Tackling Issues: an interview with Katherine Applegate & Jen Petro-Roy (ages 8-14)

Mary Ann: Katherine, You’ve written for many age levels, from very young children to adults, yet it seems that your sweet spot is middle grade. What draws you to this age group?

Katherine: You’re right that middle grade readers are my favorite audience. Typically that’s defined as children 8 to 12 years of age. Children this age are beginning to think about the wider world. They start asking Big Questions (to the delight and frustration of the adults in their lives): What does fairness mean? Why is there cruelty in the world? What defines who I am? Why did Joey get the biggest meatball?

I just wrote an introduction to an essay collection by the beloved children’s writer, Natalie Babbitt (Barking with the Big Dogs: On Writing and Reading Books for Children, coming out on November 20, 2018). Babbitt is perhaps best known for her remarkable novel for middle grade readers, Tuck Everlasting, which Anne Tyler called “one of the best books ever written — for any age.”

And what is Tuck about, this little book for children? Immortality. Why we have to die. What matters most in our short and magical lives. All those things we try not to think about . . . and absolutely must think about.

And it’s a book for kids.

That’s why I love writing for middle grade readers.

Mary Ann: You’re so right — kids are really beginning to wrestle with big issues. Jen, what has been your experience?

Jen: In my job as a librarian, I found that kids often sought out books about tough topics. They want to read about kids going through struggles–with homelessness, with difficult family situations, with friend troubles, with illness, and more–because they are often going through the same struggles themselves.

When I’m reading, it’s reassuring to see that I’m not the only one going through a specific situation…and it’s even more reassuring to see that characters can find their way through, triumph, and thrive. For kids, this is an even more necessary process, because they don’t have as much life experience. They need to see that representation on the page and they truly want to. It makes them feel so much less alone…and isn’t that one of the aims of literature?

Katherine: I love your point about literature helping us feel less, alone, Jen. That’s probably the greatest gift books can give us. That, and helping us make sense of a world that doesn’t always make sense. (That’s particularly true lately.)

Mary Ann: Jen, can you tell us a little bit about the issues Evie has to wrestle with in P.S. I Miss You?

Jen: After being raised in a very Catholic family, Evie starts to question the beliefs of her parents after her older sister gets pregnant and Evie herself gets her first crush on a girl. Teen pregnancy, religion, and sexuality are definitely three “tough issues” and many have questioned why I raised them in a middle-grade novel. For me, though, this was exactly the place to raise it, because middle school is the time when kids start to question the world, who they are, and how they were raised. It’s so important that these kids can see themselves now, and don’t have to wait until they’re teens or even adults to see themselves represented in literature. At the same time, though, I love hearing about teenagers and adults reading P.S. I Miss You. I think it helps different age groups in different ways.

Mary Ann: Have you heard from young readers about the tough issues you bring up in your books? How have they reacted? What do they find powerful?

Jen: Hearing from and interacting with readers is my absolute favorite part of this job. I’ve heard from a bunch so far about how wonderful it is to see representation of different sexualities in books for their age group. After one of my school visits, I had a girl come up to me and share that she’s a queer middle schooler with a brother about to go off to college, and she really related to Evie, who writes letters to her older sister Cilla. I am so proud to be able to help people feel a little bit less alone.

Mary Ann: Katherine, with wishtree you tackle tough issues around immigration and racism, and yet you do this in a way that 3nd graders can relate to. Do you keep the age of your audience in mind while you write?

Katherine: I do, very much so. (Although I know many writers for children who say the age of the audience doesn’t figure into their writing.) School visits have helped me a lot in this regard. I see the innocence and the honesty in younger readers, and I try to write what they need to hear. If it works for other ages, great.

Mary Ann: One of my students, Clara, told me that books “give kids an idea of how the world can be and how we can change it.” Katherine, while Endling is clearly fantasy, what are you hoping that readers think about while they read it?

Katherine: Endling is a fantasy about the last individual in a doglike species. Here in the real world, we’re in the midst of what is often referred to as the Sixth Extinction, a huge loss of species that seems to be almost entirely the result of human behavior. I wanted to touch on that, but in a way that I hope is accessible to younger readers.

