More Everything by K.A. Holt
A student walked up to me last year, after I had finished a presentation at her school. I’d talked about my book, House Arrest, and how some of the events in the book were loosely based on things that had happened in my own life. The student took my hand, surprising me. “My brain is in the sixth grade,” she said, “but my body is the eighth grade.” Caught off guard, I didn’t respond at first. I just nodded. “I work very hard,” she said. “Very hard.” I found my voice and said, “I’m sure you do. I know you do.” Now it was the girl’s turn to nod. “I was a preemie, just like the baby in your book,” she said. “Just like your son. And I want you to know your son is going to work hard and be fine, just like me.” The world slowed for a second as the two of us, eyes locked, regarded each other. Then she smiled and walked off to class.
A few months later, I was at a middle school in a different state, taking a quick break between presentations to chug some water and check my email. I was in the front office, surrounded by teachers and administrators, hurrying around to make sure everything was in place for the next presentation. A young woman walked into the office and approached me. “I wrote you a poem,” she said, offering up a folded piece of notebook paper. I asked if she’d like me to read it to myself, or if she’d like to read it to me. She offered to read it to me. As she began reading, a hush fell over the office. She finished, folded the poem, handed it to me, smiled and went back to class. The teachers and administrators were flabbergasted. “She’s one of our problem students,” an administrator explained after a moment. “She’s never reached out to anyone like this…” silence fell again as he lost his own words. “I didn’t even think she read your book.”
I have a story like this from nearly every school I visit. Students who were not expected to pay attention, paid attention. Students who were not expected to attend, attended (in more ways than one). Students who were flanked by teachers because they were expected to interrupt or heckle, sat rapt. The loners, the troublemakers, the quiet ones, the kids who don’t quite fit in… these are the students who take my hand. They write emails after the fact. They connect. And they are met with surprise. Teachers and administrators are thrilled and befuddled. These familiar students are suddenly unfamiliar. Assumptions dissolve.
When I write my books I like to have adults who are fallible, but not caricatures. I like for readers to see the adult characters arc and change as they learn more about the teens in the story. Adults don’t have everything figured out, and adults certainly don’t have everyone figured out, even though we like to think we do. In my newest book, Knockout, a companion to House Arrest, Levi’s mother thinks she knows everything about her son. Levi was the medically fragile in House Arrest, but in Knockout he’s 12 and is ready to be a typical kid. His brother, Timothy, thinks he knows everything about Levi. Timothy and their mother, after all, have spent their lives keeping Levi safe and healthy. They’ve categorized and chronicled everything about him since he was born. But now Levi is almost a teen. He’s his own man for the first time ever, and he doesn’t want to be categorized or chronicled. He doesn’t want to be put in a tidy box. And he certainly doesn’t want to be constantly monitored. But what does he want to do? How does he want to break free? How can he with so many concerned (but prying) eyes?
Levi’s story is the story of every young person who is struggling to show they are bigger, grander, more colorful, more dynamic, more everything than the adults around them give them credit for. Levi is every student who comes up to me after a presentation and says, whether with their voice or their gestures, “Thank you for seeing the inside me and not just the outside me. Thank you for moving past your assumptions. Thank you for giving me a chance.”
Kari Anne Holt is the author of several middle grade novels in verse including House Arrest (Chronicle), a Bank Street Best Book of the Year 2015, and Rhyme Schemer(Chronicle), an Amazon Best Book for Kids and Teens, and a Bank Street Best Book of the Year. Her novel in haiku, Brains for Lunch, was highlighted on the Texas Library Association’s Annotated Lone Star Reading List for 2011. She is also the author of Gnome-a-geddon, Red Moon Rising, and Mike Stellar: Nerves of Steel, a nominee for the 2014 Connecticut Library Association Nutmeg Book Award and the 2013 Maud Hart Lovelace Award. Kari lives in Austin, TX .