There’s something special about “You May Already Be a Winner,” a new realistic middle-grade novel by local author Ann Dee Ellis. In just a few short weeks, it has been selected as a Junior Library Guild pick, a Summer 2017 Kids’ Indie Next List pick, A July Amazon Best Book of the Month pick and a Barnes and Noble Best Books for the month of July.
It’s not hard to see why the book has attracted so much positive attention. The story of 12-year-old Olivia, who hopes to make good things happen by entering 14 sweepstakes a day, is at once heartbreaking, heartwarming and funny.
Ellis talks with The Salt Lake Tribune about her latest novel.
Have you ever entered a sweepstakes? What would you do if you hit the jackpot?
I have entered a LOT of sweepstakes. Especially when I was a kid. A contest on the back of the cereal box? I’d enter as many times as allowed. A scratch-off card from the local car dealership? Yes, please. A Publisher’s Clearing House Sweepstakes in the mail? Heaven.
In addition, I spent a lot of time calling and sending letters to companies who dared put on the back of their products: “For comments or suggestions, please call this number.” Pace Picante specifically got a lot of correspondence from me because I very much wanted them to come out with a thin and chunkless variety of their salsa. So yes, I loved entering sweepstakes. And I never ever won. I still don’t win things. If I did win a million dollars, I would like a small beach house on a secluded cliff on an island. I also would go out to eat … a lot.
Why do you write for kids?
I write for kids because I feel like a kid. There’s a passage from Neil Gaiman’s book “The Ocean at the End of the Lane” that I love. The main character is talking with his wise friend Lettie, who says this: “I’m going to tell you something important. Grown-ups don’t look like grown-ups on the inside. … Outside they are big and thoughtless and they always know what they’re doing. Inside, they look just like they always have. Like they did when they were your age. The truth is, there aren’t any grown-ups. Not one, in the whole wide world.” In response, the protagonist says this: “I wondered if that was true; if they were all really children wrapped in adult bodies, like children’s books hidden in the middle of dull, long adult books, the kinds with no pictures or conversations.” I feel like we are all children’s books in the middle of dull, long adult books — or at least I am.
What was the inspiration for “You May Already Be a Winner”?
Daydreams. I daydream all day. I always have. So does the main character in the book. I wrote the first page exactly how it exists in the book today — no editing. A girl having a fantastic daydream at the rec center pool. Once I had that on the screen, the rest of the story unfolded.
You often write about kids who are risk … or at least on the fringes. Why?
I write about kids on the fringes because those are the stories I’m drawn to. Even when I was young, I liked to read about kids who struggled, kids who overcame the odds, kids who did things that adults never dreamed they could. One time a friend asked why I wrote stories about heavy topics, stories about kids who deal with tough things. “Why don’t you write about heroes? Why don’t you write adventures?” And I told her I thought I was writing about heroes. The best kind of heroes. And in a lot of ways, the truest kind of adventures.
You also write convincingly about bullying — specifically, how it feels to be bullied. Where does this come from?
I think many of us have been in a situation where we feel different, like an outsider or not part of the group. Writing about that specific emotion comes fairly easily to me. On the flip side, I’ve also seen how cruel people can be when they meet someone different from them, someone who makes them feel uncomfortable. Learning to love both ourselves and others is a struggle that I think is universal and one that I like to explore.
Readers and other writers admire your unique voice, something that appears in all your novels. Which writers and/or novels have influenced you on this front?
As a child I adored Anne Shirley from “Anne of Green Gables.” I loved her enthusiasm, her unabashed devotion to beauty and, of course, her imagination. I also could not get enough of Ramona Quimby and her family. Beverly Cleary captured the voice of a young girl perfectly.
When I got older, “The House on Mango Street” was a book that stunned me in a wonderful way. The voice is so beautiful, the vignette style spoke to my nonlinear heart and I felt instantly connected to Esperanza, the protagonist in the book who lived a life so different from mine.
I also loved the voice in “The Bell Jar” by Sylvia Plath. I read this as I was finishing graduate school and was blown away at how real the main character was, how her thoughts mirrored a lot of my own at the time, how conversational and complex she was.
Other books with strong voices I love: “Maniac Magee” by Jerry Spinelli, “Monster” by Walter Dean Meyers, “I Am the Cheese” by Robert Cormier, “I Capture the Castle” by Dodie Smith, the Bink and Golly books by Kate DiCamillo, “The Encyclopedia of an Ordinary Life” by Amy Rosenthal Krause, “The Obsessions and Humiliations of Annie Sehlmeier” by Louise Plummer, “Glimpse” by Carol Lynch Williams and “Summerlost” by Ally Condie.
What’s the hardest thing about writing for you? The most rewarding?
The hardest part of writing for me is getting through the middle. I love starting books. I could start them all day long. I have so many ideas and so many people running around in my head. I sometimes wonder if I could find a job as a novel-starter. Making it through the middle and all the way to the end is a struggle! I always feel relieved when I finally get to write the words THE END.
The most rewarding part of writing is when I meet readers who connect with my stories. I used to think I was so weird and that the things in my brain would never make sense to anyone else. How great it is to see that I’m not alone.
Any suggestions for maintaining a work/life balance?
I have five small children so this is a constant struggle. I try to write a little every day. Sometimes it works. Sometimes it doesn’t. I work to remember that when I’m not writing, I am living, and living means I’m laughing and changing diapers and hiking and cooking and talking and doing dishes and lying on the floor and eating doughnuts and jumping on the trampoline and crying and growing tomatoes and singing badly and folding laundry and sitting in the kiddie pool and all of those things make me a better writer.
What three pieces of advice would you give someone who wants to write?
1. Write. That simple. On my website I post 8-minute memoir writing prompts. The 8-minute part is very important. The biggest hurdle to writing is just plain sitting down and starting. You can do wonders in 8 minutes. I encourage people — all people, not just self-proclaimed writers — to sit down, set a timer and write for just 8 minutes. You’ll be amazed at what you can get done. 2. Share your work with other writers. Writing can be lonely. It’s so important to find friends who also write, friends who can read your stuff and give you constructive, helpful feedback. Friends who can cheer you on when things go well and who can empathize when things go the other way. 3. Have fun. Play! I know a book is going well when I allow myself to lose control — when I let the characters and the story loose and unexpected things happen. Being surprised in the middle of a book is such a joyful thing.
“You May Already Be a Winner”
By Ann Dee Ellis
Age range • 10-14 years; grades 5-9
More information • You can find Ann Dee Ellis online at anndeeellis.com. She’s also on Instagram (anndeecandy), Facebook and Twitter. She blogs with Carol Lynch Williams atthrowingupwords.com.