Today marks the beginning of season two of Dorothy's List, Vermont Edition's series about the books that are nominated for the Dorothy Canfield Fisher children's book award. Each month this school year, this series will bring you a story about one of the books on the list of award nominees. The winning book is selected in the spring by the Vermont middle grade students who read and discuss these books.
This installment of Dorothy's List takes place at the Stowe Free Library, where a group of fourth, fifth and sixth graders have just finished reading their first book on the Dorothy Canfield Fisher list. And now they’re having a little fun with Todd Hasak-Lowy’s novel 33 Minutes ... Until Morgan Sturtz Kicks My Butt.
In the book, ex-best friends Sam and Morgan are growing apart – in a potentially painful way. The story takes place in a half-hour countdown to recess, when Morgan has threatened to deliver the promised butt kicking to Sam. During this time, readers discover how middle school has changed Sam and Morgan’s friendship.
In Stowe, library intern Owen Leavey asked teams of young readers trivia questions about the novel. The game show categories included topics such as Epic Events, Bullies and Faculty & Staff.
The first question for 400 points went to Team Three.
“What did Sam call the rooftop throwing event?” Leavey asked.
The question stumped Teams Three and One. Team Two eventually came through with the correct answer: “the Hurlapalooza”.
Inspired by the trivia game, these young readers in Stowe developed some interesting questions of their own, which Dorothy’s List posed to the book’s author.
Poppy Sargent: Why was 33 such an important number?
Todd Hasak-Lowy: Well that’s a great question, because the original working title of the book was 39 Minutes. And I will pause for two seconds to allow anybody at home to try and guess why we eventually didn’t use 39 Minutes … The answer is that, as a lot of kids know, there’s a very, very popular, successful book series called The 39 Steps, which I knew nothing about when I started working on the book. And early on my agent said to me, “You’re going to want to change the number.”
So, basically what I did is I wrote down all the numbers between about 47 and 31 that I thought could work logistically in terms of the timeframe of the book. And then I just started asking everyone what number they liked the most. And 33 won. And I think it was the right choice. But I definitely knew it wasn’t going to be 35 or 40. It had to be kind of an odd number.
Alaena Hunt: How did you get the situation that Sam is in?
Todd Hasak-Lowy: I knew in general that the book would be about the end of friendship. And what I wanted to do is make that situation, which in reality is this sort of blob of blah, and your friend just not talking to you, and things slowly falling apart, and I wanted to make it much more concrete. And so I decided to turn it into a situation where he was in trouble of getting beat up.
Luca DeRuzza: Does the book have any relationship to your experience in middle school?
Todd Hasak-Lowy: When I was in middle school, my best friend sort of decided that he didn’t want to be my best friend anymore. And so, I would say that sort of the emotional core of the book is true, and that was the thing, 30 years after it happened to me, that I was trying to kind of rearticulate, or make sense of, or put into words. But the rest of it is made up. For better or for worse he never beat me up, or threatened to beat me up. And all the other things that happened in the book, they didn’t happen. So in that regard it’s made up.
Will Bradbury: Were your middle school years tough, or were they very easy?
Todd Hasak-Lowy: Oh, my middle school years were horrible. They were definitely the worst years of my life. When I visit schools and talk about this book, I actually have a line graph where I show each grade going along the horizontal axis and my amount of happiness on the vertical axis. And it really hits a low in seventh grade, so I really, really disliked middle school in general.
But one of the things I do try to tell students when I go to talk to them is that everybody tends to go through a bad phase somewhere between like fifth grade and the age of about thirty or forty. And it usually lasts a couple of years, and it usually ends. And so mine happened to be in middle school. My wife hated high school, she loved middle school. So, you know, it depends. But for me, yes, middle school was something of a nightmare.
Case Bradbury: What was the lesson you were trying to give while making this book?
Todd Hasak-Lowy: I wasn’t trying to give a lesson. One of the things I try to avoid when I’m writing is to sort of think, “Okay, here’s the moral of the book.” It’s not something that I’m interested in, which doesn’t mean that I’m opposed to someone else reading the book, or teaching the book, or talking about it and trying to get people to learn something from it. What I’m trying to do when I’m writing a book is just sort of be true to the situation, and really just try to get on the page what it might feel like to go through what Sam goes through. And I think it’s pretty clear that it’s something a lot of people go through.
So I wasn’t so much trying to say anything in particular about it, but just put it out there that this happens. So, if I’m hoping for anybody to learn anything in particular from the book, it’s that they’re not alone in this. Because I assume a lot of kids and a lot of adults that read the book are going to recognize the sort of situation that they’ve been in, or are even in at the present time.
Makenna Lund: I was wondering why you didn’t reveal in the book who threw the salad bowl on Sam’s head.
Todd Hasak-Lowy: Um, well part of it is I’m not sure I know who threw it. Sometimes I think Chris threw it. Which, I guess, if I had to guess I’d say he did it. But the thing that’s happening at that time is it’s a food fight in the cafeteria and it’s total chaos and so nobody knows what’s going on at all.
So it was more important to me just that it happens and that Sam sort of gets half knocked out. But, um, yeah, I don’t know. Feel free to sort of run a poll at your school to have people guess who threw the bowl at Sam. And I’m not even sure that the person threw the bowl at Sam, or just sort of threw it, and it happened to hit him in the head.
Next month on Dorothy’s List, Better Nate than Ever by Tim Federle. Dorothy’s List is sponsored by the VPR Journalism Fund.