In middle grade novel Jawbreaker by debut author Christina Wyman, aspiring journalist Maximillia “Max” Audrina Plink’s Class II malocclusion—and the splayed teeth, severe overbite, misaligned jaw, and painful costly treatments that come with it—has derailed not only her family’s finances, but her entire life. Drawing from her own experiences, Wyman navigates topics such as academic inequity, friendship, feuding parents, and intergenerational trauma, set against a backdrop of one tween’s experiences with bullying and orthodontia. In a conversation with PW, Wyman reflected on her relationship with her family and her teeth, how she prepared to tackle her debut novel, and her belief that even when the sky is falling, there is humor to be found in everything.
In your author’s note, you mention how, during your childhood, you went through situations like Max’s, including your own Class II malocclusion. How much of these experiences did you use to craft Jawbreaker?
The first 25 years of my life are kind of infused in the book in certain ways, so I would say it was a combination of childhood and adult experiences. I went through double jaw surgery as an adult, so I’m very familiar with that process, and with how the doctor breaks it to you. “Nothing we can do for your mouth without surgery!” I know how that feels. So, I conjured my 12-year-old self to try and dig more into the fear and uncertainty of the situation because, as an adult, I was able to just accept it. But I think that would be a very, very scary thing for a 12-year-old to contend with. So, while I did have those direct experiences with having to navigate a surgery, in Max’s case, it’s only maybe a surgery; they don’t know if it’s necessary. And, in a lot of ways, the uncertainty is almost worse. She’s just sitting on pins and needles for six months to a year or more waiting for a verdict. If her mouth doesn’t respond to the non-surgical methods they try, well... that can be really scary.
In terms of the oral issues, and how that interacted with the bullying, that was absolutely informed by my own experience. In my case, because I had been in and out of braces for, you know, my entire life really, the bullying didn’t stop in middle school; the things that people would say to me, uninvited, unprovoked, traveled into my 20s. But most of what appears in the book is informed by that hellish middle school life.
Throughout Jawbreaker, Max must navigate complicated relationships with her family, as well as bullying and strained friendships at school, on top of her orthodontal issues and her family’s financial precarity. Can you talk about the challenges of layering all these points of conflict?
A lot of people I’ve interacted with over the years either don’t understand, or don’t believe that when all these things are a part of a child’s life, they’re all happening at once. I had been in braces already by the time it was determined that I was a complicated case, that it was not a simple overbite. We had gone to a good handful of doctors and the things that they suggested should be part of my treatment were out of this world. So, that was happening.
I remember the day that I learned that my father was an alcoholic. It was the day after my sixth-grade graduation. And I am just one of many generations born into toxic family dynamics. So that was always present in my interactions at home, outside the home, and in my way of being in the world. There was also no escaping that we were a family from a lower socioeconomic bracket. That was present in everything we did: living paycheck to paycheck, having to make difficult financial decisions, having to worry about, “What if something happens to the car? What if a repair is needed?” My parents did a relatively good job of keeping the more major things from us; they didn’t share everything. But they didn’t have to. It was kind of obvious that my siblings and I didn’t have the same things as our classmates. That’s not something that has to be taught to you. That’s something that you experience. And the bullying was absolutely life-altering. And relentless.
For me, layering all these pieces felt very natural, because I only know a childhood where it was all coming down at once. It’s not a raindrop at a time—it’s absolutely torrential, and it’s just life. I was worried about what Jawbreaker’s reception might be because I had encountered people who can’t believe that there are children for whom life is very dramatic and traumatic. But it’s true, for some kids. I would argue that it’s true for many kids, especially these days. So, I’m glad to see that maybe it’s not so hard to believe after all, because the reception has been generally positive and relatable.
While the situations that Max faces are sometimes painful to read, her voice is humorous and sardonic, and the novel’s tone is hopeful. Why was it important for you to craft the narrative in this way?
You know, I’m a sardonic person. At least, that’s what I’ve heard. And when I call myself sardonic, I’m not usually complimenting myself. I can be pretty grim and cynical. I was a grim and cynical kid—what choice did I have? So that, for better or for worse, really informed how I navigated the world, and the adult that I became. But it’s also true that there was a lot of humor. I laughed a lot as a kid. I like to think I do as an adult too. But as a child, I laughed a lot. In fact, while I did relatively well in school, my teachers’ main complaint during parent-teacher conferences was that I wouldn’t stop laughing. It would be kind of disruptive. So, that’s the kind of character I know how to write.
