Talking TWO NAOMIS With Olugbemisola Rhuday-Perkovich and Audrey Vernick

Earlier this spring, I was able to get my hands on an uncorrected proof of TWO NAOMIS, the middle grade novel by Olugbemisola Rhuday-Perkovich and Audrey Vernick that pubs later this summer just in time for back-to-school. I hope that many teachers will share this wonderful and important book with their students this year and for years to come.

A big thanks goes out to Gbemi and Audrey for answering my questions for this post. I hope you enjoy what they have to say as much as I did. I also hope you’ll consider pre-ordering TWO NAOMIS for you, for a child you know, or for your class or school library.

First, let’s start with the title, which I absolutely adore. How did you come up with it?

AUDREY: I’m learning that Gbemi and I remember things differently, but the way I remember it is that we referred to the manuscript as Two Naomis, but hadn’t yet come up with a title.

GBEMI: Surprise! That’s pretty much how I remember it, too.

AUDREY: I don’t remember consciously deciding to call it Two Naomis. I think it was assumed by Kristin Rens, our editor, and it worked for us!

 

Co-writing a novel can be done in a number of ways. How did your writing process work? Was it a constant back and forth? Did you write any of the chapters together? Did you ever switch things up and write a chapter from the other point of view?

GBEMI: We were pretty straightforward with alternating chapters.

AUDREY: That was really fun, especially in the early stages as details would emerge — possibly tangential or even unintended — and the other writer would pick up on them in the next chapter and have some fun.

GBEMI: We did at times talk things through and go over some items in advance — certain plot points or situations that we wanted to introduce that would affect the other’s chapters. We talked a lot about the characters — how they’d feel about things happening and some of the dialogue. We also did a lot of writing by talking — emailing back and forth and commenting in Google Docs. So I guess, we did write a good bit of it together.

Collaboration often poses challenges. What were some of the bigger obstacles or hurdles you encountered?

AUDREY: For me it was occasionally hard to know when to just forge ahead. I would make assumptions about how the characters in Gbemi’s Naomi’s family would act, and I wasn’t always certain if it required consultation.

GBEMI: Hmmmm. Maybe sometimes not realizing that we might have different ideas of the “other Naomi” in our heads. I might think that her Naomi’s motivations or thought processes were one way. I would be thinking, “Obviously, she means this, or she’s going to react like that,” and it would be WAY off, and vice versa. But a lot of times, those moments really sparked some great ideas and took us in unexpected directions that worked out very well.

AUDREY: We also had some technical glitches. Google Docs was definitely out to get us. Whole sections would just disappear! But the obstacles were heavily outweighed by all the skill Gbemi brought to the table. She is a novel-writing wunderkind!

 

Among the many things I liked about TWO NAOMIS was the depth of the supporting characters. Each one served a greater purpose than simply that of the emotional babysitter for one of the main characters. I specifically want to focus on Naomi Marie’s sister, Brianna, and Naomi Edith’s best friend, Annie. How did these characters come to be?

GBEMI: Character development and dialogue are the most fun parts of writing for me, so it was a joy to write Naomi Marie and Brianna’s scenes together. I knew immediately that Naomi Marie had a little sister, Brianna, it basically just popped into my head. I just went from there.

AUDREY: Even though Brianna was Gbemi’s invention, I loved writing scenes with her. I felt confident writing her in a way I wouldn’t have felt writing Naomi Marie. As for Annie, everyone needs a best friend. That was always my favorite part of the books I loved as a young reader—characters who had very, very close friends. Annie was possibly a little generic until I inserted that idea of the girls “reading” picture books to each other, which is something my daughter’s friend sometimes did when she found picture books in the backseat of my car. Their “reading” is a way of telling the story by ignoring the words and (mis)interpreting the pictures.

Which one of you is the Edith Head fan? Why did you decide to include her in the story? 

AUDREY: Neither! Isn’t that crazy?

GBEMI: Uh, I like Edith Head. I thought you did, too. D’oh!

AUDREY: Ha! Gbemi threw the name Edith at my character in one of her chapters and my instinct was, NO! THAT CAN’T BE HER MIDDLE NAME! I think she may have chosen it because I’d just completed work on a nonfiction picture book about Edith Houghton. But beyond that famous Edith and the fictional Edith Bunker, the next Edith who came to mind was Edith Head.

GBEMI: I’d seen a short documentary about Edith Head years ago that fascinated me. I think I sort of jokingly assigned Audrey’s Naomi the middle name Edith for no reason at all. Maybe I was thinking of names that I didn’t hear too often anymore.

AUDREY: I didn’t know much about Edith Head beyond her name, and the fact that to this layperson, she was the only costume designer whose name I knew. I hadn’t yet figured out what my Naomi’s parents did for a living. I’d never really thought of costume design, but it felt like very rich territory to mine.

GBEMI: Audrey created this whole beautiful connection to Edith Head. That became such a sweet and important part of Naomi Edith’s relationship with her mother.

