#vted Reads with Kate Messner

I’m Jeanie Phillips and we’re back for a third season of vted Reads! Books by, for and with Vermont educators. Kicking off this season we’re joined on the show by author and former teacher Kate Messner. Kate’s here to talk about how we can use books about some dark topics as conduits to reach students who may not even know they can or should talk about those topics.

I did just make it sound a lot bleaker of an episode than it is.

Trust me, it’s a good one. And Kate’s a delightful guest! We’ll talk about her books Chirp, Breakout, and The Seventh Wish, along with sending you away with a whole mess of new titles for your To Read pile.

Plus, Kate will reveal what her favorite flavor of cricket is.

Yes, you will be amazed to learn how many different ways there are to snack on crickets.

Now, one content note for today’s show: Kate’s book, Chirp, deals with issues of grooming, which is when adults behave in inappropriate ways with children, usually as a prelude to much worse behavior. We’ll talk today a little bit about that, but if you’re not in a space to join us right now, that’s okay. Be kind, safe, and gentle with yourselves.

Welcome back to vted Reads, season three! Let’s chat.

Jeanie: Today, I’m with Kate Messner and we’ll be talking about her book, Chirp. Thanks so much for joining me, Kate.Tell us a little bit about who you are and what you do.

Kate Messner: Thank you so much! Well, I am a children’s author. I’ve written  — as of 2020 — it will be 50 books for kids. They range from picture books like Over and Under the Snow and How to Read a Story, How to Write a Story, The Next President, to Easy Readers like the Fergus and Zeke series with Candlewick Press, to chapter books like The Ranger in Time Series with Scholastic. And novels, and nonfiction. Books like Breakout and The Seventh Wish and Chirp. And then some nonfiction as well! Like Tracking Pythons, which is about invasive Burmese pythons in Florida, and a new series called History Smashers, which is aimed at undoing the lies and myths we teach young kids about history. Starting with: the first Thanksgiving. The first book is History Smashers: The Mayflower.

Jeanie: And that book just came out, is that correct?

Kate: Yeah! New this summer History Smashers: The Mayflower and History Smashers: Women’s Right to Vote. Then in the fall, book three comes out: Pearl Harbor. And we’ll have book four in the spring of 2021, that is History Smashers: Titanic.

Jeanie: Those sound so relevant to our current moment in time. Perfect timing.

Kate: I really hope so. I know so many teachers right now are looking at the work that that we can all do to dismantle white supremacy and to promote equality. And part of that work is taking a hard look at the way we’ve taught history. Our textbooks have long looked at things from a very white, very colonialist perspective. And these books aim to to start a broader conversation about that. The biggest thing is I think kids are gonna read them and have an amazing time at the dinner table saying, “Mom! Dad! Did you know this about Elizabeth Cady Stanton?” So I think it’s gonna prompt some really great conversations. Not just in the classroom but at home around the dinner table, too. That’s my hope anyway.

Jeanie: This is super exciting! Before we get started on Chirp though, I always like to ask my guests what’s on their bedside table what they’re reading right now. Do you have any summer reading going on, Kate?

Kate: I do, I actually just finished an amazing young adult novel called A Song Below Water by Bethany Morrow. It’s about mermaids and Black voices, and it’s just a spectacular story. I think sometimes fantasy and speculative fiction is the very best way to get at the issues that we’re facing in our modern world. And this is a book that just does that brilliantly.

Jeanie: Excellent! I have that on my Libro FM right now, actually. So I’m gonna have to listen to it on my next long drive. Thanks for that recommendation!

So one of my bits of summer reading was: Chirp.

I picked it up right as the school year was ending and got sucked immediately into this book. And I wondered if you could introduce us to Mia, who is moving back to someplace many of our listeners will know, which is Burlington, Vermont. Could you tell us a little bit about Mia?

Kate: Sure! Mia has just finished seventh grade. And she is moving from Boston, where her family had moved from Vermont a couple years earlier, back to Vermont. It’s a good move for her, for a few reasons. First of all her grandmother lives in Vermont, and she loves Gram. So that’s a great thing.

Then second, Mia’s time in Boston wasn’t the greatest. She’s a gymnast and she had an experience at her gym with an assistant coach that she’s hoping to leave behind. Hoping to forget about. Something that she didn’t even talk about. So she’s moving back to Vermont with a secret, and also healing from a broken arm she got when she was doing something on the balance team.

Jeanie: When we meet Mia, she’s actually in the car in the beginning of the book. And her very concerned mother is trying to get her to pick some summer activities. And Mia just wants to watch TV. So she sort of reluctantly picks some summer activities. And you get the impression early on that that has less to do with the broken arm than with some failure of confidence, really related to what’s been happening in her life recently.

