Barbara Dee is the author of 12 books for middle grade readers starring relatable characters navigating the ups and downs of middle school, including Star-Crossed, Maybe He Just Likes You, and My Life in the Fish Tank. Her newest novel, Violets Are Blue, introduces readers to 11-year-old Wren, who copes with her parents’ separation and her anxiety over her mother’s increasingly secretive and moody behavior by focusing on her passion for special effects makeup. Dee spoke with PW from her home outside New York City about her interest in writing for a middle grade audience, her choice to address the opioid epidemic in Wren’s story, and the importance of realistic dialogue.
You’ve established yourself as an author who takes on “tough topics.” Where do you find inspiration? What piques your interest?
I try to empathize deeply with kids. I have a very strong connection to my own feelings from middle school and, for some reason, I can tap into them easily. I also think about my own kids and kids I know. I have this sense that we have been underestimating the degree to which kids in middle grades are aware of and anxious about the so-called “tough topics.” They want to explore them. Kids today have access to information in a way that we didn’t when we were kids, so if we don’t address these topics and we pretend that they don’t know or don’t worry, I think we’re doing them a disservice. We turn them off from reading realistic fiction because they don’t see themselves or their concerns reflected on the page.
Your stories often focus on characters who are on the cusp of adolescence. What speaks to you about this age and moment in time?
I’ve always written for this age, but, for the first half of my career, my books were a lot lighter. Then, in 2013, my oldest was diagnosed with osteosarcoma. I spent a year not writing, just taking care of him and going to chemotherapy treatments. One day, I was in the hospital on the pediatrics floor, looking at all the kids there, and I had an epiphany: I realized that kids are living in the same world as adults. They get sick for no reason, they deal with sexual harassment, and are anxious about climate change. It changed everything for me. Once that clicked, I no longer wanted to write just light, fun, fluffy books; I wanted to address the things that kids are struggling with.
I find this age so fascinating because, on one hand, they’re still kids, so they can be silly, innocent, goofy, and misinformed. But they’re also really plugged in and are separating from adults in their lives as they look at the world more objectively. Sometimes, when people read my books, they say, “Oh, I wish this character would have sought a trusted adult in chapter one to solve all these problems!” And so do I, but the truth is that kids in middle school don’t do that; they’re trying to figure out themselves and test their independence. They’re working things out themselves or bouncing ideas off their peers, which can cause problems because sometimes those peers are not the best people to do that with.
What inspired the premise of Violets Are Blue?
I was reading several articles about the opioid epidemic in the United States and how it affects kids. I read that, according to the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, something like nine million kids in 2014 lived in households with at least one parent with a substance abuse disorder. Since Covid, those numbers have only gone up due to the stresses on mental health, jobs, and families. I wanted to destigmatize substance abuse disorders [in Violets Are Blue] because when kids go home after school and close the front door, we don’t really know what’s going on behind it. Kids need to feel like they can open the door and connect with people who get it.
What type of research did you do while writing this book?
My daughter has a friend who is very into special effects makeup videos, which gave me the idea for that aspect of Wren’s identity. It’s a whole sub-culture on YouTube, so I spent hours watching videos!
I also read several memoirs of addiction, both published and unpublished, written by former addicts and their family members. The most illuminating one was called As Needed for Pain: A Memoir of Addiction by Dan Peres, who is the former editor of Details magazine. The reason his book was so interesting to me was because it showed how you can function at a high-pressure, high-profile job as an opioid addict, until one day you can’t. I also interviewed professionals, like a social worker who runs an outpatient treatment center serving many health professionals that have opioid addictions, and a nurse who works at a nearby hospital in an in-patient substance abuse program.
What does your writing process look like? Has the pandemic changed anything?
I haven’t been able to do in-person school visits or conferences, panels, and book festivals, all of which is normally so affirming and energizing and important because it keeps me connected with readers. The other big challenge of the pandemic has been not being able to take the kinds of breaks that I normally would. In the past, if I was working hard and my brain was tired, I would go into New York City and walk around for the day or go to the movies, but I haven’t been able to do that. Instead, I’ve been stuck at home and, when I’m at home, I feel like I should be working. I think it’s not very healthy for my writing or anything else!
You have a skill for crafting authentic dialogue. How do you approach writing dialogue to ensure that it feels believable to readers?
I remember when my daughter was about eight and she was reading a series that was popular at the time. She suddenly closed the book she was reading and walked away, telling me she was done with the series. When I asked why, she explained that the kid characters didn’t sound like kids. That was a really telling conversation that reminded me that even an eight-year-old will pick up on inauthentic characters and dialogue.
I do use a lot of dialogue in my writing, so every character must have a different voice and speaking style, with the kids sounding like kids and adults like adults. I’ll often close my door and read aloud because I think you hear things that you don’t catch when just reading to yourself.
Which authors and books have influenced you as a reader and storyteller?
Lynda Barry, a cartoonist, playwright, and writing instructor, is genius. Many writers worship her. Of my contemporaries, I love books by authors like Kimberly Brubaker Bradley, Paula Chase, Dusti Bowling, and Erin Entrada Kelly–the usual suspects!
What do you most hope readers find within your novels?
I hope that my books will open minds and hearts, but I mostly hope that they will entertain kids. I want to create characters that kids want to know and hang out with in real life.
With Violets Are Blue, I hope kids realize that things like substance abuse can happen in “nice, normal families” and that it’s okay to talk about these things and ask for help. I want them to see that no one has it all figured out; we’re all on a lifelong journey to find our authentic selves–and that who we are and how we feel can change over time.
I also feel it’s important that we don’t take adults out of these conversation with kids, so one of my goals is to encourage talking about these sensitive subjects by helping adults face their own anxiety to engage.
What’s next for you as we head toward 2022?
My next book, Haven Jacobs Saves the Planet (You’re Welcome), is slated to come out in fall 2022 and deals with what I think is maybe the most important thing facing kids right now: climate change. It’s about a seventh-grade girl who’s struggling with what’s called eco-anxiety.
I’m also working on two more books! Unstuck, which will publish in 2023, is about a kid with writer’s block. Then, in 2024, I have a book coming out about a kid who finds out that the 19th-tcentury namesake of her town was a misogynist who was against women’s right to vote, so she begins a campaign to have his statue taken down, because the hero isn’t so heroic after all!
Violets Are Blue by Barbara Dee. Aladdin, $17.99 Oct. 12 ISBN 978-1-5344-6918-1