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Q&A: Sarah Marie Aliberti Jette

Author photo by Bridget Hogan

Sarah Marie Aliberti Jette grew up in Lewiston, Maine, in a house filled with books. A graduate of Mount Holyoke College, she served in the Peace Corps in Mongolia, studied rehabilitation counseling, and now has what she considers the best job in the world: teaching fourth-graders. When she’s not writing, she’s crafting with her three children, sewing her own clothes, and snuggling with her cats. What the Wind Can Tell You is her first book. She now lives in Massachusetts.

What was the inspiration for What the Wind Can Tell You? Did it come in a single lightning bolt or percolate over time?

The inspiration for What the Wind Can Tell You was a single lightning bolt. It hit me as I drove home after visiting with friends. I had just held their newborn baby and spent time with the baby’s big brother. On my drive, I imagined the relationship these boys were going to have. I thought about the love between siblings and how special it is. I pulled my car over and wrote my idea down on a paper napkin.

The baby’s big brother has epilepsy, much like my character, Julian. He was diagnosed when he was a few months old. On Sunday mornings, for about two years, I babysat him. I held him, fed him, changed his diapers, soothed him through seizures, and read to him. Sometimes, therapists visited and I learned ways to help him strengthen his muscles or track objects with his eyes. His music therapists were my favorite.

I had been writing for years, but this was the first time I found a story that felt so right. I wrote furiously and completed the first draft in three months. It would be many more years of revising before my story was ready to submit to editors, but my inspiration carried me through.

As a teacher, how do you find time to write? Is there a time of day that works best for you?

Finding time to write is hard, but necessary.

When I began What the Wind Can Tell You, my son was almost one year old. I was a new mother, I was working full time, and I was tired. I wrote while he napped and, if I could stay awake, I wrote after bedtime. Over the next few years, I had two more children. Some weekends, I’d slip out to a coffee shop for an hour, or revise while riding on a bike at the YMCA (my kids were busy playing at the Child Watch).

During the school week, I can only write once my kids are in bed. I’ve tried to write after school, but it’s impossible. On weekends or during vacations, I spend the morning with my kids, usually crafting at our dining room table or playing outside. After lunch, it is quiet time. They draw, look at books, and play with Legos. If I am very lucky, my three-year-old naps. And then I get a few daylight hours to write.

Do you have any writers or books you most admire and turn to for inspiration?

I admire the writing of Michelle Cuevas. The language in her books is rich and beautiful. She deals with big issues—growing up, identity, and loss—but she is also very playful in her writing. I love reading her books out loud so I can see how my students react to her words. I am also a big fan of Jonathan Auxier. I read his book Peter Nimble and His Fantastic Eyes to my students every year. His stories are unusual, engaging, and a lot of fun.

How does your heritage affect your writing? Why did you choose to make Isabelle and her family Mexican-American?

I spent my childhood searching for characters who looked like me in books. Fairy-tale princesses were always “fair.” The books I read described characters with blue eyes and freckles. Whenever I found a character with dark hair or brown eyes, I told myself that they were like me, though, deep inside, I knew that they weren’t. I can remember two books from my childhood that had brown-skinned girls as main characters: Corduroy and Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry. These are great books. I’m grateful they were a part of my childhood.

Representation matters—not token characters in the background, but complex and interesting characters from diverse backgrounds that you can fall in love with. I make an effort to fill my classroom library with diverse books. There are more than there used to be, but still not enough.

When I wrote What the Wind Can Tell You, I made Isabelle Mexican-American because I wanted to write the character I searched for as a child.

What are your writing strategies when you are stuck?

When I am stuck, I reread my writing. I read it in my head, I read it aloud. And then I need time to play around with the moment or scene, to test it out in my mind. I imagine the characters as though they are real. I think about their thoughts and situations. When I have a new idea, to move the story forward, I write the moment in a notebook before I try it out on my laptop. And when I do, I might type a few pages only to delete them. Getting some writing out—even if it will be deleted in a day—helps me get unstuck.

When I’m not writing, I read as much as I can. I read other middle-grade books for inspiration. I search for stories that are unexpected.

Following authors on Twitter has been new for me. There is so much to learn and the authors I follow have a lot of advice or insight to share. Engaging with the writing community through social media has helped me when I’ve been stuck. It makes me realize that I am not alone and that other authors have been in my shoes.