Kate: Yeah. I mean to be honest, she’s moving at a time when she’s not sure who she is anymore. And we’ll do a minor spoiler here: the assistant gymnastics coach at her old gym was showing her some really inappropriate attention. There were unwanted back rubs and hugs that lasted too long, and texts that were just strange and uncomfortable for her. It’s behavior that most adults would look at and say that looks like grooming a child for sexual abuse. And in fact the things that happened with that coach that make Mia so uncomfortable are based on the very same things that Larry Nassar did when he was trying to gain the trust of the gymnasts that he abused.

So many of us have read those just horrifying headlines of the team doctor who sexually assaulted so many gymnasts. This character, the assistant coach in this book, is sort of like Larry Nassar before it got so far. So it’s behavior that an adult would recognize as grooming. A kid doesn’t know that; a kid just recognizes that she feels icky and weird and doesn’t understand what’s going on and maybe wonders if she’s done something wrong.

So Mia doesn’t talk to anybody about what happened with this assistant coach.

She’s happy to be moving. It’s not an issue for her anymore, but of course she’s carrying scars from what happened. Not just from this accident she had on the balance team that required multiple surgeries on her arm, but scars inside too. The kind of scars so many women carry around and don’t always talk about until there’s that opportunity.

So Chirp is very much a story about finding yourself again. And especially finding your voice. That’s something that Mia goes through in this summer.

The book takes place over the course of a summer. It begins right after school ends as the family is moving back to Vermont. And as you mentioned Mia’s mom is hounding her to sign up for some day camps. The rule in our house was you got to do two activities: something for your body, and something for your brain.

Mia’s mom has that same rule. She’s giving Mia gymnastics flyers and Mia is adamant that she’s not going back to gymnastics. Eventually she settles on this thing called Warrior Camp, which is a camp where kids learn to do all those obstacles that you see on the TV show American Ninja Warrior. Mia likes that show. She figures how bad could the camp be?

And then she also signs up for something called Launch Camp, for young entrepreneurs. Which is a camp where kids go to design their own businesses and write business plans and create products. Sort of like you see on Shark Tank (and Mia loves that show too).

So! Thus she’s chosen her two summer camps. And thankfully she makes some friends that summer. And through the physical healing she goes through at Warrior Camp — you know she’s conditioning, she’s getting quite literally stronger going through this Warrior Camp — at the same time she’s gaining confidence at Launch Camp. Meeting some new female friends who really boost her up. So that’s like a huge theme too: the power of women to hold one another up.

Jeanie: So many great themes in this book! It’s hard to figure out which question, which thread I want to pull on, so I’m going to try to get up to all of them. You mentioned Launch Camp. I love Launch Camp! As an educator who’s trying to work with educators to make school more meaningful and relevant to young people. It’s this entrepreneurial camp where they’re making and they’re designing business plans and there they have an audience. And they go on a field trip up to UVM to see a woman entrepreneur and hear about her trajectory, her professional trajectory. I wondered, you know, is Launch Camp just in your imagination? Is there somewhere we could find Launch Camp?

Kate: Well the exact version in the book is from my imagination but I can tell you that it was inspired by so many makerspaces that I have seen in schools and in libraries. Where kids are doing this exact kind of work. They’re being encouraged to come up with their own ideas, and build things. Whether that’s with Legos or writing apps, or anything like that. I’ve just seen, you know, in my visits to different schools? I’ve seen so many amazing projects that kids are working on with support from their teachers and librarians, and in various makerspaces. So that was really the inspiration for Launch Camp. I did have a great time making up all the projects that the different teams were working on. Now that was really, really fun.

Jeanie: Well there’s the dim sum, the bao buns (is that what they’re called?) And an app to find soccer games?

Kate: Yeah. Kicks Finder! It’s some kids who wrote an app to find pickup soccer games in town.

Jeanie: And there some cookies–

Kate: Yeah! Cookies for a Cause. Aiden, one of the boys is a really great baker, and so he’s launching this business to sell cookies that people can use for fundraisers. There are some kids who are building jewelry, creating jewelry out of recycled materials.

And then there’s Mia, who has decided she’s going to use her time at Launch Camp to write a new business plan for her grandmother’s cricket farm. And yes, you heard that right: cricket farm. It’s a real thing.

Mia decides that she’s gonna use her time at Launch Camp, and what she learns about starting businesses and marketing and supporting them.

Jeanie: Let’s just talk about those crickets. Because those crickets are for eating. For humans to eat.

Kate: They are! They are. Let me tell you where this element of the story came from.

Several years ago, actually in 2013, the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization came out with a report called Edible Insects that basically said, “Hey everybody in the Western World, you ought to consider eating insects as a form of protein. Because a) insects are good for you, and b) they are way more sustainable to raise than other creatures we like to eat for protein. Like cows and pigs and chickens. They use way less water and feed and they produce many, many, many times fewer greenhouse gases.”

I found this report fascinating.

For a while, I was talking about it all around the house with anybody who would listen. I had done some research on entomophagy. I had a dinner party where we had grasshopper tacos one night. And so time passes, a few years after that report, my husband comes home one day and he is part of an organization that helps startup businesses launch in Vermont. He came home from one of his meetings and dropped a folder on my desk and said, “I’ve got one for you!”

