Jennifer Weiner, THE BIGFOOT QUEEN

Jennifer Weiner, THE BIGFOOT QUEEN

#1 New York Times bestselling author Jennifer Weiner returns to the podcast to discuss THE BIGFOOT QUEEN, her charming middle-grade trilogy about friendship, adventure, and celebrating your true self. Jennifer reveals the project’s origins and then describes her approach to crafting a story that resonates with young readers while addressing deeper societal issues. She delves into the complexities of adolescence, identity, authenticity, and relationships. Then, she gives us a glimpse of her upcoming adult novel, teasing themes of sisterhood, music, and societal prejudices.


Zibby Owens: Welcome, Jennifer. Thanks for coming back on “Moms Don’t Have Time to Read Books,” this time to discuss The Bigfoot Queen. Congrats.

Jennifer Weiner: Thank you. I’m so glad to be here.

Zibby: I have to say, I started reading this to my little guy one night before bed, and then I was like, maybe I should stop. This person dies, and this person. This person’s scary. I loved it. It was so cool. I was like, what are all of the hidden messages? What are we taking away from this? At the end, I was like, okay, you go to bed now that you’ve talked about people with extra eyes and hands. He’s sitting there .

Jennifer: Way back many, many years ago when I was in college, the spring semester of my senior year, I took children’s literature. Of course, I did. I was graduating in ten minutes. I had an internship at The Village Voice. I was in New York three days a week. I’m like, this will be the easiest class in the world. It was so dark. We had tons of reading. The reading was fascinating. I will never forget, my professor’s name was Uli Knoepflmacher. With a name like that, what are you going to do but teach children’s literature? We read Bruno Bettelheim’s The Uses of Enchantment. We talked a lot about how stories are where kids go to process the darkness and to sort of deal with the fact that there’s so little in their lives they can control. What is scarier than being a kid when your parents can come home and be like, “We’re moving across the country. New school. New friends”? All of the things that can happen to kids. Your best friend moves away. Your grandmother dies. Your pet dies. Death happens. Although, very few people with extra eyes and extra hands that I’ve seen.

Zibby: Good. Although, you never know. My daughter has gotten in the habit now of being able to put myself in her shoes. I’ll be like, “It’s time to go to school. You have to stop this right now.” She’ll be like, “But Mom, how would you like it if you were reading one of your really good books and then all of a sudden, I said –” I’m like, “Not now. No time for empathy.” She does exactly what you’re saying. Let me change this narrative up a little bit. How would you like to be as out of control as you make me feel as a parent? I’m getting a dose of that.

Jennifer: I think telling stories is how kids kind of — it’s how they learn to deal with all the things in their life they can’t control. Storytelling is an important adult skill.

Zibby: Yes, a hundred percent. Tell listeners about The Bigfoot Queen.

Jennifer: The Bigfoot Queen is the third book in my Littlest Bigfoot trilogy. I finally, finally finished. It’s the story of these two girls named Alice and Millie. Alice lives in New York City. She’s very wealthy. Every year, her parents move her to a different school. She has no friends. She’s bigger. She’s got this crazy mane of curly hair. She’s never really had friends. Nobody really gets her. She’s very lonely. Then she goes to this boarding school in Upstate New York, the Experimental Center for Love and Learning. I took all of the Kool-Aid from my kids’ progressive schools that I haven’t drunk yet, and I put it all there. She goes to this school. She meets this girl named Millie. She thinks Millie lives in town nearby. Millie shows up at night kind of popping out of nowhere mysteriously. It turns out that Millie is not entirely human.

