When we were growing up, we loved reading (okay, we still do!). One book in particular that was formative in our youth was Girltalk: All the Stuff Your Sister Never Told You by Carol Weston. When you’re growing up and feel confused and sometimes lost, a book like this is impactful, especially with topics such as health, friendship, love, and family. You can imagine our excitement and disbelief when we walked into an Upper West Side bookstore to find Carol doing a reading of her latest book, Ava and Taco Cat. Carol writes novels and has been the “Dear Carol” advice columnist at Girls’ Life Magazine since 1994. It goes without saying that it’s a privilege to Spotlight her on Carpe Juvenis.
Carol’s journey is an exciting one – having spent a good amount of time abroad studying languages and culture, Carol decided to major in French/Spanish Comparative Literature from Yale University. Not only that, but she also earned her graduate degree in Spanish from Middlebury. Carol grew up with journalist parents, so she was constantly surrounded by words. She got her start with a Seventeen Magazine contest, and her career continues to be wildly successful. With more than a dozen published books, Carol shows no signs of stopping anytime soon. Keep an eye out for Ava XOX and The Speed of Life, being released in February 1 and September 2, 2016, respectively.
We learned so much from this incredible children’s book writer, and we’re excited to share her words of wisdom with you. Read on to learn about how she fell in love with storytelling, how she stays up to date with the trends of being a younger teenager, and what her writing process looks like.
Carpe Juvenis: How do you define “Seizing Your Youth”?
Carol Weston: Seizing your youth is about making sure you’re not wasting your time. Wasting your youth would involve buying a bunch of celebrity magazines and watching Reality TV while eating Doritos and wondering why you’re not happy. Seizing your youth is staying aware that you’re young and strong and that you want to have fun, sure, but it’s also good to think big picture and begin to figure out where you want to go and start putting yourself on that path. Seizing your youth may also mean: travel! You can go away for a summer, semester, or year much more cheaply and easily now than when you are older.
CJ: You majored in French/Spanish Comparative Literature from Yale. How did you decide what to major in?
CW: I did a very cool thing in 12th grade. I went on SYA — School Year Abroad. I was a public school kid in suburban New York, and I liked French and suddenly I was living with a French family in Rennes. By the time I started college, I was a total francophile.
Yale had a renowned French department, and I enjoyed reading Rabelais, Racine, Rostand, Moliere, Zola, Flaubert, Stendhal.… But I also thought it would be fun to learn Spanish. I took an introductory course and then went to Spain the summer after freshman year with a backpack and not enough money. Fortunately, I found lodging as a mother’s helper. I spoke only Spanish that summer because I didn’t know any Americans and wasn’t on a program. I also fell in love with a Spaniard. To answer your question, it’s not that I decided to major in comp lit. It just became clear that taking six courses in two departments made sense for me.
CJ: You attended Middlebury to earn your Masters in Spanish. What led to your decision to go graduate school?
CW: The aforementioned Spanish boyfriend and my love for Spain and Spanish! I applied to Middlebury because of its well-deserved reputation as a language school. Then in grad school, I fell in love with Rob Ackerman of Columbus, Ohio, who was in Madrid on a junior year abroad from Middlebury. He and I spent nine months abroad before we even met each other’s American friends and families. It was a very romantic way to start our life together. Our first Thanksgiving was in Portugal!
CJ: Where does your love of storytelling come from?
CW: Confession: I wasn’t a big reader when I was a little kid. I did love reaching Archie Comics and Aesop’s Fables. But I was scared of great big books, and at bedtime, I always wrote in my own diaries. For me, it’s not just a love of storytelling, there’s also a love of the written word. I remember learning the word “I” when I was younger, one big stick, two little sticks, yet so much power. Wow.
CJ: How did you know you wanted to be an author?
CW: I grew up with journalist parents who truly cared about words. We were all word nerds – in a good way. My dad worked on documentaries and my mom was the garden editor of House & Garden Magazine. But she yearned to write something that would stay on the shelves for longer than one month. Her dream was to write a novel. Well, I inherited the dream, but also the nightmare of not seeming to be able to do it. I had a great running start on my career with Girltalk, which came out in 12 languages, and I wrote half a dozen more non-fiction books. But I was frustrated because I’d set out to Write a Novel, not be a big sister / helpful aunt.
Finally I had to give myself some advice: give fiction a try! I took a course at the Y and got some therapy. And I wrote a few novels. Yay! But they kept getting rejected. Boo! After all, as I’ve told hundreds of fifth graders, it’s not as though the world was waiting for me to reach my personal goal. Fortunately, I kept revising and revising and also kept sharing the novel with librarians and smart friends – I love helpful feedback – and I did not to give up. Maybe it was lucky I got all those early rejections because my first novel ended up being published by Knopf.
