#vted Reads with Jo Knowles

Yeah. Me too.

Everything is a lot. Everything… keeps getting to be even more of a lot, and somehow we expect to throw a smile on our faces and, whenever someone asks us if we’re fine, to pretend we are, instead of saying:

‘I’m sad. I’m struggling. I’m overwhelmed. Please just let me lie here facedown in a carton of chocolate ice cream until next spring.’

Listeners, in all these things you are not remotely alone. I am frequently not okay. I am exhausted. And I just watched my audio engineer projectile-vomit feelings of overwhelm at our colleagues. And I realized we are all in it together; we are all feeling the over-the-topness of this moment .

And it’s not even swimsuit season. And we’re no longer 13! (Thank goodness.)

Today on the show, I’m joined by one of the kindest people I know: young adult author Jo Knowles, to talk about her book Where The Heart Is. It’s a book about love, loss, one-piece swimsuits, and trying to reconcile those feelings of what we think we’re supposed to be for other people, with who and how we really are.

Thanks for joining me again, listeners. I’m Jeanie Phillips, this is #vted Reads, a podcast about books by, for, and with Vermont educators. Let’s chat.

(Unless you don’t feel like it, in which case that’s okay too…)

Jeanie: Thank you so much for joining me Jo. Tell us a little bit about who you are and what you do?

Jo: Hi, thanks so much for having me. It’s really an honor to be here and just talk with you today. So! My name is Jo Knowles, I write young adult and middle-grade fiction — or what we often call Tween fiction, these days. And I also have a picture book and picture book coming out next fall, my first one called Ear Worm and it’s about a little worm who gets a song stuck in his head. And he needs to try to figure out who put it there.

I also teach writing for Southern New Hampshire University and their MFA program. It’s called Mountainview MFA and it’s a Low-Residency program. And so, teaching and writing those were my two things.

Jeanie: So a) I can’t wait to get a copy of Ear Worm. That sounds like a great book, congratulations on that. It sounds like a great book to read aloud to our Tween readers even though we think of picture books for younger folks.

Jo: I am so excited. The whole idea is such a silly story, but I had a dream that I had this great idea for a picture book. And then I, you know I got up in the middle of the night and I wrote it all down because I was so excited because I thought it was such a great concept.

And I woke up in the morning and I went to find my notes and I said to my husband, “What happened to the notes I took about the picture book idea I had in the middle of the night?”

And he said, what are you talking about?

…I said: “Didn’t I get up in the middle of the night and write down the story?”

And he said no.

Then I thought: oh my gosh. Did I dream that I had this idea? I was all upset. Anyway, I took the dog for a walk later that day. I was walking in the woods and it all came back to me. So I came home and I wrote it.

Jeanie: I’ve met you several times because you’ve come to my former school library and done amazing work with students around writing and talking to them about your books. And I wonder what it’s like to be a Teen and Tween author — and now picture book author — in a COVID world, where you don’t have some sort of ready access to readers?

Jo: Yeah, it’s very heartbreaking. I’m not going to sugarcoat it. One of the biggest joys about writing for kids is meeting kids and just being able to share, not just my stories but my own personal story. Because I think when I’m doing school visits, when I talk about my own journey to becoming a published author and getting over my own shyness and things about public speaking. That’s when I really feel that connection to kids.

And, you know, sometimes afterwards there’s always at least one kid who comes up and they’re shy like me, and they got brave somehow. They’ll indicate some special thing about them that made them feel close to me.  For me, those are the moments that I just cling to. Especially when I’m struggling with my own work and thinking I can’t do this anymore, why do I do this.

I think of those kids that I’ve touched and I miss that already.

You know, I can still do Zoom visits with kids and that’s fine. But, there’s just something about being able to recognize a kid in the audience with whom you’re making a special connection. Face-to-face or in-person visits allow you to take it to the next step. Allow that kid to come over to you privately and sort of say something that they didn’t feel comfortable saying in front of their entire school or their class.

But you know, we’ll just make up for it when it’s safe again to travel.

Jeanie: One of the things I just heard from you — I heard so many things, but one of the things I want to follow up on is like: writing is hard, even when you’re a writer.

And I remember you talking to my former students about that: that writing is a labor no matter what. And I think there’s this mistaken notion that for writers it’s really easy for them. But, could you talk a little bit about writing being hard and how you approach such a challenging work?

