Dana Alison Levy is the author of four novels for young readers, two of which feature the adventures of the Fletcher family—The Misadventures of the Family Fletcher (2014) and The Family Fletcher Takes Rock Island (2016)—and have been compared to Beverly Cleary’s Quimby family and Judy Blume’s Hatchers. Her newest novel, It Wasn’t Me, is a standalone middle grade story, which takes up bullying, hate speech, and the problematic assumptions people make about each other. Levy created six young characters who are either bystanders, perpetrators, or the victim in a series of bullying incidents in this emotional, engaging story that is ultimately about friendship, loyalty, and the possibility of forgiveness. PW spoke with Levy about her use of the restorative justice process in writing this novel, as well as how the outcome of the 2016 election influenced the book’s content and takeaways.

What inspired this novel?

In reality, the basic truism of the world that lead to me wanting write this is: be kind because everyone is fighting an unseen battle. We don’t know what other people’s lives are. We think we know and we don’t. And this is true across the board, both inside the book and outside of it. People in my own life, my friends’ kids’ lives, and kids I’ve known have walked a really challenging path at school; they have been judged by both their classmates and the educators in those schools and given labels. And those labels are part of the story—but not the whole story.

I wanted to explore how a kid who does a bad thing, who has a certain reputation, who everyone thinks is X or Y—that there is more to that kid, and every single kid. Restorative justice is a great way to peel back those layers.

This book only dances around the sides of restorative justice—restorative justice exists in many different forms. It’s this thing I played with in the narrative—it has incredible potential to deal with how we come back from harm when it has been done. It was really interesting to learn more about this process in the wake of 2016. I wanted to create a place for these characters at least where the walls could be breached and the truth could get through and they could find a path forward.

Can you talk about your writing process for this book?

I actually sold this novel before the 2016 election on proposal, and then wrote it after the election. It was a story that was already set in my mind, but after the election it took on this additional urgency. I was asking myself questions like: How are we going to talk to each other now? How are we going to figure each other out—on a micro level with regard to a school community, and also on a macro level with regard to our country?

Pushing Theo and my other characters to talk to one another, and to get beyond their assumption about each other, felt good because it’s what I’d love to do writ large—in my town, my country, the world. Let’s put people in a room and unpack all the things we don’t want to talk about, or that we find difficult to talk about—our fears, our assumptions, all those underlying things that determine how we act and what we do. It felt good to take that on with this novel.

When I was writing, I didn’t know how the novel was going to end—well, I did know—but in my mind, the characters and this process of restorative justice were more important than what actually happened in the story. But something hurtful did happen to Theo—so that is where I had to go back into the story and really think about what I am asking my characters. The truth is hard and hurtful and how we move forward.

What lead you to frame the novel as a whodunit?

I often write pretty short first drafts—drafts that are short on plot. I was so invested in these characters and these conversations, that in the earlier drafts, the end of the book was too easy and I had to rework it. It was in the reworking that I decided I wanted to up that mystery of who had targeted Theo. When you have six kids in a room who are talking for the entire book, there is a concern that it could be boring. I felt it was necessary to create some questions that the reader would want answered, which also aligned with what Theo wants, because Theo wants answers. Eventually it became more intentional on my part, making it a mystery, putting in clues, etc. But in my mind, it’s still six people in a room, sitting around talking!

What is at the heart of this book—is it bullying, friendship, both? Is one more important than the other for you?

Most important to me is that this is a novel that starts conversations about stereotypes and black-and-white thinking—even more than it is about bullying. It is a bullying novel, too, and I hope it’s used as a way into that conversation. But to me, group mentality and tribalism in the classroom is the bigger conversation. We need to have conversations about judgment, about stereotypes, about breaking down barriers.

How did you choose how much each character would reveal, as they moved from the label—jock, loner, etc.—into a nuanced person?

I knew who the kids were, so it was more a matter of hiding their truths, and then peeling off the layers. I started with the stereotype and built toward nuance.

In earlier drafts I was too kind to them, and too revealing up front. I had to put more blinders on Theo, make him more unwilling to see the others as who they really were. Theo is a smart kid and not a bad kid, and he was really, really sure that these kids he’s known his whole life were exactly as they seem.

You have an interesting background—your bio reads: “house cleaner in Paris; waitress in Santorini, Greece; assistant literary agent in New York; art gallery manager; MBA fast-tracker; executive recruiter… ” Can you say more about this?

I had a moderately conventional life—I went from high school to college, studying literature. But I’ve always loved to travel and live other places, often in these squatting-type ways, for six months or a year, especially when I was much younger. This meant that I worked the front desk at the youth hostel in order to travel and live other places.

I took a sort of circuitous trip to get to writing. I have always wanted to write. But it took until my 30s and a job layoff to try. I tried writing between 5 and 7 in the morning. I had young kids and I was looking for a job, and I finished a 70,000-word draft, which was a mess, but it was a book-shaped thing. It took three more books before I published anything, but eventually it began to feel like it was possible.

Why did you decide to write for young readers?

I took children’s literature classes in college, I have family members who are children’s book authors—Robie Harris, and Elizabeth Levy is my aunt and we are very close. Nepotism gets you nowhere, but knowledge and encouragement and mentorship get you everywhere. And I have always loved children’s books. Some of the best literature that exists falls into the category of children’s lit, so I always knew that was what I wanted to do.

What is next for you?

I have my first YA novel coming out in early 2020. When I first started writing, I wrote both YA and middle grade, and have drafted an equal number of novels in each. Middle grade is one of the most fun audiences to write for, but I also love YA—it’s a really powerful time in life. My next novel is called Above All Else, and it’s with Charlesbridge Teen. It’s about two teenagers who are best friends, who climb Mt. Everest. It took me a long time to do this one. But it was fun writing for older kids and being able to throw the F-bomb in!

It Wasn’t Me by Dana Alison Levy. Delacorte, $16.99 Nov. ISBN 978-1-5247-6643-6