Interview with Sabrina Kleckner about THE ART OF RUNNING AWAY

Kathie: Hi Sabrina, and welcome to MG Book Village. I really appreciate you taking some time to chat with me. I recently finished The Art of Running Away which is your debut novel that comes out on November 16th from Jolly Fish Press. I thoroughly enjoyed it, and would love it if you could tell our readers a little bit about it, please.

Sabrina: Hi Kathie, thank you so much for having me! THE ART OF RUNNING AWAY is about twelve-year-old Maisie, who runs away to London in the hopes of convincing her estranged older brother to help save their family’s art shop. In the process, she learns why her brother cut ties with their family six years ago and the role their parents played in that. At its core, it’s a story about identity, allyship, and angsty (but earnest) sibling bonding. 

Kathie: I really loved watching Maisie reconnect with her brother, Calum, and her growth over the summer as she starts to understand why he left home and the factors that affect his decision to stay away. What do you hope young readers will notice about these changes in Maisie?

Sabrina: As a character, Maisie is pretty mature for her age. She often feels like the smartest person in the room, and sometimes she is. But a large part of her growth in the story revolves around her coming to terms with the fact that she doesn’t know as much about the world as she thinks she does. She makes rash decisions without considering how they will affect others, and is careless with people’s emotions. Especially in regard to Calum, it doesn’t occur to Maisie that she has the power to hurt him. He’s a very stoic, closed-off character, and Maisie kind of takes this to mean he’s unbreakable. She makes a lot of mistakes with him, but she also learns from them. I hope young readers will see that this is a story both about the inevitability of messing up and the desire to understand what went wrong so you don’t do it again. Maisie is not perfect and never will be. But by the end of the book she’s much more mindful of her words and actions, and because of that she’s much less likely to cause unintentional hurt going forward. 

Kathie: The question I really want to ask about Calum is “Was he a spy?” but since I’m pretty sure I won’t get an answer to that, can you tell us what you most admire about him as a character and the role he plays in Maisie’s life?

Sabrina: Ahaha–if I answered that question, Calum would feel so betrayed! Whether or not he is actually a spy will have to stay a secret, but as for what I admire most about him, I think it’s just the fact that he’s living his life. At one point in the story, he tells Maisie, “When I was in middle school and teachers asked where we pictured ourselves in twenty years, I…couldn’t. It felt like there wasn’t any space in the world for me, like I wasn’t allowed to exist.” Calum is gay, and although he’s only ten years older than Maisie, a lot has changed in the decade that separates them. Maisie grew up surrounded by queer people who were accepted completely in her small town. Calum did not have the same experience. He was actively erased in the same town, and could not see a future for himself. So I think there’s a lot of power that comes from him taking up space in the world, in the mundanity of him simply existing.

This generational gap was also an interesting dynamic to explore in his relationship with Maisie. Because of how much their town changed in only a few years, there are things about Calum’s life that she can’t comprehend, and vice versa. I think this bridge is really important for both of them. It’s a reality check for Maisie when she realizes things weren’t always as easy for other people as they are for her. And it’s proof to Calum that even in their small town, in the place he was miserable, people can change. In a lot of ways, Maisie and Calum are opposites. Because of that, I think they play equally important roles in each other’s lives. They are much more balanced together than they are apart.

Kathie: Can you tell us why you chose London and Edinburgh as the setting for most of the novel?

Sabrina: THE ART OF RUNNING AWAY was actually my senior thesis for my Creative Writing major in college, and I wrote it right after coming back from studying abroad at the University of Edinburgh. I absolutely loved living in Edinburgh and missed it as soon as I returned to New York. I knew I at least wanted to partially set my story there, and because there was already a nostalgic element to the setting, I decided to also write about London–another city I love and lived in a few years prior.

Kathie: Do you enjoy art, and do you have other artistic or creative outlets besides writing?

Sabrina: I do enjoy art. I drew a ton when I was younger, and I took art classes in high school and college. It’s been a while since I’ve drawn anything, though, and I was never very good–Maisie would put me to shame! But it is something I’d like to pick up again. Possibly my favorite thing in the world is seeing art of my book characters. I’ve commissioned a few pieces for THE ART OF RUNNING AWAY, and they make me so happy. I would love to be able to draw my characters one day!

