Friends for a Season Series #1: Island GirlFriends for a Season Series #1: Island Girl
Sandra Byrd
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Every summer thirteen-year-old Meg returns to the berry fields of her grandparents' Oregon farm. But this year everything is different. Back home, her mother is remarried with a new baby on the way, and Meg isn't sure where she fits in anymore. And now the comfortable familiarity of the farm has changed, too. There's a new girl, Tia, whose father has been hired to run the farm--a job Meg had hoped her army colonel dad would take over when he retires.

During this season of growth, Meg faces the challenges of figuring out what life, family, and friendship are all about. And like the vines in her grandfather's fields, Meg strives to be a strong branch that bears sweet, plentiful fruit. Recommended for ages 10 to 14.

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Sandra Byrd developed a loyal following while writing her fiction series Secret Sisters and Hidden Diary. She also writes for Christian Parenting today and many other publications. Sandra and her family live in Washington.

It's been a little while since we last spoke about your Hidden Diary series. Tell us a little bit about what you've been doing since then.
I've been writing the Friends for a Season series. The target audience is slightly older; although I have found that both younger and older girls are reading them. I thought that maybe 10-year-olds wouldn't read them, but they are. Seventh and early eighth graders are reading them too. The Hidden Diary books were a little too young for that age group, so I've expanded the age range a little.

You've also been writing the Girls Like You series too, right?
Yes, those were non-fiction books that kind of partnered with the Hidden Diary series. They didn't directly tie in to the series, but I was writing the non-fiction series at the same time as I was writing the fiction series. I'm finished with them—the last book in that series was Chatting with Girls Like You, which was the follow up to Girl Talk, the first book in that series. Though I'm done with that particular series, I would certainly consider doing other non-fiction titles in the future.

Tell us about your new series, Friends for a Season. Will each book in the series build on the others, or will each one be an individual story with different characters?
Each book has different characters. What I wanted to do was write stand-alone books—books that had unique settings, characters, and problems, but that were held together loosely by a thread. The threads in this series are that each book takes place in a season, and they revolve around friendship. Island Girl, the first one, is the summer book, Chopstick is the fall book, Red Velvet is the winter book, and Daisy Chains, which will be the fourth title, is the spring book. While the characters are unique, each book has two young women who are brought together by a particular circumstance for a period of time. They become friends, and sometimes those friendships continue beyond the scope of the book, but sometimes they don't. Their lives simply intersect at a particular time.

Chopstick is coming out soon, right?
Yes, that will be out in July [2005]. 

What do you hope girls take away from reading this series?
I've always written books about friends. My very first series, Secret Sisters, was about two friends. I think friendships are such an integral part of a girl's and a young woman's life. As my readers mature, I want to share with them through Friends for a Season that friendships can change. If you have a best friend in first grade, that doesn't mean you've signed a contractual agreement to be best friends for the rest of your lives! Sometimes that happens, but sometimes you're simply friends for a season. It doesn't mean you're disloyal, or something is wrong with you or with her. I wanted expand their vision of what female to female friendship is—it's more than having one best friend. Friendship has a lot of different faces and nuances.

That's a very important lesson for girls; I think that adult women still can struggle with that concept!
We're often working under that "best friend" philosophy, so it feels disloyal if your friend has another friend, or you choose to have other friends. We want to be people that have a sense of fidelity, but it needs to be put in the proper place.

Why did you decide to write for girls who are a little older?
There isn't much in the market for middle-graders to read. Books are generally classified for ages 8 to 12, and the next step up is Teen. Well, there's a big difference between what a girl like my daughter, who's in 5th grade, wants to read about, and the issues that someone who's 18 deals with. Most of us think those middle school and junior high years are the hardest years! Kids need support through those years. Sometimes a Christian teen series starts in middle school, but by the end of the series, the girls are going on to college. An 11-year-old might start with a 13- or 14-year-old character, but by the time she's done reading the series, she's deep into topics that are many years ahead of her. I'd say Friends for a Season is geared toward 11- to 14-year-olds. My 8th grade readers were starting to feel like they might be a bit beyond the series. The 6th and 7th graders felt like it was exactly for them, and my 5th grader likes it a lot. All my readers gobbled them up, though! I'd say the series is aimed at 5th through early 8th graders. Also, they're bigger books, so they're not the same sort of offering as books for 8- to 12-year-olds.

