Great characters and interesting story in this young adult book

There are so many things to like about Sylvia McNicoll‘s Body Swap ($14.99, Dundurn Press).

The entire premise is pretty fantastic – 15-year-old Hallie is texting on her cellphone when she gets hit by a backing up Hurricane SUV driven by 82-year-old Susan. Susan herself dies of a heart attack after it happens and the pair meet at an otherworldly carnival where they argue about whose fault it and typical ageist things such as old people shouldn’t drive and teens should pay attention.

The pair get sent back to Earth on one condition – the pair switch bodies so Hallie is dealing with wrinkly skin and achy joints and the threat of an old-age home, while Susan has a killer forehead zit and a crush a boy who doesn’t deserve her.

“As they struggle with technology, medications and each other’s fashion foibles, they start to understand and maybe like each other. But can they work together to prove that a defect in the Hurricane caused the deadly crash? Or will their time run out?”

The fact that McNicoll based this story on a similar real-life tragedy is also interesting. Then there is the exploration of ageism, both for young people and older adults.

Once Susan and Hallie switched bodies, I did find it hard to keep track who was who, particularly in conversations. McNicoll did a fantastic job of showing both sides – of how to be young and how to be old. I also liked how Susan, in Hallie’s body, didn’t put up with anything. She tried to help Hallie out, but also did things to show her how fabulous she is and how perfect her body is – with the right clothing. While watching Susan in her body, Hallie, too, comes to appreciate everything about her young body, while Susan, in Hallie’s body, enjoyed every moment of perfect vision, eating anything she wanted and running without pain.

The lesson of the story and the secondary character was an absolutely fabulous edition. I really liked how that character was portrayed.

Body Swamp written in a circle and in front of a roller coaster and Ferris wheel.
Body Swap has a great premise and wonderful characters.

Author Sylvia McNicoll talks about ageism and the writer process in this Q&A.

Congratulations on your book Body Swap. I really loved it – the characters, what they go through, what they learn about themselves and others.

In your intro you ask if teenagers would want to read about seniors and in the end suggest they would, particularly the story about Hallie and Susan. Why was it important to write this story?

Thank you for your kind words and for this opportunity to discuss Body Swap further. For me, writing a story is the way I process the world to myself so I wanted to understand aging better. As a larger purpose I hoped to bridge the gap between generations by really putting a teen in the shoes of an elder. As well, when you read about a senior experiencing a second chance at being a teen, you might understand how fortunate and free young people are today.

Q. What do you hope teenagers will learn from?
A. Everyone starts out young, youth is not a skill. Growing older takes real character.

Q. Why is empathy missing from some teenagers and other people (including adult children one could argue) when it comes to seniors?
A. Nobody has time to think outside of their own stage or story. Seniors may move slower, perhaps need assistance or just want to spend time with their children and grandchildren, but we all tend to make ourselves too busy.

Q. How do you think that can change?
A. Once we achieve a work and social media balance, we’ll find time again for the most important things in life, our family and our friends.

Q. I know you got the inspiration for this book from several sources – participating in teen/senior tech help classes at your local library for “research”, a study you found about how a high school outfits teenagers with weights and blinders to simulate the effects of aging and finally a real-life story about an 86-year-old driver who backs up over a 15-year-old, killing her. The driver said the car’s accelerator was faulty and she was still driving a month later. What was it about those incidents that made you think it would a good story to tell?
A. First off the incidents and story line must hold a strong enough pull to the writer herself in order for her to devote at least a year of her life to writing it with no guarantee of publication or income. This may sound selfish, but as a result I don’t think too much about whether it’s a good story for anyone else but me.

What’s fascinating to me, beyond the incidental inspirations you mentioned, is the ratio of seniors to youth at this point in history. Most countries are experiencing a time when people over 65 outnumber children under 15.

I am amazed that with this demograph, corporations don’t cater more to seniors instead of discounting them. One model of car that was recalled for accelerator issues and incurred huge settlements was known as a “senior killer.”

More than any previous generation, today’s teens will need to work with and get along with older people.

Q. How did you come up with the idea of a body switch?
A. Definitely the way that high school put weights and blinders on their students to mimic the effects of old age made me think of the entire soul and body swap idea.

Q. Did you have any difficulty writing the story?
A. Every story comes with its own set of problems. Hallie and Susan experience each other’s lives doing Christmas break. There is no set routine on a holiday, which perhaps makes the swap more possible and plausible but I have to come up with things they are going to do that drive the story. They can’t just watch Christmas specials. A major difficulty is creating dialogue that differentiates the characters enough so that you know Susan to be Susan even though everyone’s calling her Hallie. And vice versa.

Q. How did you research the book?
A. The larger story about unintended acceleration is documented in newspaper articles on the Internet, but I did interview my mechanic more closely about it. The senior’s part of the story came from my experience caring for my mom as she aged. For the romantic encounters, I had to use my imagination and my real life experience of high school. For various contests I am asked to judge, as well as the classes and workshops I teach, I read writing straight from the heart of the young reader. I can’t help eavesdropping. I also have a 17-year-old grandson whom I text over situational and vocabulary questions.

Q. You are a grandparent of nine, congratulations. How did you get such, what I assume, is accurate information about what it’s like to be older as well as how it’s like to be a teen today?
A. Each of my three children and nine grandchildren prove to me constantly how unique they all are from each other. There is no one way of speaking when you’re a nine year old or a fifteen year old or a 32 year-old. As primary care giver to my mother, who succumbed to Alzheimer’s disease, I spent a lot of time around older people who, as well, all proved to be unique in character, health and ability. This uniqueness gives me the freedom to create my own 15 year old and 82 year old with impunity. My 15-year-old Hallie speaks this way even if the teens in your life don’t. My 82-year-old Susan experienced this treatment from her son, even thought you treat your grandmother differently.

