Each month, we ask distinguished authors or illustrators to write an original post that reveals insights about their process and craft. Enjoy!
The Path to Creating The Next Great Paulie Fink
by Ali Benjamin
The Next Great Paulie Fink (Little Brown, 2019) isn’t the book I expected to write. Before I began working on this, my second children’s novel, I had a pre-conceived notion about what it was supposed to be. It was supposed to be oh-so-serious, the sort of book that tackles a difficult subject in a literary way. That, after all, is what I did with my first book, The Thing About Jellyfish (Little Brown, 2015). And once a person figures out how to do something, aren’t they supposed to keep doing that same thing again and again? Isn’t that who they are?
I had a problem, though: every time I sat down to write the Very Serious book, I felt miserable. I began dreaming about something lighter. I imagined a story that combined reality television and middle school hijinks, practical jokes and ancient philosophy, untamed goats, and equally untamed kids. After a while, I began to write this story down instead.
To my surprise, it felt right.
The protagonist of The Next Great Paulie Fink also struggles to let go of pre-conceived notions. Seventh grade Caitlyn Breen has just reluctantly started her first day at a new school —the tiny Mitchell School, somewhere in the woods of Vermont. Nothing about the place matches her expectations of what school “should” be. Not the setting, a falling-down mansion filled with classical statues. Not the classes (philosophy? What kind of middle school teaches kids philosophy?). And definitely not her new classmates, who are un-self-conscious, even downright silly, and who are having way, way too much fun together.
Caitlyn knows how middle school is supposed to be. Why don’t these kids?
When her classmates place her in charge of a reality TV-style competition to replace the missing Paulie Fink, a class clown, Caitlyn really feels lost. What she must learn to do is the very thing I myself had to as I wrote this book: set down pre-conceived notions. Forget about what should be; embrace, instead, what could be. And learn to have some fun, for goodness sake!
I did have fun writing this book, and I allowed Caitlyn to have some fun, too. And here’s the kicker: it turns out that fun isn’t frivolous. As humans, we’re at our most open, our most expansive, our most receptive to new ideas, when we’re relaxed. Laughter and learning aren’t opposites; to the contrary, they actually go hand-in-hand.
I hope readers enjoy this book. I hope they smile as they watch the kids of the Mitchell School wrestle like zombies, break into spontaneous dance parties, and crack each other up while vying to become the next great Paulie Fink. But as readers enjoy all this lightness, they’ll also do some pretty weighty things. They’ll explore the connections between past and present. They’ll ask big questions about who we are as humans…and who we might yet get to become. They’ll reflect on age-old concerns like regret, responsibility, and redemption.
Best of all, they’ll likely confront some of their own preconceived notions about the world, and themselves. Maybe they, too, will even begin to set a few of these down. When they do, trust me: that’s just where the fun begins.
Hear more of the steps Ali Benjamin took to begin writing The Next Great Paulie Fink
Learn the backstory of Ali Benjamin’s name and how properly pronounce it
Discover Ali Benjamin’s process for developing her title The Thing About Jellyfish
Find resources for books written by Ali Benjamin