The folder was about a cricket farm that was launching in Vermont. A startup cricket farm.

So, we were invited to it. To visit this fledgling cricket farm in Williston. It was in a big old warehouse. So if you’re picturing a cricket farm with like meadows and barns? They’re not that kind of farm. Most of them — and there are several cricket farms around the country — most of them are in industrial parks. And they’re in big warehouses.

The crickets are raised in big bins with these cardboard “cricket condos” they call them, inside. They eat ground-up chicken feed, things like that, and they are indeed being raised for human consumption.

When I was researching this book I sampled crickets in every iteration you can imagine.

I had sea salt and garlic crickets. Barbecue crickets. Maple crickets (it was a Vermont cricket farm after all). We had chocolate-covered cricket ice cream, and cricket pizza. And of course the big thing with crickets is protein powder! Cricket powder is protein powder just like the vegetable-based protein powders that athletes use. That’s a real product too. We had bread and cookies made with cricket flour — it was fascinating to actually see this farm in action. I got to spend a lot of time with the cricket farmers learning how to take care of crickets, and you know, how to how to try to convince people that crickets are food. (Which is as you might imagine a bit of an uphill battle.)

And I started thinking: what if somebody were trying to sabotage a cricket farm? (For whatever reason). So that became one of the premises for Chirp. Mia’s grandmother owns the cricket farm in the story and as soon as Mia and her family arrive, they learned that Gram is convinced somebody is trying to sabotage her cricket farm. So Mia and her new friends that she makes do a whole lot of sleuthing that summer. A little bit of breaking and entering, and trying to figure out who’s behind this alleged sabotage on the cricket farm.

Jeanie: That pulls us back to this thing you said earlier — I love the cricket farm is a setting by the way. I was really intrigued and ready to try crickets. But before I even get to that question: what was your favorite cricket product?

Kate: I think that the flour is very, very good. You can replace about a fifth of the flour in any baking recipe — your chocolate chip cookies or oatmeal cookies — and you really don’t notice very much. It gives it a nice little protein boost! So the chocolate chirp cookies were pretty great, and I thought that the roasted barbecue crickets were pretty terrific, too.

When I was on a book tour in February for this book — I was actually out for two weeks all around the country right before the pandemic hit, traveling and talking with kids in schools around the country about this book. At the end of every assembly I asked them: “Do you think one of your teachers should try roasted cricket right now?” And of course they went wild. So I had teachers sampling sriracha crickets and maple crickets, and all kinds of crickets imaginable. That was a lot of fun.

Jeanie: Excellent! So, you sort of mentioned this other thread I want to pull or untangle, is this thread about Mia, and how she sort of knows that this way her coach is behaving towards her — whether it’s gifts he’s giving, the way he’s talking to her, the way he touches her  — is not quite right, but she can’t put a name on it.

And this book feels really important to me for that reason.

Like, it’s a story that girls and boys need to read so they can recognize that that feeling isn’t made up. It’s not about them. It feels like being able to see that in a book, especially a book that’s really geared towards fourth, fifth, sixth, seventh graders, is a really important thing for kids. To maybe see an experience that we hope they’re not having (but that they could be having). So I’m just so grateful for that.

Kate: Yeah, thank you. I mean that feeling of looking back and saying, “That felt icky and I can’t quite explain it” that is what many kids experience, you know, when they’re being groomed for abuse or when abuse is first starting. It’s like “this feels wrong, this feels icky” but they don’t have a name for it, you know? And part of that is that we haven’t necessarily taught them how predators groom children. But that’s really important.

So this book really does kind of lay that out. It’s talked about. And my hope is that, you know, first of all: we would love to think this isn’t happening to the kids that we teach and the kids who come to our libraries. But it is. Statistics tell us that it is. My hope is that kids who read this and recognize that feeling are going to recognize,

“This is something I get to speak up about. I can make this stop. I have the power to tell somebody about this. I can talk to a trusted adult and end this. Because my voice matters.”

That’s really my hope for the book. And also my hope for adults who share this book with kids. That it’s going to start those conversations.

Sometimes as adults, we do minimize kids’ feelings. And you know, I was right up there when my kids were little. They would fall down and skin their knees, and I’d be all, “You’re fine! You’re fine, you’re fine, you’re fine!”

We want our kids to be fine and so sometimes we tell them they’re fine and sometimes they’re not fine.

And that’s when we need to do better listening.

So I hope this this book is one that really starts those conversations. And also will help kids have empathy for one another when friends are going through this. And you know, encourage them that they can talk to one another about this and especially talk to a trusted adult when something just doesn’t feel right, you know? Kids have pretty darn good intuition and they don’t always know how to articulate when an adult is being inappropriate. But we can teach them that. And that’s huge.

Jeanie: That just brings me to a quote from your blog’s that just it’s from a different time but I think it’s really relevant to this and I’m just going to read it. It says:

I understand that school administrators are afraid to talk about tough issues sometimes. Authors are, too. But we’re not protecting kids when we keep them from stories that shine a light in the darker corners of their lives. We’re just leaving them alone in the dark.

