This the fifth book in your series about students at West Creek Middle School. How have each of these characters come to be? What inspired you to write Marcia's story?
All five of the main characters -- Ethan, Julius, Lizzie, Alex, and Marcia -- appear in the first book in the series, Losers, Inc., and in all the subsequent books, each one taking a turn as protagonist. I came to write Ethan's story because my husband was the older of two brothers, and his brother always felt, growing up, like the less successful of the two, and so I was attracted to understanding what it would be like to be the younger and less confident sibling. Julius simply appeared to me as Ethan's kind and klutzy friend, though the mother-son dynamics in Julius's family certainly mirror some of the dynamics in my relationship with my own two boys. Lizzie is so much like my own younger self -- the passionate poet, in love with books and ideas, who doesn't fit in with the popular girls -- that I dedicated her book "for the girl I used to be." Alex and Marcia were originally created to give dramatic tension and conflict to the series by causing trouble for Ethan, Julius, and Lizzie, but I soon came to care about them in their own right, knowing that there is a reason why each of is the way he or she is. And I've come to discover parts of myself in Alex and Marcia, too: like Alex, I'm someone who had to learn to be careful about making jokes at other people's expense; like Marcia, I've spent far too much time in my life weighing myself and wishing the number on the scale were different. It's been a joy for me to come to know each character "from the inside," especially Marcia, who is so focused on her appearance, on her outside.
Makeovers by Marcia targets several common issues of adolescence such as self-esteem, popularity, and first crushes. Is it difficult to achieve a balance of sensitivity and honesty when tackling these subjects? How important was humor in writing this book?
I feel blessed as an author to have extremely vivid memories of my own middle-school days: I still remember every tiny detail about the boy I fell in love with on October 17, 1967! These memories are aided by two surviving autobiographical novels I wrote in my eighth-grade year, in which I recorded, as candidly as I could at the time, my own adventures and heartaches. But even then, as I was living through some very hard times, I could see the humor in them, and both of my adolescent novels are quite deliberately funny. My friends and I seemed to spend half our time laughing, and the other half crying: we were ourselves capable of recognizing the strange mixture of laughter and pain that made up our lives. This is what I tried to capture in Makeovers by Marcia.
In volunteering to make over the elderly residents at West Creek Manor, Marcia finds new friendships and clarity in what is a very confusing time for her. What would you like readers to take away from that particular aspect of the book?
The intergenerational friendships I had in my teen years were extremely important to me when I was growing up, and I've paid homage to the rich and rewarding benefits the young and the old can reap from each other through Dinah's friendship with 82-year-old Mrs. Briscoe, in my Dinah books, and in Gus's special relationship with Grandpa, in the Gus and Grandpa books. It's a theme that is central to many of my books. This kind of friendship is something I wish for my own two boys, who are now both in their teens. I'm so glad I was able to introduce Marcia to Mavis Getty and Agnes Applebaum.
In the end, Marcia demonstrates in both her art and her life that true beauty is in the eye of the beholder. How important is it that kids today see the difference between body image and self image? Girls more than boys?
It's enormously important! I attended a women's college in the 1970s, and it seemed that half the girls I knew there had eating disorders; the obsession with appearance, especially with thinness, has only intensified since then. And while our culture encourages an obsession with appearance more for girls than for boys, boys are increasingly vulnerable too. It's an issue I've struggled with myself for my whole life. I still can't say that I've ever learned to be really accepting of my physical appearance -- but I HAVE learned that how I look is only a very small part of who I am. And how I look is fine!
Although Marcia "shrinks" back to her pre-summer size by the end of the book, she has experienced substantial personal growth. What, in your word, was the most important lesson she learned? How do you define the word "makeover"?
I've always loved to read the "makeover" articles in women's magazines, as well as all kinds of self-help books that focus on inner as well as outer transformations. I guess I'd define the word "makeover" as a deliberate and conscious step toward self-transformation. In the magazines, the transformation is largely outer, but of course the most interesting and important transformations are the inner ones. The lesson Marcia would probably most see herself as having learned is that who you are on the inside is more important than who you are on the outside. But I think she also finds out, indirectly, that the best way to change who you are on the inside is not to focus on changing yourself at all, but to focus instead on the needs and concerns of others. While I just defined "makeovers" as deliberate and conscious steps toward self-transformation, the irony is that the deepest self-transformations sometimes occur when we forget to focus on ourselves at all.