Open Books

Open Books

National Book Award finalist Leslie Connor has been “mucking about and wandering” in the woods and rock-walled pastures of Connecticut since visiting her grandparents as a child. Now a long-time resident of Madison, she continues her treks into the woods—often with her rescue dogs, Broomis, Atticus and Lola—as part of her daily routine as a writer.

Much of the action in Connor’s recently published ninth book for children, Anybody Here Seen Frenchie?, takes place in the woods, in this case in Maine. Eleven-year-old best friends Aurora and Frenchie complement one another; she’s a loud blurter while Frenchie is a non-vocal autistic boy. Together, they spot a piebald deer, a rare creature that becomes an essential clue when, on an otherwise typical day, Frenchie disappears.

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“I want kids to know I don’t write bleak books,” says Connor. “They won’t be crushed by the ending.” Fascinated by “how we lose someone and how they stay lost,” Connor told the story from multiple points of view so readers could experience Frenchie’s adventures, as well as why and how multiple people don’t notice Frenchie as he walks by.

And Frenchie does a lot of walking. Readers can plot both his route and the locations of those searching for him on the map at the front of the novel. Illustrated by Ramona Kaulitzki, the map also reflects Connor’s love of research. The setting is fictional but based on a town and its surrounding countryside in Maine where Connor hiked, took notes and imagined the twists of her story. Embedded in the plot are details from other areas of research—how a search for a missing person is managed, and the complexities and variations of living with autism. Since Connor herself is not autistic, two “authenticating readers” gave feedback specifically around Frenchie and parenting an autistic child.

Research is an element of writing that Connor frequently talked about on school visits as part of her pre-pandemic author schedule. She especially enjoyed having workshops with kids who’d been selected based on their interest in writing. “I like giving them permission to experiment,” says Connor. “Being a writer and finding out what you want to write about can be such a surprise.”

Tapping into that process of discovery and surprise has defined Connor’s writing life. Her first publication—the award-winning picture book Miss Bridie Chose a Shovel—was followed by a young adult novel before she tried her hand at middle grade fiction. “Eleven to fourteen is a time of changing friendships and tumult,” Connor says, but despite the independence of many middle-graders, “it’s also a time of life when adults are in charge, or should be.” As she wrote, Connor “fell in love” with this formative life period and realized that it was central to her “own personal, emotional heart.”

With each book, Connor says she falls in love with her characters while creating the intricacies of their lives and often misses them after she finishes their story. Yet she doesn’t write sequels. Instead, she moves on to the next tale–what will become another adventure on her expanding shelf of books.

Leslie Connor
Where to Buy: RJ Julia | IndieBound
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Written by Heather Jessen. Image 1 photographed by Heather Jessen. Image 2, featuring Leslie Connor, photographed by Laura Shipley.

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