Holm-Spun Stories

Thursday, September 27, 2007

The best thing about being a writer? Jennifer L. Holm doesn't hesitate with her answer: "The most beautiful part is when the book arrives in your hand."

But the most fun, the Maryland author says, is all the steps getting there, which usually include a visit to her parents' home in Pennsylvania.

Holm, 39, loves the research required for her historical novels, including "Penny From Heaven" and "Our Only May Amelia," based on the lives of relatives. She enjoys buying the comic books she uses to prepare for the "Babymouse" series of graphic novels she produces with her brother Matthew. She has fun plowing through the box of 25-year-old treasures that inspired her latest book, "Middle School Is Worse Than Meatloaf."

But, maybe most of all, she enjoys revising what she has written.

"That's when the story takes shape," she says. "My first draft is usually fairly terrible. Then it's fun to see how it changes. I feel like a character in their world."

It took her seven years to finish "Middle School Is Worse Than Meatloaf." It's a different kind of book: part graphic novel, part, well, stuff.

More than 120 pages of to-do lists, instant messages, notes, report cards, drawings, receipts, newspaper clippings and other items tell the story of troubled seventh-grader Ginny Davis. Her father died in a car accident. Her older brother is acting up. Her little brother eats toothpaste. Her former best friend, Mary Catherine Kelly, keeps getting all the best roles in the ballet productions. Nothing else seems to be going right.

Ginny's story mirrors part of Holm's middle-school experience: "My mom is a massive pack rat. She saved like every scrap of paper from my childhood and my [four] brothers'. I went home and got the Jennie box, which had my report cards, programs from recitals, bracelets from the hospital, little notes I passed in class -- I'm not sure how she got those -- stickers, corsages, funny stuff we got on vacation. I took all that stuff and created a story out of it."

A few of Holm's middle-school treasures are seen in the book's photographs. Her feelings about that time in her life are also on view.

"I clearly had a bad year in eighth grade," she says. "Charlie Brown [comic strips] got me through. . . . My oldest brother had a book of collected works, and I'd go through a huge stack of Snoopy. That little dog can cheer you up.

"If I had been reading Jennie Holm books at that time, I wouldn't have been a happy camper."

-- Scott Moore

© 2007 The Washington Post Company