Q. How prevalent do you think ageism is for both teens and seniors? Why does that happen and what can people do to stop themselves from doing it?
A. Ageism, like every other ism, results from a sense of inadequacy or unhappiness about our own condition. If things are going well in your life, you don’t feel threatened by someone younger and more attractive. Or you don’t feel annoyed by an older person taking too long at the cash. We should all take a deep breath and try to figure out a balance in our life to be happy and healthy.

Q. I sometimes I was confused as to who I was reading about, Susan or Hallie, did you find it hard to keep them straight in your head while writing?
A. No, I never found it difficult to keep them straight while I was writing about them, but trying to make it easier and clearer for the reader was difficult without making the characters speak in cliché teen or senior speak.

Q. Hallie seemed to be that stereotypical teenager at the beginning of the book, a rather unpleasant person who was really disrespectful to those around her. Was writing her that way intentional? Why?
A. Hallie may seem stereotypical and unpleasant to readers, but I like her and believe that she is just wrapped up in herself. Something that is forgivable a typical stage in youth.

Many teens are lost, without career and life goals. As Hallie grows in experience and maturity, and she does in this story, she finds a larger purpose for herself and grows more empathetic. Of course I needed this character arc, but I didn’t deliberately make her unpleasant or disrespectful. I think she stood up to Eli without understanding his age disability. Eli was pretty disrespectful to her, when you think about it.

Q. Did you have a favourite between the two characters? Who/why?
A. I like Hallie the best, maybe because she’s more passionate, perhaps naively so. She may, in fact, later decide she doesn’t want to fight corporate greed as her goal in life. But through this story she finds a purpose, even if it is only temporary.

Q. What was your favourite part about writing this book?
A. I liked playing the part of Eli, he/she has such a dry wit. Let’s face it, being a writer can be like playing god. You create your own world and put your characters in difficult situations. Here I get to do it full out.

Q. You have written a lot of books. Do you always write for teens?
A. In the past I have written for younger children and at present, I have a middle grade series out: The Great Mistake Mysteries, which included The Best Mistake Mystery, The Artsy Mistake Mystery and The Snake Mistake Mystery. The Diamond Mistake Mystery will be released in the fall of 2019.

Q. What has changed written for teens in the 20 years you have been doing it? What was stayed the same?
A. Obviously, most teens have cellphones and computers so they have a few more screen diversions than in the past – less time for reading. In general writers are expected to have a greater connection or authentic experience of their story. It’s not enough to research what it’s like to be, say, someone with a learning disability, if you’re writing about them, you are expected to be a person with a learning disability. This has something to do with the democratization of expressing oneself over the Internet. It may seem that anyone can write a novel and so that person should have at least experienced what they’ve written. I think the skill of writing may trump the personal experience aspect but of course when they both combine, it’s magnificent.

Love, loss, death, laughter, emotions in general – they are all still there and novels help us learn how to deal with them all. Fiction is still a great way to go through an experience and grow from it without suffering some of the unhappy consequences. Fiction helps us develop empathy.

Q. Why do you like writing for this age group?
A. I love the intensity of the emotions of the teenager.

Q. What don’t you like about writing for this age group?
A. Perhaps this is more a comment on social media than on teens, I dislike receiving anonymous hostile reviews and communication. It’s OK for someone not to like my book and detail the problems they have with it, but they can’t choose my hair colour. Nor should they release f-bombs about my literary children on Goodreads (or anywhere else.) Both of these have happened.

Q. You get your inspiration from life events, how do you develop those ideas into a story?
A. I read about a real life event that really bothers me and I wonder and worry about it. See it going a different way, one that I like better. One that makes more sense. Then I write about it.

Q. How long, typically, does it take you to write a book?
A. Although I can write a book that doesn’t give me major problems in six months, I now like to spend longer on them. I love to spend time with my story and characters. A year to two years from idea to final draft has become the new norm.

Q. What is your favourite part about writing?
A. When writing is going well, I love the feeling of zen I get while I’m lost in the story.

Q. Where do you write?
A. Everywhere. My office usually is too messy so I enjoy moving my laptop around. Sometimes I meet another writer at our local Royal Botanical Gardens and we write in a beautiful sunlit room of flowers. On long drives with my husband at the wheel, I may write. Certainly on airplanes and especially on the GO train (our commuter train to Toronto), the motion and captive state lends itself for me to write.

Q. What is your favourite part about the publishing journey?
A. Writing is always the best part. I also like seeing the finished cover. I very much enjoy meeting my readers, too. Kidslit writers get invited to meet their readers in schools and libraries around the world and that is such a great unexpected perk. Mind you I can enjoy that one-on-one writer to reader experience in my own neighbourhood. To have something come out of your own head and into another person, is such an amazing phenomena and privilege.

Q. Least favourite part?
A. Lately I’ve been feeling too much pressure – as though the sale of each and every book depends on me being in some bookstore talking someone into buying it.

Q. Do you have a message for teenagers who are reading this book?
A. Try to find a passion in your life and track some goals to create a path. Don’t worry if it’s the wrong goal, you can always change to another path later. The worst thing you could do with your life is spend it in the basement playing video games hoping that something exciting will find you.

Q. Anything else you would like to say?
A. Thank you for taking the time for this interview and for pursuing discussion around my novel Body Swap. It is one of my life’s greatest good fortunes and privilege to continue writing.

A copy of this book was provided by Dundurn for an honest review.
The opinions are my own.

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Book cover of Body Swap by Sylvia McNicoll featuring an amusement park in the foreground and clouds throughout the top.
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