Kate: You know, Chirp is about a kid who was being uncomfortably groomed for abuse, by all appearances. But I think it goes beyond that, you know? I have another book called The Seventh Wish which deals with the main character whose older sister is struggling with heroin addiction. And that book has faced some challenges. I’ve had librarians email me and say,” I’m not putting this in my library, because kids here don’t have those issues!”

Well, guess what? You wouldn’t know. You wouldn’t necessarily know. We know that they do all over the country, all over the world in fact. We have this epidemic of opioid addiction.

I think there’s a certain amount of resistance, sometimes, to books that are more honest about the real issues that kids face. As an adult — I mean as a parent and as a former teacher — I understand that impulse of wanting to protect kids. But this notion that if we don’t talk about it that means it’s not happening and it can never happen? It’s just not realistic. It’s not the way it works, it’s not the real world. So I think the very best thing we can do in our service to children is be honest with them about things that happen in the world. And when we do that those kids know that they can trust us to speak up when they need our help.

Jeanie: Your other quote — and these words still resonate with me as they did when The Seventh Wish first came out, and I remember that you were disinvited to a school at that time and so many librarians were appalled by that — these words you wrote at that time, I think are still true today. Whatever so-called controversial issue we’re talking about that is really  a part of the fabric of young people’s lives. You said:

We don’t serve only our own children. We don’t serve the children of some imaginary land where they are protected from the headlines. We serve real children in the real world. A world where nine-year-olds are learning how to administer Naloxone in the hopes that they’ll be able to save a family member from dying of an overdose. And whether you teach in a poor inner city school or a wealthy suburb, that world includes families that are shattered by opioid addiction right now. Not talking about it doesn’t make it go away. It just makes those kids feel more alone.

I think that you really get at, for me, the power of literature to help kids feel seen. To help kids feel less alone. And to help kids feel like their lives matter. Like their experiences aren’t unique, necessarily. *They’re* unique but their experiences, especially those rough patches? Other folks have gone there. Have gone through that. And they need that aired out so it’s not a source of shame.

Kate: It’s interesting what you just read. I was writing at the time about The Seventh Wish and the issue of opiate addiction, but you could just as easily put sexual assault in there. This is something that doesn’t recognize city boundaries or towns or villages or socioeconomic boundaries. It’s something that affects everybody. Kids of from all different backgrounds have to deal with this. And when a child is sexually assaulted, there’s not some magical line that it doesn’t happen until they turn 14. You know?

I was talking with a friend of mine because I had a similar cancellation before I went on tour for Chirp, which was just mind-blowing to me. This is a book that is specifically designed to say

  • your voice matters
  • and if something happens to you, you get to speak up

And we’re not going to share that with kids? What on earth could be the motive for that? What on earth could be behind that?

I was telling a friend about this and how this library said “Oh it’s too young to talk about this” …and my friend said, “I was five, when that happened to me.”

And my other friend who was there said, “Yeah, I was eight.” Another one said, “I was 11.”

So we need to be having those conversations before the kids are teenagers. It’s just it’s too late if we wait that long. We want our kids to know early on they can always talk to us.

Jeanie: Yeah. I couldn’t agree more. Another thing I love about this book is it ties together layers all of these ways that gender discrimination shows up for girls and women. One of the threads I wanted to follow is Gram’s business. And she’s facing discrimination as a woman business owner. There’s a young woman from UVM who sort of faced some discrimination as a female business owner that sort of plays into the story. And then I think that Mia’s mom actually share some experiences. Then one of Mia’s friends is harassed by some man on the beach? So it’s all these layers of gender discrimination that sort of show up that start to make a pattern for these girls that helps empower them.

One storyline that that is really small in the book but I found really impactful? Was about the relationship between Anna and Eli. So, Anna and Eli were on a team at Launch Camp, but Anna left the team because Eli was giving her some inappropriate attention.

Kate: And Eli, in the story, is a boy who’s super cute, and super used to everybody falling all over him. He’d asked Anna hey do you want to go out for ice cream and she said no thank you. And you know that would have been fine, and they I’m sure could have continued working together at that point, but he kept asking and asking and asking. To the point where she was super uncomfortable and chose to leave the team. Chose to just step back rather than put up with it.

This was the team that was building the app, by the way. It was very much a technology-based team. And when we look at the number of women in technology, and the number of women in Silicon Valley versus the number of men? You have to wonder how many women have that interest and decided yeah this isn’t worth it because of that culture that was allowed to continue.

Even if it’s something as simple as just not recognizing that “no thank you” means “no and don’t ask again and again and again” because that creates discomfort. So yeah, that is a thread in the story. And it has a silver lining in Chirp, because Anna ends up working with Mia and Clover and the girls become just such close trusted friends that summer. There’s a silver lining. But you know the other thing that happens is that the team that was building the app lost a really brilliant worker. That’s part of the story too. It’s part of the cost of having a culture that doesn’t talk about consent issues and boundaries.