Jo: Well, it’s hard for different reasons, right?

Sometimes it’s hard because the words just aren’t flowing for whatever reason.

And then, sometimes it’s hard because you’re writing a difficult scene. Or you’re writing something that comes from a really personal place and you might feel nervous about sharing that in a story. Or there just might be something where you’re putting your character in harm’s way. You know that that’s part of the story arc, but that’s really difficult to do for anybody who has read, See You at Harry’s, that was certainly the hardest book I ever.

So and I do tend to write about sort of sad or difficult things that happened.

I write realistic fiction. And so naturally most of my stories are about overcoming some kind of obstacle and it’s usually physical and personal. (Most often, it’s also happens to be something I, myself, have experienced and survived.) And so, those moments are usually the hardest part for me.

But then there’s also other times where it’s just getting through the murky middle of a book where you had this great idea or concept and then you’re just sort of,

“How do I get to the end? I thought this book was going one place and now it seems to want to go another place? How do I reign it in and make this a story that’s going to actually be publishable?”

So that’s a challenge.

And then like with my most recent book that I’m still working on right now, Where the Heart Is. There’s a little sister in that book named Ivy. She’s a secondary character. But, I’ve been working on a novel about Ivy, for the past couple of years now. It’s a younger middle-grade, so Ivy is nine years old and just the voice originally kind of came to me as third person.

I wrote it and then, my editor gave me comments. And I revised it.

Then she gave: “Still not there yet. I’m not connecting with Ivy.”

Finally, I had done big revisions. Like, maybe three really big revisions with my editor. And we had a heart-to-heart phone call. And I knew it was bad.

I knew it was something wasn’t working still.

And she very gently suggested that maybe I should try first person instead of third person.

(For any writers listening, you know that that doesn’t mean doing a find and replace. It means starting over. All over again, with a blank page.)

And so I rewrote the entire book again.

But that was it! As soon as I started it, her voice just flowed out of me and it was fun and enjoyable.

And I had come to really dread working on the book! Butthen once I had her voice, it was such a joy to sit down and write again.

That’s another example of when it’s really hard to write. But then I think advice for any writers listening is just allowing yourself to acknowledge that sometimes a book takes more than one try. Nothing is ever a waste of time.

I couldn’t have written that book in first person without having done all the work that led up to it. Because I needed to understand Ivy’s story so fully before I could step into her shoes. I had to write those drafts to really understand what the book was that I was trying to write. Once I did that? Then it was easy. It just flew out of me and it was fun and I loved it.

So there’s a lot of work to writing.

I know some writers can, you know, write a book in a month and I’m so jealous of them. But for me, it’s a much longer process. Someday maybe I’ll get a little bit faster, I don’t know. I’ve written 10 books now and it’s not getting any easier.

Jeanie: Well and so first off, Ivy is just such a likable character in Where the Heart Is that I can’t wait to read her story. She’s a hoot in this book. So I’m looking forward to that one.

The other thing is the reason I loved having you come to Green Mountain Union High School all those years ago — and why I kept inviting you — is because having you and writers like you come and share their story of writing? I think it helps kids see not just in terms of writing, but in terms of other things. Like the way to utilize feedback, to make something better. We think that people like writers for example, are just really good at things, but really it’s all labor, it’s all effort.

And you always told such interesting stories about that effort to my students. And you brought revisions to show them!

Anyway, one more question before we get to Where the Heart Is. Where you as a reader Jo Knowles, what are you reading right now?

Jo: Oh, I am almost finished, I’m actually reading an adult nonfiction book, which I normally I’m just constantly reading middle-grade and young adult books. But I decided to sort of just take a little break and I’m reading this fascinating book called The Man Who Quit Money by Mark Sundeen. He’s a colleague of mine, we both teach in the MFA program at SNHU and oh my gosh, it’s just this fascinating story of a man who decided to give up money and how it’s really about his life, how he came to that decision, but then also how he pulls it off.

Jeanie: I can’t wait. So, let’s get to Where the Heart Is. Could you introduce us to our main character Rachel, either through her voice reading maybe a little bit or just tell us about her and who she is to you?

Jo: Yeah, I mean 13: it’s so hard. And there are so many expectations from your friends, from your parents, from teachers, everybody.

