Finalist Spotlight

Sarah Allen

Sarah Allen is a poet and author of books for young readers. Her first book, WHAT STARS ARE MADE OF, was an ALA Notable Book of 2020 and her second, BREATHING UNDERWATER, is a Jr. Library Guild Selection for 2021. Kirkus Reviews called it “a heartfelt, multifaceted treasure hunt.” Born and raised in Utah, she’s currently a poetry MFA candidate and graduate instructor at the University of South Florida, Tampa, and spends her non-writing time watching David Attenborough documentaries and singing show-tunes too loudly. Like Libby, she was born with Turner syndrome, and like Ruth and Olivia, she’s always looking for treasure. 

Sarah Allen on her Whitney Award Finalist novel,

What Stars are Made of

What was the inspiration for your Whitney Awards finalist novel?

I grew up adoring books like Ramona and Anne of Green Gables. These kinds of characters felt like my best friends. However, I never saw myself fully represented in the books or movies I read–never saw a character with Turner syndrome. I wanted to try and tell that story. I wanted that experience to be represented, but with plenty of humor, heart, and joy along the way. That’s how Libby came to me–full of brimming hope, despite her challenges.

What was the tipping point that turned this novel from “just an idea” to a project you HAD to complete?

I’d wanted to tell this story for a long time, but felt intimidated because I wanted to do it justice. I was afraid of doing it wrong. Then I started my MFA program at BYU, where I had the incredible good fortune of being there at the same time Martine Leavitt joined for a semester as a visiting professor. Who better to help me tackle this book? I figured this was my chance, and her support was key in helping me figure out how to tell the story I wanted to tell.

 How did this book evolve into the final story? Did it end up the way you thought it would, or did the plot or characters change along the way?

Oh man, there were a lot of changes! Characters always come first to me, and Libby was clear in my mind from the beginning. But plots changed several times, first with my agent, then again with my editor. In fact we added entire subplots (the whole Smithsonian contest, for example) after I’d sold the book with my editor. Plots always take me a while to figure out, but we get there eventually!

Who is your favorite secondary character, and why?

I love Ms. Trepky! I would not be where I am without influential teachers from middle school and high school, and I love seeing that dynamic represented in books. (Mrs. Baker from The Wednesday Wars, anyone?) I loved writing a teacher who brooked no nonsense, because I think it helps Libby realize how seriously she can take herself, because this adult is taking her seriously.

If your book was made into a movie, which scene would you want to be a background extra in?

Ooh, this is such a great question! This scene wouldn’t use extras, but I’d love to watch the filming of the pouring-sand-into-the-bullies-locker scene! That one was a blast to write, and I think it would be a blast to watch!