Wednesday, February 5, 2014

Nice Jewish girl crafts bewitching kids’ fiction.

Sarah Mlynowski wants to be a writer when she grows up – oh, wait:  she is grown-up.  At 31, this nice Jewish girl from Montreal is living and loving the big-city writer’s life.

[note:  I wrote this a few years ago, so unless she’s discovered some kind of potion, she’s undoubtedly a little bit older now –like the rest of us.]

It almost sounds like something out of one of the chick lit novels she writes.  After earning her English literature degree from McGill University, Mlynowski (it’s pronounced Mlin-OV-ski) moved to Toronto to work B008EO71WYfor Harlequin Enterprises, the romance publishers.  There, in 2001, her talent was discovered with Milkrun, her first novel (for adults), which has now sold over 600,000 copies worldwide.

Work = fun on the New York book scene?

Sarah MlynowskiSince then, she’s written or co-written more than 10 books, including the Magic in Manhattan series, set in her new home of New York.  It’s about ordinary teen sisters who just happen to have “Glinda” – their special code word for witching power.

0385736460For a hard-working writer, Mlynowski sounds suspiciously like she’s having fun.  In her first blog post of the year, she bubbled that her newest Magic in Manhattan book, Parties and Potions, was finally complete:  “Yay! There’s magic! Boys! A witch debutante ball!”

A debutante ball closely based on her own group Bat Mitzvah.  (“But I obviously changed it to be witch-friendly.”)  Growing up in Montreal’s Jewish community – she attended JPPS-Bialik High School – Judaism was a big part of her life.

Real-life influences that shape her work.

Mlynowski’s spiritual roots are still proudly Canadian. “My husband’s family is still in Montreal, and my dad lives in Oakville now… I go home for Rosh Hashanah, Yom Kippur, Passover.”  She also has family in Israel, where she’s been three times.

Mlynowski says her many strong, vocal female characters may stem from Jewish influences.  Plus, “there’s so much humour in Judaism; more than anything I write hoping to entertain, make people laugh.”  Finding the lighter side of disaster – perhaps revolving around a roommate situation or love interest – is “definitely a Jewish value,” she says.

“Almost all of my books have a Jewish character,” says Mlynowski, including Magic in Manhattan’s main character, 14-year-old Rachel Weinstein.

0385733887Although Parties and Potions won’t be out for a while, fans can look forward to the upcoming release of the paperback edition of Spells and Sleeping Bags (April, Random House).  For the grown-ups, there’s also the novel How to be Bad (May, HarperCollins), cowritten with authors Lauren Myracle and E. Lockhart.  “It’s about B0058M8886three girls on a road trip through Florida trying to find themselves.”

Always more fun with friends.

For How to be Bad, each of the three authors (Mlynowski, E. Lockhart and Lauren Myracle) chose a character and took turns writing a chapter in their character’s voice.  Early collaboration happened online, but “once we sold the novel, we met in Florida and plotted out the rest of the book.” Even editing was “a blast”. Once we were finished, then we could dig in and edit each other’s work…We just had so much fun.”

Naturally, Mlynowski’s character is a Jewish girl from Montreal.  But that’s where most similarity ends.  “I never take anything true and put it in a book,” she says.

And contrary to what you might think, friends don’t hide details of their romantic lives from her: “People love being in books…a friend will call and say, ‘I have a crazy dating story B0009B2WTCfor you.’” She laughs. “The only people territorial about anecdotes are other writers.”

Still, Mlynowski loves spending time with colleagues.  “There’s such a fantastic community of writers here” in New York.  Her social circle reads like an bestseller list:  lunch with The Nanny Diaries’ Emma McLaughlin, 14424198140439164567parties and readings with fellow teen-market writers Scott Westerfeld (Uglies trilogy) and even her one-time idol, former Montrealer Gordon Korman (Island trilogy, and many more).  “When I was at JPPS, he came to our class and talked to us about becoming a writer… it was so inspiring to me.”

1594741158She’s also thrilled to collaborate, as she did on How to be Bad, or with editor Farrin Jacobs on See Jane Write: A Girl’s Guide to Writing Chick Lit.  “As a writer, you’re isolated, spend all your time by yourself, stuck in your own head.”

Going beyond the boyfriend in chick-lit.

International Magic in ManhattanFor someone who reads everything from John Grisham thrillers to literary fiction, Mlynowski doesn’t feel at all constrained by the light romance genre.  

“People make assumptions – that the book’s about shopping, [or] it’s about getting dumped.”  

Actually, chick lit is “more about being fun and entertaining and uplifting… female characters and their everyday lives.”  As one review says, Mlynowski’s writing “goes beyond your usual, ‘I need a boyfriend to make me happy,’ genre and into the unlikely friendships between women.”

Staying where the fans are.

Although the dust jacket of her older books still refers to her as “an irrepressibly optimistic twenty-something,” Mlynowski reached a milestone last year:  her 30th birthday.  She doubts it will affect her writing, though: “Angst is angst no matter what your age.”

And if staying current means being where the teens are, Mlynowski has nothing to worry about.  She’s apparently both busy and popular on the MySpace social-networking website [I clearly wrote this a few years ago!], sharing ideas and insights with 4,662 “friends” and over 12,000 fans and colleagues on the “Teen Lit” authors’ and readers’ group she started.

Mlynowski may not have a broomstick of her own, but online and in real life she’s irrepressibly spreading her own special “Glinda” over the world of contemporary fiction, bewitching readers of all ages along the way.

(Republished from an article I wrote for The Canadian Jewish News.)

What’s she up to now?

B007SR7MCWSince I wrote this, Mlynowski has branched out into the “Whatever After” series, aimed at kids aged 8-12, which offers younger kids a taste of the same junior chick-lit magic.

Once upon a time my brother and I were normal kids. The next minute? The mirror in our basement slurped us up and magically transported us inside Snow White's fairy tale.  I know it sounds crazy, but it's true. (from Whatever After #1:  Fairest of All)

So far, her books have been translated into 21 languages and optioned to Hollywood (whoah!).  And she has kept up the pace, releasing many new books. 

0385737386Her next book, Don’t even think about it, a YA novel about teens with telepathic powers, is due to come out in just a few weeks, on March 11th.  It’s already hit the ground running with a Publisher’s Weekly starred review:  “Mlynowski continues to make comedy look easy in this smart and frequently hilarious novel.”

0545627281She’s also releasing Whatever After #5:  Bad Hair Day in April.  Find out more about what Mlynowski’s up to these days at her own site here.

What strikes me about Mlynowski’s story is that, despite the magic in her characters’ lives, the “secret ingredient” to her own success seems to be old-fashioned hard work.  Maybe that’s why her story captivates me so much! 

Who do you think is the hardest-working children’s / YA writer out there today?  (besides you, of course!)  And how can we find this kind of balance in our own writing practice:  making work fun, collaborating with friends – any tips???


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