You know like, “Oh, who’s her first crush going to be?” And then they tease, you know, tease each other and all these things. But, we just kind of make assumptions about that, right?

And there’s some kids who are just not ready to have those feelings yet. And I think sometimes they just feel like so confused or like outsiders almost. Because they’re not part of that conversation. Or they don’t want to be part of that conversation yet; they’re not ready to be. Yet for society, it’s just: “You’re this age, so that’s when these things are supposed to be happening.”

That’s really hard.

And then I think it’s especially hard with somebody who has mixed feelings and they don’t even know, you know:

“Do I like girls? Or do I like boys? Do I like anyone?”

It’s such a difficult time for so many kids. We don’t always acknowledge that. We don’t take it seriously. I think we can joke around and be like, “When are the engagement plans?” Not realizing that can actually, you know, be hurtful to a kid who is feeling under pressure for all kinds of reasons.

Jeanie: Right. And friendships are changing. Kids’ brains are changing. Their bodies are changing, right? And in this book, it’s summer time. Rachel’s dealing with like this new pressure around bodies because of bathing suits and swimming, and swimming in the swimming hole. I think it’s easy to forget that kids arrive at all of those changes at different times and in different ways. But they carry a lot of meaning and a lot of stress and strain for kids.

Jo: That’s the other pressure, right? Who’s developing now? Who looks good in a bikini? Or:

“Why are you wearing a one-piece? That’s for babies!”

All these things that people say to each other. They’re not meant to be hurtful, but they can be.

And so poor Rachel, she’s really struggling with so many things because her parents don’t have a lot of money. She can’t really go out and buy a new bathing suit. So she’s got these hand-me-downs and she feels so self-conscious.

I mean that was me, when I was 13, I was so uncomfortable with my identity, my body, like everything. And so I just really wanted to write a character like that because, I think one of the reasons I was so shy as a kid especially at Rachel’s age was, I was so insecure and unsure of myself. And I know I wasn’t the only one. And I wanted to provide a character in a book like that for kids like me, who really wanted to be able to identify with someone who was struggling with all that stuff.

Jeanie: I really see this in the book. Especially at the end of the book this idea of insides and outsides. That’s a phrase I use often, when I need it: don’t compare your insides to somebody else’s outside.

But with Rachel, she presents in one way. Like, all of the adults around her think of her so capable. All of the young people around her think if you have a best friend, everything’s going right for you. And all she can see is the inadequacy of her clothes and how insecure she feels. How uncertain she is about who she is. But the people outside don’t see that about her.

This is from page 254. Her father says,

“You’ve been a wonderful big sister this summer. And you’ve taken on a big responsibility with all those animals. You don’t complain when your mom and I can’t buy you things. And you’re just a good kid, Rachel. And you’re teaching Ivy to be a good kid, too.”

I think about all my internal griping about my bathing suit and hand-me-downs. Maybe on the outside I seem good, but I’m not always so great on the inside.

I guess I love that.

I often feel that about myself like people are like, oh you’re doing fine. And I’m like, oh if you only you could peer inside of my head a little bit or inside my heart a little bit, and so I feel like that’s just part of the human condition. And you really give kids I think somebody to identify with, who seems fine! But who’s really struggling.

Jo: Thank you so much. I may be a little teary just listening to you say that! Yeah… I think social media is another example of that where, I can present myself any way I want on social media. I can show pictures of myself having the best of times. But, you know, I might be really struggling. No one would know that.

And I think that’s the way with so many kids. It harkens back to what I was saying earlier about connecting with a kid in an audience, because when I go and speak at schools, I try really hard to be as honest as possible about my own insecurities. And with what I struggled with as a kid.

Then I always see a little nod, you know, by one of the kids.

I just try to nod back, but not be obvious.

But I want to be like I see you, I see you; I know. We’re connecting. Like, I want them to know that they’re not alone. And that’s why books are so great for kids, right? Because when they see themselves in a book, it’s this moment of recognition where they know… they’re not alone anymore.

So I think the more that authors can write as honestly as possible about what kids worry about — and not trying to create these wholesome perfect characters — but really characters who are trying their best, but aren’t perfect.

Those are the examples I think that our readers need.

