The Mostly True Story of Jack
Today's interview brings us to Kelly Barnhill, an author, teacher and mother with a poetic gift for language. She'll be telling us about her middle grade fantasy, The Mostly True Story of Jack, in which the kid nobody ever noticed suddenly becomes the center of attention -- and he doesn't know why.
Thanks for joining us, Kelly!
Ok, I know the publisher's not allowed to give away the book's secret on the cover copy, but you can tell us, right? What is it that makes Jack so suddenly special?
Hee-hee! Look who's so nosy! What I will say is this: As a writer, I'm very preoccupied with landscape, and how our surroundings shape what we think about, how we relate to one another, how we see ourselves and how we are. So it's not a huge leap for me to think about magic as something that is inextricably linked to the natural world.
Would my seven-year-old son like this book?
Holy smokes, I hope so! One of the things I really love about writing Middle Grade fiction is that I really, really adore middle grade kids. I love how they think; I love how they write; I love the stories they tell.
Mostly, though, I love that kids at that age – I'm talking starting at around third or fourth grade and going into Middle School – start to seriously expand their thinking. They learn how to connect their experience to the larger human experience. Their world-view expands beyond their immediate surroundings of family and friends and school and neighborhood, and becomes more global and universal. They start seeing themselves not only as the kids they are, but as the adults that they will be. And what's more, as the world opens up to them, they realize every day that it's much larger, much stranger, much more alive than they thought the day before. It's a thrilling time.
I think this is one of the reasons that so many of us return (again and again and again) to the books we read during this time period. When I was in fourth grade, I read the Narnia series, The Hobbit, Watership Down, Peter Pan, all of E. Nesbit's books, Little House on the Prairie, and Edward Eager's books. All of these books I've read again (multiple times) as an adult, and with all of them have experienced a similar sense of vertigo – that when I reread those books, I am simultaneously my fourth-grade self reading these books and my 37-year-old self, re-reading. Or, in other words, that these books are like a silk cord linking the me that was to the me that is.
This makes writing books for the middle grade reader very tricky. You need to write a book that speaks to each reader as an individual, that speaks to their experience, that speaks to their hunger for the wide world, that speaks to their furious belief that their experience matters. But you also need to actively engage the person that your reader will be someday. It's like building a castle full of secret passageways and hidden codes that reveal themselves when the time is right.
In addition to being a writer, you're also a teacher and a Mom. Did your real-life experiences with kids affect the way you approached Jack's story?
Oh, absolutely. Firstly, as I said, I just love kids of this age. And spending time with them has forced me to stay connected to the kid that I was at their age. I have to become more playful, more inventive, more open to humor, more aware of all things Odd, Joyful and Ridiculous. But also, because I have to, I try to remain keenly aware of their fears and concerns. Fear of loss, fear of loneliness – these are huge at this age.
Jack is a painfully lonely person who has never known belonging, never known friendship, never known love. There are, unfortunately, a lot of children who feel like that from time to time – and far too many who feel like that all the time.
A number of years ago, I was a seventh grade teacher in Minneapolis and I had a student in foster care. His mom had died the year before from cancer and his dad was in prison, and he had no family who was willing or able to take him in, so he lived with a very nice foster family who was very supportive. Still, he was terribly lonely. And displaced. Once, he said this to me: “You know when a tree branch falls down in a storm, and the leaves are still green and they look like they're still growing, but they're not, and it can't last. It's not connected to anything. And neither am I.” Now, his story has a happy ending, and his feelings of disassociation did eventually ease. His foster family became his legal family and he ended up going to college last I heard. But his mournful cry of loneliness and his longing to be part of something living, breathing and whole has stuck with me.
What advice would you give to aspiring writers?
Don't fear failure. Embrace failure. Don't be afraid to write a million books before you finally produce something that you love. Okay, fine. Not a million. But a lot. Read widely, across genres, and every day. Write vigorously, bravely and without fear of consequence. Make yourself uncomfortable.
But mostly, great stories require great love. Your story is your gift to the world, and you need to love both world and story. You need to love your characters, love your world, love your readers.
Thanks Kelly. The Mostly True Story of Jack will be released this August. In the meantime, readers will have to content themselves with Kelly's other work.
Coming up tomorrow: Leah Cypress leads off our penultimate interview with Mistwood.