Elly Swartz is the author of several middle grade novels. Her newest book, DEAR STUDENT (Delacorte Press, 2022), follows Autumn, a middle schooler who is facing challenges at home and school. Feeling resentful that her dad has left to serve in the Peace Corps, Autumn also struggles to adjust to her new home: the apartment above her veterinarian mom’s animal clinic. But when she is chosen to be the anonymous voice of her school newspaper’s advice column, Autumn discovers what it means to speak up for herself, push past anxieties, and connect with her peers in a meaningful, authentic way. DEAR STUDENT is a heartfelt book that will resonate with readers.
I’m delighted to talk to Elly and learn more about her process, her adorable pets, and more.
In DEAR STUDENT, Autumn is chosen to be the anonymous voice of “Dear Student” the school advice column. Despite her own problems, Autumn finds the courage to advise others. As a writer, why did you create such a layered character?
Thank you. I love Autumn. And she came to me with her quiet introspection, her big heart, and her social anxiety. Autumn is truly a compilation and reflection of so many kids I know and have had the privilege of meeting at school visits. She is layered because kids’ lives are layered. Right? No kid is just one thing. No kid is just their worries. Or their vulnerabilities. Or their rockstar qualities. They are a wonderful blend of all of it. The stuff they are proud of and the stuff they are working on. So when I was creating Autumn, it was important to me that she feels all the feels. And that she reflects the authentic lives of my readers. She is layered because they are layered. And when I write, I want to honor my readers—their hearts and their lives.
Autumn’s mom is a vet and there are some unusual animals in DEAR STUDENT. Can you tell me what inspired the menagerie?
I love this question! I am a huge fan of pets. Always have been. As a kid and parent, my family has included (not all at once!): dogs, a guinea pig, hamsters, gerbils, fish, rabbits, a bird, mice, an ant farm (not my idea!) and an African pygmy hedgehog. I think what I love most about pets is that they love fully and unconditionally. And can make any sad/mad/anxious moment better.
A few of our pets through the years… Aren’t they the sweetest?!
Autumn has a lot of challenges, balancing friendships, family, and responsibilities. She’s also carrying a lot emotionally – her own anxieties, missing her dad, and more. Yet, the story feels so accessible for young readers. As a writer, how do you balance important topics in such a reader-friendly way?
Kids lives are complicated. They are not just filled with shiny penny moments. So it’s important to me that those experiences are reflected on the page. I want my readers to feel seen and respected. I want them to know they are not alone. Even in those moments when they feel it the most.
Authenticity is at the heart of writing these moments. Authentic emotions and authentic experiences. So when I sit down to write, I try and forget the shoulds and worries of my adult life and wrap myself around the younger me. I need to be that kid again. The one who wandered the halls of middle school with butterflies in her stomach, hoping she could find her way to class, open her locker, and just be herself.
I need to write as if I am my main character. And I know that I’m truly in it when my story weaves itself into every fiber of my being and every moment of my day. Like when I was writing DEAR STUDENT and the main character, Autumn, flooded my dreams. You see, I wasn’t dreaming about Autumn, I was dreaming as if I was Autumn. My world and hers had become completely enmeshed.
And that is truly when the magic happens on the page.
There are a few details in the book that let readers know Autumn is Jewish. Do you believe her Jewish values play a role in how Autumn faces challenges in her life?
Absolutely. I think each one of us is a special blend of all of our traits. And Autumn’s Jewish identity is one of those traits that make Autumn, well wonderfully Autumn. It anchors her in history, tradition, love, and family. And it gives her strength. Autumn draws on all of these to face and overcome the challenges in her life with purpose, compassion, and heart.
What do you hope young readers come away with after reading DEAR STUDENT?
I hope readers see that we are all a bit like Autumn.
We all have moments when we step into a room and wonder if we fit. If we’re saying the right words, wearing the right clothes, doing the right things. Moments where we wonder if we belong. In those moments, I want kids to know that we’re all looking for Fearless Fred – the part of each of us that fear can’t boss around. I want them to realize that we’re all working on something.
That they do belong. They do matter.
They don’t have to act like someone else, dress like someone else, or talk like someone else to fit.
They just have to stay true to themselves. Truly, that’s the bravest thing we can all do.
Thank you, Elly!
Elly Swartz grew up in Yardley, Pennsylvania. She studied psychology at Boston University and received her law degree from Georgetown University Law Center. Elly lives in Massachusetts and is happily married with two grown sons, a beagle named Lucy, and a pup named Baxter Bean. Finding Perfect, called “a clear, moving portrayal of obsessive-compulsive disorder” by Publishers Weekly, was her debut novel. She is also the author of Smart Cookie and Give and Take, novels for middle grade readers. Read more about Elly on her website: www.ellyswartz.com