The GROG offers a heartfelt welcome to poet, author, and middle grade educator Lisa Sukenic. Lisa’s middle grade novel in verse, Miles From Motown, debuted from Fitzroy Books on August 21.
Miles From Motown is the story of twelve year-old Georgia, a young poet who, as she struggles with her family’s move from Detroit to a mostly-white suburb and her brother’s deployment to Vietnam decides to enter her poem in the Gwendolyn Brooks Spirit of Detroit Poetry Contest by using her Grandma Birdie’s Detroit address.
Georgia struggles with difficult issues as we empathize with her transition from her beloved Detroit neighborhood, Aunt Birdie, and best friend Ceci. How will she make new friends? Will her brother return safely—or at all—from Vietnam? Will her deceit about her contest submission be discovered, or will she be able to intercept the announcement before her family discovers what she’s done? Georgia’s coming-of-age story embodies themes of persistence, resilience, and the power of truth that engage and stir readers’ minds and hearts.
CCG: Lisa, you grew up in the suburb about which you write. Can you share how Miles From Motown grew out of some of your memories and lived experiences?
LS: The seeds of the story came from my memories and experiences growing up in the suburbs of Detroit. My grandparents lived and worked in Detroit. Going back and forth between Detroit and Southfield set a map in my mind for the setting and situations of the story. Even though the physical distance was small, the divisions between the communities and cultures were large.
I used the reference of miles to dive into the vast emotional distance in Georgia’s heart between her Detroit community and the new neighborhood that was not familiar to her. The story takes place in 1967, and I grew up during that time period. I wanted to paint a picture of this era with the internal and external conflicts that weighed on Georgia and her family when they relocated to the suburbs. Although this is a work of fiction, my childhood friendships and relationships played a role in creating the foundation for Miles from Motown.
CCG: You chose to write in verse—and knowing you as a poet as well as a prose writer, I would guess there are multiple reasons. I’d love to hear your thoughts on why you chose verse for MFM, and why you believe it is essential for this particular story (and perhaps for many verse novels?)
LS: I think poetry sings to the soul and reaches the inner journey of the characters. Poetry can be emotionally raw and goes right to the core of the emotional arc and to the heart of the story. Poets micromanage words and that can be slow going. I chose to write Miles from Motown in verse after a long process of drafting the story with the first few chapters in prose. I went back and forth, originally moving from prose to verse and then back again and then finally completed the verse.
Rewriting a verse draft as prose allowed me to really see the plot points. But the emotional core was diminished. Only in verse could I deepen Georgia’s complexity. When I returned to verse after the prose draft, my plot was stronger and clearer, and my verse deepened became more powerful. I probably revised the novel at least 50 times if not more. I wrote Miles From Motown as a poet writing in verse as the narrator, Georgia. I also wrote as Georgia the poet, who had a completely different voice than Georgia the narrator. This was a difficult, but truly gratifying process. As I wrote and revised, I began to know how Georgia would respond, and how deeply she felt her sadness about her brother Ty being in Vietnam, her confusion about why her family moved from Detroit, her loss of her best friend, and her guilty feelings about her poetry entry deception.
CCG: Lisa, can you tell us about your writing process? The same routine each day? Different depending on the rest of your busy schedule? Do you write sequentially through a first draft, a scene here and there, or revise as you go? etc.
LS: My writing process is messy—very, very messy. I do not always write sequentially and I absolutely need to see the characters and scenes in a large visual format. For Miles From Motown, I had a gigantic mural-sized roll of paper on my wall the length of my bedroom. I needed to see the story every day. I printed out the whole story and then physically cut up the parts and pasted them on the wall. Then I went ahead and color coded all of my characters and themes so I could clearly see the through-line for each character, plot-point, and theme.
I do my best writing first thing in the morning with no one around, from 7-10 am. My creative brain works best when it comes directly out of a dream state and has not had any interactions with other human beings. I continually think of my characters and my stories as I go about my business. I have been known to pull off at a highway exit and stop at a park to write down ideas that zoom into my head. This can be a character’s big resolution or a small idea that may make a major impact on the story. My downfall is that I am a chronic reviser as I go, but that does unlock critical parts of the story that might otherwise have been missed.
One of the most significant things I do is to read, read and read middle grade fiction as part of my job as a 4th grade teacher at The University of Chicago Lab Schools and co-coordinator of The University of Chicago Lab School’s \ Global Reading Challenge. This means that I read at least 10-20 books over the summer. During the school year, I typically read two middle grade novels every week.
CCG: Let’s talk about the wonderful dual opportunity you have as author and middle grade educator! I had the opportunity to participate in your classroom with Reeni’s Turn during your novel in verse unit, where I spoke with young novel-in-verse writers and Reeni’s Turn readers. Can you talk about how you plan to use Miles From Motown in your classroom this coming year, and how it might be used in other middle grade classrooms?
· Poetry Study and Novels in Verse study
· History/Timelines (Gwendolyn Brooks, Muhammad Ali, the Vietnam War):
· Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion programs
· Social Emotional Issues (bullying, loss, transitions, self-advocacy);
· Pop Culture/Music of the 1960s
I’m excited to share my own work with my class, since I teach reading and writing. I share not only the work, but my author’s journey, and it can be a wonderful complement to student experiences during our yearly novel-writing curriculum that uses the NaNoWriMo Elementary Curriculum Guide. During the year, students write and publish their novels and do readings at a local bookstore.
An important note: My Teachers Guide will be available for download on my website soon: https://lisasukenic.com I look forward to educators and librarians using the guide to facilitate wonderful conversations and activities using Miles From Motown.
CCG: Thank you, Lisa, for this wonderful discussion! Thanks for visiting with us, and best wishes for Miles From Motown and your ongoing writer’s journey!
Enter to win a signed copy of Miles From Motown: 1) share this post at your FB or Twitter account and 2) post the link to that 'share' in the comments below. Winner of drawing will be chosen and announced on September 30 at https://twitter.com/carolcgrannick and https://www.facebook.com/carol.grannick
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Lisa Sukenic is a poet, author, and fourth grade teacher at the U of C Laboratory Schools. Miles From Motown is her debut children’s novel. Miles From Motown placed First in the 2016 SCBWI-IL Prairie Writers Day Manuscript Contest, and was a Finalist in Fitzroy Books Kraken Book Prize. Her fiction and poetry for adults appear in Everyday Haiku, A Reason to Be Here, and Turning Point. Autographed copies of Miles From Motown are available at https://www.womenandchildrenfirst.com/event/virtual-book-launch-miles-motown- Visit Lisa at her website: https://lisasukenic.com