Barbara Dee is the author of Everything I Know About You, a new middle-grade novel for kids. Her other books include Star-Crossed and Halfway Normal. She lives in Westchester County, New York.
Q: How did you come up with the idea for Everything I Know About You, and for your main character, Tally?
A: After writing Star-Crossed and Halfway Normal, I knew I wanted to write another "tough topic" for middle grade readers. One day I came across an article about how eating disorders were on the rise among kids in the middle grades.
I did more research, then sought out a social worker whose specialty is treating kids with eating disorders; she confirmed that most of her patients were middle graders.
As someone who survived eating disorders in my college years, I found this trend alarming. But not surprising-- I keep hearing from educators that mental health issues are getting younger these days.
One of my techniques in writing about "tough topics" for 9-13 year olds is to create a plot around fun, engaging characters. It's important to take serious subjects seriously, but I never want to write a story that gets depressing or preachy.
The character with the eating disorder is Ava, so I created her opposite in Tally--a quirky, fearless, funny math nerd proud of her big-boned physique. The story is about their relationship, a not-quite-friendship that develops over the course of a few days.
Q: The book takes place on a seventh-grade class trip to Washington, D.C. Why did you decide on that as the setting?
A: One of the themes in Everything I Know About You is how we come together--as a nation and also in the classroom. We're all so different, and sometimes we don't like each other very much, but we should still care about each other's well-being.
On this trip to D.C., the history teachers take the kids to see the Lincoln Memorial and the Viet Nam Memorial to make the point that our nation's motto is E Pluribus Unum--"Out of many, one." Tally is cynical about her teachers' insistence on "class unity" until she starts to consider her responsibility to Ava, a classmate who isn't even her friend.
Q: Did you know how the novel would end before you started writing it, or did you make many changes along the way?
A: I usually have a general outline of the plot before I start writing, but I don't use index cards or flow charts or software of any kind. I'm sort of a planner/pantser hybrid--I like to know the general landscape before I get to work on a new book, but I always leave myself free to take detours.
Q: What are you working on now?
A: I'm about to start revisions for my tenth book, How To Survive Quicksand, which will be published by Aladdin/S&S in Fall 2019. This one is about a 12-year-old girl whose family life is turned upside down with her college-age brother's diagnosis of bipolar disorder. Like Everything, it's a "tough topic," but one I hope I've handled with humor, truth and optimism.
Q: Anything else we should know?
A: I'm currently working on my eleventh middle grade novel, which will be published Fall 2020--but the subject is Top Secret, so please don't ask for details!
Oh, and this June, I'm attending my very first ALA to talk about Everything I Know About You! Can't wait!
--Interview with Deborah Kalb