She is a bigfoot. Although, they don’t call themselves bigfoots. They think that’s a slur. That’s really a problematic term for them. Millie is fascinated with humans. She’s fascinated with Alice. She just wants to know everything. She’s got this Ariel vibe. She wants to be part of her world. The two of them become friends. Then there’s this other kid named Jeremy who is this bigfoot hunter who believes that bigfoots are real. They live in the forest. He’s going to find them. He’s going to finally show his family and his brothers that he’s worth something. That is book one. Book one is called The Littlest Bigfoot. Book two is called Little Bigfoot, Big City where Alice and Millie go to New York. They have this big adventure. Jeremy is still hot on their trail. We start learning more about the mystery of bigfoots and why they are hiding. Then in The Bigfoot Queen, we get our resolution. We get our happy ending where the pieces all come together. The mysteries are all revealed. Everybody sort of gets to be where they’re supposed to be.

Zibby: It was always intended to be a trilogy?

Jennifer: Always intended to be a trilogy, yeah.

Zibby: Where did this whole thing come from? In a trilogy, how do you even figure out what to put in which book? How does that work?

Jennifer: Where it came from was my daughter Pheobe, who is now sixteen. Oh, god. When she was seven or eight, she was fascinated by this TV show on The Learning Channel called Finding Bigfoot. We would watch episodes. I would come in at the end and be like, “Did they find bigfoot yet?” She was like, “They have not found bigfoot.” I’m like, “I know they didn’t find bigfoot. You know how I know they didn’t find bigfoot? There are six more shows this season. They can’t have found him yet.” Pheobe was fascinated by bigfoots. We started talking about them, Pheobe and my older daughter, and how they would interact with the human world. If they existed, how would it be? We came up with this idea that there’d be a convention every year, like the annual bigfoot convention where they would all get together. There would be line dancing and Zumba and book clubs and lunches and all this stuff. We just had this whole conversation, many conversations, really, about what they would do, how they would be. Would they be online? Would they have Etsy shops and sell their stuff? That’s where it came from.

I pitched it. I talked to my agent about it. We had some meetings with different publishers. In terms of the trilogy — grown-up books are in the neighborhood of a hundred thousand words. When you’re writing for middle grade, that’s more like sixty thousand words. I’m like, oh, man, I got too much story. It’s not going to fit. I outlined everything I wanted to do and just figured out, okay, book one, we establish the mystery. We establish the characters. Book two is kind of a caper. We send them on this madcap adventure to New York. Then book three is, everyone’s grown up a little bit. It can be a little darker, a little more serious. Then we just have our resolution. Maybe I just read so much middle-grade stuff that the dividing it into chunks and the plotting felt, not easy, but kind of intuitive, I guess. It broke naturally. The beats of the story fell into place pretty naturally.

Zibby: Wow. In this book, you have a mysterious corporation move to a dying town where there’s this innkeeper and her daughter, who has such a sad backstory also. She’s working for no allowance and has an old phone, which is the most horrible thing that could happen to her despite the rest. You start off with this concept of dirty money. What does it mean if someone comes to town and — the town is, effectively, helped, but by what? Is that okay? Does this have to do with capitalism and some sort of corporation? Where did this come from for you? Are you making a statement about Google? What is going on here?

Jennifer: Yes, this book is a stealth parable about the dangers of late-stage capitalism. People are always like, what is the message of this book? What message are you trying to send? Really, I’m not a message writer. I do not ever want to feel like my books are a polemic and reading them is basically listening to me stand on a soapbox for a couple of hours and yell at you about what I believe. In a world where kids are trained to always want the newest, the latest, the fastest, the best, that does come at a cost. I wanted readers to think about — this big corporation comes to town. They’ve got tons of money. Suddenly, this dying town has been revitalized. There’s an Indian restaurant and a French bistro. The downtown is pristine and beautiful, but there’s this giant set of buildings with razor wire and armed guards all around them. People are hearing strange noises in the night. I guess I did maybe want kids to think a little bit about, what does it mean when I chuck my iPhone 11 because I got to have the iPhone 14? Someone always pays, I guess is the lesson and the message, if there is one. It was a three-book plot to get out of buying my kids new phones, basically. Not really.

Zibby: Meanwhile, I love that you’re like, I don’t want to be somebody who stands on my soapbox, and yet you have an opinion column in The New York Times.