I really enjoyed the first book in the Friends for a Season series, Island Girl. What inspired you to write this book?
I like Sauvie's Island as a setting. We lived in Portland, Oregon for a number of years, and I took my kids berry picking there. It's kind of like having the country in the city—once you drive across that bridge, you're in a different world; it's very rural. I also liked the fact that there were two very different cultures that coexisted. They may have intersected, but they didn't necessarily blend. One of the things I noticed as I drove around the island was that there were "No Trespassing" signs in both English and Spanish. That became symbolic for me as if both cultures were saying, "We're here, and we're coexisting, but don’t trespass."

The two main characters felt the other had something she wanted and needed, but wasn’t able to easily put a finger on what they themselves had. One felt that everyone else was rich, and her family didn't have money. She didn't necessarily see the depth of her family and her connections. The other girl felt that she didn't have a family. She didn't see the resources that she had which would give her the strength to go forward with her goals.

Meg and Tia had a lot of barriers to break through, both in their initial reaction to each other, as well as the cultural barriers around them.
There are a lot of cultural differences. For instance, often in the Hispanic culture, when you ask someone to do something social, they feel comfortable simply saying, "No, thank you" if it doesn't appeal or won't work. Whereas my cultural background feels we have to offer 50 reasons why we can't. So if someone from one tradition politely says, "No, thank you," a girl from a different tradition can misinterpret that as a rejection, or even as snobbishness. The girls react negatively toward each other until they take time to dig deeper into the relationship. I lived for many years in Arizona, so I had Hispanic friends in my life. Also, since I like to explore different cultures in my books, I have readers from those backgrounds to help me make my characters more real.

How did you come up with characters that have so much depth?
There's a little bit of me in every one of the characters, even Grammy! I know sometimes it seems strange, but the characters just build in your being, and they grow out of your values.

I'm a mentor for the Christian Writers Guild, with a fair number of students, and one of the things I've observed as a teacher is that, without my students even noticing it, passions and themes will repeat themselves constantly in their message. They may not realize that what they really care about is reconciliation, but it shows up in their work. In the same way, the theme of self-sacrifice seems to show up a lot in my work; one person laying down his or her life for the other, or how when you give your life to Christ, you really are exchanging it. And when you give your life to a healthy friend, you are sometimes choosing your friendship over your self-interests. There are probably five or six themes that are really important to me, and they work themselves out differently. I don't think you plan it, it just comes forth through God.

You did a great job integrating Meg's faith journey without sounding preachy! Did you find that that was a difficult balance to strike?
Yes and no. I think that when I stuck to who she really was, it was ok. But there were a couple of places where I would lapse into "Christian-ese," and my editor and copy editor would always catch those. They're like magnets for that, which I'm very thankful for, because sometimes when you're in the middle of a work, you can't see the forest for the trees. My willingness to be honest and comfortable with my own unsettled questions allows me to be honest in the book.

For instance, I think there are big issues in the Christian community right now about traditional ways verses new methods, and Meg was able to see that all offer some things of value. One doesn’t contradict or stamp the others out, but neither is it the complete answer, either. I think that if I'm willing to let there be unanswered questions, where everything isn't drawn to a point in my own life, then I'm able to do that with the stories. It all comes back to the Word. That’s what I try to show.

You really did sense that Meg was on a journey of faith—as the book progressed, she gained a deeper understanding of the meaning of patience, and the other fruits of the Spirit.
There isn't really any magic bullet to spiritual growth. You just have to live being patient. I would love to be the queen of quick fixes! But life, and especially your spiritual life, isn't like that. The fruit is given by the Holy Spirit, it's not like we can rustle up the fruit on our own, but once He gives it, it's our job to continue to be faithful in molding ourselves.

What aspects of growing up did you most want to explore in this book?
I want these books to be a bridge between girlhood and womanhood. It's really hard to start to cross that bridge until you begin to realize that your parents are fallible and vulnerable. It doesn’t mean that you don't honor or obey them, but parents don’t always make the best choices. They are not always going to tell you exactly what to do. Part of growing up is when your parents give you a choice and say, "What would you like to do here?" You have to come to the realization that your parents have made some mistakes, but that does not invalidate their faith, or their love for you. I think that when kids can begin to grow out of the attitude that their parents are always right, or always wrong, or that their parents don't understand everything, to being a little more comfortable with the concept that their parents are growing people themselves—wiser, hopefully, but still human. I think that allows the kids to grow up a little bit more. It adds to a richer more authentic relationship with your parents.

