Now, on to Sundee’s story.
Born in Seattle, WA, in 1968 to interracial parents, Sundee’s mother was told by a doctor that the child must be eating too many carrots because her skin was so much tanner than her mom’s. As Sundee put it, “It being the South in the late 60s, Mom decided not to enlighten him” As a child she wanted to be a detective, radio broadcaster, singer, magician, writer and geologist. Oh, and my personal favorite: one of Charlie’s Angels.
As it turns out her actual careers have been almost as varied. She has worked as a spiritual director for college students, a public relations person for the Easter Seal Society, and a director of admissions for an adult education university. Sundee has conducted seminars and conferences around the country and in South Africa on the relationship between music and faith, and co-led a musical team for a 20,000-person international convention focused on mobilizing college students to serve in the world. She is also the author of Check All That Apply: Finding Wholeness as a Multiracial Person (InterVarsity Press 2002).
But it is about her award-winning book that we talked about this week. This middle-grade novel is about Brendan Buckley, a bi-racial, ten-year-old scientist who studies Tae Kwon Do and keeps a top-secret notebook filled with questions he intends to spend the summer answering. He has adventures with his good friend, Khalfani, and spends time with his feisty paternal grandmother, Gladys. When he unexpectedly encounters his white grandfather, Ed DeBose, for the first time at a rock collector’s event, many of the questions begin to revolve around this man his mother refuses to speak about. The biggest mystery, one that he feels very deeply, is why Ed turned his back on his daughter and the grandson he never met.
It is an important and entertaining book that has that rare combination of a character kids will relate to, a story that will keep them engaged, and an important message that doesn’t come across as preachy. I was delighted to have the chance to ask Sundee some questions about this extraordinary novel.
In a recent conversation you told me that you discovered your desire to be a writer goes back to when you were even younger than your protagonist…can you tell us about that?
According to a family Christmas update letter from 1977 that I recently unearthed, I declared my intention to be a writer that year (when I was nine) and set about trying to figure out how to get a book published. It only took me 30 years!
Brendan is such a wonderful character, a smart, realistic boy with integrity. Can you tell me about the genesis of his creation?
First, thanks for the huge compliment. My greatest desire is to create characters readers want to read about – characters readers feel like they have come to know and love by the end of the story. Believe it or not, Brendan Buckley was originally Brenda Buckley (and no, my story was not an “edgy” middle grade about a girl who undergoes a sex change operation). Brenda, however, was elusive. I just couldn’t figure out who this girl was and the story wasn’t really going anywhere. Then one morning I woke up and out of my grogginess popped the clear thought, “My main character is supposed to be a boy. Brenda is actually Brendan!”
It still took me some time and much effort to get to know Brendan. He started as a very quiet, serious, thoughtful boy with several collections (not just rocks), and an urgent need to find the white grandparents he’d never met. Eventually I decided that Brendan needed to have just one collection, a scientific disposition, and a strong, inquisitive impulse that wouldn’t let him stop seeking an answer once he’d landed on a question. So when he realizes he’s discovered the grandpa he’s never met, and all the questions surrounding his absence are stirred up, the search for answers is on!
Brendan’s the kind of kid who wants to be noble and self-controlled, like his dad expects him to be, but whose commitment to the truth is even greater. This commitment sometimes compels him to do things he knows may get him in trouble, but the price is worth it in his mind.
I’m definitely inquisitive like Brendan, so that part of his personality didn’t really surprise me. But I’m nowhere near as courageous or dogged as he was in his pursuit of the truth and for that I admire him greatly.
It’s hard enough to write realistically in a ten-year-old voice (which you do SO authentically, I know I have a ten year old at home) but how was the experience of writing in the point of view of the other gender?
It was actually quite fun, and I think somewhat freeing. When I was trying to create Brenda, I just kept seeing myself as a girl, and I didn’t want to write about myself. I wanted to create someone new, someone from my imagination.
For my master’s critical thesis (I completed my MFA in Writing at Vermont College), I explored the portrayal of boys’ emotional lives in fiction – how it’s been done, how to do it authentically. I read a lot of child development and psychology books specifically about boys. I had read so much about boys that I was convinced when I got pregnant that I would have one! I don’t have a son (I have a lovely daughter), but after creating Brendan, I kind of feel like I do!
Ultimately what I discovered about creating an authentic boy character is that it’s not much different from creating an authentic girl character. Yes, there are generalities that we can observe in boys’ versus girls’ behaviors, but when you are creating a character, you’re not dealing in generalities. You must deal in specifics – at least if you want to create a compelling character. If a behavior does not ring true for the individual boy you have created, readers won’t buy it, regardless of how boys “generally” behave.
The theme of the struggles and blessings of growing up biracial is an important one, and one that many kids—and adults—will relate to. Do you see that as becoming a recurring theme in your future work?
My mission is to write the most heartfelt, truest stories that I can write. By “truest” I mean stories that ring true, in which readers see themselves, regardless of race, because they relate to the characters’ emotions. With that said, I’ve found that the truest stories I can write, at least so far, are ones with multiracial point-of-view characters, because that’s who I am and being mixed race has deeply shaped my identity and experience.
So yes, it will undoubtedly be a recurring theme in my work, and I’m fine with that because it’s a perspective that more and more people share and it needs to be included and reflected in the arts.
I can’t help but hope, is Brendan going to come back in another book?
Hmmm . . . you’re not the first to ask (including my editor). I’m starting to wonder if I should be considering it! But no current plans to write another Brendan story. I have considered letting Brendan’s best buddy Khalfani have his own book since he burst onto the scene after the manuscript was sold (neither he nor Brendan’s interest in Tae Kwon Do were anywhere in the story until after I sold the book to Delacorte). The scenes I wrote that involved Khalfani were some of the most fun to write.
What is your next project?
I’m working on another middle grade novel. This one features biracial twin sisters – one white-appearing, the other black-appearing – who go to stay with their black grandmother in the South. She wants them to compete in a pageant for young black girls. That’s all I really know so far in this treasure hunt without a map!
Tell us something that’s not on the official bio:
Well, speaking of pageants, I was Miss Pullman Jr. Miss 1985, in spite of scandalizing the town with my strapless gown, and was once crowned a county fair queen, in spite of never having lassoed a calf and all my previous horse-riding experiences having ended in disaster.