I recently had the pleasure of meeting a new author during an online event called DrawOff hosted by Legit KidLit. We authors shared our books and had some fun drawing from some prompts and sharing the results. Erin Dowd shared her debut novel SHIPSHAPE. I was intrigued by the premise, so I read the book. wrote my review, and asked Erin a few questions.
A kid-friendly tale of robots taking over the school to the detriment of creativity, diversity, and anything other than testing. Perhaps a cautionary tale of what can happen when we are too focused on running schools as if they were businesses and ignoring the unique talents and expertise individual teachers bring to their classrooms. Kids will love the “tech-centered” plot of robots taking over and the kid-friendly steps three friends take toward solving the crisis. A quick read with some great themes for class discussions. Sure to be a classroom favorite.
What inspired the story SHIPSHAPE? Where did you get your idea?
I’m not really sure where I got the idea for Shipshape exactly. I wrote the first draft during NaNoWriMo years ago after I left teaching. I had gone through a rough time, so I think writing the book was my way of getting through. I took a lot of my experiences both positive and negative from when I was a teacher and poured them into the book. As for the rest of it, well, I love mysteries, solving puzzles, and putting clues together.
What was the writing process like? Did you have to do any research on the topic of robotics?
The writing process was very very long for this book. As I mentioned, I wrote the first draft as part of NaNoWriMo (National Novel Writing Month). I was able to write 50,000 words in one month, so I had the first draft. It had a very long way to go. For the next few years, I would work on the novel a little bit at a time. As I was doing that, my life changed. I started working with technology companies, so I learned a lot about coding and AI (Artificial Intelligence). But I also had to research to make sure I knew what technology was available and try to push it a little further.
When I started writing, the things I thought could never happen in schools like cameras all over, actually started to happen. I had to adjust some things as time went on and add more complex technology. The tracking bracelets were a later edition because I read an article about a study that was being done with something similar. Then fitbits and apple watches became popular. I figured it wouldn’t be long before students had them in school too. Eventually, the pandemic hit, and I decided it was time to finally finish writing and get it out into the world. It had been eight years of writing and revising when I found a publisher.
The book changed a lot during that time. Characters had different names, there were a lot of extra scenes that got cut eventually. But I’m glad it took the time that it did. It followed me through my life and a little bit of each part of me is in the pages of Shipshape.
What message do you want readers to take away from this story?
I wrote this book for two audiences: kids and adults, so what I want them to take away is different. For the adults I want them to realize that everything is not what it may seem in school. What you see on the news, what you hear from your kids, and what is actually happening (good and bad) are going to be different. I want adults to read this and think about the ethics of technology, what teachers are expected to do, and how they can get involved in productive ways. The adults in the book, except for Ms. B. are intentionally disconnected. They think they are doing what is right or what will have the best result, but they never bother to find out how it’s impacting the kids. I think this happens often in life.
For my younger readers, I wanted a story they could both relate to and get lost in. I want kids to feel that they can make a difference in their schools and communities no matter how difficult it may seem. When you see something wrong, do something about it. Everyone can be a change-maker.
Please share anything else you’d like us to know about SHIPSHAPE.
While Ben is seemingly the main character, Ellie is really the star. Ben changes and grows throughout the story, but Ellie is the anchor. She knows who she is and what she’s about. No one can tell her what girls “should do.” She knows about technology far above what a fifth grader should know, and she’s proud of it. Ellie often has to wait for her friends to catch up, but she is kind and supportive even in difficult situations. Ellie is a complex character, and I hope readers take the time to notice her more than just being Ben’s friend because she is really the core of the story.
I also added what the tech world would call Easter eggs into the book. These are little surprises that aren’t directly explained. In video games, they might be a secret level or hidden prize. In Shipshape, they are subtle, but if you find them, they give you more information about a character or the plot. I included some Easter eggs throughout the book. One of those ways is through names. I won’t give any more information about that. You’ll just have to read to see if you can find them.
I’m going to have to go back and look for those Easter Eggs! What are you working on now? Any other books in the works?
I have started a few different projects recently. I’m most excited to dive into a new middle grade story for NaNoWriMo this year. Since I live in Costa Rica part of the year, I’m going to see what sort of mysteries unfold around me while I’m here. I have a few ideas, but I’ll have to see where they take me.
Erin has agreed to give away a signed copy of her book to one reader randomly chosen from those who leave a comment (US only please.)
E. Dowd is an educator, consultant, and the author of her debut middle grade novel, SHIPSHAPE. She believes that wonder and creativity are the foundations of making positive change in the world and that everyone can be a change-maker. When she’s not writing, she can be found exploring the world with her partner Tim or snuggling with her cranky cat Pita in New Hampshire.