did not feel like I could ask them. And there's all these assumptions that are just made in society that you don't question. And if you question them, it's seen as bad. Or like especially in middle school, you don't want to stick out. You don't want to put up your little flag of weirdness. Even though we all have our flag of weirdness.

She also sought to explore the loss of confidence that often occurs in adolescents, especially girls, as they navigate societal pressures. "I think that there's subliminal under the surface stuff going on too. This is sort of me trying to figure out one angle of like, okay, so why don't we feel like we get to belong and are as good as everyone else?" she pondered.


Empowering Male Characters

Interestingly, Ann's books also feature male characters who grapple with their challenges and self-identity. She acknowledged the need to address these issues in young boys and challenge societal norms that restrict them. "I feel like there's so much more work superficially done around girls feeling empowered and feeling like they can be whoever they want," she remarked. "And that work hasn't really been done around boys to be like you can feel however you want, you get to have the whole range of emotions... It's like all the ways that our society says no, boys and men can only fit into this one box and go out of that and you are taking a huge risk. It's so much harder to be a healthy boy when you have that as your surrounding water."


Opossums and the Writing Process


Intriguingly, Ann's latest book, Opinions and Opossums, brought together themes of adolescence, religion, and self-identity. But what's the story behind the opossums in the title? When asked about this, she revealed that the initial idea came from a suggestion made by a Virginia librarian during a book tour. "And I was like, roadkill —possum is like the mascot of that, like that could be amazing. And then, of course, in the editing process, my editor says the possum can't be dead. And so I was like, okay, the patron saint of suburbia. And there's so much metaphor that you can dig into there. Often I'll sort of start with a weird animal and then see if it actually works, if it's just my gut being too weird. But in this case, I was like, oh, there's lots of good stuff in there."


Ann shared her unique writing process. She mentioned that she often has a single daily idea for two months, jotting it down in a bullet journal. She divides the notebook into Theme, Setting, Plot, and Characters and tries to write down one thing a day in any of those four categories. "And for me, theme is really like, what am I angry about and what weird animal am I going to use to delve into the psyche of humanity at the middle school level?" she explained.


Flight of the Puffin and Local Love Brigade


Ann's previous book, Flight of the Puffin, tells four separate stories that revolve around one act of kindness, emphasizing the connections between individuals. She shared that the inspiration emerged from her school visits for The Benefits of Being an Octopus. She noticed the commonalities in diverse communities, challenging the divisive narratives perpetuated by politicians and the media. Ann believes that by addressing deeper, universal human issues, we can transcend surface-level differences. She highlighted the importance of human connections, especially during challenging times like the pandemic.


I see so much connection. Why is no one talking about the connection? And so that's really where the concept came from. For a while, I was like, how are they all going to get connected? I can't figure out how. And I feel like something came up about like, I don't know. I sent a postcard and I thought, oh, my gosh, I'm doing this for years. How does this not even occur to me? How did it take months? And it was one of those things where I think often things have to sort of settle into your psyche before you can figure out how to delve into them to write. I mean, some people must be good at turning it right around, but I'm a slow, simmer kind of writer.

Transitioning to another facet of Ann's activism, we explored the origins of the Local Love Brigade, an initiative that Ann helped start in response to the 2016 election. She described how the simple yet powerful idea of sending index cards covered in messages of love or support to those facing hate emerged from her desire to counteract hate mail sent to the Islamic Society of Vermont. She emphasized that the act of sending these messages, even to strangers, can make a significant difference.


Often when we feel angry, it's because we feel powerless. And so having a way that we can be part of a solution, it helps us feel better. But then it also is this reminder to the other person that you're not alone in this.

Note: I incorporated this practice into camps I ran for the library's summer programs, as a way to teach children about kindness and community needs.


