Interview with Sydney Dunlap about IT HAPPENED ON SATURDAY

Anne: Hello, Sydney! I’m so glad you’re here at MG Book Village to chat about your novel It Happened on Saturday, which hits shelves tomorrow, February 21. It’s such a gripping story! Timely and relevant. Without revealing any spoilers, could you tell readers a bit about the story? What’s the basic setup? 

Sydney: Hi Anne! Thank you so much for having me! I’m thrilled to be here.

This is the story of 13-year-old Julia who is in a tough spot because two good friends have moved away, and her BFF has come home from camp with a boyfriend. She begins eighth grade feeling lonely and left behind. After she convinces her older sister to give her a makeover, then posts a picture of herself online, she hears from Tyler, who says he’s in tenth grade at a school across town. As the two DM more and more, it seems that Tyler “gets” her in a way her family never has. But things aren’t always what they seem.

Anne: Thank you. Kids are repeatedly told about online dangers, but everyone thinks, “I’m careful. It won’t happen to me!” Your book is a cautionary tale. How did you come to write about this topic?

Sydney: This story grew out of my work with child trafficking survivors. I noticed that there was very little for young readers on this topic, even though eleven-to-fourteen-year-olds are an especially vulnerable group. I decided to write an age-appropriate, character-driven story incorporating this subject matter in order to reach kids before or during the time they most need to know this information.

Anne: That’s great. In the opening scene, Julia is at a rescue barn, caring for a horse named Brandy. Later, when Julia feels distraught, she gets comfort from Brandy. I loved Julia’s relationship with Brandy as well as with other animals in the story. Are you a big animal lover? Do you ride horses? Do you have many pets?

Sydney: I’m so glad you liked the animals. The barn scenes were my favorites to write! I am a huge animal lover. At one point, we had so many pets that my home was “one animal away” from being declared an animal shelter! My family always has several dogs and cats, and I ride horses whenever I get the chance. Like Julia, my first job was at a barn taking care of horses in exchange for riding lessons.

Anne: Love it. In addition to animals, friendships play a big role in this story. You depict the messy complexity of Julia struggling to get along, fit in, and find her way. Middle school can be a tough time! What was middle school like for you? How much of your writing process involved tapping into your memories of those years in your life?

Sydney: Back in fourth grade, I met a wonderful friend who has been my BFF ever since. We lived on either side of a very long road, our homes separated by a busy intersection. My main memory of that time is standing at the corner with my friend, talking about everything and nothing for hours as cars whizzed past us. The bus dropped us off after school on that corner, and the time just flew by. But I also remember feeling shy like Julia when my small elementary school fed into a giant middle school, and there were few familiar faces in my classes. I was able to tap into those memories to understand how Julia felt, and how important her relationship with Nori, her BFF, was.

Anne: The story has nail-biting tension both in the lead-up to a traumatic event and in the follow-up afterward. I loved the absence of a simple “happy ever after” ending, and I resonated with these words from one of the characters: “It takes time to learn to live with a traumatic event.” Julia’s story feels real. Could you tell us a bit about your process in crafting her story? How many revisions did you have to do to get it right? How long did it take you to write this novel?

Sydney: I appreciate that Julia’s story rang true for you! When I first wrote it, the intense scene at the midpoint was the climax of the book, and there was a little about the aftermath, but not much. I chopped off a good bit at the beginning and added a lot at the end. During the time I was writing, I underwent trauma recovery training through Traffick911, an anti-trafficking organization, and I learned a lot that I put in the book. An early reader suggested making the book accessible to anyone who has experienced trauma, and I thought that was a wonderful idea, so I added the counseling center. As far as revisions, I didn’t keep track exactly (I revise constantly, as I go along), but a ballpark figure would be about seven major rewrites. Each big draft took at least a few months, so I probably spent around two years on it, with breaks in between.

Anne: In the epilogue you mention a quote Julia saw on a poster: “Courage doesn’t mean you don’t feel afraid. It means you don’t let the fear stop you.” That’s a great line, an excellent theme. When you began writing this novel, did you know you’d end with that quote?

Sydney: I’m glad that line resonated with you! I can’t remember where I found it (I’m a bit of a collector, and it was on a list of quotes that I love), and I didn’t know I’d end with it until I was writing the last scene. I’d thought about ending the story at the barn with Nori, but my editor suggested adding a final scene with Julia alone, so I did.

Anne: Did your experiences as a teacher inform your writing process? How do you think this novel could be used in schools?

Sydney: I taught ten-year-olds for many years, and as I was writing, I wanted to make the story relatable and accessible to kids in that age group and slightly older. Currently, I tutor kids of all ages, and a twelve-year-old student served as one of my beta readers. Since many schools now have internet/online safety awareness Standards of Learning, and states are mandating anti-trafficking curricula, it’s my hope that It Happened on Saturday can be a helpful resource. Along with tie-ins from those areas and novel-study in English classes, I hope Julia’s social/emotional journey and experiences learning about trauma recovery and stress management can serve as useful resources in the health curriculum.

Anne: What do you hope readers will take away from It Happened on Saturday?

Sydney: Being introduced to a topic in a fictional story allows for a more meaningful understanding than just being told about it. I hope that experiencing the events along with Julia will provide young readers an awareness that will help them stay safe when they go online. Also, I hope they enjoy a fast-paced story that has the heart and familiarity of a middle grade novel, but incorporates elements not usually seen in books for this age group.

Anne: It’s definitely fast-paced, and you’re right—I haven’t seen this topic for this age group before.

Finally, please tell us where we can go to learn more about you and your writing.

Sydney: Sure! Here you go:

Anne: Thank you so much for stopping by MG Book Village, and for writing such an intense, realistic, and timely novel!

Sydney: It is an honor to have my story featured here. Thank you so much for your thoughtful questions and kind words!

Sydney Dunlap is a former elementary school teacher who has worked with at-risk youth in a variety of settings. She enjoys reading and writing heartfelt, hopeful fiction that expands young readers’ awareness of tough topics. She is a published poet and has also written for a newspaper. A lifelong animal lover, Sydney lives with her family in a home where the dogs and cats outnumber the people.

Anne (A.B.) Westrick is the author of the older-MG novel Brotherhood. You can learn more about Anne at the MG Book Village “About” page.