Jeanie: I believe the girls also talked to Eli about his behavior. And he sort of has this moment of realization that if he wants to be friends with Anna he needs to stop glaring at her, asking her out, giving her that kind of attention. Is that true? Or did I just want that to happen?

Kate: Yeah. They talked back to him — and his mom has a chat with him too — and he recognizes that. And that’s possible. Especially with kids, it’s possible to learn and say “Oh gosh I see why that’s a problem, I see the way that would make you uncomfortable.”

That’s one reason I think this book is really important. I have a lot of people who say oh this is a great book I’m gonna share it with all my girls. This isn’t just a book for girls. It’s a book for kids of all genders. Because that’s an important message: consent and people’s right to be in a space and do what they choose to do without being harassed. It’s really important for everybody.

Jeanie: It’s universal. We all have a right to consent regarding our own bodies. I think that’s so important. Both that boys can be groomed as well and need to learn to have agency over their own bodies, and also that boys could behave like Eli. And there’s something to learn from them for this book.

I don’t know if you’ve read Chanel Miller’s Know My Name. It’s an adult memoir written by Chanel Miller, the young woman who was raped at Stanford by Brock Turner. It’s really powerful. And I kept thinking of that book. It’s written for a much older audience; I would say older teenagers and high school kids and adults. but thinking about the agency that Chanel has in being able to say, “I’m not gonna be defined as a rape victim I want Brock Turner to be defined for who he is as a rapist”.

And turning the tables on that conversation in really powerful ways which I feel like you do with the young women in this book a little. The young women and the older women — the mother and the grandmother as well — they are empowered to redefine themselves and their relationship with discrimination and unwanted touch, unwanted comments and beachgoers, etcetera.

Kate: There’s a lot going on in Chirp, as there is in most of the books that I write. Because when I write middle grade novels, I think about the middle grade kids that I know. And they don’t have one issue happening in their life at a time. They don’t have one thing that they’re focused on. They have a million things going on, right?

And maybe they have a crisis at any given time — whether that’s a dog that has to be euthanized or a sick grandparent or a parent’s divorce or somebody struggling with addiction or some crisis in their family — at the same time they’re managing that crisis they still have to do all the other things they were doing.

They have to go to soccer practice and continue having relationships with their friends. They have to have sleepovers and do their homework and there’s this science project.  So the kids that I write in my novels tend to have all that same involvement. With the actual life made up of many different elements in many different relationships. It’s interesting: I’ve had a conversation with a few people who said there’s so much going on in this book and I thought it might be too much, but it wasn’t.

And when I was working on the book it was really important to me that Mia be more than the girl that this thing happened to.

Her experiences with this coach were based very much on an experience that I had with a friend of our family when I was a child. And I had all those same feelings of being confused and felt icky and didn’t know what to say and what I would even say if I did say something, and figured people would just tell me “Oh, just be respectful and don’t worry about it”.

But at the same time, you know: it mattered and it was harmful.

I had a life going on around that. Women are carrying this stuff around, girls are carrying this stuff around. And when you look at them they seem fine. They seem fine. They’re living lives, they’re laughing with their friends.

One of the really important messages from me of Chirp, one of the really important things when I was dealing with Mia’s character was that she not just be defined by this thing.

Because when real women, real girls are grieving something that happened to them and processing that and trying to work through it?

They’re also baking cookies. And they’re laughing, and they’re jumping off rocks and swimming and playing sports and all these other things. We’re complex humans and there’s room for struggles and joy on the same page. That was really important to me.

I get a lot of mail about this book. It’s interesting that when I wrote it I knew that kids would talk to me sometimes at school visits.

It’s the kid who comes up quietly after everybody else is gone and they say that happened to me too. I tell them I’m so glad you’re here and you’re talking about it. I make sure they’re safe first of all: is this a person that you still see? And usually no it’s some somebody who’s gone or isn’t around anymore. But I say, “Yeah, me too.”

I had anticipated that happening when I wrote the book. What I didn’t anticipate was the number of emails and notes I would get from adult women who had stories that they had never shared. And you know it’s crazy to think that this middle grade novel is the thing that’s going to make somebody say you know I get to talk about that thing that happened to me. Yet those are the notes I get. It’s pretty humbling to think about.

Jeanie: What a gift you’ve given us.

Kate: But it’s a gift for me to have the opportunity to share stories with so many people through Mia. She’s a made up character and yet she’s all of us.

Jeanie: How would you like to see teachers using this book in schools?

Kate: I know a number of teachers and librarians who have shared it as a classroom read or even like a grade-level read. And in intermediate school, it would be a great whole-school read. I always encourage when you’re doing sort of a community read, to get extra copies for family members. Because this is one of those books that is so powerful when talked about at home.

You’re reading the story and you know children’s parents have stories that they’ve never heard. That they’re hearing for the first time, when they talk about this book together. Hearing those stories just opens up the door for any future conversation that might need to happen, that could save a kid.

