Guest "Behind the Book" Blog: Rachel Griffiths on DEEP DOWN POPULAR

After about the 58th time I'd barged into Cheryl's office to gush about the so-adorable-that-I-can't-stop-patting-it DEEP DOWN POPULAR by Phoebe Stone, Cheryl sighed, put down the manuscript she'd been reading, and made me her best offer:

"Do you want to write a guest entry about DEEP DOWN POPULAR on my blog?"


Because although I doubt very much that I will stop barging* into Cheryl's office to gush about DEEP DOWN POPULAR (*and other things. As one of Cheryl's friends and colleagues, I reserve the right to barge), this is a book that deserves a much larger audience for gushing than just Cheryl (sorry, Cheryl).

WHAT a book to gush about. Although Phoebe is a published author, having written several picture books and novels for a major house, she sent in DEEP DOWN POPULAR as a manuscript to Arthur A. Levine Books as slush when I was working as Arthur's assistant. (Authors, do not do this. I am very glad Phoebe did, but a) she is a published author with a reputable house b) she has an agent. She had graduated from the slush pile, and I'm still not quite sure why she dove into it again.)

Anyway, I took the manuscript home over the weekend, and curled up with it on my couch, hoping that it would be so god-awful bad that I could read 50 pages of it, throw it against the wall, and go out with friends with a clean conscience.

But that didn't happen. Because after a page and a half, I was so in love with Jessie Lou, the main character, that going out with friends wasn't at all interesting. I was staying in with Jessie Lou, hearing all about her mad crush on fellow sixth-grader Conrad Parker Smith, hearing about her perfect older sister whose hair was always annoyingly poufy. And more, I was hearing about how it felt to be in your last year of elementary school with only a few on-again, off-again friends, and having to swallow the feeling of being different - and somehow wrong - every single day.

The book's plot was a bit wonky at the time, but Pfft! Plot is important, but plot questions can be solved. As an editor, I'm hooked when a book is beautifully written, when the characters are so vibrant and full of zip that I have to keep reminding myself that I don't ACTUALLY know them, when a manuscript is bursting with the thought and feeling that drive theme... Again, plot questions can be solved.

But the real clincher for me was the voice. Just listen to this:

"Getting all dressed up is about the worst thing in the world to me. I hate sticking my feet in party shoes or wearing ironed party dresses. I about have to scream. Same thing with my hair. Right before we went downtown last year to get a family photograph taken, I hauled off with a nice big old pair of scissors and cut my hair practically down to the bone. My older sister, Melinda, has beautiful hair and it was all curled for the photograph and she was wearing a fluffy pink perfect cloud of a dress, and here I was in love with Conrad Parker Smith with my hair so short, you couldn't spit on it."

Oh, Jessie Lou! Oh, what a prickly pear!

Arthur agreed. He took the book to Acquisitions, and we edited it together. And now it is out in stores, and I have a copy sitting on my desk well within patting range. And when a day gets challenging, I can move beyond patting and pick the book up to find the reasons I am an editor. Passages like these:

  • “There’s a fine line between a fourth grader and a baby and Quentin Duster just crossed that line."
  • "My see-you-later-when-I-feel-like-it-friend, Elizabeth Parnell, has moved up to a table in the middle of our class so she can sit with Sarah Jane Peabody, leaving me back here all alone, bubbling and fuming like a pot of Mama's half-burned stew."
  • "Conrad draws the best robots and space aliens of any boy in this class. And his space aliens aren't stiff and stupid-looking like some. His robots and space aliens always have faces full of expression and meaning."
  • "I don't know anymore what I think. I think the moon turned purple and fell out of the sky. That's what I think. I think the stars dropped from the universe and are clattering all over the roof above us sounding like rain. That's what I think. Everybody is smiling and acting normal, but nothing is normal."

Thank you for listening to my gushing. And happy reading.