Wednesday, May 11, 2022

Interview with Bridget Hodder, Author of The Button Box

Author Interview: Bridget Hodder

I'm a huge fan of Bridget, and absolutely adored her first book, The Rat Prince, so I jumped at the chance to read The Button Box, her latest middle grade novel with the genius who is Fawzia Gilani-Williams!

Let me tell you: the book does not disappoint! I adored all of the characters, and learning about the real history behind the story!

About the Book

After Jewish fifth-grader Ava and her Muslim best friend Nadeem are called hateful names at school, Ava's Granny Buena rummages in her closet and pulls out a glittering crystal button box. It's packed with buttons that generations of Ava's Sephardic ancestors have cherished. With the help of Granny's mysterious cat Sheba, Ava and Nadeem discover that a button from the button box will take them back in time. Suddenly, they are in ancient Morocco, where Nadeem's ancestor, Prince Abdur Rahman, is running for his life. Can Ava and Nadeem help the prince escape to Spain and fulfill his destiny, creating a legendary Golden Age for Muslims, Jews and Christians?

The Interview

Q1: First: hooray for a new book by you Bridget! But would love to know how you and the wonderful Fawzia Gilani-Williams came to work together?


Thank you, Wendy! 


Fawzia and I have waited so long to bring The Button Box to the world! It's a cross-cultural tale of modern children --one Sephardic Jewish, one Muslim--who are magically transported by an antique family button into a shared ancient past, full of danger and challenges they must face with courage. The kids bring that courage with them back to the present, newly empowered to solve their own problems.


To answer your question about how Fawzia and I became co-authors, I have to tell a little story. 


I met Joni Sussman, the head of Lerner Books' Kar-Ben imprint, at the Highlights Workshop for Jewish kidlit writers. The workshop featured an opportunity for authors to read aloud from their works in progress. After I read a few pages from my first draft of The Button Box, Joni told me she would be interested in acquiring the book for Kar-Ben. I was thrilled, but I told her the tale would be undergoing some major changes, first. I needed a Muslim co-author to make the book become what it truly needed to be: a celebration of the intertwined elements of the Sephardic Jewish and Muslim past, brought into the present through genuine modern perspectives from both cultural traditions.


Joni suggested Fawzia Gilani-Williams, who she'd worked with before on the classic "Yaffa and Fatima: Shalom, Salaam"...and a beautiful partnership soon came into being. 



Q2: Is co-authoring a book harder or easier than writing alone?


I wouldn't say the writing process is necessarily harder when co-authoring, but it does take longer. To achieve the necessary balance of voices and material in the story, and to maintain a good working and personal relationship, much care and thought and extra time is required. You can't rush trust, and trust is the sine qua non of creating art together. 


Working across several time zones, with Fawzia in the United Arab Emirates and me in the U.S., it took at least a day to get a response to every email or draft. We put in the "plus time" to make sure we were both okay with every change, and that neither of us felt under- or over-represented in the story. 


On the other hand, a co-authorship offers remarkable creative and emotional support! Each of us knows exactly what the other is experiencing. We're able to compare notes and back up each other's opinions. And when an edit comes that is difficult to execute, we can share the burden. Probably the best advice I can give if you want a great co-writing experience is to have Fawzia Gilani-Williams as your co-author.


Q3: The book begins with Jewish Ava and Muslim Nadeem being bullied in school because of their religions. How hard was that to write? It is such a painful experience.


It was hard, because we were channeling current distressing trends of ever more open and aggressive hate against Muslims and Jews in the U.S. But this theme was central to our purpose in writing the book: to support those children who experience harassment; to give them courage; and to provide empathy and modeling that can create allies among the readership. 


To that end, we strove to create the most classroom-friendly book possible, with a historical map, a cross-cultural glossary, definitions and extra resources in the back matter, to aid teachers and students alike as they search for more knowledge on the subjects we raise. The team at Lerner Books and Kar-Ben was simply amazing in how they made our vision come alive in the pages of The Button Box.


Q4: The use of the button box is such a lovely and powerful way to talk about the importance of honoring our ancestors traditions and experiences. Was it always a button box or did you have other options? And, did your family have one?  


Oh, there was never any was always going to be a Button Box. My mother and grandmother had button jars that I spent fascinated hours with in my childhood...and in my adulthood, too! I buy old button collections whenever I see a really good one at a thrift store or a swap meet and add the loveliest ones to my stash. It's amazing to see the craft of the handmade antique buttons, and the fine materials like mother-of-pearl, burled wood, shiny black jet and even genuine sea pearls.


Q5: I’d heard of Sephardic Jews, but knew very little about them, so I loved the history. I also loved how the story uses historical truths to show that our religious differences don’t have to divide us, but can in fact, can build new and wonderful traditions and beliefs if we’re open to that. Are other readers as surprised as I was by this amazing piece of history?


They are! Fawzia and I are bowled over by the reaction we've gotten from readers. They are so eager to explore new, exciting eras of history, and our work provides a window into brand new worlds for them. That's one of the valuable things diverse books can provide so easily and so well: a sense of discovery and of wonder at the many precious life-ways our world shining magic buttons in the Button Box, just waiting for you to be open to experiencing them.


Q6: What are you working on now?


Fawzia and I have a picture book coming out next year, in 2023, called THE PROMISE! Once again, Joni Sussman at Kar-Ben is our editor. We just received the breathtaking sketches for the illustrations from artist Cinzia Battistel, and we're floored by their beauty. 


We can't wait to share it with you soon!


Want to learn more about Bridget? Visit her here!

Want to learn more about Fawzia Gilani-Williams? Visit her here!