Q: How did you come up with the idea for My Life in the Fish Tank, and for your character Zinny?
A: A few years ago my oldest kid was in treatment for cancer. Our whole family went through it with him, each of us coping in our own ways. I wanted to write about that experience, or a related one, through the eyes of a younger sibling—the “easy” one who is internalizing her emotions.
It’s important for kids to see that in a family health crisis, mental or physical, everyone is affected, and everyone’s needs must be addressed.
Q: Why did you decide to focus on mental illness in this novel?
A: With all that’s going on in our culture right now-- Covid, racism and the ugly political landscape-- kids and their families are under unprecedented stress. Mental health needs to be a focus, and it needs to be destigmatized. It’s important for kids to hear that mental illness happens even in “normal,” “nice” families like the Mannings, and that help comes in many forms.
Q: In our previous interview, you said that this new novel takes on "a "tough topic," but one I hope I've handled with humor, truth and optimism." What do you see as the right mix of seriousness and humor in your writing?
A: I’m a big believer in using humor when you’re writing about “tough topics.” Middle grade (and upper middle grade) readers are eager to explore these challenging real-world subjects, but they don’t want to read books that are preachy or depressing.
So I always try to weave in other threads—subplots about friendship, crushes, school, etc. And I always try to include some levity to give kids a break from the serious subject.
In the case of My Life in the Fish Tank, a lot of the jokes involve Zinny trying to distract her little brother during a family crisis. You can’t just sprinkle a bunch of jokes on top; they have to be organic to the story you want to tell.
Q: What do you hope kids take away from the book?
A: I hope kids who read My Life in the Fish Tank get to the last page with a deeper understanding of mental health. I hope they take away the notion that mental illness is not a secret to hide from the world—and in fact, it’s the secrecy itself that’s unhealthy. I hope the book sparks some conversation about the difference between “privacy” and “secrecy.”
I also hope the book shows that growth and change may be hard at times, but help is always available, and “survival is realistic.”
Q: What are you working on now?
A: I’m just finishing the final revisions for my next middle grade novel, Violets Are Blue, which will be published by Aladdin/S&S in Fall 2021. This one is about a girl who’s obsessed with special effects makeup—especially YouTube tutorials—and doesn’t realize that her mom, a nurse, is struggling with an opioid addiction. I’m very excited about this next book!
--Interview with Deborah Kalb. Here's a previous Q&A with Barbara Dee.