Author Archives: Barbara Dee

Reasons to be Cheerful

Whatever your political leaning, you probably agree that it’s been a bruising couple of weeks. So for my last post on this blog, I’d like to share a few things that have made me happy lately.

truth-or-dare_final1- A book club for girls at Forgan Middle School in Forgan, Oklahoma chose to read my latest middle grade novel, TRUTH OR DARE. For the club’s seventh and eighth grade girls, as well as their teachers, to be able to buy their own copies, they needed a sponsor. And you know who sponsored their purchase of 23 hardcover copies? Delbert, the school custodian. The idea that this lovely man stepped up to buy all those copies of TRUTH OR DARE for a group discussing girls’ body issues, self-esteem, and related topics–well, it makes my heart burst.

A lot of folks want to keep kids reading–and they’re not just teachers, librarians, and publishing world insiders. Let’s be sure to celebrate the Delberts of the world. They’re definitely out there.

star-crossed-jpeg-516kb2-My next middle grade novel, STAR-CROSSED, will be published by Aladdin/S&S in March 2017. It’s about a middle school production of Romeo & Juliet in which the girl playing Romeo realizes she has a crush on the girl playing Juliet. This book is very much a middle grade novel–positive, gentle, and, unlike Shakespeare’s play, a comedy. Despite its lightness and wholesomeness, STAR-CROSSED would surely have been deemed too edgy for mainstream publication just a few years ago. But when I proposed STAR-CROSSED to my publisher, Simon & Schuster, they embraced it immediately–in fact, they recently highlighted it in their Spring 2017 Library/Education newsletter as a book promoting diversity. I’m also delighted to report that Scholastic has just licensed STAR-CROSSED (with a specially designed cover) for sale through book fairs and book clubs.   

So yes: #weneeddiversebooks on middle grade shelves. And you know what? We’re getting them. Joining STAR-CROSSED, LILY AND DUNKIN, GRACEFULLY GRAYSON, DRAMA, GEORGE,  LUMBERJANES and others, there’s Jen Petro-Roy’s PS, I MISS YOU coming Fall, 2017.  For more middle grade titles with LGBTQ characters, click here.

3-A related development in middle grade fiction: tough topics explored with special sensitivity for the age of the reader–for example, Nora Raleigh Baskin’s NINE, TEN, A September 11 Story

 

and RUBY ON THE OUTSIDE,

and Kate Messner’s THE SEVENTH WISH.

 My other book launching next year, HALFWAY NORMAL (Aladdin/S&S Dec 2017), deals with a different sort of tough topic. It’s about a girl who, upon returning to middle school after two years away for pediatric cancer treatment, feels as if she can’t communicate her story–until the class begins its study of Greek mythology. Not once did my publisher fret about the subject matter being too dark for middle grade readers; they trusted me to write something age-appropriate and even (yes, really, I promise!!) fun.

Ultimately, what I think HALFWAY NORMAL and STAR-CROSSED are both about is how books give kids a language to express themselves, and connect to others. I’m truly encouraged by the way publishers have embraced stories like these, which promote empathy, inclusiveness, self-expression and self-esteem. We’re expanding the notion of what middle grade books should be–reaching more kids, touching more hearts, and opening more minds. We’re also making kids smile. As we give thanks this week, let’s remember that middle grade books are better, and more important, than ever. Cheers!        

BARBARA DEE is the author of six middle grade novels published by Aladdin/Simon & Schuster, including TRUTH OR DARE, which was published in September.  Next year Aladdin/S&S will publish STAR-CROSSED (March 2017) and HALFWAY NORMAL (December 2017). 

Barbara Dee has a few “Small Moments” with Author Beth Ain

Beth Ain

Beth Ain

 