And especially with Rachel’s family, just… the financial hardships that they have. The number of kids who have written to me to tell me that they know what that’s like. I was telling a group of middle schoolers where the idea of Where the Heart Is came from which is.. it’s probably the most autobiographical of all of my books.

When I was in — I was older than Rachel and this happened. But. My family’s house was foreclosed on. We had to move out of our childhood, my childhood home, my beloved home.

And I told the whole story of that.

Afterwards, a little boy came up to me and he said, “I am so sorry for the hard time you went through. May I give you a hug?”

Those are the hugs I’m talking about, right? Like that’s — that’s the connection. Because then, I looked to his teacher and asked is it okay if I give him a hug. And she said yes.

But while I was hugging him, he said: “I’ve been through those hard times too”.

It was this moment where I felt like he needed to be closer to me to tell me that secret, and a hug was the way.

Yeah. That’s when I know writing about the tough things in an honest way is the connection that you make with kids. When you’ve done it honestly, they appreciate it,and they can learn from it.

They can — they can see hope.

One of the things that, even though I write about sad things or hard things, I always try to offer hope — realistic hope — in my books. And I think that that too is a responsibility of an author when you’re writing for younger kids. They appreciate it and it gives them hope for their own situation. They’re connecting with you. I felt like even though he was giving me hope by giving me that hug, I was giving it back to him as well.

Jeanie: Oh, I just love that story. Everything about it.

One of the real opportunities of this book is to be shared with kids as a read-aloud. It’s about a family who is struggling economically, financially and dealing with economic pressures. The reality of what that looks like that the parents aren’t getting along all the time. The kids are eating makeshift meals, right? That struggle is real for this family.

And that was already a reality for many Vermont families — and many families nationwide — but it’s a growing reality with the economic pressures we’re under right now because of COVID. Families out of work.

This book feels like a really important thing; a thing where we can talk about these pressures without talking about our own personal experiences …necessarily. That’s really important.

But, I heard from a librarian last year, that their faculty did *not* want to do a class read on The Benefits of Being An Octopus, Ann Brayden’s book because what if it was too close to home for some kids.

Now, having grown up poor myself, all I could think was that I felt seen when I read that book. I would have *loved* to have felt seen in that way as a young person without ever having to confess that my family was struggling. Does that make sense?

Jo: Yes. Yes it does.

Oh that.

Okay. So… when I was a teenager, I didn’t really like to read very much. And one of the reasons I think now, looking back on that, is because books did not reflect my reality. They made me feel bad about myself.

I never had the perfect lives that these kids so often had. You know I love Judy Blume, for example. But I always felt like even though the characters were flawed and they had challenges, they were so safe. Not even just Judy Blume but, many of Beverly Cleary’s books, too.

I never felt like the character was in danger. I knew it was going to be fine, and nothing felt really, really serious, right?

And then when I got older I read The Chocolate War by Robert Cormier.

Now, that is a very difficult read. Horrible things happened in the book; the characters are not nice people. But for me, it was the first book that felt honest about what life was really like. It was the first book that reflected my reality. I grew up watching my brother, who’s older than me, get beat up all the time. I saw teachers bullying my brother because he was gay.

That was my reality. That good people “could do bad things”, and that wasn’t present in my, in the books that I had read yet. And that was the first book that moved me to tears. That made me feel real, and that I wasn’t alone. It wasn’t just me who was having these experiences. It was A Thing. Bullying was really a thing, and it wasn’t something that was just, oh someone’s teasing you. But the real depths of what it’s like to be severely bullied.

And so that book just confirmed everything for me. It helped me feel like a real person.

And I, I remember thinking whoever this Robert Cormier is, he tells the truth. I want to do that.

I want to be like that. I want to disturb the universe, you know like famous line in that book.

And so, when I hear that someone might be concerned about sharing a book with a kid, with a story that that might reflect their difficult reality because it would be too hard to read another story about somebody like them? I can’t… I can’t quite fathom how you would come to that conclusion.

Because kids need to know that they’re not alone.

And in books — like Ann’s book — there is hope and they need to know that too.

So, it seems very sad to me that somebody might keep a book from a child for that reason because those are the kinds of books that can really — and I don’t mean to be overdramatic —  but they can save kids’ lives.

I mean, I honestly feel like The Chocolate War got me in a moment of real vulnerability. If I hadn’t had that book and then all of his other books that I read after that one, to remind me that I wasn’t alone? I’m not sure like, what I would have done. Or how I would have felt.

