Getting Personal by Barbara Dee
HALFWAY NORMAL is out this month, and I’m getting nervous.
Not for the usual reasons (“Will they like this book? Will it sell?”). What I’m nervous about is the public-appearance piece, especially the inevitable questions about my son’s health.
When I first thought of writing this book, I made a deal with my son: I’d never discuss his health in public. We made this deal to protect his privacy, and also mine. Because your kid’s cancer is never an easy subject to discuss during an author visit Q/A, or a book festival, or a signing, or a conference. It’s not even easy to mention in an email response to a well-meaning reader.
I know that choosing to write a middle grade novel about this topic– a kid’s recovery from cancer–invites this sort of personal question. I’m so touched (really more than I can say) by all the support and good wishes. But HALFWAY NORMAL is a work of fiction. It’s not about my son. It’s not about my family, or even about me as a parent, except in the most gut-level way. The way every book you write is a reflection, and a refraction, of your own emotions and experience.
Of course, the more you feel and experience (especially the really tough stuff), the more empathy you develop, not just for other people, but for your fictional characters. So I guess it makes sense that empathy itself became what I wanted to write about–and why, along with resilience, it’s the subject of my newest book.
HALFWAY NORMAL tells the story of twelve year old Norah Levy, returning to middle school after two years away for cancer treatment. Not knowing how to share her experience, she resents her classmates’ lack of empathy. When Norah’s astute seventh grade English teacher asks the class to write a speech from the point of view of a Greek mythological character, Norah chooses Persephone. Identifying with Persephone’s plight (kidnapped and stranded in the Underworld, rescued and returned to earth–but not completely) allows Norah to find words for her complex emotions. And finally, she herself is able to empathize with other kids, both sick and well.
Lately I’ve been thinking a lot about what a thrilling time this is in the world of kidlit, especially in realistic middle grade fiction. Authors are fearlessly tackling “Tough Topics”–for example, addiction (Kate Messner’s The Seventh Wish, Jennifer Holm’s Sunny Side Up), sexual abuse (Tony Abbott’s The Summer of Owen Todd), gender identity (Donna Gephart’s Lily and Dunkin) mental illness (ditto, Elly Swartz’s Finding Perfect). Next spring, Aladdin/S&S will be publishing my ninth middle grade novel, EVERYTHING I KNOW ABOUT YOU, which addresses a tween’s eating disorder.
As we take on these difficult subjects, sometimes readers ask for proof of authenticity. Can we write about experiences we haven’t had personally? It’s a fair question. I think my own eating disorder as a teen, as well as my family’s experience with serious illness, gives me insight into character I wouldn’t have had otherwise. The strong empathy I feel for Norah is certainly something I wouldn’t have if life had been easier these past few years.
But because Norah’s type of cancer, age, gender, social and family situation are not my son’s, I still had to do my share of research–interviewing professionals and kids, doing background reading, etc. So to some extent, I came to this deeply personal story from the outside. I also just plain old used my imagination–as every fiction writer does, whether she writes about dragons or the seventh grade lunchroom. To be honest, I wouldn’t want to write any book if I wasn’t free to make some stuff up!
I guess what I want to say is this: kids need to learn that fiction can be based on truth, and still be fiction. (Which is not the same as “fake news” or lies.) Also, authors have personal boundaries which readers should try to respect. (I’m still wondering why a kid wrote to me last year asking for my date of birth. How did having that bit of information cast light on the book he was reading?) Given the way we all live on social media these days, educating students about both over-sharing and over-inquiring seems critically important.
As HALFWAY NORMAL makes its way into the world, I hope I’m going to hear from kids who have been through cancer treatment and other serious challenges. I hope I’ll also hear from readers who just plain liked the book and want a little author contact. I’ll treasure every one of these emails and letters, as I’ve treasured all the beautiful, touching, inspiring messages I’ve been receiving from readers of STAR-CROSSED.
I’ll write back, of course, deeply grateful and amazed that conversation between author and reader is so possible these days.
But maybe I’ll save the more personal stuff for fiction.
Barbara Dee’s eighth middle grade novel, HALFWAY NORMAL (Aladdin/S&S Sept. 5, 2017), has received starred reviews from Kirkus and School Library Journal, and is a Junior Library Guild selection. She revealed its cover on Nerdy Book Club in February ( https://nerdybookclub.wordpress.com/2017/02/24/cover-reveal-for-halfway-normal-by-barbara-dee/ . She also posted here about a troubling author visit during which teachers asked her not to discuss STAR-CROSSED (Aladdin/S&S, March 14, 2017 ) (https://nerdybookclub.wordpress.com/2017/03/23/please-dont-talk-about-your-book-by-barbara-dee/ ). In 2018, Aladdin/S&S will publish Barbara’s next middle grade novel, EVERYTHING I KNOW ABOUT YOU, about a tween girl’s eating disorder. Barbara is one of the founders and directors of the Chappaqua Children’s Book Festival, celebrating its fifth anniversary on October 14, 2017. She has participated in nErDcampMI, nErDcampLI, and nErDcampNJ. A former English teacher, she lives with her family in Westchester County, NY.