Ami Polonsky’s newest book for young readers, World Made of Glass, is set in 1987 and features Iris, a 12-year-old facing her father’s death from AIDS. In an era when the president hadn’t uttered the word “AIDS,” Iris copes with her grief and anger at losing her father and the discrimination he and his friends face, and finds solace by getting involved with ACT UP, the AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power. Polonsky spoke with PW about her continuing interest in spotlighting the LGBTQ community, how her teaching and her writing dovetail, and writing out of rage.
Did you think of World Made of Glass as a historical novel?
I knew it was an historical novel, but I didn’t think of it that way, since it was the era that I grew up in. Then I reflected on it and thought, wow, my childhood is historical fiction. My middle schoolers refer to anything before 2000 as the 1900s; they always want to know if a book takes place before or after cell phones. But whatever period a book takes place in, students read for what’s universal. The heart of this book is a girl dealing with incredible loss and realizing how discriminatory the world is and how that contributed to her loss. She’s in mourning and infuriated as she comes to understand how wrong and unfair the world is.
What kind of research did you do?
I read all the transcripts from the ACT UP Oral History project. There are over 185 transcripts. It was so fascinating to read them. This is the first historical fiction I’ve written, but reading the firsthand accounts of the people who were there seemed like the most important thing I could do as a researcher.
You wrote this novel about the AIDS pandemic during Covid. Were you thinking about parallels between the two periods?
I wrote the first draft of World Made of Glass in the spring of 2021, when we were in the weeds of Covid. The nationwide panic reminded me that it wasn’t the first pandemic of my life. I was 12 in 1987, just like Iris. As a 12-year-old, I knew very little about the AIDS pandemic. I heard snippets; I remember my parents mentioning it, but there was no nationwide effort to understand it. And the reason for that, as I learned later, was that the people primarily impacted were gay men and intravenous drug users—marginalized people. Which is another parallel, as the people hit hardest by Covid were also the marginalized. The parallels between the pandemics merged with a time in my personal life when I felt tremendous rage toward the world in my role as an ally to a very close family member who is trans. I knew that I had to transform that fury into something productive to be a good ally to trans kids.
ACT UP plays a big role in the story, as Iris’ father and his friends, and eventually Iris herself, are involved in the activist group. What interested you about ACT UP?
ACT UP is an advocacy group that came together in the spring of 1987. Its members were bound together by a collective rage, and that spoke to me very deeply. I was really drawn to the idea that shared rage could inspire change. In the book, Iris is drawn to ACT UP for the same reasons. Some people might feel sadness facing discrimination; I’m more inclined to take the rage route, and that’s also how Iris operates. Of course, it’s a bit of a defense mechanism as well, because sadness is a lot harder than anger.
You depict Iris’ father as one of the group’s founders. What do you hope this adds?
I think that when we look back on movements, we romanticize things and don’t really understand what it’s like to be in the weeds of something that’s just coming together. I wanted to show a little bit about how ACT UP came to be. It wasn’t easy; there was a lot of conflict. It was messy and chaotic. I thought it was important to show that, because if you’re in a traumatic and difficult situation, it’s good to have a model for the fact that when community comes together around something, it’s not always simple or straightforward. You have to sit in the chaos and figure out how to deal with whatever it is you’re dealing with. The reality was that ACT UP was pretty fragmented, but the unifying rage and fury kept people together. It was a combination of trauma and community and togetherness that worked. I wanted to show both how messy it was and how that wasn’t necessarily a bad thing.
What relevance do you think this subject matter has for kids today?
Obviously, historical fiction is about a period that kids don’t know. But when I read historical fiction, I read it for the characters, what they’re going through and how they’re changing. What’s going on around them is kind of a bonus. Iris is lost in her anger, and the way she digs herself out of her despair through her connections and her community is universal. And there’s also the sad truth that so much of the discrimination against the LGBT community we see in the book still exists, and there’s been an uptick in the past few years. So that part of the story isn’t going to feel very foreign, unfortunately.
Iris and her father write acrostic poems to each other. Why did you choose to include them?
I incorporate a lot of poetry—both reading and writing—into my lessons. I really enjoy that part of teaching: I love that teaching kids to write poetry means teaching them to focus on their word choice and the quality of what they’re saying. The acrostics and limericks grew out of many years’ worth of conversations with colleagues about how ridiculous some forms of poetry are. I really am an English nerd.
Writing the acrostic poetry was my favorite part of writing the novel. I started with the word, and the rest of the poem came to me as a very subconscious process. Having that initial letter served as just the right amount of challenge to push me to say things in a more interesting way.
This is your fourth middle grade book, and you’re also a middle grade English teacher. What impact do these roles have on each other?
My teaching and writing lives work in synchrony with each other. Teaching middle-school English has 100% helped me become a better writer. Reading and discussing and dissecting novels with students is what helped me to intuit other writer’s processes and decisions. It taught me how to write for this age group. Seeing firsthand how the students respond to different novels helped me understand what’s on their minds, what’s relevant for them, what they’re ready to take on emotionally, which is always a lot more than adults generally might think. I saw what they can grasp easily and what’s overwhelming. And endlessly talking to middle graders keeps me current. The way they communicate changes over time, but what they’re striving for in their lives is consistent: they want to be understood, to be seen and accepted; they want to feel capable. And I think they’re often looking for a scaffolding to help them grow and develop, and the novels help them do that.
Do you think there’s a throughline between your first novel, Gracefully Grayson, and this one, or across your books overall?
The common thread between Gracefully Grayson, Spin with Me, and this book is that they all present and destigmatize the LGBT community to middle schoolers, which is something that didn’t exist when I was growing up. As a teacher, I see firsthand how important and how easy it is to make kids feel seen by having books with LGBT characters in the classroom. It’s life-changing for them to see their experiences in the books on classroom shelves. And a link between Gracefully Grayson, Threads, and World Made of Glass is that they have heavy topics. I find as a teacher that kids are drawn to sad books; they like the emotional swings, and they like books where challenging things happen and at the same time there’s a light that goes along with it.
World Made of Glass by Ami Polonsky. Little, Brown, $16.99 Jan. 17 ISBN 978-0-316-46204-4