We’re coming back from the break with a guest post and GIVEAWAY by debut middle grade author Michelle Schusterman! The first two books in Michelle’s middle grade series I Heart Band! and I Heart Band! #2 Friends, Fugues, and Fortune Cookies debuted yesterday and she is giving away a signed pair of the two books!
Even twenty or thirty years from now, I’m pretty sure I’ll look back on November 16th, 2011 as the luckiest day in my career as an author. I’d had an agent for a year and a half. I’d been on submission, had an early offer, and had that offer rescinded. I wrote another book while the rejections poured in, only to have my agent advise me to rewrite it…then rewrite it again. I realized I was beating a dead horse with that particular story and set it aside.
And out of nowhere, at this very low point, I received an email from my agent. An editor at Penguin had contacted her looking for “an author who was a band geek or understands band, and can write confidently about that,” to write a middle grade series called I HEART BAND. “Could this be for you?” my agent asked.
My response: “I was in band from sixth grade through college. It was my life, I LOVED it, all my friends were in band. I have a bachelor’s degree in music education, and I was a middle and high school band director for four years. So…YES!”
I always took the saying “write what you know” to mean something more along the lines of “write what you’re passionate about,” or maybe “write about feelings you have experienced.” I HEART BAND is about music, friendship, and competitiveness, all of which I’ve had plenty of experience with. But these books have allowed me to “write what I know” in a more specific way.
This almost feels like confessing a sin, but this series required the least amount of research of any books I’ve ever written. Even the tiniest details like transpositions or fingerings or where a French horn player would be placed on a band seating chart in relation to her first chair trumpet player-crush were things I barely had to think about. I lived in band halls for over fifteen years. It was frighteningly easy to write those rehearsal or performance scenes with all their disruptions and nerves and goofiness and the sheer joy of playing music.
None of the characters were based on any of my former students, peers, or co-workers (although bits and pieces of some personalities certainly slipped in). I’m not a perfectionist like Holly, although I worked just as hard in band and loved it just as much. I was friends with naturally talented musicians like Gabby who could make a simple scale sound gorgeous (despite her less-than-desirable instrument cleaning habits). I taught humble students like Owen who seemed to have more faith in his friends’ talents than his own, but made quiet, steady progress nonetheless. And poor Mr. Dante…I definitely sympathize with the unique experience that is teaching a roomful of seventh graders wielding instruments with spit valves.
In a broader sense, I know what it’s like to want to be noticed yet be afraid of sticking out, to feel ridiculously (but inconsolably) devastated at getting second place, the rush that comes with the perfect performance, the truly special friendships you form with a group of peers who set aside everything else once a day to make music together, the challenge those friendships face thanks to chair tests and ratings and an atmosphere of nonstop competition.
No matter what the genre, writing middle grade always comes down to the characters, their feelings and relationships and goals – universal concepts you can find on every page. With the I HEART BAND series, it’s been a joy and a privilege to “write what I know” in a very literal sense as well.
Michelle Schusterman is a former band director and forever band geek, dating back to when she first picked up a pair of drumsticks in the sixth grade. Now Michelle writes books, screenplays, and music. She lives in New York City with her husband (and band mate) and their chocolate lab (who is more of a vocalist).