Can you describe the fourth grade teacher’s assignment that inspired IZZY KLINE HAS BUTTERFLIES?
Yes! My daughter’s fourth grade teacher had each of the kids pick a moment or a memory to write about and they worked on drafts and went through a pretty involved editorial and peer critique process and in the end they each had a complete and well-drawn piece of writing about a moment in their lives. The teacher had the collection bound into a book called “The Stories on Our Minds,” and I was really moved and entertained by the stories. From my own daughter’s zip lining piece, “Zip, Zip, Ziiip!” to someone else’s (hilarious) “No Good, Very Bad Dentist,” to another favorite of mine, “Tia Claudia Comes to Visit, ” they displayed humor and heart and the stories were reflective and interesting. I loved also that it was called The Stories on Our Minds, because that’s just it. It was all there. They didn’t have to go very far to find their stories.
How do you think that encouraging kids to write about “small moments” helps them grow as writers? Do they have difficulty thinking “small?”
I actually think the opposite. I think they have trouble thinking big, or at least trouble writing big, which is why zeroing in on smaller moments gives them access to their own stories and their own memories and therefore gives them a jumping off point for their writing.  I think kids sometimes think writing means they have to invent a whole fictional universe out of thin air, which I suppose if you’re writing high fantasy, it is. But usually, writers access their own memories at the very least as a prompt. Most of us get our ideas from our own lives. Even if we aren’t stealing those moments directly, we are inspired by them. They trigger feelings worth writing about, or perhaps just the ambiance of the moment itself is inspiring in some way. The smell of the fresh air on the beach, the sound of the sled hitting the snow after a blizzard, the sadness of saying goodbye to Tia Claudia after a visit.
Writing can really stump some kids, but when they are reminded that the answer is likely right in front of them, it relaxes them. It’s like taking an open book test.
izzy_kline_cvr_1.11.inddSo many MG kids gravitate towards big, high-concept fantasy novels. Do you think embracing and exploring “small moments” naturally leads kids to realistic fiction?
I think in some ways, yes. I was a realistic fiction reader myself and found fantasy a bit alienating because I was searching for familiarity and I was rather practical and therefore unwilling to believe in magic of any kind–still am. (That said, my favorite book of elementary school was The Trumpet of the Swan.  Give me talking animals all day long!)
At any rate, I always credit Paula Danziger as being my mirror when I was grown up. Seeing myself in her books was helpful. Judy Blume’s characters, too, of course. Discovering characters whose lives were a bit imperfect like mine, or whose worries felt familiar, that was comforting to me. Oh look, her dad left, too. And her brother is a little testy, too. And yes, her best friend has gotten distant, etc, etc. To be fair, though, I think fantasy books can do the very same thing because the best ones truly do transcend genre. Part of the Harry Potter appeal has to do with the fact that Harry’s concerns and those of his friends are not so different from yours or mine. They’ve just been shipped off to a fantasy land where the limits of the physical world and been lifted and where Rowling could play with darkness and light in more literal ways. Almost never does the emotional world shift, even in high fantasy. There’s always magic in the small moments, whether you are in your classroom in suburbia, or your dorm room at Hogwarts. Childhood is childhood.
IZZY KLINE HAS BUTTERFLIES is a novel in verse. Can you explain the impulse to write it that way? Do you think the focus on “small moments” is especially well-suited to verse-writing? Why aren’t more MG novels written in verse?
I really do think small moments writing and verse writing are intertwined. I didn’t set out to write a novel in verse, honestly. I set out to write a novel in small moments, meaning that I wanted the language to be clear, and spare, and meaningful. I didn’t want it to be weighed down by plot and logistics. I think a kid’s day kind of happens in small moments more so than in plot points, if that makes sense. Art class. Recess. Dinner with dad. Fight with brother. Throw up. It isn’t always so linear!
As I wrote, a lot of word play started to happen and a lot of little tricks that some kids might miss and other kids (and teachers especially) will pick up on and feel really in the know. Writing that way was very exhilarating. Thinking to myself, “I know the kid who’s gonna catch that reference or see what I did there” was just very exciting. Poetry really gives a writer (and a reader for that matter) the opportunity to zero in on an experience and get deep. It can be meaning of life type stuff or small stuff, but all of it calls for artistry and evocative language and hopefully a healthy dose of humor. Somewhere in there you can get to the bottom of things. So, yes it turned into free verse as I dug deeper, as a I saw that there is so much poetry in the interior life of a child. There’s so much poetry and rhythm in the school day alone–the sights and smells and sounds and feelings of elementary school are very nostalgic for me and I feel so lucky that I get to re-live it a little through Izzy’s eyes.
What are you working on now? Is it in verse? Inspired by a “small moment?”
 
I am happy to report that I’m busy writing the sequel to Izzy Kline has Butterflies and lucky for me it’s another novel in verse. It has a lot to do with that transition out of the younger, more innocent part of childhood and into the complicated spaces of early adolescence. So, yeah. I get to smell those childhood smells a little while longer…one of these days I’ll be ready for middle school.
Barbara Dee’s sixth middle grade novel, TRUTH OR DARE (Aladdin/S&S), publishes this month.

Do You Think the World is Ready?

I don’t shock easily, but two recent incidents had me reeling.