There is no sexual assault on the page in Chirp.

It is strictly a story about inappropriate attention you know a back rub that’s uncomfortable. And a hug that that is too tight and too long. Texts that come at 10 o’clock at night and maybe have a picture of him in swim trunks, something like that. There’s no sexual assault on the page and yet I’m getting pushback because just the thought of it makes us so uncomfortable.

And I get that. I really do. We hate to think of anything like this happening to our children. But refusing to talk about it doesn’t prevent it from happening. In fact just the opposite. It makes it more likely that a kid might be targeted when they don’t have the opportunity to have those conversations.

Because the subject matter is sensitive I think when you offer families a copy, that invites caregivers into the process. It makes them collaborators! We’re going to talk about this together! And isn’t this great that we’re all gonna have these conversations about consent and speaking up together! That can be really, really empowering.

Not to mention the fact that there could be some great great conversations at home too.

Jeanie: Yeah if we’re gonna end rape culture it has to be in conversations about consent. And I think this is a really powerful tool in our toolbox. I also wondered about collaborating with school counselors. As folks that could come in and help lead conversations about ways kids can be proactive, or how they confined trusted adults. How they might identify trusted with those things like that.

Kate: When I toured for this book I visited something like 20 schools in a week and a half. Many of the schools had my author visit in coordination with presentations from guidance counselors. Some of them had whole programs in place already that deal with sexual assault and consent and they timed it so they could coordinate those conversations. Which is just super, super powerful. It makes the book even more powerful, I think.

Jeanie: I feel like you’ve addressed this a little bit but I guess I wondered: this is not your first time writing about what you called sensitive topics or difficult topics. Topics that challenge adults to think beyond their conceptions of what kids were capable of. And I guess I wonder: it feels like those books emerge out of current events. It feels like you’re really tacked into what’s going on, and those books emerge in your imagination as a way to deal with issues that are happening in our nation.

Kate: I think that’s fair to say. My kids are grown now but when they were growing up we always made it a point to be very honest with them and to discuss things with them. So if they were hearing for example something happening on the news ,whether that was drug addiction or a war or race issues we would have a conversation about it. We’d say: “How did you understand that?” We used books a lot for that but we always had very honest conversations with our kids from the time they were very little.

And that was also very much my experience as a teacher.

I taught middle school English for 15 years. I taught in an 84-minute block with a lot of literature discussion and a lot of discussions about kids writing. Which: kids spill their souls when they write. So we talked a lot.

I would have kids come in at lunch and after school and we would workshop writing pieces and get into these long conversations about… everything. Things that were happening in their lives but also current events.

When you have those kinds of relationships with young people you develop so much respect for them. And for their intellect. And for their capacity to understand things, and care too. Kids have such a strong sense of justice and such a commitment to the world they live in and making it better, in a wholehearted belief that it’s their job to do that. When we recognize that and really respect our kids, how can we do anything else besides be honest with them in the stories that we tell?

I was a news reporter before I was a teacher and very tuned into that. But mostly out of respect for children.

Jeanie: I love that. And I really felt that in this book Breakout, which I just finished and I adored.

I don’t know what took me so long, why I hadn’t read it sooner. It’s brilliant.

And I really felt your respect for kids and your respect for how they share themselves through writing in this book because it’s told from the perspective of different young people and through their written pieces: poems and parody and letters and bits of journalism and comics. It feels really relevant to this current moment because it takes on whiteness and race.

Kate: It’s very much a look at privilege and perspective.

I didn’t know it at the time but I started working on this book the day that two inmates broke out of Clinton Correctional Facility in northern New York in June of 2015. Because that that prison break, which lasted for 23 days, just *consumed* the community where I live in northern New York.

The prison where this happened is 14 miles from my house. So for the better part of a month at the beginning of the summer, we had helicopters flying over the house and we were being stopped at roadblocks and it was fascinating to see how this crisis and this scary event brought out the absolute best in some people and really the absolute worst in other people.

I started thinking right away: how were kids viewing this? What was this like to be a kid in this community? And in a community that is largely a white community. There are few minorities in Clinton County, New York, compared to larger urban areas. What would it feel like to be one of those Black kids at this school, with all this happening around them?

Breakout started as a very traditional narrative. My first draft was a very traditional first-person narrative, from the point of view of Nora Tucker, the prison superintendent’s daughter. I showed it to a couple of writer friends and one of them, Linda Urban, who’s an amazing Vermont writer said to me: “Kate, I love this. I love Nora’s voice, but I’m finding myself wondering what these other characters are thinking. And I wonder: did you ever consider telling this story from more than one point of view?”

And I was thinking, “Well, *no*, and it’s 400 pages of *done* so…”

But that really nagged at me. I got similar feedback from an editor, and so it wasn’t long before I took my whole 400-page book and I set it aside. I started over.

Now, when I tell that story to kids at school visits they’re like: “Whaaaaaaaat?” Because they don’t even want to write the six-paragraph essay over.

