Cover Reveal for Halfway Normal by Barbara Dee
When people hear that your son has cancer, they say a lot of dumb things: I’m so sorry (as if it’s their fault). Is there anything I can do? (You mean besides curing cancer?). Be strong (Sure. Because what’s the alternative?)
When they know you’re a writer, they say this: Well, maybe you’ll write about it one day.
I can’t tell you how often I heard that line the endless, ghastly year that my son had to leave school for his cancer treatment. And every time someone said it, I smiled at the speaker, knowing that he or she had only the kindest intentions, and was merely groping for something positive to say. But inside, I was shouting: Are you serious? You think pediatric cancer is just “material” to use in a middle grade novel? Why in the world would I want to write about anything so horrific, when all I want is for this nightmare to be over?
I swore to myself that I’d never write a “cancer book.” But then I did. Sort of. HALFWAY NORMAL isn’t about cancer–it’s about what happens after cancer, when a kid returns to “normal” life.
Here’s how the project started: I was chatting with Dr. Julia Kearney of the Pediatrics division of Memorial Sloan Kettering Hospital in New York, where my son was a patient. That whole year, I hadn’t written a single word–but as he was completing chemo, I was beginning to feel the urge to sit down again at my computer. The doctor asked what sort of books I had in mind, so I mentioned various tween-appropriate plot ideas I was mulling.
“You know what I really wish you’d write?” she said. “A book about this.”
I did my smile. NONONO, I was shouting inside. I REFUSE TO WRITE A CANCER BOOK.
But I couldn’t fool Dr. Kearney. As soon as she saw my smile, she could tell what I was thinking. “Not about being sick,” she explained. “About afterwards, what we call re-entry. Because most kids who get sick do get better, and do return to school. But getting back to normal–that’s often a very tricky transition.”
As she began describing the challenges of “re-entry,” I could hear how the subject–a kid returning to school after a traumatic experience–had resonance beyond cancer. Any kid who’s experienced a difficult life event (on whatever scale) has to learn resilience–processing what happened, accepting it in all its cosmic unfairness, and figuring out a way forward. At the same time, you need to figure out how much to share with classmates, how much to keep private. If you share information in the noisy, all-too-public arena of school, how do you do it in a way that people who haven’t shared your experience can understand? Is it possible to help other kids empathize, and not pity? And can you empathize with their discomfort, as well?
I could also hear another way the “re-entry” story had natural appeal for middle school readers. When a kid has been sick for a long time, every aspect of her life is determined by doctors and other adults, especially parents. But once she’s well enough to return to school, she’ll want to assert some control over her body, her schedule, her social life. Every tween can relate to a character chafing for a degree of autonomy, even when she knows that the grown-ups in her life only want to keep her safe.
To write the story of Norah Levy, a twelve year old girl returning to school after two years away battling leukemia, I interviewed both Dr. Kearney and a pediatric social worker at MSK, read literature they provided, and spoke to several middle school cancer patients and their moms. All of these kids were completely “normal” despite their diagnosis–smart, fun-loving girls who read books. They each had a different story, of course, but they all spoke about one challenge in particular: communicating their experience to their peers.
Ultimately, this is what HALFWAY NORMAL is about: communicating. As she rejoins her classmates for seventh grade, Norah is shut down, doodling fantasy creatures in her sketchbook, barely speaking even to her best friend. She’s convinced no one at school understands her; at the same time, she resents their cluelessness. When the English teacher gives the class the assignment to speak from the POV of a character in a Greek myth, Norah chooses Persephone. The myth of a girl being snatched into the underworld, and finally, after a long period of isolation, released back to earth (but only halfway) gives Norah the language to express herself to her peers. The other kids in the class also describe their own feelings and predicaments via the Greek gods–but the stage belongs to Norah.
In my next novel, STAR-CROSSED (Aladdin/S&S, March 2017), Mattie uses Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet to express her crush on the girl playing Juliet in the middle school production. In HALFWAY NORMAL (Aladdin/S&S December 2017), Norah uses Greek mythology (D’Aulaires’ Book of Greek Myths, in particular) to express her complicated feelings about “re-entry” to normal life. I love the idea of characters using books to find the language for self-expression–because what better way to explain the inexplicable? And what better message to send to kids: If you want to find yourself, particularly when things are difficult and you can’t find the words, pick up a book and read.
HALFWAY NORMAL (Aladdin/S&S Sept. 5, 2017) will be Barbara Dee’s eighth middle grade novel. Her next book, STAR-CROSSED (Aladdin/S&S), about a girl’s crush on the girl playing Juliet in the middle school production of Romeo & Juliet, will be released on March 14, 2017. (You can read her post about it for Nerdy Book Club: https://nerdybookclub.wordpress.com/2016/07/26/star-crossed-cover-reveal-by-barbara-dee/ )Barbara is one of the founders and directors of the Chappaqua Children’s Book Festival, now in its fifth year. She has participated in nErDcampLI, and is looking forward to participating in nErDcampNJ and nErDcampMI this summer. A former English teacher, she lives with her family in Westchester County, NY.