Or even how I would have survived that really, really rough time in my life.

So, no!

If anyone is listening and hesitating to share a book, you could ask a kid for one thing.

For example, See You At Harry’s has a death in it, right?

Now, I was doing a school visit and it was for a middle school. And I was going to talk about all of my middle-grade books.

So, I was going to talk about See You at Harry’s and how I got the idea for that, and Still a Work in Progress, and Where the Heart is.

And one of the teachers, when they saw the slide before the big assembly, they saw the slide of See You at Harry’s and she came rushing over and said, “Are you planning to talk about that book?”

I said yes.

And she said “Well, what are you going to say?”

I told her I was going to talk about my brother, and why I wrote the book. It was inspired by my own experience with grief.

So she said before you do that let me go, talk with someone.

Meanwhile, I am about to speak to 450 kids. I’ve got my speech ready, and I’m not sure what’s happening.

She comes back with one of the assistant principals and they say:

“Well, we have a student and she’s in the audience and she lost her brother last year. We haven’t shared the book with her, even though many of the other kids have read it because we think it will be too disturbing for her to read this book. So, please don’t talk about that book for the first presentation because she will be in the audience.”

Okay! I’m trying my best to sort of figure out how do I respond to this.

Meanwhile, other teachers could see that there was an issue coming up, and so more teachers came over to find out what’s going on.

And then, someone luckily said let’s talk to the guidance person, who’s like a therapist or something. So they went and got the therapist.

Meanwhile, time is running out; I have no idea what I’m going to do for my presentation.

I’m trying to be sensitive and think oh my gosh, you know? But now we’ve gone from teacher, vice principal, principal, therapist.

And the therapist says, “Why don’t we ask her?”

So! Somebody ran down the hall, found the student, told her about my book and what I was going to talk about and she said–

“Oh! I would love to hear what happened to her!”

Because it was a connection.

Somebody finally had also experienced that same kind of pain was in the building. And was going to talk about it.

It was great. It turned out to be exactly what this kid needed.

And well I, I share this story because I understand that the first reaction of these teachers, it wasn’t censorship. It was that they were trying to protect this student mwho had clearly gone through something that was very traumatic and they didn’t want her to be in any pain.

But in doing that they almost lost this opportunity for this kid to meet somebody who had a shared experience with her, who could really help her feel seen.

Thank goodness the therapist went and asked her directly what did she want, what do you think is best for you. You know, she knew the answer to that!

I think we need to trust kids more.

So, yes, if you know that you’re about to share a book with somebody who might have a shared experience and say this might be sad for you to read, or it might be helpful, what do you think?

Let them decide.

We have got to give more power to our kids. Especially when it comes to what they’re ready to read. Because those stories, they help kids grow. They help kids have more empathy for others.

I think that so many of the students in that school then, knowing that their friend had been through something similar, then read the book. Then they really had a better understanding, what it might have been like for their friend. So, we’ve got to keep sharing these stories and not be afraid of them.

These things happen, you know? And for anyone who hadn’t experienced any kind of tragedy yet in their lives, now they know what it could be like. They’re prepared. What better way to experience something difficult than in a book first before in real life? Books help prepare us for all of these things.

And so, yes, it’s hard.

You don’t want your child to read a book and cry, but I don’t know, maybe we do. Maybe we do want them to have those feelings and really under, have feelings of intense caring for others.

Goodness knows, we really need that right now, so.

Jeanie: I just love that whole story and your analysis of it. It just really rings true for me. And I think about if we don’t share stories about a family like Rachel’s family in this book, it’s also an active eraser, right?

We pretend like this doesn’t happen but we know that a large percentage of our students in schools, all over the country and in Vermont are facing economic hardship.

Jo: Yes. And I and, and to kids who are *not* having that experience understand what it’s like. So that the next time they might be tempted to make fun of somebody for whatever they wear to school, maybe they’ll think twice about it and understand that this kid might be going through a hard time. And maybe what they really need is a friend, you know?

Jeanie: Yeah. Well and you brought up See You at Harry’s, and I have to admit that I am a person who reads books to cry. I find that cathartic experience to be an important part.