The first happened during a creative writing workshop I ran for kids in Grades 4-6. At the start of the workshop, several kids mentioned which of my books they’d read. Then one girl raised her hand and shyly announced that she wanted to read my books, but her mom wouldn’t allow her. “She says they have bad words,” the girl reported.

I tried to seem blase. “Has your mom read any of my books?” I asked her.

“No,” the girl admitted.  “But she’s seen the covers.”

I assured her that I was always careful not to use “bad words”–and that it wasn’t fair to judge a book by its cover. But how a parent viewed any of my covers and decided the text contained inappropriate language  was a mystery to me. And the sad thing was, this girl was an enthusiastic writer who clearly craved access to all sorts of books.

The other incident occurred at the start of an elementary school’s Read Aloud Day. Because my books fall into the  upper elementary/ middle school category, I was assigned a fourth grade class, as was the local middle school principal.  As the two of us chatted before the program, he asked what books I had on the horizon.

I told him about my upcoming middle grade novels:  TRUTH OR DARE (Aladdin, S&S/Sept. 20, 2016), which is about a mom-less girl’s experience of puberty, and STAR-CROSSED (Aladdin/S&S, March 2017), which is about a girl who has a crush on the girl playing Juliet in the middle school production of Shakespeare’s play.

The principal’s face turned pink. He laughed nervously. “Oh,” he said. “Do you think the world is ready?”

I explained that all my books were wholesome, completely appropriate for tweens. I hoped he’d express enthusiasm, maybe even extend an invitation to the middle school, or say he’d mention the books to the school librarian.  But he didn’t do either. Instead, he changed the subject.

I’ve been thinking about  both of these incidents  a lot lately, in light of Kate Messner’s recent dis-invitation from a school uncomfortable with her newest MG, THE SEVENTH WISH. That book, which I deeply admire, is about a girl whose older sister has a heroin addiction– a topic the school decided was inappropriate for its students .

What scares me is not so much outright book-banning, because that happens in the bright light of day, and often leads to heightened interest in the banned book, anyway.  What I find even more troubling is “quiet censorship,” the sort of thing that happens when an adult decides the world, or a school, or a classroom, or a particular kid “isn’t ready” to read about certain topics. And so he doesn’t extend the invitation, or order the book–not because the book isn’t good, or isn’t written at the right level, but because the subject makes him nervous. It’s a type of book-banning–but because it happens under the radar, it’s difficult to detect.

When Kate Messner was disinvited from a school, she had an overt act, the revoked invitation, to react to, and she did so eloquently and effectively, both on her blog and behind a podium at ALA 2016. But many authors who tackle challenging subjects just won’t get the initial invitation, or their book simply won’t get ordered by the library.  So how do they even know they’ve been “quietly censored”? And how can they–or their readers–protest? After all, schools and libraries are free to make their own choices, as they should be.  If they choose not to order a certain book, who’s to say the choice was motivated by the book’s challenging or controversial subject, and not by the author’s writing style?

I keep coming back to the realization that kids are older than we think they are, older than we were when we were their age.  Girls are menstruating at younger ages, getting eating disorders at younger ages (this is the subject of my upcoming eighth novel STUFF I KNOW ABOUT YOU (Aladdin/S&S Sept. 2017).  The internet has exposed all of our kids to a cruel, violent, judgmental world. If we don’t allow kids to read MG novels that reflect the world they live in, one of two things will happen. Either kids will turn off reading realistic fiction altogether (and with the internet constantly beckoning, that’s a real concern)– or they will crash the gate, choosing, and perhaps sneaking, YAs that are too explicit and dark for their years.  As any parent of a teen knows, once a kid starts reading YA fiction, he/she seldom wants to discuss the edgier content with an adult. Isn’t it better to allow access to books specifically geared toward a MG sensibility–the way  THE SEVENTH WISH is?  And shouldn’t we as adults want to stay in the conversation–even when (or especially when) the conversation makes us nervous?

We can’t be in favor of diversity in kidlit without welcoming books that include all sorts of previously ignored characters: kids of color, LGBT kids, kids in nontraditional families, kids coping with a family member’s addiction, kids coping with mental illness (like Dunkin in Donna Gephart’s  beautiful LILY AND DUNKIN).  There’s nothing inherently “wrong” or “inappropriate” about these characters–they’re just kids on the basketball team, kids on the school bus, kids in the play. And they deserve to be represented, read about, identified with, empathized with.

The world is ready.

Barbara Dee’s next book, TRUTH OR DARE, will be published on September 20, 2016.