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Interview: April 2012

Donna Gephart’s third novel, OLIVIA BEAN, TRIVIA QUEEN, is about a girl determined to get on “Jeopardy!” Her father left the family two years before and is living in California, the same state where Olivia would go to tape the program. If she makes it on the game show, will this also give her a chance to patch things up with her dad? Answering trivia questions is easy compared to dealing with all the issues a 12-year-old has to face. In this interview, conducted by Kidsreads.com’s Danica Davidson, Gephart talks about the creation of Olivia, explains how she got into writing middle-grade books, and reveals if she’d ever go on “Jeopardy!” herself.

Kidsreads.com: How did you come up with the idea for OLIVIA BEAN, TRIVIA QUEEN?

Donna Gephart: HOW TO SURVIVE MIDDLE SCHOOL was doing well and a new book was due, but I couldn't come with anything. So I joined National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo.com) and challenged myself to write my next novel in 30 days. I still had no idea what to write about. Two days before NaNoWriMo began, I told myself I'd sit for two hours and brainstorm ideas. I didn't want to sit. I wanted to do anything but sit. Dental surgery seemed more appealing, but I stuck it out. And two minutes before the two hours were up, I scribbled: "Olivia Bean, Trivia Queen." The next day, I knew Olivia was a girl who loved trivia so much, she'd want to get on the TV quiz show “Jeopardy!” From that, I wrote and researched and finished writing the novel in 29 days. (Revisions, of course, took a few months.) And I blogged about the experience: http://donnagephart.blogspot.com/2009/11/6-12-things-i-learned-from-nanowrimo.html

KRC: What would you like readers to take away from it?

DG: I hope they find a friend in Olivia and her frenemy, Tucker. I hope they enjoy spending time with her little "bother" Charlie and her imperfect, but loving family. I hope they feel less alone with any challenges they might face. And I hope they feel like they are competing on “Jeopardy!”

KRC: How are you like Olivia? How are you different?

DG: Like Olivia, I grew up in a house with a single parent where money was never in abundance. And like Olivia, I loved interesting bits of trivia and books. Was I as plucky and determined as Olivia? I wish! 

KRC: Are you into trivia?

DG: I love fascinating facts, but would I fare well in a game of Trivial Pursuit? Let's just say you wouldn't want me on your team. But partnering for a game of Scrabble? Now that's a whole other story!

KRC: Have you ever thought about being on “Jeopardy!”?

DG: I would love to be on “Jeopardy!,” except I'd embarrass myself with my lack of recall.  Perhaps, if I could try out for Kids Week, like Olivia does, I'd have a better chance. But really, I think Olivia would easily beat me!

KRC: How did you get started writing middle-grade books?

DG: I tried writing EVERYTHING else from greeting cards to essays for adults to picture books to young adult novels. My writing voice falls most naturally at middle grade. Those tween years are such an interesting time of life -- that roller coaster time of transitioning from child to young adult. There's an endless amount of dramatic possibilities.   

KRC: What is your reading/activity guide for OLIVIA BEAN, TRIVIA QUEEN?

DG: I hired a talented media specialist, Jen Kleinknecht, to create a nine-page resource with vocabulary, reading questions, activities, etc. for teachers and librarians using OLIVIA BEAN, TRIVIA QUEEN with their students. The guide is FREE. It's available at my website here:  http://www.donnagephart.com/for-educators-and-librarians.html

KRC: For people who are just discovering your writing, what can you tell about your other books?

DG: My first novel about a shy, awkward spelling bee champ whose mother is running for president won the Sid Fleischman Award for funniest children's book of the year, a Florida Book Award and a Children's Choice Award. It's called AS IF BEING 12-3/4 ISN’T BAD ENOUGH, MY MOTHER IS RUNNING FOR PRESIDENT and is a good read during an election year. 

A scrawny Jewish boy, David Greenberg, wants to be a famous talk show host like his idol, Jon Stewart of “The Daily Show.” David creates hilarious videos with his pet hamster, Hammy, on YouTube and becomes famous online. But in real life, he has to deal with being bullied and dumped by his best friend. HOW TO SURVIVE MIDDLE SCHOOL garnered starred reviews and has landed on several state reading lists. You can view a funny singing hamster video here: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=2YUjbtKdmXs.

And, of course, OLIVIA BEAN, TRIVIA QUEEN just came out. It heads into the world with a starred Kirkus review and a lovely endorsement from “Jeopardy!” champ, Ken Jennings, on the back cover. I hope it finds its way into kids' hands and hearts.