Joanne Levy is the author of the Sydney Taylor Notable books SORRY FOR YOUR LOSS and SMALL MEDIUM AT LARGE, along with THE SUN WILL COME OUT and three titles in the Orca Currents ultra-readable line, THE BOOK OF ELSIE, FISH OUT OF WATER, and DOUBLE TROUBLE. She can usually be found at her computer, either creating spreadsheets (sometimes just for fun) or channeling her younger self into books. Joanne lives in rural Ontario, Canada with her husband and several pets, one of whom vomited during the writing of this bio.
Please tell us a little about yourself and your books.
First of all, thank you so much for having me, Caroline! I’ve loved watching your writing career evolve alongside my own since we both debuted in 2012 (Yay class of 2012!) when I first fell in love with MAY B. It’s an honor to be featured on your blog.
It’s so fun to have you here!
As for me, I’m a middle-aged Canadian human who very distinctly remembers the trauma and tribulations of being a tween. To that end, I use writing books for tweens to give myself infinite opportunities for vicarious do-overs. Also, I love telling stories, exploring stuff I’m curious about, and making kids laugh. If I can make complete strangers like me through my work, well, that’s a bonus.
My books tend to touch on serious and important topics like toxic masculinity, addressing stereotypes, terminal illness, grief, and prejudice, mixed in with the things that all kids face: friendships, independence, crushes, finding their place in the world, and all things awkward. There’s always some humor, too.
When did you start writing with an eye toward publication?
Oh goodness. A million years ago? I think I first started getting serious about my writing back in 2000 when I received a local college’s adult learning course calendar and took a Crafting a Novel class instead of the professional development HR course I was planning to take. I was working toward getting my professional HR designation but at that moment, I faced a career crossroads. I never did get that designation, but I think I picked the right course that day.
What has your writing journey been like? The more specifics the better!
In a word? ‘Rocky’. In another word? ‘Long’. Oh, and how about ‘fraught’. It is probably the least linear journey ever and it would take forever to tell, even just to my first book deal. But I will tell you that there were several books and agents along the way. Over 1000 rejections on the road to that first book deal. Yes, over 1000 – that wasn’t a typo.
My first query letter went out in summer of 2003. I signed with my first agent in – I think – 2006. I got my first offer on the – again, I think – 14th book I’d written (and with a different agent), back in 2010. My debut, SMALL MEDIUM AT LARGE, came out in summer of 2012. It hasn’t been linear since then, either. I’ve had a lot more rejections, different agents, and some books that sold and many that didn’t. I’ve sold books in as few as three days on a proposal, to one that went out on sub in 2016, that just sold and will come out in 2024.
I have to jump in here and say !!!!!!!
Seriously, nothing in my journey has been predictable or all that easy (except that one three-day-submission deal that I never expect to replicate).
How would you define success? What keeps you going?
There are so many ways to define success. I made peace a long time ago with the fact that success for me as a writer of kids’ books would likely never include what people might consider financial success. The writer who makes a living at their work is a very lucky one. Yes, it would be amazing to have my books be my only source of income, but I do like to eat every day. So as things are, I look to the intangible things that my books do to define success for me. If I can make a kid hug one of my books and carry it with them in their heart forever? That is food for my soul and is worth more than what money can buy.
In fact, here’s a photo of what the pinnacle of success looks like for me. It’s one I keep handy for when I’m feeling defeated or beaten down by how hard the publishing industry can be. This was taken when I was doing a book festival where I had the joy of signing books for kids. This young reader came up my signing line and I honestly don’t know which of us was more excited to see the other. It was a career defining moment for me. A kid putting your book cover on their shirt and coming to meet you at a festival? That is success. If it isn’t, you’re in the wrong business.
How do you handle rejection and / or the periods of time when the writing life is difficult?
See above. I look at that picture often. As for rejection, well the truth is that there’s a lot of it in this business. No one gets a book published without some rejection or pushback. It’s not personal. It’s not about the writer, it’s about the work. Or the timing. Or the market. Or the stars just not aligning. There are a million reasons a book may be rejected, and the sad thing is that writers may never learn what the real reasons are. That can make it easy to turn that rejection inward and assume it’s something we did or didn’t do, when often that’s not the case at all.
Rejection is hard but it’s part of the process. That said, sometimes it does get demoralizing. It can feel like everyone around you is more successful than you are. But as someone once said, “Comparison is the thief of joy.” That someone was Teddy Roosevelt – I just looked it up. It’s true. So true. And yet hard to steer clear of. I highly recommend writers read BIRD BY BIRD by Anne Lamott – there’s a whole chapter on comparison and professional envy. It’s both honest and hilarious.
But back to the question you asked. I do my best to continue writing and moving forward and try as best I can to keep my eyes on my own paper. I take walks and remind myself that only I can write my stories the way I do and that somewhere out there is a kid who needs them.
Tell us about your newest book(s).
My most recent release that came out in August is called THE BOOK OF ELSIE. It’s a hi-lo (high interest, lower reading level) book from Orca Book Publishers that deals with a really heavy subject: antisemitism (and all prejudice, really). Elsie has to deal with incidents of hate in her neighborhood and her synagogue but is determined to be fierce and not let that hate get into her heart. This book came out of the rise of antisemitism of late, and it’s a book I wish I hadn’t felt I had to write. But this is the world we live in, and my way of doing something is writing about it, hoping to defeat hate before it can germinate in our kids’ hearts.
Another book that I want to talk about is SORRY FOR YOUR LOSS, which is part book of my heart and part homage to my dad and the work he does. The book is set in a Jewish funeral home, inspired by the one my father manages in my hometown. It’s a gentle but honest peek behind the curtain of a family-run funeral home, giving kids access to some of the details of death and funerals that kids—and many adults—don’t often get. This book has been so well-received and is on several kids’ choice reading lists this fall which is amazing – I’m thrilled that more kids are going to be able to meet Evie and Oren and go behind the scenes of the funeral home with them. This book was a tough one to write, and I wouldn’t have been able to write it if it hadn’t been for the death of my mom after a brief illness. But I think it’s important and necessary to give kids safe spaces to explore topics like what happens after we die. Like, what happens to our bodies after we die. There’s plenty of speculation about our souls and energy and Heaven and such, but not a lot of talk about funerals and burials. I wanted to explore that and give kids an honest look behind the scenes.
There’s also a discussion and activity guide that goes along with the book and a page on my website where I share my research photos and resources. Please check it out here.