Jennifer: Every once in a while. Every once in a while, I do. God, my kids are so freaking mortified. Every time I have a piece, they’re like, .

Zibby: Oh, stop. Come on. They must be proud. They must be proud of you.

Jennifer: I think maybe they are a little bit. It’s funny. When the second book in the trilogy came out, I did a reading at my older daughter’s school. She came home, and she was so mad at me. She was like, “Mom, there are posters in my school with your face on it and your name.” I’m like, “Dude, what is the problem? I’m raising money for scholarships.” She’s like, “I don’t want it. I won’t have it. Don’t do this ever again.” I’m like, “Okay, sorry.”

Zibby: You just can’t win. You can’t win with kids.

Jennifer: Can’t win. Cannot win. Should not try.

Zibby: There’s also, with the Jeremy plotline, this whole notion of, will anyone ever believe me? Can I ever redeem myself? If I pursue what I believe enough, even if there’s no external validation or even if it gets me into serious trouble, like all of a sudden, I’m at the bottom of a pit in the dark and this is not looking good, how far are we willing to go to stand up for what we know is true?

Jennifer: Jeremy is an interesting case. He’s got these two older brothers. One of them is the best athlete in town. The other one is a genius. Jeremy feels like he just cannot win. He is invisible as far as his parents are concerned. In the first book, there’s this scene where he goes to audition for Julliard even though he knows he’s not that good. He works really hard, but he has very little innate talent. He goes, and he auditions. Of course, he doesn’t get in, but there’s this afternoon’s worth of hope that his parents are going to see him as somebody special and worthwhile. I think any kid who’s in a family with siblings or in a family at all, you struggle because you’re not feeling like the main character. At least, you’re not feeling like the main character all the time. Jeremy just so desperately — he wants people to believe him. He wants to be the hero. He wants to be the guy who’s exposing this and saving the world. He doesn’t want to really understand, at first, that his actions have consequences and that if bigfoots are real and if he blows up their spot and lets the world know, they are going to be in terrible danger. They’re going to be hunted. They’re going to be tracked. They’re going to be studied. They’re going to be exploited. Jeremy just doesn’t want to know about any of that. He just wants his brothers to take him a little more seriously.

Zibby: There’s a lot we’ll do for familial approval.

Jennifer: Oh, yes. Oh, yes.

Zibby: Then the other through line, also — there are many others, but Alice and how her driver at the end was like, I don’t want to keep dropping her at all these schools. There’s some sort of vindication. There’s a, as you said, happy ending for all the things that she’s been through and her mother and that whole plotline. Tell me about what we’re taking away from Alice and the change in her life.

Jennifer: When I started thinking about bigfoots, I started thinking about being back in middle school and just feeling like such a freak. I think every girl, probably every boy, every nonbinary kid — your body is changing. Things are different. I think everyone feels like the only one, like you are the only one who is experiencing this. You are the only one who has felt this way. Everybody else has it figured out. They all got the manual, and you didn’t. You are just blindly groping your way toward adulthood. The first book got reviewed in The Times, and the reviewers sort of made the point of, the reason this book resonates is because every kid has been a bigfoot at one point or another. Alice, she’s living in a larger body, as we say now. She’s got this hair that she can’t do a thing with. Her mom is this society beauty, this woman who just does Pilates all day long and wears designer clothes and is perfect and is gorgeous. Alice just thinks, that will never be me. That can never be me. What we learn is that her mom’s kind of gone undercover. She’s in disguise. The disguise that she’s wearing is this society-lady face and body and clothing and shoes. Once she’s out of this disguise, she looks much more like Alice. Her hair is kind of bushy. She’s running around in fur boats and a down puffer coat. Alice is like, who are you?