CJ: You have been the “Dear Carol” advice columnist at Girls’ Life Magazine since 1994. How do you stay up to date with the trends of being a younger teenager?
CW: My daughters were little kids when I got this job, so I used to worry about how I would relate to big scary teenagers. Now my kids are in their twenties, and I have to keep up with younger kids. But it’s not hard for two reasons.
Number one: the heart of a girl hasn’t changed that much. In a hundred years girls will still be writing advice columnists about the person that they like or their fights with their sister or how to talk to their mom. Some concerns are timeless.
Number two: girls write me lots of letters, so I have a gradual ongoing education. When I need to learn more, I do a little research. I also employ college-age interns for a few days here and there, and they keep me up to date.
CJ: Twelve of your 14 books are novels for kids and specifically written with girls in mind. Why books for kids and young women?
CW: It’s very satisfying to help girls – you lend a hand, and next thing you know, they’re on the other shore – from confusion to confidence! It feels really good to make a difference. And issues like child obesity, which I am tackling in my next novel, believe it or not, can be raised and talked about. When you talk to kids about good habits, sometimes they really haven’t heard any of it before. I like that I can provide sensible information that can be life- changing. I also like turning children into readers. My favorite fan letters are when I hear from kids who tell me they didn’t like to read until they read my book.
CJ: When writing books for kids, what things do you take into consideration? How do you approach the word usage and language?
CW: I don’t think too much about word usage when I write. I really just sit down and focus on telling the story. People ask me “How many drafts do you write? Four? Five?” but the truth is, it’s more like twenty. First you write. Later you edit.
CJ: You have two new novels coming out in 2016.
CW: I do! It’s really exciting. One is AVA XOX and it’s the third novel about a fifth-grade protagonist who has a diary and wants to be a children’s book writer. The first are Ava and Pip and Ava and Taco Cat. I was pretty pumped when The New York Times called Ava and Pip “a love letter to language.” In this new book, Ava has a crush, and tries to help a new friend who is getting teased about her weight.
The other novel coming out in 2016 is currently titled The Speed of Life and is an upper-middle grade book, meaning it’s ideal for 9th and 10th graders. I am in love with this book! It’s about a fifteen-year-old girl who thinks her life is over when really it’s just getting started. Note: One character is an advice columnist.
CJ: What is your process? Do you have a writing routine or a strict writing schedule?
CW: No. And I have many days where I don’t actually write. Some authors set quotas for themselves where they have to write a certain amount of words or pages per day, but I don’t because I’m a hard worker and pretty disciplined anyway. When I’m in the middle of a book, I tend to get obsessed. So I’ll work in my office and then, when I can’t see straight, I’ll print everything out on blue or pink pages and edit in a library or at my daughter’s desk. In college, I would always try to find a small quiet space in the stacks. In some ways, I still seek out places where I can get into a bubble and not be tempted by a computer or anything else that might break the spell.
CJ: Every day must look different depending on your projects and the time of year, but what does a Monday look like for you?
CW: The Washington Post suggested I write about what I’ve learned from being an advice columnist, and no doubt I’ll work on it this Monday. Some Mondays, I’m writing, others I’m revising, others I’m doing my column, others I’m taking a day off to visit a museum with an out-of-town friend visiting New York City. For better or worse, there’s no real schedule. I will admit that I’m big on To Do lists, so everything from “empty dishwasher” to “do laundry” to “submit column” goes on there, and when I cross it out I feel good. And if I’m having a hard time getting started, I’ll set the kitchen timer. As in: Just work for 60 minutes. Once you start, it’s easier to stick with it. It also helps if you plan a break ahead, whether it’s meeting a friend for a walk or for a meal.
CJ: What should a young adult who wants to be a novelist do now to set him or herself up for success?
CW: Keep a diary. It’s a great way for you to get comfortable with page and pen and also to train yourself to be a better observer and to turn experiences into paragraphs. Also see if there are any writing contests out there. I got my start with a Seventeen contest. Read, go to the library and bookstores, and attend conferences for writers. Bird by Bird and the more recent Why We Write can be inspiring too.
CJ: What advice would you give your 20-year-old self?
CW: My 20-year-old self? I’d say something like, if you knew then what you know today – that you have a wonderful husband whom you’ve been married to for 35 years, that you have kids whom you adore and who love you, that you live in New York City, and that you speak languages and write books — well, I might say, relax already! But then again, don’t relax so much that you don’t work hard to get all that. That’s always the message, isn’t it? Work hard but enjoy your life.
Images by Carpe Juvenis, Book images provided by Carol Weston