You Are Officially in Weird Kid Territory: A Greg van Eekhout Interview
The hot trend in middle grade novels of 2021? Shapeshifting, baby. It’s all the rage. Whether you’re shapeshifting in the stars or right down here on Earth, there’s a lot of drama to be had out of changing your physical form. And really, aren’t all kids shapeshifters at heart? They aren’t the same size from one day to the next and, like Jake in WEIRD KID by Greg van Eekhout, they can’t control their bodies a jot.
Here’s a description of that book I just referenced, by the way:
From the author of Cog and Voyage of the Dogs, Weird Kid is a hilarious and heartfelt homage to everyone who feels like they don’t belong. Perfect for fans of Gordon Korman and Stuart Gibb.
Jake Wind is trying to stay under the radar. Whose radar? Anyone who might be too interested in the fact that he has shapeshifting abilities he can’t control. Or that his parents found him as a ball of goo when he was a baby.
Keeping his powers in check is crucial, though, if he wants to live a normal life and go to middle school instead of being homeschooled (and if he wants to avoid being kidnapped and experimented on, of course).
Things feel like they’re going his way when he survives his first day of school without transforming and makes a new friend. But when mysterious sinkholes start popping up around town (sinkholes filled with the same extraterrestrial substance as Jake) and his neighbors, classmates, and even his family start acting a little, well, weird, Jake will have to learn to use his powers in order to save his town.
Intrigued? Well, as luck would have it, I had a chance to throw a couple questions Greg’s way. Because when it comes to shapeshifting, there’s a lot to know…
Betsy Bird: Greg! Thanks so much for coming on my blog! I love me a good shapeshifter novel, and you seem to be able to provide. How did you come to write WEIRD KID?
Greg van Eekhout: Thank you for having me here and giving me a chance to talk about my weird book! I think of writing a book like carrying around a basket of stuff you’ve been collecting for years and then you finally lay it out in a highly choreographed show and tell. In the case of WEIRD KID, the biggest thing in my basket was my own middle-school experience, during which I felt weird, conspicuous, uncomfortable, misunderstood, and out of control. My main character is an alien shape changer who loses control over his abilities when he starts middle school, and I have a feeling a lot of people might relate to his situation.
BB: Utterly and completely. You know, I’m a huge fan of science fiction books for kids, but there’s this weird prejudice against them on the part of the publishing industry, believing that kids don’t read it. Were you always a fan of the genre? Is there any reason you keep returning to it in your books?
GVE: I was a science fiction and fantasy fan before I even knew there was such a thing as genre. I came to it from comic books, which are full of aliens and androids and mutants and cosmic epics. And then Star Wars cemented it for me. From a writer’s perspective, SF gives me so many tools to tell stories about the human condition — different lenses, literalized metaphors, ways to approach fraught subjects like toxic capitalism, climate emergency, neglectful parents, anything. Also, SF is just ridiculously fun. If you can have zombies or aliens or robots in a story, why wouldn’t you?
BB: So is there any kind of science fiction that you are not interested in writing?
GVE: I can’t really think of anything that’s off the table, but my goals are always to offer hope and show readers that they have agency in their lives and their world. So I can see myself writing dystopia, but not incessant pessimism.
BB: I know that your wife is an astronomy/physics professor. Have you ever made use of her talents when writing a book?
GVE: She’s almost always my first reader, just because I need someone to tell me the writing’s not as bad as I think it is. And when it comes to anything space-related or anything involving numbers in any way, she’s my go-to. She was really helpful when I was writing Voyage of the Dogs, because there’s a spaceship and velocities and distances between stars and I’m bad at math.
BB: Both WEIRD KID and the Sarah Prineas book TROUBLE IN THE STARS feature shape shifters. Did you come up with your own set of shape shifting rules? For example, is there any shape that your character, Jake, cannot inhabit? Is there a price he pays for shifting?
GVE: Sarah’s one of my very best friends and it was super cool that we both happened to be writing about shape-changers at the same time. I didn’t want to give my character, Jake, knowable rules, because for the majority of the book, Jake doesn’t have control over his abilities and doesn’t know what he can and can’t do, so it didn’t make sense that the reader would know. The price he pays is embarrassment, mortification, and fear of people finding out he’s an alien. So when he involuntarily shifts into a seal in a crowded mall, it’s pretty much all price.
BB: Did you always see WEIRD KID as a standalone or is it part of a greater series?
GVE: I was contracted to write a stand-alone, so I think the story works whether or not there’re more volumes, but I always like to leave open the possibility of more. It’s sort of dependent on commercial response, which is just the reality of publishing.
BB: Final question: What are you working on next?
GVE: I just finished edits on FENRIS & MOTT, the story of a girl and the apocalyptic wolf from Norse mythology romping through Los Angeles, and it’ll be out in summer 2022. So now I have a few weeks off while people consider my pitches for the next few books and hopefully I’ll be head-down and typing away soon!
It’s like me old maw always said: End all your interviews with apocalyptic Norse wolves and you can’t go wrong.
Many thanks to Greg and to Mitch Thorpe at Harper Collins for the interview. WEIRD KID is out as of today (TODAY!) in bookstores and libraries everywhere.
Filed under: Interviews
About Betsy Bird
Betsy Bird is currently the Collection Development Manager of the Evanston Public Library system and a former Materials Specialist for New York Public Library. She has served on Newbery, written for Horn Book, and has done other lovely little things that she'd love to tell you about but that she's sure you'd find more interesting to hear of in person. Her opinions are her own and do not reflect those of EPL, SLJ, or any of the other acronyms you might be able to name. Follow her on Twitter: @fuseeight.
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