Elly Swartz is a talented author, attorney, and business woman who loves Twizzlers and writing books for children. Elly works to give a voice to all children and families in her stories. She believes every reader deserves to see themselves represented in the pages of their books. In February 2017, she was selected by School Library Connection as Author of the Month and her books, Finding Perfect and Smart Cookie, cover a variety of subjects including family, friendship, mental health, and, in her upcoming novel, Give and Take, foster care.
What lead you to becoming a writer?
Professionally, I didn’t start my journey as a writer. I began as a lawyer. I went to Georgetown University Law Center and practiced for a few years. I taught legal research and writing for a year, and then wrote law books with my father-in-law for 20 years.
But, I’ve been writing fiction and poetry since I was in 4th grade. Not because I had dreams of becoming an author, but because I love story. I love how stories weave together and how characters come to life. The spark to becoming published came when my oldest son was in fourth grade and was assigned to read, Mick Heart Was Here by Barbara Park. We read it together and it made me laugh and it made me cry and it made me feel all the feels. In that moment, I knew I wanted to write a book that made people feel all the feels.
But my path to yes was neither short nor direct.
It was a 15 year journey filled with hundreds and hundreds of rejections. It taught me that I love writing more than I hate rejection.
So when kids ask if I was a great writer growing up, I can honestly say, “No!” I remind them to dream big and never give up. And assure them that the thing they are passionate about and the thing they want to pursue, does not have to be the thing they are good at today. It just has to be the thing they love enough to keep going.
For me that was writing.
What motivated you to start writing middle grade children’s books?
I felt like the middle grade voice found me. Like there was a 12-year-old girl broadcasting from inside me. And, if I was going to stay true to myself as a writer, I needed to listen. Listen to that girl that was whispering in my ear.
What drew you to the topic of mental health when writing your book, Finding Perfect?
You see, every story I share begins with a character that tucks into my heart. With Finding Perfect, that character was Molly. What I knew was that Molly had Obsessive Compulsive Disorder (OCD). I also knew that she was scared and didn’t understand what was happening to her. But I also knew that she was braver and stronger than she realized. I wanted Molly to discover her voice, her strength, her courage.
I wanted to write about a strong girl. Who also happened to have OCD.
When I started writing Finding Perfect in 2008, there were fewer middle grade books with main characters who were neurodivergent or had mental illness. After consulting with two doctors who specialized in OCD and researching on the International OCD site (IOCD.org), I learned there were 500,000 kids in the US living with OCD.
I felt it was important that every child see themselves on the page. That every child feel connected. That every child realize there are other kids just like them. So they could know deep down, that they are not alone.
I have heard from many readers whose lives have been impacted by OCD. Some shared that Molly’s journey was like their own. Some confided they felt alone and isolated and wished they’d known Molly when they were struggling. And, others said they were just like Molly and are now in treatment and getting stronger each day. Truly, I am humbled and honored by their honestly, their strength and their courage.
Why do you have such a strong focus on foster care in your upcoming project, Give and Take?
In Give and Take, twelve-year-old Maggie’s family fosters newborns awaiting adoption. I learned about this short-term fostering through a friend who was fostering a baby girl. It triggered something within me. What a beautiful thing to love these babies. And, what an important job to love for the sole purpose of loving. These babies aren’t going to remember you; you’re not going to be in their forever family. You’re just going to love them because that’s the most important thing you have to give. To me, that was so powerful.
I wondered what it would be like to be in that family, what would it would feel like for a kid? Would it be hard for them to let go? I interviewed families who had fostered and adopted. And I wrote a story. But it didn’t work. At first.
I put it away. And, seven years later I was writing another story about a girl who hoards. I needed a catalyst; where was her stress coming from? I didn’t want the catalyst to be something bad, I wanted it to be something wonderful. And then I remembered the foster baby. Loving is something wonderful. But letting go can be hard. Very hard.
Why do you place an emphasis on family in all of your works?
Family means everything to me. I was fortunate to have a great family growing up, and beyond grateful to have an amazing husband and two wonderful sons now.
Every story I write will have elements of family sprinkled in. But family can mean a lot of different things. As Frankie in Smart Cookie learns, family is so much bigger than the people we share a childhood or name with. It’s the whole herd of people who love us unconditionally.
Family, in its widest interpretation, so important to me. At the end of the day, kids want to know who’s got their back.
Elly has several upcoming projects to be on the lookout for. Her book Give and Take, which focuses on a family who fosters babies awaiting adoption, will be out in fall 2019. In Give and Take, you’ll meet twelve-year-old Maggie who has a big heart and a hard time letting go. Of stuff. Of people. Of the past. With the help of her turtle, Bert, a foster baby named Izzie, and the almost all-girls trap shooting team, Maggie begins to understand that people are more than the things that hold their memories.
Elly’s first two books Finding Perfect and Smart Cookie are available now and can be purchased online.
For more about Elly and her books, check out her site, https://ellyswartz.com/ or connect with her on Twitter @ellyswartz or Instagram @ellyswartzbooks.