A year or so ago, when Allison Gutknecht C’05 uncovered an embarrassing fact about the marching-band pants she’d worn in high school, she pulled out her phone and quickly tapped out a note to herself: Next book:, she wrote, Don’t Wear Polka-Dot Underwear with White Pants and Other Lessons I’ve Learned. “That title is where the whole thing stemmed from,” she says now.
Gutknecht had written three other manuscripts by the time she started Don’t Wear, which will be published by the Simon & Schuster imprint Aladdin on Nov. 12. Those first three stories centered on 10- and 11-year-old kids, but for her new project, Gutknecht decided to aim younger. Mandy, the narrator and main character of Don’t Wear, is an 8-year-old second grader.
Gutknecht spoke with us about publishing her first book, the art of writing for kids and the unusual way she met Ann M. Martin.
You wrote Don’t Wear Polka-Dot Underwear with White Pants from 8-year-old Mandy’s point of view. How did you find the right voice for such a young narrator and make sure it was authentic?
It just kind of came out that way. My mom teaches second grade, so I hear a lot of stories about kids and school all the time. Mandy was written as an experiment because I’d never done an 8 year old’s point of view before and I wanted to try it. It’s actually harder for me to write from a teenage perspective because their lives change so rapidly. I find them harder to keep up with. Kids are kids to me, no matter what. Their problems are kind of always the same. It’s more universal and easier to tap into for me than older perspectives.
Now that you’ve been through the writing process from idea to published book, what are the biggest things you’ve learned?
For me, it’s always important just to keep going. If I’m working on something, I try to write a chapter every day. It’s good practice whether or not anything ever comes of it. I wrote the first draft [of Don’t Wear] very, very quickly. I think it was four days. Then I revised it many times after that before sending it to my agent.
I also think it’s very important to remember that no matter what story you’re telling, your perspective will be different from the way anyone else can write it. That’s the one thing you have major control over: writing it down and making it the best you can.
What are you working on now? Do you see Don’t Wear as the first in a series of books about Mandy?
I would love to write about Mandy for eternity. There is a sequel coming out on March 4 in the Mandy series called A Cast Is the Perfect Accessory. After that, we’ll have to see. I’m working on other projects also, but it’s pretty Mandy-centric right now.
Are there specific authors or books you remember loving as a kid?
Ann M. Martin, who wrote The Baby-Sitters Club, was always my favorite. I read The Baby-Sitters Club from when I was too young to read it until I was too old to read it. I read all of her other books, too: Ten Kids, No Pets; Bummer Summer; Yours Truly, Shirley. Any book she wrote, I read. There were other things I read as a child, but truly no one had the level of Ann M. Martin in my mind.
A couple years ago, I decided I wanted a kitten. I found out that Ann M. Martin was fostering a litter of kittens at her house. They were all gray-and-white tabbies, which is what my beloved childhood cat was. Long story short, I contacted the woman from the adoption agency and went to go meet the kitten. Ann lives about two hours north of New York. My parents and I drive up to her house. I meet her, I’m in her house, she takes me to her writing studio and I’m dying of happiness. She is the sweetest, nicest, most genuine person — just the person you would want her to be. Two weeks later, I went back to pick up my kitten.
Did you go back and re-read some of her books once you started writing your own?
When I was in grad school [at NYU], I wrote a children’s chapter book for my thesis and adapted it to a children’s pilot television script. For the research part of the thesis, I looked at relatable versus aspirational characters, including in The Baby-Sitters Club. I still keep up with the new releases of authors that I like, so I still read a lot children’s books, but I don’t do it specifically for research or anything. I do it because I like it.
—Molly Petrilla C’06