Author Kate Messner is known for her honest and sensitive portrayals of challenging topics, and with Breakout she has continued this trend, tackling issues of race and privilege while never losing sight of her true audience: kids. PW spoke with Messner about how she came up with the idea for her new novel, as well as how she decided on the most effective way to craft her story.
Breakout is a novel, but can you tell us about the event that inspired you to write it?
Yes, Breakout is a work of fiction but it was very much inspired by the real-life prison break at Clinton Correctional Facility, a maximum security prison in Dannemora, N.Y., in June 2015. I live 14 miles from the prison, and for 23 days everyone was walking around, living their lives, knowing that two murderers were out there somewhere, hiding in the woods. Police poured in from all over the state to help with the search, and the media showed up, too. This tiny town’s entire main street was lined with TV satellite trucks.
I was especially captivated by this story because before I was a writer I was a middle school English teacher, and before that I spent seven years as a television news reporter and producer. Journalism will always be in my blood, and a few days into the manhunt, I was chatting with an old friend from college who asked if I wished I were covering the story. I confessed that I was a little envious of the reporters out at the prison. And he said, “So why don’t you go? Do you have somewhere else to be today?” I didn’t, so I grabbed a notebook, drove through the police roadblocks, and attended the morning news conference. Then I went to a little coffee shop across the street from the prison and camped out at a table. The place was mobbed and everyone who walked through the door had a story. I wasn’t planning to write a book at that point, but the longer I sat there, the more a story started to take shape in my imagination. So for the better part of three days I hung out at that coffee shop, where I talked with people and listened to their stories.
There were police officers who had just come in from the search, covered in mud and ticks. There were families who lived near the prison whose kids were too scared to sleep in their own beds. One boy came in with his mom wearing his Halloween firefighter costume and big rubber boots, and he wanted to help with the search. There were relatives of inmates who had come from out of town to visit, only to be told no, the prison was on lockdown and would be for a long time. And they were scared for their loved ones, waiting out this manhunt inside the wall. In any situation like this, fear and stress can bring out the very best or the very worst in people, and I think we saw both of those extremes during our three-week manhunt. So I spent those three weeks listening and thinking and writing and thinking some more. By the time the manhunt ended, I was about 50 pages into a very rough draft of the novel that would become Breakout.
The story is told in letters, texts, newspaper articles, and pictures that will all be going into a time capsule—how did you decide on this format?
My first draft of Breakout was written in first-person from the point of view of Nora Tucker, the prison superintendent’s daughter and an aspiring journalist. But when friends read the draft, there was a common reaction. Everyone wished they could hear more from Elidee, the character who had recently moved with her mom from New York City to be closer to her brother, who is an inmate in the prison. They wondered if I might want to write the story in two voices to include hers, and the more I thought about it, the more I realized that perspective was so important in this story—and not only Nora’s and Elidee’s—so I thought about how I might write this book to include many different points of view. I explained this to my friend Linda Urban and she helped me brainstorm all the different documents that might be part of the end of a school year: morning announcements, text messages, overdue library book notices, etc. Then I started the book over, rewriting with this different structure.
Many drafts later, Breakout is the most unusual book I’ve written—it’s told entirely through documents that Nora collects for the Wolf Creek community time capsule project. There are letters, poems, photographs, graphic novel pages, petitions, news articles, and even a couple of recipes. Together, those documents tell the story of what happened in Wolf Creek that summer.
Most of the documents come from three girls who narrate the story, each bringing a unique perspective. What inspired you to have multiple narrators and how do you think it changes the story to have each girl share her own view of the events?
For me, having many points of view ended up being essential for this book. I think the power of this structure is the way it challenges readers to imagine what it might be like to be someone else. Narratives with more than one point of view encourage empathy and I think that’s one of the best things books can do for young readers and for all of us really. They can help us understand one another’s stories.
When I worked with the new format it was important to me to make sure it was more than just the story of the prison break; it was essential that each character have their own journey, and those journeys, which are all affected by the prison break, are very different. For example, with Nora, the journey is about seeing the quiet racism in her town and in herself and deciding where to go from there. For Elidee, whose brother is an inmate and who has always had the job of being the perfect kid in her family, the journey is about recognizing that her voice matters, too. There are multiple scenes in this book where you read something interpreted by one character, and on the next page, another character tells about the same event but with a completely different perspective. I hope that might bring about some interesting conversations: the idea that we can be in the same room, perhaps hear the exact same words, and yet two people can interpret them in completely different ways depending on their backgrounds and past experiences.
This story shines a light on individual and institutional racism as well as the way people can be blind to their own privilege. What were the challenges of lifting up these topics and how did you address them?
Obviously, one challenge of writing many points of view in this book is that I’ve only had the personal experiences of growing up as a white female, and as such, I know I can never fully understand what Elidee feels like, being one of the only brown kids in a nearly all-white school. But part of our job as writers is to do our best to inhabit someone else’s world and that requires research and listening. The part of northern New York where I live is not very diverse, and when I taught middle school, I had students who experienced what Elidee did. We talked about this stuff in my classroom and the kids would share stories when they came to my room to hang out at lunch or after school or in writing club. I talked a lot with one black student who used to go to school in this area but moved to a much more diverse school in the city, and she shared her reflections—how she didn’t even realize how much that affected her until she was able to experience spending time in a school where more of her classmates and teachers looked like her. And of course, I had a lot of readers as I was revising this novel as well. Their perspectives helped me to understand as much as I possibly could about all the different voices in this story.
Nora’s voice was probably the easiest for me because her whole story is about asking the questions that white people have to face about racism in our communities, in the people close to us, and in ourselves. When those questions come up, people tend to react one of two ways. Some push it all away and decide that’s just not an issue they’re going to think about while others let those questions in and really sit with them. It’s uncomfortable, and that discomfort really shows in Nora’s letters, I think.
My biggest concern about Breakout actually stems from the positive response it’s getting. I’ve received some notes from teachers and librarians saying this is a book that they’ll use to talk about racism with students. And that’s great—but I hope it will never be the only book. In the author’s note of Breakout, there’s a list of amazing titles that address race and social justice, most written by people of color. And these are the first stories we should turn to for discussions about race and privilege. Readers who are the right age for Breakout should read Ghost Boys by Jewell Parker Rhodes and Piecing Me Together by Renée Watson and the books in Jason Reynolds’s Track series, and so many others. I do think we need books that look at whiteness and how people start to deal with racism in their communities and in themselves, but I’d never want those books to become the one narrative.
Breakout by Kate Messner. Bloomsbury, $16.99 June ISBN 978-1-68119-536-0