I’m so excited that today I get a chance to interview Sara Lewis Holmes, author of OPERATION YES. When I first heard about this book, I think I actually gasped in excitement. I was thinking, Yay, other people are writing young adult books about the military! And then I saw that it was from Scholastic imprint, Arthur A. Levine, which meant it was edited by the delightful Cheryl Klein. Even better. And then…I read it. And it was better still.
If I had to sum up this book, I’d pick my favorite line from it: Be kind, for everyone you know is fighting a great battle. What heart! Of course, I don’t have to sum it up, so I’ll add that what also touched me about this book was the sense of community amidst the transience that being part of the military brings. Sara created a teacher character that brought improvisational theater into a sixth grade classroom on an Air Force base, which really lightened the kids lives from the planning/order/structure of what had come before her, and I think what is typical of military life. And when tragedy struck, the class pulled together to plan something that would not only help their quirky, wonderful, hurting teacher, but also the soldiers who are risking it all: it was called Operation Yes.
I understand that Sara didn’t grow up in a military family, but her husband is in the military. In her words, “When I married my husband, I was most definitely a “new recruit.” But military life is all my own two kids have ever known, so I drew upon our life together for the details of Operation Yes.
Jody: How many places have you lived and which has been your favorite?
Sara: My official bio says 11 states and 3 countries, but that includes some pre-AF life. I have good memories of most of those places, but not the moves themselves. All moves have some disaster involved with them, be it smashed dishes or lost friends. And I hate the smell of cardboard boxes!
I would live in Germany again—the Bavarian Alps are heaven on earth to me. Give me a large buttered and salted pretzel and a mountain to climb and I’m happy.
Jody: How many little green army men are in your home right now?
Sara: Three full bags. I’m hoping to use them on school visits and at book signings. I haven’t quite worked out my plan, but I’m sure those LGM will think of something spectacular.
Jody: I’m a HUGE Cheryl Klein fan and hope to some day share a cup of Lady Gray tea with her. Have you had the pleasure of doing this yourself? Please tell us a little about how wonderful it was to work with her.
Sara: Surprisingly, Cheryl and I have never met. We do all our work via email and the phone. But I’m finally going to get to see her in Austin for an SCBWI conference in January. We’ll drink some tea together then!
Cheryl is an extremely dedicated editor. She readily admits to being “intense” and I agree. Her passion for story is amazing. Working with her is like having another whole brain grafted on to mine—one that asks just the right questions to release what is not yet expressed on the page. Her ability to see and explain deep structure—she calls it being able to hear the rhythm of a story—is legendary. Plus, she’s quite funny and prone to doing things like sending me a Captain Underpants eraser with which to tackle my line edits.
Jody: Improvisational theater is an important part of your book. I know you’ve done a lot of improv, too. Besides inspiring this story, how has your work in improv impacted your writing?
Sara: I’m not actually an improv expert, although I enjoyed learning more about it for Operation Yes. I first learned about improv in high school when my drama teacher had us do quick skits based on three unrelated words. I was in a group with two boys and our words were: cactus, diamond, and cowboy. I ended up playing a cactus in distress. My name was Polly Pricklebutt.
Besides those memories, I drew upon the collected wisdom of improv troupes everywhere, including a book from the famed Second City players. I also went to a local theater games night, and got coaching from my yoga teacher, who happened to be a theater major. She’s the one who taught me how to fall down, as Miss Loupe does for Bo.
Knowing about the improv rule “yes and…” helps my writing because when I’m drafting or revising, it reminds me to acknowledge what I already have on the page while striving to add something fresh. Never block yourself. Instead, be kind and look for the one hook that you can use to propel yourself and the scene forward. It’s there. Reach for it.
Jody: Excellent advice, Polly. May I call you Polly? Perhaps that’s going a little far. Thank you so much for joining me today, Sara, and congratulations on this lovely book!
Sara: Thank you, Jody.