Still a Work in Progress: Learning, Loving, and Laughing through Stories about Life’s Tough Times by Jo Knowles and Kate Messner
When I ran into Donalyn Miller at an SCBWI conference and she asked if I’d be interested in writing a post for the Nerdy Blog. It was right around this time that Kate Messner and I had read each other’s books and had an interesting e-mail exchange about how similar many of the themes were. That also let to a meaningful discussion about censorship and school visits. I thought this would be an interesting discussion to expand on and share here. So, rather than a blog entry, Kate and I continued our discussion, and now share it here. If you’d like to continue the discussion, we’d be happy to do so in the comments. Thanks for reading!
JO: First, I want to tell you how much I loved The Seventh Wish. Charlie felt so real to me. I loved how sweet she was when she first starts to make wishes. While the first one is a silly one for herself, the others are generous ones for her mom and friends, and I found this incredibly touching. Even though Charlie has her own worries, she’s always thinking of how she can help her friends, who each seem a bit less fortunate than her in one way or another. It was refreshing to read a story about a kid who is so aware of her friends’ needs. This made it doubly heartbreaking when Charlie is suddenly faced with a far more serious situation than she or her friends could imagine. Drug addiction is such a scary yet growing problem, especially in Vermont where part of the story takes place. Was it difficult for you to write about this topic? What were the biggest challenges?
KATE: The hardest thing about writing about the topic of addiction was how real it felt – and how scary. Part of the inspiration for this book was a conversation with one of my wonderful neighbors. I was unloading groceries one day several years ago and called over the lawn, “Hey! How’s it going?” Her answer wasn’t the usual, “Great! How are you?” Instead, she said she was terrible…having the worst week of her life. I dropped the groceries and went over to learn that her beautiful, A-student daughter had just come to her and said, “Mom, I did something awful, and I’m in trouble. I need help…” She was hooked on heroin. This was not the stereotypical drug user we all saw in the DARE videos as kids. This was the girl next door, the one who wandered over as a kid to say hi and taught my daughter to hula hoop. It made the national epidemic I’d been reading about for so long feel suddenly close, real, and terrifying. And I knew I needed to write about it. Doing research for this book meant talking with my neighbor’s daughter when she was in recovery and hearing from drug counselors at a treatment center what happens when someone checks in, and how their families learn about addiction and recovery. That was hard because the stories were all so personal and so sad. But The Seventh Wish balances this thread with other lighter, funnier storylines – the magic, wish-granting fish that always seems to misunderstand the wish, the joy of Irish dancing, the crisp smell of winter and new ice.
When I was reading Still a Work in Progress, I couldn’t help noticing the similarities in how we both balanced tough topics with humor. I loved how Noah’s struggles with his sister’s eating disorder made me tear up, but moments later, regular life took over, and he was making jokes with his middle school pals that cracked me up, too. I know that balance of serious and light was something that kept me going while I was writing. Was it something that you planned with your book from the beginning? Or did the humor just creep in like it does in life, even when things are dark?
JO: When I started writing the book, the humor was there, but Emma’s role in the story wasn’t. I didn’t know until she appeared on the page, what her secret was. As her situation becomes increasingly dire, the lightness and silly things begin to fade away for Noah, even though they still happen. Instead of being funny, he resents them. In my own life, when going through trauma, I’ve found myself feeling so angry that the world around me keeps happily spinning along, with acquaintances posting cute photos on Facebook or whatever, not noticing that I’ve checked out. I wanted to convey that feeling through Noah, but also show how we must gradually step back in. Because the thing is, life does keep happily spinning along, and eventually that’s what saves us. Someone will reach out a hand to drag you back onto the merry-go-round, you just have to be willing to take their hand.
Living with someone who has an addiction or eating disorder can make you feel powerless and terrified. In that way, Noah, and Charlie are both very similar. They need to learn that they can help their sisters in some ways, but they can’t solve their sisters’ problems. It’s a heartbreaking lesson, but accepting it also helps them go back to living their lives, and even to find humor again.
