In contemporary middle grade novel Breaking into Sunlight, journalist and debut author John Cochran chronicles a tween’s experience having a parent with a substance dependency. When North Carolina seventh grader Reese finds his father unconscious following another opioid overdose, he expects his family to move on from the incident like they always have. Except this time, his mother declares that she and Reese are leaving, and that they won’t return until his father gets help. While navigating complicated feelings surrounding his parents and their situation, Reese befriends neighbors Meg and Charlie, who face their own difficulties. Together, the trio finds comfort in exploring the local wilderness and learns to let go of the things they can’t control. Cochran spoke with PW about complex familial relationships, seeking peace in tumultuous times, and how his journalism background shaped his debut.

What made you decide to write a children’s book?

When I sat down to start working in fiction, I was thinking a lot about what kind of audience I wanted to write for. I felt pretty strongly that if I could wave a magic wand and be anything, write for anyone, it would be for kids. It’s such an amazing privilege to be able to write books that, if you had read them when you were a kid, would have stayed with you forever. Kids experience books in a way that adults don’t.

I wrote this book to speak to kids, but I also hope that adults will read it and get something from it. Maybe they’ll read it with their kids and talk about some of what’s happening in it. Ultimately, it’s a story about how you’re not alone and about healing through connection from whatever difficult things you’re dealing with. I hope that the message transcends situations involving addiction. A big reason I added Meg and Charlie to the story was to show that there are a lot of commonalities between addiction and losing a loved one. Both can blow a hole in your life.

Reese has complex relationships with both of his parents. What did you hope to convey by portraying these difficult dynamics?

One thing that I felt strongly about was showing all three of those people—Reese and his dad and his mom—with compassion. It’s a very real thing, kids having parents who are dealing with addiction. They’re navigating complex dynamics with someone that they care for so much, and they’re afraid, and they’re also angry because addiction is wreaking havoc in their loved one’s life and their own life. I didn’t want Reese or his parents to be speaking from a therapy script or saying the right things all the time or doing the right things all the time. They’re people who are in a difficult situation, where they have to make hard choices and have to do difficult things. And they have to, ultimately, come to a kind of peace with each other. That’s why I wanted to show them groping toward that, as I think that’s the way real life plays out.

Ultimately, it's a story about how you're not alone and about healing through connection.

In your author’s note, you mention using the Seven Cs, developed by counselor and author Jerry Moe, as a basis for Reese’s journey. Can you elaborate?

I didn’t want any of the characters to mention the Seven Cs explicitly, because I don’t think any of them over the course of the story are at the point where they would have discovered those. But it did guide my thinking about where Reese’s head is at and where his mom’s head is at in the beginning. Reese is caught in feeling like he can control everything, that he can cure [his father’s dependency]. And that’s what he’s trying to shake loose. I wanted to show the characters moving through the Seven Cs toward the positive actions and what you can do. That’s why Reese’s 13th birthday party is so central—it’s because he’s moving toward that step of celebrating yourself. But he doesn’t want to. He doesn’t feel like he can do it when his family is separated and going through all these problems. He thinks he needs to get to a better place before he can celebrate himself.

Meg, Reese, and Charlie find solace in exploring the natural world. Why did you choose this outlet for them?

I’ve actually written a number of stories where, for whatever reason, I kept returning to rivers. Those stories never really got off the ground, but it’s always resonated with me. I have really wonderful memories of canoeing on rivers like the one that Meg and Reese and Charlie live next to. It’s not based on any particular river, but it’s very much inspired by a number of different ones in North Carolina. Canoeing is such a peaceful experience, and so calming. Once you’re on the river, everything else feels like it’s miles and miles away. For all three kids, it’s this very real way for them to disconnect for a while, and for them to find some comfort and peace. There’s a scene where they find a snapping turtle that’s been hooked, and it’s a pretty important scene that’s based on something I saw when canoeing with my wife years ago.

How did your journalism experience inform Breaking into Sunlight?

Ultimately, Breaking into Sunlight is rooted in people that I talked to and things that I saw as a journalist, particularly in North Carolina. It wasn’t my primary beat, but I’ve done some writing as a journalist about people in recovery, so I also had a little bit of insight from having talked to those folks. I don’t know whether it’s just me temperamentally or if it’s part of the way journalism wires you, but reflexively, conveying realism was really important to me. I wanted everything to be as realistic and accurate and authentic as possible.

How has working with an editor on a children’s book compared to working with an editor as a journalist?

I really lucked into a terrific agent [Isabelle Bleecker, Nordlyset Literary] and a terrific editor [Cheryl Klein, editorial director at Algonquin Young Readers]. I’ve worked with a lot of editors over the years, and Cheryl was one of the best. She was full of great ideas and was a really good communicator. So, everything has gone pretty smoothly. I found that my experience as a journalist translated well because, as a journalist, you’re writing and being edited often under stiff time pressure, and you have to learn not to take things personally when you’re asked to get rid of writing that doesn’t serve the story, even though you may love it.

On your website, you mention that you’re a “full-time stay-at-home dad.” In what ways did spending this time with your children influence how you approached writing a kids’ book?

Not to ever suggest that people who are not stay-at-home parents don’t have this also, but I was pretty intensely steeped in my kids’ lives on the playground and in classrooms. I spent a lot of time observing them and their friends and listening to them talk. It got me thinking about the way kids think and the way they respond to things.

People find the time to fulfill lifelong goals with a lot of other pressures in their lives, so it was a privilege to be able to do that with a lot of flexibility and freedom that I maybe wouldn’t have had otherwise. My wife is incredibly supportive. [Because of her] I was able to refashion myself as a fiction writer, which was more difficult than I thought it would be going in. It gave me the freedom to try different things and to work my way toward something that I thought was worth putting out into the world.

What’s next for you?

I’m working on a middle grade story about unhoused folks that’s set in a fictionalized town in the Pittsburgh area. My mother’s family is from around there and I lived there for a while as a boy.

Breaking into Sunlight by John Cochran. Algonquin, $17.99 June 18 ISBN 978-1-5235-2729-8