'Genie Wishes' goes inside the mind of the fifth-grader

Baltimore children's book author Elisabeth Dahl used to walk two or three miles just so she could hang out at the Library of Congress, reveling in the Paris Opera House style-architecture, the 23-karat gold-plated dome and the breathtakingly extensive archives that includes the personal papers of Thomas Jefferson.

Dahl married a librarian who works now at Towson University, and the couple celebrated their wedding in the Enoch Pratt Free Library.


So 45-year-old writer couldn't be more thrilled that her first published book, a children's novel called "Genie Wishes," was chosen to represent the State of Maryland at the 14th annual Library of Congress National Book Festival on Saturday.

"It's incredible," says Dahl, the mother of a 15-year-old son. "Because of being chosen for this festival, a copy will be added to the Young Readers Center at the Library of Congress. I'm not sure I can imagine an honor that I'd like more."


The free public festival will feature more than 100 authors and illustrators appearing at nine pavilions, including such A-list novelists as Alice McDermott, Claire Messud and E.L. Doctorow, presidential historian Doris Kearns Goodwin and retired U.S. Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O'Connor.

There will be a poetry slam, a graphic novel "super session" and a panel discussion of books that have been made into great movies.

Dahl will spend part of Saturday afternoon in the Pavilion of States meeting young fans and autographing copies of her book. "Genie Wishes" follows fledgling blogger Genie Kunkle as she navigates the perils of the fifth grade — including a new classmate who latches onto Genie's best friend, her widowed father's adventures in dating and Genie's own developing body.

In addition to writing "Genie Wishes," you also drew the illustrations on the inside pages. Do you have a drawing background?

I've taken a number of art classes in high school and college, but not at any high level. I've always loved illustrated books, I thought my story would be enhanced by them, and I thought my drawings would be convincing as Genie's creation.

I just find drawing very complementary to writing. The illustrations lead me from chapter to chapter in a strange way. I did a drawing within the first hour of starting the first draft of a wide open window with gauzy curtains. It's how Genie envisions her alter ego when she begins to blog.

There are several recognizable Baltimore landmarks in the book, but only one – the Walters Art Museum – is called by its actual name. Why is that?

I fictionalized MICA [the Maryland Institute College of Art]. Genie's elementary school is mostly a composite of Calvert School and Roland Park Country School, which I attended, and the Friends School, where my son goes.


The Walters is the one place I didn't fictionalize. I'm not sure why. It wasn't intentional. In art history class in high school, we used to go to the Walters once a week. I used to take my son to the basement room to do art projects just like Genie does with her father.

I'm longtime friends with [former Walters director] Gary and Elana Vikan. Elana Vikan was one of my high school teachers. I used to baby-sit for them and house-sit when they were out of town. So, it is a special place for me.

You've written that a major shift in the social landscape occurs when kids reach the age of about 11. Can you explain?

Sure. Maybe it's because their brains are developing, but at about that age, kids start to notice social stratification where none existed before. Two kids will be close friends, and one will start to mature before the other. Or, they'll notice that one of them has a big house and the other one has a smaller house. It's a fascinating time of life.

Sometimes, I describe "Genie Wishes" as a break-up book because Genie gets dumped by her best friend. For girls at that age, those relationships are the central things in their lives.

You blog yourself, and Genie is elected the blogger for her class. Was it difficult to write blog items from a child's point of view without throwing in too many adult observations?

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It really was tough to give Genie an age-appropriate voice in her blog. Most of the book is regular first-person narration, and those sections were easier because readers are more willing to suspend disbelief.

At the time I started writing the book, my son, Jackson, was 9 and finishing the fourth grade. I listened to him and to how his friends who were girls talked about what concerned them. I also know a few kids who were writing their own blogs, and I read those.

Kids will adopt more adult language when they're blogging, but then there'll be little holes where you can see that they're still kids.

If you go

The 2014 Library of Congress National Book Festival will run from 10 a.m to 10 p.m Saturday at the Walter E. Washington Convention Center, 801 Mt. Vernon Place NW, Washington, DC. Author Elisabeth Dahl will appear at the 2nd floor Pavilion of States from 12 p.m to 3 p.m. Free. Call 888-714-4696 or go to


About the Book: "Genie Wishes" was published April 13, 2013 by Abrams Books. 288 pages, $16.95.