Another similarity I found in our stories is that both Charlie and Noah feel like their sisters suck up all of their parents’ thoughts and attention. I struggled with this a bit because I didn’t want Noah to appear selfish, but he also couldn’t be a saint. There are lots of books about kids with addiction and eating disorders, but very few from the sibling’s perspectives. I wanted to shed light on what it’s like for a sibling to live in constant worry, but also to show what it’s like to have the added pressure of always having to be the “easy” kid, not adding to their parents’ worry. Was this a consideration for you, too?
KATE: “Because the thing is, life does keep happily spinning along, and eventually that’s what saves us. Someone will reach out a hand to drag you back onto the merry-go-round, you just have to be willing to take their hand.”
I love this metaphor so much. It’s true in so many ways for Charlie in The Seventh Wish, too. In her situation, the outlet is her Irish dancing, and she has her friends, too. But sometimes when you’ve been whisked away and you’re laughing, it all comes crashing back, and those can be the toughest moments of all.
Noah’s situation was interesting to me because his sister had dealt with her eating disorder before the story started. It was this quiet shadow I felt over the story — that fear that it might return — even as I laughed along with Noah at the school’s homely sweater-clad cat and his friends’ romantic fumbles. In Charlie’s situation, her older sister’s issues with addiction come as a complete shock. Abby is the opposite of what Charlie imagined when she thought of a drug addict. An A student…a popular athlete…a loving sister… and she looked nothing like the people in those DARE videos. So instead of the creeping shadow I felt in Noah’s story, Charlie’s situation crashes down on the family all at once. She hasn’t gotten used to being the easy kid, with less of her parents’ attention, and she resents it more than Noah does, I think.
Okay…I have a question for you. I know from your supportive comments that you’ve seen the controversy around The Seventh Wish recently, specifically discussions about whether a book about a family’s struggle with addiction belongs in elementary school libraries. I know that you’ve faced similar challenges with See You at Harry’s (which I loved so much!). Still A Work In Progress also deals with a sensitive topic, but one that affects so many families. What would you say to an elementary librarian who wants to make it available for her older readers but is worried about what would happen if a younger student – a second or third grader – brought it home?
JO: In an elementary school library, there’s always a chance that a younger kid might like the look of a book that’s meant for older readers, and try to check it out. My sister is a children’s k-8 librarian and when this happens, she’ll tell the students that the book is for older readers, and often give them a sense of the content and why they might not be ready for it and suggest something else. I do not think school libraries should restrict books for older readers on the odd chance younger ones might get their hands on them. That would limit a lot of books. I guess we could take the conversation further and ask ourselves what we think would happen? What happens when any child learns sometimes bad things happen in the world? Hopefully a thoughtful adult in their life will talk with them about it and help reassure them. This is how kids grow up and learn how to navigate the world. Statistically speaking, death, eating disorders, homophobia, addiction, abuse, etc., are not new concepts to many young kids. So when censors argue that keeping books like ours out of kids’ hands will somehow protect them, it’s very disheartening. These books show kids they aren’t alone, and at the very least can offer some comfort and hope. For those who are more fortunate and don’t yet know these things exist, it could help them develop empathy and understanding for those going through tough times. There are gentle, hopeful ways books can introduce the realities of the world to children. These books help children navigate their way into adolescence and adulthood. Sheltering them will not.
KATE: Exactly. And with Noah, you did such a beautiful job capturing the fear and confusion that a younger sibling can feel when there’s a tough situation of any kind with an older brother or sister. The whole time I was reading, I was thinking of my former 7th grade students who would have found a lifeline in Still A Work In Progress, who would have loved knowing Noah so much, not only because he’s a fantastic, funny, warm character but also because his situation was their situation. Stories have such a wonderful way of making us feel less alone, and that can make all the difference in the world to a kid whose family is in crisis. And as you noted, it’s also powerful for kids whose families aren’t facing those situations right now. Stories help us understand what it might be like to be someone else, and I think a kid who connects with a character like Noah is more likely to reach out to a flesh-and-blood classmate who’s struggling.
JO: Thanks Kate. I sure hope so. Thank you for chatting with me about all this. I know it can be a difficult conversation to have, but as in all things, having an open and thoughtful discussion about these issues is the first step to making a positive change.
