Chris Baron sees the world through a myriad of lenses. As a professor of English at San Diego City College and director of its writing center, Baron sees the world through his students’ eyes. As a poet and writer of the novels in verse All of Me and The Magical Imperfect, he views the world in images and portraits. And in his latest middle grade novel, The Gray (Feiwel and Friends, June 13), he peers through the lens of preteen Sasha, who is dealing with anxiety and trauma. PW spoke with Baron about these perspectives and his new book, how his teaching and writing influence each other, and what he hopes for his readers who are fighting their own battles.

Can you give us a glimpse of your teaching experience?

When I was a student in an MFA program for poetry, I became interested in teaching. I was also a teaching assistant and I fell in love with everything about teaching. I loved the feeling of working with students—it’s so invigorating. So, I applied for every professorship that I could, and I got my job at San Diego City College. I know that it sounds cliche, but I have learned so much from my students, and love what I do.

What are some things that you’ve learned from your students? How has teaching changed for you through the years?

Over the last 23 years, I’ve learned about many different cultures from my students who are from all around the world. I see what they deal with, what they go through, and what it means for them to be studying far away from home. I also see a beautiful shared goal in each of my students. And to teach them—and to be a part of this goal—is a sacred role.

With each passing year, I feel that it’s more of a collaboration with my students than it was in the beginning. I was focused on imparting knowledge. Now, it’s more about helping them find their voices, to step out of their way to make their work stronger, and to help them feel confident—and become empowered in their writing.

It sounds like teaching brings you a lot of joy. What would you say is the greatest joy and challenge for you teaching today?

One of the greatest joys in working with my students is that “click” moment when something comes together for them, and they can share that with me. I can sometimes see it, and I can even feel when it’s happening. It’s the moment when they’ve discovered that what they want to say is impacting them and others—and that their story matters.

The greatest challenge is what we’re going through as a result of the pandemic. It’s like we took a break from life and we’re learning to adjust our expectations in education. So now, how do we rebuild education since the pandemic has been upon us? Many things that I did before to get my students engaged and excited about learning have changed. These students have a different sensibility about school and their responsibility. Because of remote learning, they’ve had to relearn how to learn, how to act in a classroom, and how to to be social. Our class discussions are also very different. It’s far more difficult to draw students into conversations than it was before. So, we’re learning as we go.

What drew you to writing for kids? How and when did you begin?

When I started teaching, I began writing poems and articles for literary journals and anthologies. I wrote poems about identity, my Jewish heritage, and coming of age. So, I think that I’ve always had a “kid lit” mindset. I also began writing and sharing a number of pieces at an open mic night that my wife and I ran at a local café, Common Grounds. These pieces included “Letters to My Eighth Grade Teacher.” In them, I wrote about the lessons that I've learned in life that my eighth grade teacher encouraged us to explore, and to share.

But the turning point in my kids’ writing was when I read my poem called “First Kiss” from my first book of poetry, Lantern Tree, at the release party. A good friend of mine, children’s author Matt de la Peña, was in attendance and grabbed me afterwards and said, “You have to write middle grade and young adult!” I didn't know exactly what he meant at the time. But, after thinking about it, I remembered how middle grade and YA were the books that had changed my life as a kid, books like Bridge to Terabithia, The Chronicles of Narnia, and The Lord of the Rings. I also had shared these books with my kids who also loved them, and they always begged me to tell them stories about my childhood. That’s when I realized that I could write these kinds of books. It was like that “click” moment that I see with my college students in their writing.

What can you tell us about The Gray? Where did the story come from, and what are your hopes for this book and your readers?

This story was difficult to write, and I’m learning how to talk about it. So, first I will give you a little backstory. I grew up in New York City, then moved to Upstate New York, and lived on a horse ranch. That was a very magical part of my life. And so that is sort of where the story began. The connection between a kid and a horse is a big part of the story.

And because I struggle from anxiety that came on later in life, I wanted to write a story about a character, Sasha, who is dealing with anxiety. Sasha is trying to survive after he learns that his beloved uncle who he used to visit in the country has died. Sasha’s a sensitive kid who loves nature and horses, and his anxiety begins to get worse. It becomes so bad that he goes into this place called “the Gray.” It’s the world of anxiety in which he lives. When a bullying incident happens at school, his family and therapist decide that he needs to take a break, get off technology, and get back to nature. So, they send Sasha to stay in the countryside with his aunt, but the Gray finds him there.

My hope for this book is that readers realize that we all have a version of the Gray, and like Sasha we can step out of it and cope with it, and we can still live while we’re trying to figure out how to deal with it. It’s why I offer practical help in the book, including grounding and breathing techniques that come from my own experience and mental health experts. I want to show through Sasha’s story that he also discovers what it means to have courage, and learns that you don’t have to go it alone.

How do your teaching and writing influence each other?

I used to separate my teaching and writing more, but now I see that storytelling has become more of a fundamental part of my teaching. In the past, I may have said, “Write an essay about how to get a job.” Now, I’ll say, “Tell the story about the day you first applied for a job.” Story is my chief interest. It has the capacity to engage people in a way that nothing else can. My students have also exposed me to stories from around the world. These stories have broadened my perspective by showing me vast differences and incredible commonalities. We all want peace, harmony, and art. And while these things may look differently in other cultures, they are at the heart of everything. Since I've started writing stories—novels especially—I feel more humbled as a teacher, and I feel next to my students more than ever. And this has been a most rewarding experience.