But I started over. I decided that a more appropriate or engaging way to tell this story — and a more honest way to tell the story — would be to include this collection of documents from this summer where this wild thing happened, so that you could see all these different points of view and how different they were and how diverse they were. How two people could view the exact same thing completely different. So it’s very much a book about perspective, and also about privilege. What it means to be white in a place like northern New York or a place like Vermont.

Jeanie: There are so many places where I dog-eared this book because I felt like the kinds of conversations I was having with teachers if the end of June at our Middle Grades Institute was all about: how do we talk about race and whiteness with our students? How do we talk to them about privilege and bias? And this book has countless examples of just what that looks like.

I also felt like it’s a very gentle way of complicating maybe the different relationships people might have with police, right?

For example one moment that happens in this book that Nora our white character really has to deal with is when she goes into a market with Elidee, her friend who is Black. They’re asked to put their backpacks behind the counter. And I just love the way Nora has to churn through that and come up with her own response to that over time. It’s not immediate. She doesn’t get it right the first time, but it starts to make her think differently. So I think this book just does a really great job of modeling what happens when we start to notice privilege and bias.

Kate: Nora is dealing with this for a few reasons.

First of all, there’s this prison break happening in town. And one of the men who has broken out of prison is a person of color.

Secondly, she has this this new friend who’s moved to town from the Bronx: she’s African American in a town where there are very few Black people.

And third, her older brother has a girlfriend who’s gone away to college. She’s been coming home with ideas about social justice. So Nora’s older brother Sean is starting to have some of those conversations around the dinner table which are not always welcome, because her father is the prison superintendent. It’s the sort of tension that we see when we try to talk about race with our parents and our older family members.

It’s all right there on the page. All of these tense conversations that are happening, and how to navigate those.

I’ve heard from teachers and librarians and families who are reading Breakout together, and I think that’s amazing. Because it really is important to look at whiteness and what that means to be a white person. We don’t think about race as white people but we should. Because it affects how we walk through the world and how different that is from the way a person of color walks through the world.

But it’s also not a book to read *instead of* books by Black authors. Black authors are the experts on racism.

I see that you have Stamped by Jason Reynolds and Ibram X Kendi on the shelf behind you. That is a great title to pair with Breakout. Another one would be Ghost Boys by Jewell Parker Rhodes, because it addresses so many of the same issues in a totally different way.

I don’t ever want Breakout to be a book that teachers and librarians and white communities share instead of books by Black authors. That’s not how it should work. But it can be a compliment to them.

That’s a really helpful way of looking at it because it does look at the issue of whiteness and what does it mean and what is your job when you are a white person — especially in a place like many of us live where there are very few people of color. What is our rule? What is our job? And what is our responsibility?

Jeanie: I love that. Own voices stories are super important to me as a librarian and as a reader. I like commit to reading at least half my books by people of color written by people of color.  I wondered as I was reading Breakout was if it was complicated for you to find Elidee’s voice? And what it felt like to write in Elidee’s voice. This is a mentor text, too, because Elidee’s writing poems inspired by Jacqueline Woodson — one of my favorite writers. So I’m curious about what that was like for you to find Elidee’s voice as a white woman.

Kate: So, I would not write a book in the voice of character from a marginalized group. But in that perspective because Breakout is a collection of documents it includes all of the voices in town. It’s probably not surprising to you that this book was easier for me to write the first time.

When I did my first draft I was writing in first person point of view from the point of view of Nora Tucker, the prison superintendent’s daughter. Nora Tucker is a white girl growing up in a small town. And guess what? Kate Messner is a white girl who grew up in a small town. And my dad happened to be the school superintendent, but still our backgrounds are pretty close. Nora’s voice came very naturally and very easily to me.

When I went back to redo the story as this whole collection of documents, some of which were letters from Elidee and poetry that she writes, I had to start over.

I had to do so much more work and so much more research. I think half a dozen expert readers read the whole book but with a particular focus on Elidee. People who’ve grown up in similar situations, who were people of color and spent time in places where that were mostly white. And I was still feeling like I was missing something and I realized, thanks to one of those expert readers, that there wasn’t enough in the story about who Elidee was before she moved to this small town that was almost all white.

And so I needed to go back and do more work on her background. What was her old community like? Who did she see every day?

I went to New York and spent a day there and I walked around and noticed things. That’s something that I always tell kids I try to do as a writer: I bring my notebook and I try to take in place and pay attention. What would Elidee and her brother have seen on their walk to school? I went to the neighborhood park and I paid attention to the way the four train rumbles over the skate park. Things like that. I went to the bodega and looked at what they were serving and had a chopped cheese sandwich.

I could never write a character like Elidee the way somebody who has that background could. But with Breakout we were talking about smaller chunks of the story. Letters from that character. Poetry. And that was the research that I did to try and do a better job with that.

Jeanie: Thank you for that. That really helps me. I had a lot of curiosity about that when I was reading the book. Now, you recommended Ghost Boys and Stamped. Are there any other books you would recommend for this moment in time?