There’s this one scene where Max has decided she’s not going to take advantage of an important opportunity because of the bullying that might occur. When her parents find out, her dad launches into this discussion about how he and the guys at work make fun of each other all the time—“some guy I work with made fun of the size of my head”—and how, sometimes, people just make fun of each other. And, depending on the circles you’re in, that’s a lifelong thing. So, you shouldn’t deprive yourself of opportunities just because someone’s going to laugh at you. The point is: who cares! You have to not give them that power.
I’d always been kind of heavy on the sarcasm, but not in any mean-spirited way. Just because I find it humorous. And I was also a middle school teacher. Like, you better have a sense of humor. So, you know, all these things kind of came together naturally, but I would not say intentionally. I just wrote what I thought I knew, and it just so happened to create this.
Would you say that your career as a teacher influenced how you approached writing Jawbreaker?
Oh, I would say 100,000%. It’s one thing to recall certain childhood memories, but it’s another thing to be on the adult side of that and situated in a middle school where you’re removed from your own childhood. I mean, [as a teacher] I was in the thick of it; I basically got a front-row seat to middle school dynamics. And that experience really helped me in crafting how children can be with each other, how teacher-student dynamics play out. That is absolutely something I draw from, especially when it comes to writing more supportive adult characters like the newspaper club advisor, or the school principal, or the English teacher who, I must admit, is named after my delightful high school English teacher.
You’re also a seasoned essayist with pieces published in the Washington Post, the Independent, Elle, Ms. Magazine, NBC News, and other outlets,. In comparison, was there anything about developing your debut novel that surprised or challenged you?
I went through a graduate program for curriculum instruction and teacher education at Michigan State University, and one of the things that strong graduate programs do is essentially teach students how to write. And I’m talking adult students with decades of writing behind them. And everything you learned about writing is no longer relevant. So, I received basically six years of lessons about how the writing process tends to look. My dissertation was over 300 pages long, so writing Jawbreaker felt very similar. And had I tried writing this book before that experience, had I not been through a program that basically teaches you that your first drafts—and then probably the second and the third—are garbage, I think I would have been put off by the sheer extent of very necessary revision that I had to do. It was incredibly rigorous. I can’t even count how many times those first few chapters must have changed.
Being in that world, as an academic, really prepared me for entering this world of writing for children, and for those first and second and third rounds of editorial feedback. I would say that I have a much easier time writing short essays. I can spit out 1000 words and barely need any feedback. And it’s great, it’s one of my favorite things to do. But sitting down to write a book for young audiences, and their parents, and professionals in schools and libraries, and publications like this? That’s a different ballgame.
What’s next for you? Are you going to continue writing essays, or are you diving straight into a new book?
I’m always hoping to write essays. They’re a nice... I don’t want to call it a distraction. But it’s a nice way to add texture to my life. I have my bigger projects, which are the books, and then I have the much smaller projects. And I hope to always be writing essays. I just pitched something yesterday, actually, and who knows what’s going to happen with it.
Currently, I’m finishing up the first round of revisions on my second middle grade novel, Slouch. It’s related to, but very different from Jawbreaker. It’s about a 12-year-old girl whose body is changing. And a lot of this is based on real experience as well. She’s unusually tall for her age, and I was too, which resulted in a host of issues at school and on the street, just being out in the world and in public. She’s been receiving a lot of unwanted attention; because of how tall she is, people seem to think that she’s older than she is, and she’s reckoning with how to create boundaries with her family and her friends, and how to get the support she needs from adults.
I view Slouch as a contribution to conversations about the #MeToo movement, because there are things that happen in the book that force her to reckon with a world that views women’s and girls’ bodies as public property. Having to learn about that and protect herself from that at such a young age is gut-wrenching, but I feel like it’s a necessary conversation, and I wanted to write a story that helped young readers deal with that.
Jawbreaker by Christina Wyman. Farrar, Straus and Giroux, $17.99 Oct. 24 ISBN 978-0-374-38969-7; $9.99 paper ISBN 978-1-250-33102-1