I think about reading a lot to my son when he was younger — or any children — as less an educational experience and more a shared relational, emotional experience. Because for me, and the books that I read? I put down books that don’t tug at my heart in some way. Or don’t wake me up emotionally, right?

That’s what’s really important to me is that I, is that I’m feeling while I’m reading.

When I read See You at Harry’s, I sobbed *so* gutturally, that my family thought I was hurt or injured, right?

It’s really like one of those books that wrenched me more than any other.

So, thank you for that experience.

You know that sounds crazy, but I was so attached to those characters.

And one of the things I find about your books, Jo, is you write family so well. And as an educator right, it just seems to be we can learn a lot just from how in you write families. So, thank you for the families you share with us.

Jo: …Thank you.

Jeanie: But one of the challenges then, as a reader and I imagine even more as a writer is that I found myself in Where the Heart Is. I could probably say the same about See You at Harry’s in wanting a happy ending, but knowing also that I would be disappointed with a happy ending. I was *yearning* for things to work out for Rachel and her family.

But I also knew that if the rich neighbors across the street bail them out or they suddenly got an inheritance, I would feel cheated.

So, I’m wondering: how do you balance that? How do you love these people and give them a realistic ending?

Jo: Yeah. That’s a really hard question to answer.

Actually, I think my stories are all about — if I’m going to just sort of simplify it — they’re about survival. Surviving hard things together.

When you talk about family, I think things that happen when you’re 10 are going to affect every member of your family. It’s a group experience and you all have to survive it together.

When I think about family and your comment about that, that’s probably why because it’s not just Rachel’s journey. It’s this thing that happens and affects her sister and her parents and her best friend too.

So you have to sort of explore that as the author. You have to explore how would this affect each of these family members differently. How do they come together to get over this hurdle?

And in See You at Harry’s for a large part of the book, they don’t. The mother really retreats into herself; this is a family adrift in their grief. And I think a lot of this part of that book was how they find one another again and realize that the only way they are going to move forward is by figuring out how to come back together again, and live as a family without this one piece that was there and now has gone.

That’s really difficult.

And in Rachel’s case, the father is telling her she’s such a good big sister in helping Ivy through all of this. But! I think part of Rachel’s success in getting through all of this, was having a little sister to rely on and love, and know that she has to be a good role model for her in a way.

The family is all really connected in all of my books because surviving together requires that.

In Still a Work in Progress, the main character, Noah, his older sister has an eating disorder. And the story is so much about how the family is disconnected *because* none of them really know how to be in this situation: walking on eggshells all the time, wondering if the sister will relapse.

And then when she does, whose fault is it? They just want to blame each other and they’re just so confused and lost and helpless-feeling. A lot of that book is about how the family comes back together; that’s where the hope is. The hope isn’t that Noah’s sister has this miraculous recovery and she’s never going to get sick again and she’s fine. The hope is in the coming together of the family members.

I’m thinking about that now. I’m like, oh wow I just write the same book over and over again. But that’s really how it, how it happens, right? Feeling adrift and then finding one another. That to me is the hope in those books.

That’s something that you can give readers who are going through a difficult time: to understand that it’s each other. If you have each other hold on to, you know you can get through this.

That sounds cliché but so often that’s what we have to remember is that you have each other.

And you may have to live in a different house, it might not be as nice as the one you were used to you, but you’re together and you love each other. And you have other days ahead where maybe things will change again.

But really trying to just find love again, when you’re feeling very alone? I think those are some of the themes that I really try to work on. Those are things that I think we can all attain. Some may be more difficult than others but that’s something I can provide.

Jeanie: Thank you for that answer. One of the things I really notice in your writing is the way in which you write your characters — including families as a character —  through this strengths-based perspective, right? Like you’re always looking for the places they’re capable and strong. It makes me think if there weren’t challenges, those wouldn’t show up this much.

Part of respecting your characters is giving them the challenges that you know that they can handle, because they can do hard things.

Rachel and Ivy are prime examples of that, right? They show up. All of the characters in this book, all of the young people in this book? Are given the opportunity to demonstrate all the ways in which young people are superstars. All the ways in which they’re so capable and more than just at helping you when you can’t figure out your phone. They have lots of other things too.