The notion of boundaries plays an important role in the novel. For instance, Naomi Marie’s mother works at her school and the way they interact there has limits and parameters. There are rules for Brianna when Naomi Marie is with a friend. And “Scary Boulevard” is a real concrete boundary. Having all these boundaries — was this a conscious decision?

GBEMI: Not on my part!
AUDREY: I am so tempted to claim this as a conscious decision, but it wasn’t on my end.

GBEMI: Now that I think about it, in the earliest stages of conversation about this story, we did talk about the girls struggling with boundaries, especially when they weren’t sure where or what those boundaries were for each other. I so vividly remember sitting in the back seat of the car with my little sister and saying, “This is MY side of the line. DO NOT CROSS.” Those things were such a big deal. I thought about those moments a lot while working on the book.

Speaking of “Scary Boulevard,” when it first appeared in the novel, my head immediately went to the “Do Not Cross” roads near where I lived as a kid. Tell me about the “Scary Boulevard(s)” in your life. 

AUDREY: I practically jumped out of my seat when I read this question! Francis Lewis Boulevard. Oh my goodness! If you wanted to get to my elementary school quickly from my house, and you were walking with a parent, you crossed on the diagonal, where there was no crossing guard or traffic light. It was a serious shortcut. I think it cut more than half the time off. When my friend Claire and I walked to school by ourselves, we were only allowed to go the (very) long way, where Anne the crossing guard saw us safely across. I remember myself as a cautious child, and yet, I was the one who talked Claire into crossing on the diagonal… where I was PROMPTLY busted by mother. It was bad. We must never speak of this again.

GBEMI: Argh! For a part of 5th grade, I lived in Yonkers, New York, and there was a McDonald’s across from our house on Central Avenue, which was a pretty major street in those days. There was an overpass that people used to cross it because the traffic signals weren’t so much on the pedestrians’ side. For some reason, my best friend and I decided that we would take our little sisters (who were also the same age) to McDonald’s without using the overpass. The way I remember it, we crossed at a spot where there was no traffic light. We were just trying to wait until there were no cars on a street where there were ALWAYS cars. It felt like there were cars bearing down on us from every angle, even from the sky. Terrifying! We were holding our sisters’ hands and running and dodging. WHAT WAS I THINKING? I’d witnessed a motorcycle accident at just about the same spot on that street some years before. IT WAS TOTALLY SCARY BOULEVARD. To add insult to (near) injury, we only had enough cash between the four of us for a cheeseburger and small fries to share. We took the overpass home. We never spoke of it again. I still can’t believe we did that.

 

TWO NAOMIS made me hungry for dessert!  Which one of you has the sweet tooth? What are your favorite sweets?

AUDREY: I suspect Gbemi will claim she has a sweeter tooth than I do, but it’s not true.

GBEMI: We are both fans of sweets, but I’m guessing that I’m a bigger sweet tooth because that’s pretty much true for me in comparison with everyone.

AUDREY: I knew you’d say you were! I am blessed (obvious reasons) and cursed (recent weight gain) to live with a teenaged baker, and my favorite sweets are two of her creations—coffee Oreo cupcakes and lemon lime cupcakes. Also Ben & Jerry’s Coffee Coffee Buzz Buzz Buzz.

GBEMI: I love cake, milk chocolate, gummy bears, sour candies… just sugar. I was ecstatic just yesterday because I’d been lamenting the loss of Gertel’s bakery on the Lower East Side for about nine years (seriously, every time I’m on the Lower East Side, which is a lot, I tell whoever I’m with or just the air around me how much I miss Gertel’s). It had been my favorite place for a Linzer Tart and a black and white cookie. I’ve had pretty good black and whites since, but there have been a lot of mediocre Linzers…until yesterday. Pasticceria Rocco. Delectable! Then today, I was missing Miss Ann’s, which had been a tiny restaurant in my Brooklyn neighborhood for years where I had the most amazing coconut cake EVER. Luckily, we now have Brooklyn Sweet Spot nearby, which is the definition of cupcakes. Just to be clear, I did not go there today.  All I did was think about it!

I can definitely see TWO NAOMIS becoming a read aloud perennial in many upper elementary classrooms. If you could say something to those teachers, what would it be?

GBEMI: That would be awesome! Reading aloud is such a precious and beautiful experience with older children. I know that there are so many things to cover in the classroom, so many obligations. Thank you for understanding how much just a few minutes of a shared read aloud can build community and remind everyone of the magic and power of story. Thank you for spending that time with the Naomis, for sharing their story with your students, and for helping them find their own stories there too.

AUDREY: Yes, thank you.

Please visit Olugbemisola Rhuday-Perkovich at www.olugbemisolabooks.com or follow her on Twitter at @olugbemisola. Visit Audrey Vernick at www.audreyvernick.com or follower her on Twitter at @yourbuffalo.

Follow the fifth grade adventures of Rip and Red. Be sure to pick up copies of A Whole New Ballgame and Rookie Of The Year.

 

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