I am excited to chat with author Karen Pokras about her engaging middle grade novel, THE BACKYARD SECRETS OF DANNY WEXLER (Kar-Ben, 2021). The story follows eleven-year-old Danny as he and his friends attempt to solve a local mystery that involves the Bermuda Triangle, UFOs, a scary piano teacher, and more. He also deals with antisemitism in his community which impacts his whole family. Danny is an imaginative and relatable protagonist. Readers will enjoy the 1970s era setting. Welcome, Karen!
Danny is balancing a lot in his life – family, friends, subtle and not-so-subtle antisemitism. What was your inspiration for Danny’s character and his layered journey?
Just as Danny’s journey is layered, my inspiration for Danny’s character was also layered. I first started thinking about Danny and his story in 2017 and initially, the inspiration came straight from my own memories and experiences when I was a middle grade child in 1978. Everything from being fascinated with The Bermuda Triangle to my grandmother’s rolled cabbage, as well as the factory in the next town. As I started writing, there were growing acts of antisemitism throughout the country and even locally in my community that I couldn’t stop thinking and worrying about. The more I dug into Danny, the more those thoughts wove their way into the story.
Danny and his friends are fascinated with mysteries from The Bermuda Triangle and UFOs to a suspicious piano teacher. I love their truly kid-like responses, including their sometimes wacky logic. As a writer, how did you balance these many threads while keeping your story fun and engaging?
Thank you! I would love to tell you that I’m meticulously organized with my writing, using charts and graphs and outlines to keep track of everything, but the truth is that in writing this book, I was really all over the place. (Although I do love a good spreadsheet!) At the beginning, I had pages of journaled memories, the beginnings of my main character, a basic idea for the ending, and thanks to a writer friend who had briefly mentioned her hairy-handed childhood piano teacher, an inkling of a sub-character. The rest somehow miraculously fell into place, thanks in part to the fact that my brain is often in eleven-year-old child mode.
What was the biggest challenge you faced writing this novel?
There is no doubt that tackling the subject of antisemitsm was a huge challenge for me. It’s such a heavy and important topic, and I worried how to balance it within a book filled with humor and hijinks: would it lose some of its impact or stick out too much and sound preachy? In addition, I truly struggled with writing the ending. Kids look for resolution and answers, but how do you solve antisemitism in 1978 when it’s still sadly going strong in the present?
What do you hope your readers come away with after reading THE BACKYARD SECRETS OF DANNY WEXLER?
My hope is that readers of all ages find Danny Wexler both entertaining and thought-provoking. His story is one which provides an opportunity for readers to have conversations, among themselves and with those around them, about antisemitism and intolerance, realizing that even Danny is at times unfairly judgmental of others. We’ve seen many examples, particularly, in the past few years of how our younger generations have powerful voices and are capable of opening discussions for much needed change.
Thank you, Karen!
Karen Pokras is a daisy lover, cat wrangler, and occasional baker. She has been writing for children for over ten years, winning several indie literary awards for her middle grade works. Karen has spoken at various workshops on topics related to marketing books and writing for children and is a member of the SCBWI. Her latest release, The Backyard Secrets of Danny Wexler, was accepted into PJ Library to be an upcoming PJ Our Way title. A native of Connecticut, Karen lives with her family outside of Philadelphia. For more information, visit karenpokras.com.