Williamstown Author Pens Second Middle-Grade Novel
WILLIAMSTOWN, Mass. — When Williamstown author Ali Benjamin started thinking about a follow-up to her 2015 middle-grade novel "The Thing About Jellyfish," she struggled to find the right topic and the right tone.
"Jellyfish," while a beautiful story about a young girl's journey of self-discovery, is, after all, a story about the death of a child. Benjamin had planned her next book around the issue of gun violence, but in the years following the release of "Jellyfish," real life seemed too dark in many ways to pick another tough topic.
"I finally said to my editor, 'I don't think I can do the book we have been talking about,' " said Benjamin, who said she struggled with what message of hope she could send kids about gun violence. "It was such a bleak world view and I couldn't give it to kids."
With the support of her editor, Benjamin changed gears, and her new middle-grade novel was born: "The Next Great Paulie Fink." The book officially will be released on April 16, and on Thursday, April 18, Benjamin will host a book-signing at 7 p.m. at the Williams Bookstore. "Paulie Fink" will be available for sale, of course, but Benjamin is also encouraging guests to purchase a picture book for a donation drive she has undertaken for the Louison House, the shelter in North Adams for people experiencing homelessness.
"Paulie Fink" tells the story of a seventh-grade girl named Caitlyn who unwillingly moves to a new home and new school in a small town in Vermont. With her arrival also comes a mystery in her small class: the disappearance of classmate Paulie Fink, who has oddly not returned to school this year. As Caitlyn's new classmates share stories about Paulie, building his legend, they decide they need to "replace" him. Thus they tap the objective newcomer Caitlyn to oversee a series of realty television-style contests to see who will be the one to be the "new Paulie." Of course, it turns out to be about much more than that as Caitlyn learns more and more about Paulie.
"She's trying to get to know Paulie," Benjamin said. "Who she's really getting to know is her classmates and herself."
Benjamin said her process of writing "Paulie Fink" somewhat mirrors Caitlyn's journey. With "Jellyfish," she had more freedom to write the story she wanted and then try to sell it to publishers. This time around, the publisher was expecting a second book, and she had an editor and an agent checking in with her throughout the process. But she still wanted to find the creative space to be herself — a process similar to the one Caitlyn undergoes as well.
"I'm not going to care what people think," Benjamin said she would tell herself — a lesson that is often difficult, if beneficial, for middle-schoolers like Caitlyn. "She has to let herself get a little looser, be a little silly, and set down 'OK, what will people think of me.'
"That's not a bad thing to have to do," she said. "There's something really freeing going into that space."
The space that Benjamin herself is going with the release of this book is the chance to follow up a very popular debut - a book she said she is "surprised and confused" was so popular.
"It's not something I expected I would have resonated with a lot of people," she said.
It did — and it became the basis of many conversations with teachers and parents, as well as students themselves — as she toured for "Jellyfish" and talked to people all over the country about the book's themes of bullying, mental health and death. That's something she said she enjoyed with "Jellyfish" and hopes to do again with "Paulie Fink."
"It's really fun to go to all these different schools," she said, recalling how she visited a diverse list of schools, from small and poor rural schools to much wealthier urban schools like those in Silicon Valley. One thing was the same everywhere, she said.
"Kids are having so many different experiences in this country, but they are all excited to ask questions," she said. "Kids are kind of awesome."
And that attitude is how Benjamin appears to so easily tap into the joys and heartaches of today's middle-schoolers in her first two middle-grade books, despite being a mother of two daughters — one of whom is Caitlyn's age herself.
"I'm just perpetually 12," she said.
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