Kathie: What would you love young readers to know about this book?

Sabrina: That it’s funny! There are definitely heavy topics covered in this book. There’s pain and angst. But there is an underlying hopeful tone and a ton of humor. One of my favorite scenes (and possibly the most ridiculous thing I’ve ever written) has to do with a Shrek bet. I’m still a little shocked it made it past copy edits haha, but it did! It was important to me that this wasn’t a dark book. I wanted to write about characters who had been through trauma and who may always experience the effects of it, but I also wanted to show that those characters could be happy and healthy and doing well in life.

Kathie: Are you currently working on another writing project?

Sabrina: I’m not going to lie, writing through this pandemic has been rough. I’ve started and stopped several projects over the last year and a half and haven’t made a ton of progress on any of them. But I’ve finally settled on re-writing an old manuscript that has had my heart for a while. Like THE ART OF RUNNING AWAY, it’s also about siblings! Hopefully I’ll have more updates on it soon.

Kathie: Where can we go to find out more about you and your writing?

Sabrina: I’m on Twitter, Instagram, and Tiktok @sabklecker. You can also find out more about me and my writing at 

Kathie: Thank you so much for answering my questions today, Sabrina, and I wish you all the best with your book’s launch.

Sabrina: Thank you so much! These were great interview questions and I enjoyed answering them. 🙂

Sabrina Kleckner is the author of THE ART OF RUNNING AWAY, a middle grade contemporary novel about family and identity. She began writing at the age of twelve, and is grateful to not be debuting with the angsty assassin book she toiled over in her teens. When she is not writing, she can be found teaching ESL or gushing about her three cats to anyone who will listen. She can be found on Twitter and Instagram @sabkleckner.

Behind the Scenes: How THE RENEGADE REPORTERS Got Its Title, by Elissa Brent Weissman

It sounds ridiculous, but I often find coming up with a book’s title to be more challenging than writing the book itself. Maybe it’s the pressure. The title is so important, after all. Maybe it’s the forced brevity. Writing a picture book is more challenging for me than writing a novel. Or maybe finding the perfect title is just plain hard. When I had trouble deciding what to call The Length of a String, my agent said, “Send me a list of titles you’re considering, and I’ll tell you which ones stink.” I sent her a list. She replied, “Yeah, they all stink.”

If a book is lucky enough to get published, the author and agent aren’t the only ones who weigh in on the title. The editor does too, of course, along with professionals from publicity, sales, and marketing. Even retailers occasionally have a say. The deliciously long subtitle of my anthology (Our Story Begins: Your Favorite Authors and Illustrators Share Fun, Inspiring, and Occasionally Ridiculous Things They Wrote and Drew as Kids) owes a few of its eighteen words to a request from Barnes & Noble.

But my newest book, about a group of sixth-grade investigative journalists, went through more title changes than even I would have thought possible. Here’s a brief history of the many, many “final” titles this book had before finally hitting shelves as The Renegade Reporters.

Working title: Morning Announcements

When drafting, I give my manuscript a boring filename that relates to the main idea. I got the idea for this book from doing author visits and discovering how many schools deliver the morning announcements in the form of a live TV show. Seeing elementary schoolers create their own news broadcasts in well-appointed studios made me want to write about a group of kids who work on their school news show, so I called my draft Morning Announcements.

Then I wrote Chapter 1 and found the main characters getting kicked off The News at Nine due to an unfortunate incident involving a dancing gym teacher and viral video. Ash, who thought she was a shoo-in for lead anchor, finds it torturous to watch the smug Harry E. Levin deliver the news instead. It’s equally unfair that her best friend Maya can’t operate the camera.

With the girls no longer a part of the morning announcements, my working title didn’t make much sense. But even if I’d stuck with my original idea and the book stayed focused on school news antics, I knew Morning Announcements wouldn’t be a very engaging title. It’d have to change.