I also wanted to portray that sin has consequences. God offers redemption, but we don't erase the consequences that come from sin. On the other hand, because of God's redemptive power, we don’t have to stay stuck in the molasses, unable to get out.

You could see that in Meg's dilemma in wanting to be with both her parents. At the very beginning of the book, you had a sense that Meg didn’t appreciate her mom, but later, you realize she loved her. Did you put that in the beginning of the book so we'd see a change in her?
The distance that she had from her parents, as she was maturing that particular summer, allowed her to see them a little differently. I think that it's easy to idealize one parent when you're away from him or her. If neither one is there, you have to work out the unpleasant aspects of humanity in everybody, including yourself, on your own, and hopefully you can mature with a little distance.

I didn’t want to pretend that her parents' divorce didn't have consequences, or that divorce itself doesn't have consequences. But I also think, in the Christian market, books might portray the person who initiated the divorce as never having a redeeming value, or you don't see that though poor choices are made God can still knit things together for good.

This book was very well developed in terms of the internal journey.
That's what the classic coming of age genre is all about. In this series, Island Girl and Red Velvet both have that feel and voice. Chopstick and Daisy Chain don't have the "fast-forward," circumstantial action that series for younger readers probably have, but they do have a bit faster of a feel. In Chopstick, there are two points of view—there are two girls, and every other chapter is written in one girl's point of view. The first girl sees something happening, and when we get to the next chapter, the other girl is also on the scene, but she sees things a little differently. That allowed me to explore something in a different way than if I had to stay in one point of view the whole time. I'm writing Daisy Chain right now, the last book in the series, and it also has the same format. One girl is Jewish, and the other is a Christian. This format provides a way for me show the Jewish girl seeing Christianity as an outsider, and for the gentile girl seeing the Jewish roots of her faith. If I had to choose only one girl's background, I'd miss the freshness of the story. I think that device gave me the freedom to explore different questions in a way that keeping a one-person point of view wouldn't have allowed me to do.

What kind of response have you received about this book so far?
My readers seem to be very interested in these books. I think girls want to read meatier books. I wrote these books with my own daughter in mind, and she wants thicker books. One thing that troubles me is that people will put forward "clean" books as an alternative. I'm glad there are "clean" books, but these books don't necessarily encourage a Christian worldview. Simply because a book doesn't have bad language and sex, doesn't mean that it shapes the characters in the same outlook as reader. Absence of those things doesn't necessarily mean that's depositing something good into the girls.

I think this series could do well. My own daughter is very honest with me if she doesn't like something in my work, but I can tell just by the way that she reads this series that she likes it. She'll come home from school and say, "Did you get another chapter written today?" I also had 5th, 6th, 7th and 8th grade girls read the manuscript, and they seemed to really like it.

There really is a gap between the short books for 8- to 12-year-olds, and the teen books that deal with in-your-face issues.
Yes, I think that's what's missing. Unfortunately, I think sometimes we scare our kids when we introduce them to older teen topics when they're still young teens and tweens. They become afraid that they won't be able to handle the issues that they will face later. If they build confidence with the issues they face today, they'll have the strength to deal with the next round of issues.

Is there anything else you'd like to add?
Just that I hope these book find their place. Any market is sales driven, so if these sell well, then the offering for kids will expand. I view all the people that write for my age group as colleagues because no matter how fast I write, the kids'll want more. The kids who read this book that were on my influencer list read it in a day! It's like Thanksgiving dinner—you plan for it, you take a million years to prepare it, and people eat it in 15 minutes! I want to tell them, "Sit back down and read it three more times!" No matter how fast I write (to write well), I can never write fast enough to offer good readers enough material. Hopefully, if bigger books for middle school age group sell, that will open the market up for other authors who will provide material too.

Did you go to many publishers to get this series published?
Bethany House, my current publisher, was my first choice. I have been very blessed to have an editor who did not tell me what to do. There are some different things in these books; Red Velvet deals with cancer in a significant way, and I can't think of any other books that talk about Messianic Jews. She's given me a free hand in writing what I wanted to write, and I'm very thankful for that. Also, I've built up a readership with my other series, and Bethany House clearly has a readership for young adult fiction. I hope that will give the books a chance in a market that's quite new.