Ann's involvement in activism extends beyond her writing and the Local Love Brigade. She co-created the hashtags #KidsNeedBooks and #KidsNeedMentors, initiatives that aimed to connect authors with classrooms. While these campaigns may have become less active recently, their impact is undeniable. #KidsNeedBooks encouraged authors to give away books, not just their own, to schools and students in need. On the other hand, #KidsNeedMentors paired authors with classrooms, providing students with unique insights into the world of writing. Ann stressed the importance of breaking down hierarchies and making authors accessible as human beings.


Addressing Book Banning

The conversation turned to a pressing issue faced by authors, educators, and librarians: book banning. We discuss parallels between the tactics used by book banners and those employed in other forms of activism, like Ann's work on gun laws in Vermont. She recognized that often a vocal minority drives these censorship efforts.


It's like we're talking about it because eleven people have found a way to make their voices really loud. And one of the things that I think is important when you're teaching, you can't let those few loud voices control your classroom... It's like one of those things where they're trying to shut the door on discussion by bullying everyone else into silence.

The key to combating such efforts, according to Ann, is to find like-minded individuals willing to stand up against the bullies and engage in open discussions. She emphasized the need to resist attempts to silence discussions on sensitive topics and to create an environment where everyone's voices are heard.


You don't want to face a bully by yourself. You just sort of think of basic bully behavior. You have to sort of find the other people that are willing to stand up and be upstanders. And it doesn't have to be complicated. You don't have to shout them down with all these talking point arguments. It's just like you just have to say that we believe in being able to read books.

Dr Diane: And that sounds so much like Zoe finding her voice in Octopus or Agnes being able to ask the questions in Opinions and finding the courage to be able to speak up and realize that once you've said it, it wasn't as scary as you thought it was going to be.


Ann Braden: Right. And you don't forget how strong you can be. You never go back to that previous self. And for me, that has been very true. We started this talking about how I write sensitively, and I've always been very sensitive and I've always was sensitive to criticism. And when I was doing all that gun organizing, I started getting bullied all the time by people just swearing at me, saying every possible mean thing they could think of. And because I had a few people close by, like my family was super supportive, I was able to come through that and really be stronger. And I'm not going back to the person I was before. Except I will keep all my sensitivity for my page.


We want to be able to feel feelings and we want to do something about it. -- Ann Braden

As we concluded the interview, Ann left us with the idea of the interconnectedness of sensitivity and strength, reminding us that we can be both empathetic and resilient, just like her young characters who discover their voices and learn to speak out against adversity.


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Please note that these timestamps are approximate.


[00:50] Discussion about Ann Braden's Writing Journey

  • Discovering a passion for writing and activism.

  • Self-doubt and early reluctance to write — and pivotal moments that changed things

[07:03] A golden age of middle grade writing

  • Authors who inspire Ann

  • Representation of diverse emotions and experiences.

[08:54 Inspiration for Ann's Characters

  • The inspiration behind Ann’s unique heroines — and connections to the author

[11:30] How Opinions and Opossums reflects the author’s childhood and struggles with self-doubt and religion.

  • Questioning societal norms and why adolescents often lose their self-confidence.

  • Struggles boys also face regarding societal expectations and limitations.

[17:08] Opinions and Opossums origin story

[17:29] Ann’s writing process.

  • Practice of jotting down one idea per day for two months.

  • Bullet journals and colored pens

  • Exploring Theme, Setting, Plot, and Characters.

  • Connecting unique animals to the theme

  • Themes of unity and connection

  • Importance of moving beyond surface-level discussions.

  • Significance of finding ways to connect, act, and belong.

[24:30] Origins of Local Love Brigade

  • Sending postcards with messages of love and support to counter hate mail

  • Impact of acts of kindness and community engagement.

  • Connecting to library camps

[29:31] Origins of #KidsNeedBooks #KidsNeedMentors

[32:05] Issues that inspire Ann’s activism.

{35:42] Current sources of joy.

[38:25] How to counter book banning

  • Drawing parallels to Ann’s activism in gun control.

  • The importance of finding like-minded individuals and standing up against bullies.

[43:41] Balancing sensitivity and strength.








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