First “final” title: Ash Underground

I loved the sound of this one, and I still do. Who needs The News at Nine and the fancy studio and equipment sponsored by educational software company Van Ness Media? Ash, Maya, and their friend Brielle decide to start their own news broadcast and put it on YouTube. The footage won’t be polished; it’ll be edgy and raw.

“It’ll be kind of like we’re underground,” Maya says.

“Literally,” Brielle points out, since they’ll be filming in Ash’s basement.

“That’s it!” Ash says. They’ll call the show Ash Underground.

That’s it! I thought. I’ll call the book that too!

Title 2: The Underground News

After acquiring the book for publication, my editor, Dana Chidiac, made a very good point: Ash Underground sounds cool, but it doesn’t tell you anything about the story. She suggested changing the name of the girls’ YouTube show AND the title of the book to The Underground News. I agreed, and I made the necessary changes throughout the manuscript as part of my first round of revisions. The story would change a lot more during the editorial process, but title-wise, it seemed like we were good to go.

Title 3: The Rowhouse Reporters

My editor and I were happy with The Underground News, but the marketing team at Dial Books for Young Readers wasn’t. They said that when it comes to titles, it’s best to reserve the word “underground” for books about spies or the Underground Railroad. Fair enough. Back to the drawing board.

The book takes place in South Baltimore, and the characters all live in rowhouses, a defining feature of Baltimore City streetscapes. Lots of rowhouses have rooftop decks, especially in Ash’s neighborhood, Federal Hill. I suggested relocating the girls’ TV studio from Ash’s basement to her roof deck and calling the book The Rooftop Reporters. But Dana preferred them filming in the basement and wanted to keep The Underground News as the title of their broadcast, no matter the title of the book. After lots of brainstorming and back-and-forth (The Rival Reporters? Ash on Air? Morning Announcements?!), we decided to go with The Rowhouse Reporters.

Title 4: The Rebel Reporters

Until the sales department weighed in. They didn’t think The Rowhouse Reporters sounded kid-friendly. Sigh.

Dana and I both liked the alliteration in The Rowhouse Reporters, so I proposed The Rebel Reporters. This one made sense, since Ash and her friends are rebels to start their own news show. Their show becomes even more rebellious once they uncover a scandalous story involving the company that makes their school’s educational software—and sponsors their school news show. Are the Rebel Reporters brave enough to expose the truth about the powerful Van Ness Media?

The editorial and sales departments agreed that we’d found the winning title. As an added bonus, books about “rebel girls” are popular at the moment. I went back through the text to make some explicit references to the girls being rebel reporters. Done and done.

Title 5: The Renegade Reporters

Using her editor-smarts, Dana Googled “The Rebel Reporters”—and got pages of results leading to The Rebel News, a far-right YouTube channel out of Canada with more than a million subscribers. Yikes! We definitely didn’t want my book getting lost among those results or mistakenly associated with that channel. Time for another title change—and quick, because the window for making changes was getting smaller.

Dana and I agreed on the tweak from Rebel to Renegade, but given this book’s track record with titles, I didn’t expect it to last. Like something out of Groundhog Day, I went through and changed the text yet again. If The Renegade Reporters wasn’t viable, we were looking at going back to title number two, The Underground News. But everyone at Dial was on board, and thankfully, so was Google—the only other “renegade” our searches turned up was Jalaiah Harmon, who choreographed the Renegade dance that went viral on TikTok. We had a final, final title, just in time.

Titling is tricky, but at least it’s a group sport. In fact, the story of finding the right title for this book ended up having a lot in common with the book itself: mystery, research, plot twists, and teamwork. The group behind “The Renegade Reporters” should be called the…Tenancious Titlers! Or the Notorious Namers? Just give us a year or two. I’m sure we’ll come up with something that doesn’t stink.

Elissa Brent Weissman is an award-winning author of novels for young readers. Best known for the popular Nerd Camp series, she and her books have been featured in Entertainment Weekly, The Washington Post, The Los Angeles Times, The Huffington Post, NPR’s “Here and Now,” and more. Originally from Long Island, New York, Elissa spent many years in Baltimore City, where she taught creative writing to children, college students, and adults. She currently lives in Christchurch, New Zealand, with her husband and their two super cool nerds-in-training.