A Q&A with Jen S. Downey
Author of Sword in the Stacks: The Ninja Librarians
June 2016, Sourcebooks
We’re so happy to welcome you back to the block! It’s been a little over two years since we last sat down for a digital interview, and we’re so glad to have this chance to catch up with you!
(Also, just imagine me handing you some Nutella. Because I totally am.)
Thank you so much for having me back. I’m pleased as pomegranate punch to be here.
Q: First things first: tell us about Swords in the Stacks!
(Bonus if you can do it in one-hundred forty-characters or less!
Those two words do not count! Here we go…
Dorrie must stop the nefarious Foundation from disappearing reading/writing from world w/o betraying herself or the Lybrariad’s principles.
Girl w/sword learns to actually use it while dealing w/insufferable anti-suffragists, surly philosophers, bowtied evil, and slippery seals.
Here’s a slightly more long-winded summary....
Now official apprentices of the Lybrariad, Dorris and Marcus have joined Ebba in the immense time-folding labyrinth known as Petrarch’s Library for the Summer Quarter.
Dorrie is eager to do well at her practicums, and prove her worth as an apprentice, but before she can choose between “Spears, Axes, and Cats: Throwing Objects with Precision and Flair” and “First and Last Aid: When No One Else Is Coming”, mistakes made by Dorrie in the past cause trouble for the lybrarians.
The Foundation, once nearly destroyed by the Lybrariad, now has the means to rise from the ashes, and disappear reading and writing from the world. To make sure it succeeds, the Foundation sets in motion a dark plan to increase the power of a cruel figure from the fifteenth century.
To stop the Foundation, Dorrie, Marcus and Ebba will have to burglarize Aristotle, gather information among the suffragists and anti-suffragists of 1912 London, and risk their lives to wrest a powerful weapon out of the Foundation’s hands – all while upholding the Lybrariad’s first principle of protecting all writing, appreciated or despised. If they fail, reading and writing will only be the first things to disappear.
Q: I’m sure you’ll be getting this question a lot, but I’m kind of hoping I’ll beat everyone to the punch!
How did you come up with the plot for Sword in the Stacks? Was there a specific influence and/or inspiration that led to the formation of Dorrie’s storyline?
I found myself thinking a lot about how a chasm can exist between theoretical support for the principle of intellectual freedom and the actions we take or don’t take when confronted with speech/writing we find dangerous, stupid, hurtful, or otherwise offensive.
Many of us seem to have an easier time noticing and expressing concern about the suppression of viewpoints that we already deem to have value, than noticing and expressing concern about the suppression of disliked viewpoints.
So Dorrie’s arc very much grew out of those musings. What would Dorrie do if the lybrarians asked her to protect the writings of someone who expressed opinions with which she vehemently disagreed?
Q: And what’s something you hope that readers will get out of Dorrie’s journey?
Second, a glimpse into several history windows. The story of how women got the vote in both the U.S. and England, and how racism effected that drive towards suffrage, figures in the plot. So does the situation for women of different classes in ancient Greece.
Third, that worthy principles can be easy to admire, but challenging to practice!
And lastly, for readers who have dealt with, or are dealing with paralyzing fear, the discovery in Dorrie of a kindred spirit, trying to work her way through it.
(Sidenote: will we see any other familiar faces?)
Q: Another author previously told me that writing a second novel can be a challenge, because you’re now writing against a certain set of expectations re: editorial deadlines, etc.
What was a challenge (or even a benefit!) that you experienced when writing Sword in the Stacks?
Q: I gave a colleague’s son your debut novel The Accidental Keyhand for his birthday, and his mom remarked that she liked the fact that you included historical figures in the book.
It allowed her son to learn about these figures in a fun, non-school-orientated manner – and reminded him that it’s very easy to learn more about these real-life figures with a trip to – yup – the library.
Why do you think young readers are so receptive to learning vis-à-vis books like yours? And do you specifically select these characters for that reason?
It feels important to say that I haven’t written my stories with the specific goal of educating. I’ve written historical figures into the plots in order to help tell Dorrie’s story, and to help me explore my own burning questions (okay and to indulge my deep desire to meet and talk with people like Aristotle and Ida B. Wells, preferably while doing something prosaic like riding a bus.)
But to the point. Story is powerful. We humans just can’t seem to get enough of them! Stories only succeed so long as someone is – of his or her own volition – willing to keep turning the pages. So if historical figures appear in stories, it stands to reason that they will make an impression on a reader. Why? Because the reader is navigating through the story, and if the story is any decent kind of story at all, the historical figure isn’t there for decoration. Even if a minor character, he or she figures into the plot. He or she impacts the emotional arcs of more central characters. We don’t resist paying attention to a character who happens to be based on a person who once lived. But that resistance or lack of engagement can occur when adults try to present even a nicely-organized collection of information about a historical person or event to our kids without the magic of dramatic tension.
I do not remember ONE fact or piece of analysis about the American Revolution that came from any of my elementary, middle or high school classes, but I still remember to this day the vivid impression made on me by Esther Forbes “Johnny Tremain”, and the film “1776”, and the interest in history they kicked off in me.
I’ve found that a story makes a fine key to turn the lock on someone’s interest in a person or topic.
Q: And finally: what’s next for you?
But now that I’ve taken care of domestic matters, and reacquainted myself with my family, I’ve been working on an outline for a third Ninja Librarians book (Must. Stop. Buying. Books. On. Mongolian. Empire), as well as developing a few other proposals for my agent, the first of which is a YA which involves the untimely death of a hated high school principal and a lot of tater tots. So we shall see…: )
Thank you so much for taking the time to talk, Jen!
And since I know all of you are dying to read this book - I know I am! - check out this fabulous giveaway from our friends at Sourcebooks! (US/CAN)
About the book:
Shelve This Book Under “D” for Dangerous.
(Also daring, dramatic, dashing, daft, and dazzling!)
After stumbling upon the secret society of time-traveling ninja librarians, Dorrie has finally joined Petrarch’s Library as an apprentice! One day, she’ll actually go on missions to rescue people whose words have gotten them into trouble. For now she’s taking some interesting classes:
- First and Last Aid: When Nobody Else is Coming
- Spears, Axes, and Cats: Throwing Objects with Precision and Flair
- Codes, Invisible Inks, and Smoke Signals: Keeping Secrets 101
But on a training mission to 1912 England, Dorrie finds herself dangerously close to a member of the Stronghold – the Library’s biggest enemy. This is her opportunity! Dorrie can spy on the enemy, find the missing key…and become a real Lybrarian!
But if she makes a mistake, Dorrie could lead their enemy right to the very place she’s trying to save…and everyone she cares about.