I wanted to talk about the idea of adulthood as a series of poses and costumes and disguises and different faces that we wear at different times and having Alice understand that the world has kind of hurt her mom and that’s why her mom has put herself into this box, why she’s conforming, and that it’s come with this really high price. By the end of the book, Alice is much more at home in her own skin. Her body that she sort of despised and wished were smaller and different — she’s big, and she’s strong. She saves the day. It’s amazing. I’m always writing about women and their bodies and the tension and the anxiety and mothers and daughters and the messages that we’re sending. I think that every mother wants her daughter to live in a better world than she grew up in. I know that moms now, we’re so aware of diet culture and the damage that it did to us and trying so hard to have our daughters grow up without all that noise in their head about how they’re supposed to look and how they’re supposed to be, but understanding that as hard as we try, our daughters live in the world. Those messages are everywhere. As much as we’d like to, our homes can be a safe place, but we can’t make all of that noise go away. That was one of the things I wanted to talk about. I hope that girls that are eight or nine or ten are going to read this book and maybe feel a little comforted about their own physical selves, their own bodies, and the worth those bodies have.

Zibby: It’s so true. It’s not just girls. I know you have two girls. I have two girls and two boys. It comes to everybody.

Jennifer: It does.

Zibby: I’m like, how are you getting this? Sometimes they say things, and I’m like, was that on YouTube? Where did you hear that? Why are you saying this? Where do you get it? I try so hard.

Jennifer: We all try so hard. It is in the air. It’s in the air they breathe. It’s in the water they drink. It’s on the school bus. I’m sure you went through something like this with the Net Nanny stuff. I had the internet locked down in my house. Then my kid gets on the school bus, and some kid with a phone that doesn’t have all the parental controls on it, they can see anything. I’m like, what is even the point? Why am I even trying? It’s so hard.

Zibby: I know. I know. It’s ridiculous. So much to digest in your book, and also the fact that it was just so fun. Now of course, I’m even more scared to go into the woods. You never know what you’ll find.

Jennifer: Redemption. Hope and redemption.

Zibby: Hope and redemption, yes. What I really love about the book is that it is literally in your DNA, who you are. You cannot change who you are. You can’t pretend to be someone you’re not. This is just who we are. Even if your DNA is different from someone else’s, own it. That’s it. That’s what I took away also.

Jennifer: I think living your best life as your authentic self and not trying to change — really, there’s only so much you can do. You can try very hard to fit yourself into the box, but at what cost? I don’t know which version of Cinderella you grew up reading or telling your kids. In the Grimms’ fairy tale, the stepsisters cut off pieces of their feet so that their feet will fit in the glass slipper. One of them cuts off her toes. The other one cuts off her heel. We read that in my children’s literature course way back in the day. We’re all just sitting there like, who would tell their kids a story like this? Who would tell their daughters a story like this? Then I grew up. Then I had daughters. Then I’m like, oh, it’s a metaphor. Cutting off a piece of yourself is like every woman who went on a first date and ordered a salad even though she really wanted a burger or kept her mouth shut because she didn’t think that men liked women with opinions or made herself smaller in some way. We all do it. We’ve all done it. You can’t make yourself smaller without paying a really high price. You can’t make yourself different. You can’t change who you fundamentally are without paying a really high price. Again, I don’t intend for my books to be message books, but I think if girls come away understanding that, it’s so much better just to figure out how to be happy in the skin you’re in, in the body you’re in than spend your whole life limping through the world because you’ve mutilated yourself or done something painful or damaging just to fit.

Zibby: Totally. I was at this party in tenth grade. This girl we were friends with was acting so ditzy. She was really smart and all this stuff. She was just, for the guys, acting a certain way. All of a sudden, one of the guys says to her, “You know, we like smart girls too.” I was like, that’s amazing.

Jennifer: I hope that guy is married to a wonderful woman. I hope he’s always on the cool side of the pillow and it’s always sunny when he goes on vacation. Girls need to hear that. They need to hear it from their dads, I think first and foremost. I think if the boys in their lives are saying things like that — in my twenties, The Rules was going around. I’m older than you are. I don’t know if you remember that book.