Jo: We have to give kids so much more credit than we do. Sometimes we forget. Especially right now, when I see kids doing super-creative things. They’re stuck at home and they’re finding ways to make the most of it in such beautiful, admirable ways. And that can travel beyond COVID and throughout life. But we need to remember to acknowledge and celebrate those moments because sometimes, they just seem so small but they’re huge. Any moment that you have when your kid does something cool, just acknowledge that.

Jeanie: Or somebody else’s kid. The girl across the street from me does the most beautiful sidewalk, chalk art. And it brings me so much joy on my dog walks because I don’t have a kid in my home and in my daily life right now. But her art is always uplifting and positive, and it just brings me so much joy.

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I finally told her that the other day because I realized I was carrying all this joy from her art inside, but I hadn’t expressed her how much it meant to me the things she chalks on the sidewalk across the street.

Jo: Oh, I’m so glad you had an opportunity to tell her! I bet that meant so much to her. I bet internally that went a really long way and will probably stay there for a long time doing good things. I’m so glad you got to do that.

Jeanie: So, do you have any suggestions about how teachers might use this book in the classroom? Questions they might pose? Problems they might use with students?

Jo: There’s a free teacher’s guide on my website that my publisher put together! (.pdf)

But one of the things that I really had fun doing with kids when I was visiting around, was asking them to write some favorite childhood memories of their own or sharing some special thing about their family. Or a family tradition of some sort that’s unexpected. That only their family does; something like that. Something positive, something that brings them joy.

Jeanie: Like the birthday banner in this book. That seemed like a specific family tradition, they put up a birthday banner for each family member’s birthday in the morning. Is that the kind of thing you’re thinking about?

Jo: Yeah! It doesn’t have to be something huge but some little thing that maybe only their family does, that they think is special. Even describing their relationship with a sibling. The best day you ever had with your sibling. Focusing on something that’s positive.

I try to give lots of examples so students don’t feel pressure to come up with some big thing. It’s the little things that I can pull out ideas from Where the Heart Is that Rachel and Ivy share.

Jeanie: One of the things I love about reading fiction is I think you get to, to real deep truth through fiction, more than with nonfiction. We think of nonfiction as factual but to me like the deep truths are in fiction, but there’s also often in fiction little snippets that I could imagine pulling out and using with the class.

One of them, from your book is on Page 246. It says,

When you learn vocabulary words in school, you memorize the definition. And you have a good idea of what the words mean. But it’s not until you feel them that you really grasped the definition. I’ve known what the word helpless means for a long time. And desperate. But I’ve never felt them. Feeling them is different. They fill your chest with the horrible sense of dread and guilt and despair. Those are more vocabulary words that you can’t fully understand until you feel them.

And so, I’m thinking about using this around vocabulary or spelling or word use or just like what really makes you feel something and feeling about how powerful that little snippet could be in the classroom.

Jo: I like that.

Jeanie: Thank you so much for taking the time to talk to us about Where the Heart Is for sharing your story as a, as a person, as a human and also as a writer, and for being so vulnerable Jo. I, I, there’s so much strength and vulnerability and I really appreciate that about you as a writer and, and just the way you show up here and with kids to talk about your books and, and your work. Thank you so much.

Jo: Thank you so much. That’s really kind and means a lot to me coming from you. Thank you very much.

I just know that right now, while kids are transitioning from Zoom to classrooms and then back to Zoom as things have been flowing with the virus that, I hope that we can give kids the space to feel like they can just get lost in a story and that that’s enough.

I know we always talk about how do we use the book in the classroom, but sometimes, I think we just need to share these stories and let them, and let that be sometimes enough that we are connecting through feeling, going through a journey all together.

So, sharing books out loud, reading to each, reading to kids no matter what age, I think that that’s one way to feel connected at a time when we feel so disconnected. Stories have always brought us together. And I hope that we try to hold on to that and allow space for that as we are pressured to have all of this education time. Stories are always teaching us so many things, and I think that’s probably enough just to experience them together.

Jeanie: I love it. I’m all for the marketing campaign, stories as self-care and community care.

Jo: Perfect. I will make that T-shirt.

Jeanie Phillips

Jeanie Phillips is a former (and always!) school librarian and a Professional Development Coordinator for TIIE. A 2014 Rowland Fellow, she is passionate about student engagement, equity, collaboration, and questions. Jeanie likes to hike the woods of southern Vermont with her dog Charlie and is always in search of a well-brewed cup of tea and a good book.

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