Kate: So in addition to those books and The Hate U Give for older readers that deal head on with these issues of racism and police brutality,  I think it’s really important to also share books that portray the whole Black experience, including Black joy.

One of the gifts of being an author is I get to visit a lot of schools and see a lot of school libraries. And sometimes when I visit a library in a community that is mostly white and I look at what’s face-out on the shelves it’s books about mostly white kids. Sometimes the few books that are displayed that have people of color on the cover are books about the underground railroad and the civil rights movement. Or books like The Hate U Give or Ghost Boys, which are amazing stories, but there’s something missing there.

There are so many amazing stories that aren’t crisis stories. That aren’t about racism.

We have mysteries and heist stories like Varian Johnson’s The Great Greene Heist and To Catch a Cheat. Or The Parker Inheritance which is a great mystery of Varian’s.

We have amazing fantasy books like Tracey Baptiste’s The Jumbies series. And in those books yes there are mermaids and yes there are Jumbes, these Caribbean monsters of the forest, but there are also allegories. The second book in the Jumbe series has these mermaids that are connected to the transatlantic slave trade. There is some amazing deep stuff to talk about in fantasy and in speculative fiction.

We have books that are really just about joy and real families. Renée Watson has a new series out called the Ryan Hart series. The first book is Ways to Make Sunshine and it is just a gem of a middle grade novel. It very much reminds me of Ramona, who was my favorite when I was growing up. Ryan Hart is a Black girl growing up in Portland Oregon, just like Ramona was. A gem of a story. It’s sweet and funny and fun and we really need to be sharing the whole range of stories with our kids. Not just those books that feel like they are of this moment.

Jeanie: Yeah that makes so much sense to me and I love Renee Watson’s Piecing Me Together so I’m totally gonna check that one out.

 

Kate: Have you read Some Places More Than Others?

Jeanie: No! But I just saw that one somewhere on a list. It’s a little bit newer, right? I haven’t read that one yet.

Kate: It came out last year. So good! It made me cry and cry though.

Jeanie: She is a beautiful writer, one of my favorites. I also really liked Brandy Colbert’s The Only Black Girls in Town.

Kate: I have not read that yet. I’m dying to.

Jeanie: It’s really sweet! There’s mystery in there too, but it’s a great middle grades one. So yeah…

So the last thing I’m gonna ask you is about March of this year, when schools went remote, you really stepped up in this big way. Now, I know you’re a former teacher I understand why. I used the resource you created, “read, wonder, and learn” to support so many educators that I work with. I pointed so many teachers to that resource, because you shared so many amazing learning resources from authors all over. It was incredible. And I guess I just want to say thank you for curating these amazing resources, for stepping up in such an important way during a challenging time.  I wondered if you had any reflections from that.

Kate: Thank you. You know, as far as the way this whole pandemic began, it kind of seemed like one day we were going about our lives thinking, “Wow this seems like it’s getting weird” and then the very next day, Teachers who were in school with their kids on Friday were told on Sunday: you’re not going back on Monday.

They didn’t even get to say goodbye and their kids didn’t even get to bring materials home. The librarians didn’t get to give kids books. We’re lucky enough in our house to have many, many books all the time. So many houses aren’t like that. So that felt like an immediate crisis to me. In addition to this global crisis with the pandemic we now have this secondary crisis, which is to say we have kids at home without the things they need to learn. They don’t have books.

I was talking with my daughter who I just grabbed from college and we did a couple things.

First of all, we cleaned out all of my author copies. I had several hundred author copies of my novels and picture books hanging around. We just boxed them all up anddelivered them to local schools that were able to get them into kids’ hands right at the beginning of things.

Then I was trying to figure out what can we do to support these families at home? Because when this first happened it wasn’t like anybody had time to plan. It wasn’t like teachers had time to record the stories they wanted to use or anything.

It was pretty easy using social media. Social media drives me nuts sometimes but sometimes it’s a pretty great tool for bringing people together to help. It was pretty easy to say hey who can read a story? So while teachers are getting things together, while librarians are figuring this out, families will have some resources that they can use at home to kind of bridge that gap. That was the real purpose of it. And we saw in the early days these video readalouds were getting you know thousands of hits a day. And then of course you know teachers figured out: okay, this is what we’re gonna do. This is our schools program. But hopefully we were able to bridge that gap.

Jeanie: I loved it. It was really super helpful. I know so many teachers and librarians were grateful, and families too. Thank you so much.

Kate: I’m glad to hear that.

Jeanie: And I thank you so much for taking all this time to talk about not just one book, not just Chirp, but also Breakout, and The Seventh Wish — all your mysteries, all these what they call history busters, history smashers. Thank you so much for taking the time to share the wealth that is you with us. I’m so grateful.

Kate: Well, thank you for the invitation. It was a joy to talk books with you. I’ll do that any day.

Jeanie: Great! A couple of books from now we’ll have to do it again I hope. Thank you so much Kate.

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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