Zibby: Of course, I do. You’re barely older than I am. Maybe a year. Anyway, yes, I remember.

Jennifer: Don’t be too funny. If he wanted to laugh, he’d stay home and watch David Letterman. I remember reading that and being like, well, funny’s all I got. I don’t know what I’m going to do here. The fact is there are guys who will love you and will see you and will see every part of you and love you anyhow. I want my girls to know that. I want them to go out in the world believing that deeply and believing in themselves.

Zibby: Your trilogy is done. You have the paperback coming out of The Breakaway, which is very exciting. What else is coming out on the adult side of things?

Jennifer: I’ve just finished a new book that’s going to come out in 2025. I am not publishing anything in 2024. I’m so happy. I haven’t had a year without a book since 2018, so that’ll be nice. My daughter is going to be a junior in high school. That’s a big year. I have to teach her how to drive. God help me. Thoughts and prayers. I just finished this adult book, which is about two sisters who are in a band in the early aughts at the peak Britney and Justin time, if you can remember back then, so when Jessica Simpson wore those unfortunate high-waisted jeans and people ripped her apart and said she looked fat because she wasn’t in her little Daisy Duke shorts and Diane Sawyer interviewing Britney after the Justin breakup and being like, “You broke that poor boy’s heart. What did you do to him?” Of course, now we all know from the distance of twenty-two years later that was not what happened at all.

They’re in this band in the early aughts. There’s a love triangle. Band breaks up. The sisters are estranged. They’re not seeing each other. One of them actually moves to Alaska. I would just like to say that I started writing this book before True Detective: Night Country came out and Alaska got hot. I was there first. One sister is in Alaska. One’s in suburban Philadelphia with a teenage daughter who wants to be a musician and is intent on finding this estranged aunt. It’s the story of three women, one band. It’s about women in rock and roll and misogyny and the way that women got treated, the way that female stars got treated back then and the way they get treated now and what’s changed and what hasn’t. It’s about sister stuff and mother-daughter stuff and music stuff and love stuff. We have a working title. I’ve had so much trouble. Sometimes my titles just come, and it’s perfect. I’ve nailed it. That’s it. Sometimes I’m just like, I got nothing. It takes me the length of the book and six or seven drafts to get there. I think that it is going to be called The Griffin Sisters Greatest Hits.

Zibby: That’s good.

Jennifer: I think so.

Zibby: It’s a good one.

Jennifer: It’s Zoey and Cassie Grossberg. Of course, Grossberg is not going to work in music. They meet with this record label executive who’s like, I think we should change it. One of the sisters is like, why? He’s like, for people. She’s like, people who don’t like Jews? He’s like, um, maybe.

Zibby: Oh, my gosh. You might as well just put it all out there.

Jennifer: My god. I was not intending to write about anti-Semitism. Then the world happened. I frequently will have Jewish characters in my books, but now it feels much more like a mission to have those characters and have them be fully, completely human in these books. Surprisingly, there are still people who don’t see Jews that way, which I cannot believe in the year of our Lord and Beyoncé, 2024, that that’s still going on, but here we are.

Zibby: I didn’t see this year coming, but yes.

Jennifer: We could do an hour just on that.

Zibby: I know. I was like, we’re winding down here. I can’t even start. To be continued on some other platform. Jen, thank you so much for coming back on. Thank you for The Bigfoot Queen and all the messages that you subtlety put in, even though you didn’t mean to, perhaps. I don’t know. Whatever. I’ll look forward to the Grossberg/Griffin Sisters when they’re ready to hit the town.

Jennifer: Fantastic. Thank you so, so much for having me.

Zibby: Thank you.

Jennifer: Have a great day.

Zibby: Have a great day.

Jennifer: Bye.

Zibby: Bye.

Jennifer Weiner, THE BIGFOOT QUEEN

THE BIGFOOT QUEEN by Jennifer Weiner

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