Jo Knowles is the author of seven novels, including Read Between The Lines, Living With Jackie Chan, See You At Harry’s, Pearl, Jumping Off Swings, and Lessons from a Dead Girl. Jo’s next book, Still A Work In Progress, comes out today! Jo has a master’s degree in children’s literature and teaches writing in the MFA program at Southern New Hampshire University. She lives in Hartland, Vermont with her husband and son.
Kate Messner is passionately curious and writes books that encourage kids to wonder, too. Her titles include award-winning picture books like Over and Under the Snow, Up in the Garden and Down in the Dirt, and How to Read a Story; novels like Capture the Flag, Wake up Missing, All the Answers, and The Seventh Wish; and Scholastic’s popular Ranger in Time chapter book series about a time-traveling search and rescue dog. Kate lives on Lake Champlain with her family and is trying to summit all 46 Adirondack High Peaks in between book deadlines. Follow her on Twitter @KateMessner and check out her website, www.katemessner.com.
Such a great post. As difficlut as they are,definitely topics that need to be discussed. I especially like the way humor was mixed in, not only to diffuse, but to show that there are times that are somewhat ‘normal’. MG readers also deal with real issues and these type of books can possibly help them or have them seek help; especially when they only feel that they are helpless.
Wow! That felt like a mini-seminar. Thanks so much to both of you for sharing your conversation as authors and people who care deeply about young people and families. I have read Kate’s The 7th Wish and just received Jo’s Still a Work In Progress about ten minutes ago. I can tell you as a middle school librarian that trusting kids to read is far healthier than not. It just is. We want kids to read…and to explore in their reading.
I’m so sorry to hear that The 7th Wish got push back. But, oh was I glad to see the DARE officer address it. Well done, Kate Messner, well done. Thank you for your words and what they mean and do for our kids and all of us.
Much respect to both of you for being courageous enough to write what our students need. I thoroughly enjoyed The Seventh Wish and have read almost all of Jo’s work (adding Still a Work in Progress to my list). Please know that there are many that appreciate your work!
Such a heartfelt discussion and I love the question about a younger child wanting to check out a book with serious themes in it. I would hope every child has the librarian who would take the time to discuss those themes with them so the child can decide if he or she is ready. I know many families touched by these topics and your books are truly needed. Bravo ladies.
I think some kids are ready for “older kid” topics and it’s up to them (and their parents) to decide. That being said, my son wanted to read Percy Jackson in first grade. I wanted him to read picture books and early chapter books so I asked him to wait. He borrowed a copy from a friend and dove right in. And he’s never stopped loving Percy Jackson. He’s 11 now.
My middle daughter wanted to read The Hunger Games in 4th grade. I said that it’s a little too violent and mature. She did the same thing; borrowed a copy and read it. Her friend in 3rd grade did the same and, get this, my daughter was OUTRAGED that Sidnie would read it at such a young age. But no one had nightmares. No one was traumatized. They made their own decisions and weighted my feedback thoughtfully, if not a little rebelliously.
I just don’t like them to be surprised … but if kids have fair warning about what lies ahead in a book, they should be allowed to choose what they want to read. It makes them WANT to read.
Now, my middle daughter at age 14, just struggled through Between the World and Me. It was a tough slog. The vocabulary was hard for her. She looked up a word a page and keep a vocabulary journal. She was discouraged and asked for help getting others to read aloud to her. But she finished and she’s proud of reading it. It’s assigned summer reading for everyone in her high school but a bit hard for a rising freshman.
So, I say give a fair warning and let the kids decide for themselves. Every kid is different in terms of how they react so one size does not fit all.
p.s. My same middle child wanted to read the two stories in Seedfolks that her teacher did not read in the classroom. One story was about a girl who was thinking about abortion; the other about drugs. She checked the book out at the library to read it. She likes to read about other experiences people have that are not in her world. It’s a safe way to learn about anorexia, physical abuse, etc.
I really appreciate this perspective. I’m a middle school teacher and I have a pretty uncensored classroom library. Some of my students are very young, very sheltered 12-14 year olds. Some of them are very worldly, very grown-up 12-14 year olds. I know that some kids aren’t ready for all the books available to them, and others NEED some of those same books. I try to give “fair warning” as you say, then let kids choose their books. I am definitely one who read books meant for older teens and adults and learned about many things in the safe world of a book.