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June 3, 2014

Blogs are fantastic --- anyone can write one, and they can take readers into the worlds of fashion, cooking, music, middle grade novels... pretty much anything a person could ever want to know. But what if there was a blog about you that spared no details --- a blog that shared everything from your first words to your school troubles, and, if you're a girl, even talked about your first period?!

That's what Imogene, the protagonist in DON'T CALL ME BABY by Gwendolyn Heasley, has to contend with every day --- her mom is a famous blogger, and Imogene is her favorite, er, only, subject. When Imogene is forced to start her own blog as part of a school project, she is reluctant to put even more of her life in cyberspace. However, she realizes that this might be the chance she's been waiting for --- the chance to define herself for the first time.

In our interview with Gwendolyn, she tells us what she thinks about mommy bloggers, what actress would play Imogene in a movie and just how obsessed she was with The Baby-Sitters Club when she was a teen. What inspired you to write DON'T CALL ME BABY? 

Gwendolyn Heasley: There were so many articles (and news segments) about mommy bloggers, but no one ever interviewed the children of these mommy bloggers. No one asked them about how they felt about growing up online. I wanted to give voice to those children and explore what it's like to have a blogger (or any social media-obsessed person) for a parent. 

TRC: Imogene's mother, "Mommylicious", has trouble respecting her daughter's boundaries. Any words of wisdom for teenagers who are struggling to find a balance between respecting their parents and being independent?

GH: Communication is key, especially in this digital world. Too often we communicate via text and social media. I would remember to talk face-to-face about the big stuff.

Also, growing up is hard for parents and teens. We often think only teens grow up, but I’m 31 and still growing up, so be willing to realize that parents can make mistakes and learn from them, too.

TRC: DON’T CALL ME BABY talks about blogging and being responsible while on the Internet. Was it difficult to write a book that doesn't always portray technology favorably, but is still appeals to teens?

GH: I love technology. The internet (and the resources it contains) can change lives in the same powerful way that books change lives, so I’m totally pro-technology. But I think we also have to look at the flipside.

Today’s teens are the first generation to have parents who also frequently use social media. Many parents are literally living and parenting online. I think we need to pause and think about all the positives and negatives that brings. Too often, I think we focus on how teens abuse technology but we also need to realize that the ways parents use --- and abuse --- technology is equally as important.

When I talk to kids about this book, I always get groans when I ask them if their parents are on social media.  So far, I’ve found that teens relate to Imogene and her parenting woes. As much as teens love their technology, they’re also very much capable of reflecting and articulating what they don’t like about it as well. The best part of this book has been the opportunity to talk with teens about these topics.

TRC: Tell us about your own social media habits. Do you have a blog?

GH: I have a blog on my website…but I haven’t blogged in almost two years. But I do regularly use Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter, but I mostly use them in a professional capacity rather than a private one.

TRC: You wrote a piece about social media and what you will or will not share online about your newborn daughter, which is very different from what happens on the Mommylicious blog. You wrote the book before you were pregnant. Did you come to this idea when you were writing the book, or while you were awaiting your daughter’s birth?

GH: When I wrote the book, I did briefly think about whether I would put my own child on social media but I didn't make any firm decision.  During my pregnancy, my husband and I discussed it and we both decided we were most comfortable not putting her online. This discussion, however, stemmed mostly from the fact that we are private people and both try to have minimal personal online footprints.

I think there’s no “right” way to parent via social media; it’s truly different for everyone. I only suggest that parents talk and discuss it before the child is born as it’s an important decision.

Once my daughter is old enough, she can choose how she wants to handle her own social media. Who knows? She might become a blogger! I find it interesting that in some countries, you can now request Google to delete information for you. One day, my daughter might decide she wants to upload all 800 photos I have of her first six months, but that’s up to her…I want her to be able to create her own online identity.

TRC: Imogene's grandmother is spunky, spirited and full of wisdom. Was there an adult in your life during your teen years who supported and encouraged you to pursue things you were interested in? 

GH: My friend’s grandma really did live in her basement, which I thought was awesome.Unfortunately, my own grandparents were not very present in my life. I think Grandma Hope and Imogene’s relationship is the one I wish I had with my grandmas. It has been wonderful, however, to see that my own daughter is lucky enough to have two caring and very present grandmas. My parents, sister and husband are all very encouraging of me and my writing life.

TRC: Was Imogene based on you as a teen, or someone that you know?

GH: I definitely have (and sometimes still do) struggle to find my own voice and to assert myself. I completely relate to Imogene’s reluctance and fear about growing up and becoming her own person. But we’re very different people, as I grew up in Minnesota and I’m not an only child of a mommy blogger. (My mom has never even been on Facebook and I have a sister!) 

However, I do relate to Imogene’s journey --- and it’s one that teens have been facing way before the Internet.

TRC: If your book was made into a movie, what actress would you choose to play Imogene and why?

GH:Stefania Owen, the young actress who played Dorrit Bradshaw (Carrie’s sister) on CW’s “Carrie Diaries”.Why? She has eyes that speak and she’s a great actress. Imogene is a quiet and complicated internal character and I think Stefania could portray her depth with justice.

TRC: What inspired you to become an author?

GH: I love stories, whether they are oral or written. I also love people, whether fictional or real. Since people and stories of all forms are my passions, being an author was the only thing that ever made sense to me. And I feel beyond fortunate to live my dream!

TRC: Did you enjoy writing in your teen years?

GH: I wrote a lot as a child and preteen but very little as a teenager…although I do have some angsty poems in a journal somewhere.

I think I can write about teen years better now that I’ve had some time to reflect. And I love revisiting my experiences (and growing pains) through my characters, but I also like thinking about what’s similar and what’s different about being a contemporary teen. The old “in my day” parenting line doesn’t open the lines for empathy.

TRC: What was your favorite book as a teenager? 

GH: The Baby-Sitters Club series by Ann M. Martin had an incredible effect on me as a reader and as a person.

(Secret fact: I used to be able to recite the first 100 titles by memory.)

I read and re-read those books until I finally decided I was too old to continue. True Confession: I wish I hadn’t stopped and I’m glad now that people recognize that middle grade and YA aren’t just for kids and teens  J

TRC: Do you have any advice for teens who aspire to be authors?

GH: Don’t expect perfection on the first try. Enjoy the writing process and be kind to your own work. The books you buy in stores and check out in libraries have been edited and copyedited by professionals.

Remember it also takes published authors many drafts to get a book right, so go easy on your own first drafts and have fun while writing.  And revise and revise again. In my opinion, being willing to revise is more important than being a good writer.

TRC: Will there be a sequel to DON’T CALL ME BABY, or are you working on any other young adult books right now? Can you give us some hints about them?

GH: I don’t plan on a sequel. I think Imogene’s story has been told. But I also said there wouldn’t be a sequel for WHERE I BELONG,, and then I wrote the companion novel A LONG WAY FROM YOU and a digital e-novella sequel THE ART OF GOODBYE…so who knows?

I’m working on another story currently. It’s Sweet Home Alabama meets Miley Cyrus.