Holly Goldberg Sloan’s Short is a wildly fun new novel for middle grade readers about a very short tween, Julia, whose mom forces her to audition for a community theater’s summer production of “The Wizard of Oz.” When Julia is cast as a Munchkin, she’s more than a little skeptical — but she quickly finds herself drawn into the drama, challenges, and joys of the thespian life. Featuring a laugh-out-loud narrator and a cast of memorable supporting characters, Short is a heartwarming story that tweens won’t soon forget. We chatted with Holly about inspiring hope and gratitude in young readers, teaching children to see through societal labels, and playing a Munchkin in real life.
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We read that you once played a Munchkin yourself. What was that experience like? Did it serve as inspiration for Short?
Yes, when I was in grade school I was cast as a Munchkin in a summer theater production of “The Wizard of Oz” at the University of Oregon. I was very short for my age, and not a great talent when it came to singing or dancing. But despite my absolute reluctance to even audition, I loved being in the play and I think it changed the trajectory of my whole life. (So thank you, Mom, for forcing me to go sing in front of 200 strangers.)
Julia is such an authentic, original, hilariously funny voice. How did she come to you? What was it like to tell her story?
I wrote a novel titled Counting by 7s and Willow, the protagonist of that story, is a girl who is highly gifted when it comes to academics. Julia is not an academic, but she’s highly gifted when it comes to emotions. She picks up on a lot of the little things. And she’s got confidence, which is appealing. I think that in real life I’m part Julia, and part Willow. And maybe I wrote Short to even out the score.
As she takes part in the musical, Julia is drawn to people who are different from the people she’d typically be around. What does she get from her friendships with grown-ups who have different perspectives and life experiences?
The book is about following the yellow brick road. It’s about finding your way forward. And I believe that having mentors — people outside your family unit — is so critical. I had a neighbor who changed my life with her love and support. I had teachers who encouraged me. I had the director of the play “The Wizard of Oz” who saw something in me and acknowledged that. I look back now and feel so fortunate to have had those people. Part of writing the book was a way of putting that gratitude down on paper.
When I was in high school I worked at a restaurant and there was a waitress there who was ten years older than me. She wrote a card when I left that summer telling me to follow my dreams, to be strong, and to go out and make a difference in the world. I carried that card around for years. In Short, Julia makes friends with adults who believe she’s special. It inspires her. I’m hoping that translates into something for readers.
One of the narrative through-lines in the book is the juggling act of being a working parent — with Julia’s mother, in particular, trying to figure out how to take care of things both at work and at home. Was it important to you to include this perspective on parenting in the story?
I was a parent who worked outside my home. But I will say this, ALL parents are working parents because raising kids is the hardest work in the world. It’s constant, it’s demanding, and it’s an ever-changing dynamic. I had both of my children while I was in my twenties. I felt like I was raising wild animals and in the beginning I truly just had one goal, and that was to keep them alive. At the same time I was writing. I took my first son to work with me. I took my second son, as a 5-day-old infant, to a meeting with the director Ron Howard. I remember his assistant asking if the child needed a chair. I held out a baby wrapped in so many blankets he looked like a laundry basket and said, “He’s five days old — he’s not sitting yet.”
Sometimes it’s good to not know things. I didn’t think about germs or accidents. I’m not a worrier. I was thinking about deadlines for my projects and how soon I could quit breastfeeding without looking like a crummy mom. There’s a lot of judging when it comes to parenting. People have ideas about right ways and wrong ways to do everything. In the novel Short, I wanted Julia’s mom to be kind, hardworking, and realistic. She tries to place two of her kids in a play because she hopes they will get something out of it, and because it means she knows where they will be for part of the day.
A lot of the story centers on fitting in versus standing out — the desire to be unique versus the desire to blend in with everyone around you. How does Julia embody these sometimes competing feelings?
It’s such a dilemma. We all want to fit in, but at the same time be acknowledged for being special. This is particularly pronounced when we are young. I was very short as a kid. Julia is very short. She befriends a young woman with dwarfism and that character, Olive, is bigger than anyone Julia has ever known. Once we look past the obvious physical differences between us, we go to the next level of knowing, which leads to compassion, empathy, tolerance. It’s what we all need to strive for every day of our lives. We are united by our shared humanity. Size. Color. Religion. Sexual orientation. These things are labels. They don’t tell us much of anything about the person. We are all more alike than we are different. And we are all capable of being bigger on the inside.
Who would you cast as Sean Barr in a hypothetical movie adaptation of this book?
I would love to see Martin Short. Or Danny DeVito. Dustin Hoffman. Joe Pesci. Al Pacino. Richard Dreyfuss. Henry Winkler. They would all be great!
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Holly Goldberg Sloan was born in Ann Arbor, Michigan and spent her childhood living in Holland; Istanbul, Turkey; Washington DC; Berkeley, California; and Eugene, Oregon. After graduating from Wellesley College and spending some time as an advertising copywriter, she began writing and directing family feature films, including “Angels in the Outfield” and “Made in America.” Counting by 7s, her first middle-grade novel, was a New York Times bestseller. The mother of two sons, Holly lives with her husband in Santa Monica, California.