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Melissa Dassori on J.R. Silver Writes Her World

When I was in fourth grade, my homeroom teacher had a collection of New Yorker magazine covers that she used as prompts for creative writing assignments. The illustrated covers aren’t tied to the stories inside, and each is its own work of art. One in particular caught my eye. It showed a cart full of flowers out on the street, and it radiated springtime.

Or did it? As an adult, I searched for the cover but never found it. I was disappointed, but the existence of that specific image wasn’t really important. Instead, what mattered was that my teacher had planted a seed of an idea. Many years later, when I started writing for young people, the seed grew into a question: What would happen if those stories we wrote came true?

That became the premise of J.R. Silver Writes Her World.

And for a while, that’s as far as I got. I had a premise without a story. What would happen to J.R. as a result of this magical ability? What did she want? What did she need?

Eventually, more ideas emerged.

First, I wanted to write a book about those middle school years when friendships are intense and changing, and when adults are present but kids play a bigger role in one another’s lives. It’s a tricky time, in part, because young people don’t grow up at the same pace or necessarily change in the same direction. Relationships can be hard to navigate when one child seeks out a wider world before another child is ready. That was the tension I created for J.R. and her best friend, Violet, a character I felt readers needed to adore in her own right even though she is the source of J.R.’s worries.

The second came from From The Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler, a quirky 1967 book about a brother and sister who run away from home and hide out in New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art. Although they start off as typical bickering siblings, Claudia and Jamie Kincaid become a team, as Claudia puts it, through their adventure. J.R. Silver pays homage to their story from the opening scene.

That mission to become a team—in J.R.’s case, to get the team back together with Violet—drives the plot and, of course, J.R.’s personal growth, which is what the book is really about. It goes without saying that she has adventures along the way. After all, what would you do if you could make your dreams come true with the stroke of a pen? That’s not how things work in real life, but through experimentation on paper, J.R. learns to express herself out loud, which can certainly be scary.

Stepping back a bit, I hope readers find joy and inspiration in the book.

For teachers, librarians, and others who work with young people, I must say that reconnecting with my fourth grade teacher, whom I’ll call Ms. K, in the lead-up to publishing J.R. Silver was an absolute thrill. I visited my parents recently and dug through their garage. My fantasy was that I would find one of those old New Yorker covers with my story stapled behind it and Ms. K’s comments on top. I was not so lucky. But I did find report cards and notes, drawings, and other school projects that reminded me of the creative adults who supported me in school. It was lovely to reminisce, although I do need to talk to my parents about cleaning out that garage!

For students, J.R. Silver is full of literary references, and there’s no one-size-fits-all when it comes to engaging books. The characters in the novel read widely, and I hope young readers seek out stories that resonate with them and that they are encouraged and allowed to do so.

I did my first school visit recently, and a boy asked what I do to overcome writer’s block. I told him that I try to unplug. I find it so tempting these days to consume content all the time—a podcast while folding the laundry, an audiobook while commuting to work. But one of the real pleasures of writing J.R. Silver was looking around and absorbing what I saw, whether while wandering through the Met or flipping through countless New Yorker covers to take inspiration from the images. Drafting the book required sitting with my thoughts and letting my mind wander. It required slowing down to take in the fast pace of New York.  Ultimately, I hope all of my readers will remember to stop and smell the roses—even from an imaginary flower cart on a potentially-imagined magazine cover that they think they saw when they were nine years old.