Mary Ann: What do you think parents or teachers are afraid of when they push back against “heavy” or “mature” books for kids?

Jen: As a parent myself, I can understand the impulse to shield kids from tough issues. The world is scary, and it’s even more frightening to think of innocence being shattered. I wish the world was perfect for my daughters, and I wish they could believe it was so. So when parents push back, I think a lot of that impulse comes from fear or the desire to avoid discomfort. It’s hard to imagine explaining things like school shootings or death to children, so it can be easier to avoid the topic entirely. And for issues that parents or teachers don’t believe in, it may be “easier” to ban books or topics entirely. Out of sight, out of mind, after all. The problem there is that issues never remain out of sight. And when kids don’t know the realities of the world, those realities will be that much harder to deal with in the future. They won’t learn tolerance or acceptance, either.

Katherine: This is why librarians were invented. To get books into the hands of the children who most need them.

Mary Ann: Many of my students are drawn to realistic fiction that deals with tough issues. Why do you think this is? How do stories help us?

Katherine: When you’re in the middle of figuring out your place in the world, it helps to have a map. Books are like GPS for our hearts. They help us navigate the hard stuff.

I’ve had OCD since I was a kid. A book like OCDaniel (by Wesley King) would have changed my life.

I have a trans daughter who’s 21. I wish Alex Gino’s George had been around for her when she needed it.

I know too many young girls on their way to eating disorders. I’d love to get Jen’s upcoming novel, Good Enough, into all their hands.

Jen: Stories help us feel like we’re not alone in the world, that we’re not the only one dealing with certain issues. Readers can think, “Hey, if that character can get through such a difficult situation, maybe I can, too.” Simply seeing that books like this exist can make readers feel a sense of belonging, too. If readers see LGBTQ books in libraries or classrooms or are handed a book by their parents, they will know that those authority figures are safe and accepting. That they can go to them if they need to talk. Books can help facilitate a community of love and acceptance, and I love that about them.

Mary Ann: Jen, can you tell us a little about your upcoming books? With Katherine raving about them, I can’t wait to know more!

Jen: Absolutely! I have two more books coming out in next year, both out on February 19th. Good Enough is another middle-grade fiction, about a 12-year-old named Riley who has been hospitalized for anorexia nervosa and is struggling to recover amidst parents who don’t understand, a fellow patient who is trying to sabotage Riley, and a gymnastic star sister. I’m so proud of this book, as it was inspired by my own struggle and recovery from anorexia, and there’s not much out there in this area for young readers that is both hopeful and non-triggering. Macmillan/Feiwel & Friends will also be simultaneously releasing You Are Enough, which is a non-fiction guide to eating disorder recovery, body image, and self-esteem for middle-schoolers and teens. Advanced copies of both are starting to make their way in the world!

Katherine: As an early reader, I can offer this spoiler alert: Good Enough is amazing. It belongs in every library.

Mary Ann: I wonder if you can end with any advice for parents about reading.

Jen: Reading is anything your kids want it to be. As a former librarian, I’m familiar with parents steering their children away from books they don’t think are “real literature.” They don’t want their kids to read graphic novels or those easy chapter books with mermaids and puppy dogs on the covers. But any kinds of books are good. Kids thrive when they are reading the books they want, whether it’s a book filled with fart jokes or War and Peace. Let them follow their interests. Let them love the written word.

Katherine: Couldn’t agree with Jen more. Reading is supposed to be fun, people!

I was a reluctant reader myself, and it took me a long time to find my “perfect” book. For me, it was Charlotte’s Web. But for your child, it may be a graphic novel. Or non-fiction. Or a picture book. Or a chapter book. Or poetry. Or song lyrics.

It’s all about words. It doesn’t matter how they’re packaged. It only matters how much they’re loved.

Thank you both so much for your time and all of the care and love you pour into your stories. If you make a purchase using the Amazon links on this site, a small portion goes to Great Kid Books. Thank you for your support.

©2018 Mary Ann Scheuer, Great Kid Books