Tuesday, October 12, 2021

Q&A with Barbara Dee




Barbara Dee is the author of Violets Are Blue, a new middle grade novel for kids. Her many other middle grade novels include My Life in the Fish Tank


Q: How did you create your character Wren?


A: Wren’s mom has a secret addiction--and since secrecy in a family can be contagious, I thought it made sense for Wren to have a secret addiction too. For many middle school kids, the internet is a powerful draw, so I knew it was realistic for her to become addicted to YouTube.


Wren’s mom’s addiction affects her identity—not just her behavior at home and at work, but also her appearance—and I wanted Wren to have the sort of addiction that transformed her identity as well.


My daughter has a friend who’s into special effects makeup; when I saw the types of YouTube tutorials she watches, I knew that these would work beautifully for the book.


The idea was that Wren should become obsessed with the minutia of this visual artform, and at the same time not see what was right in front of her: that her mom was struggling with addiction.


Also, Wren needs lots of high-end makeup supplies, which her mom (an ER nurse) can’t afford. But Wren’s new stepmom keeps sending her supplies which she hides under her bed. So both mom and daughter are living with secrets from each other-- until these secrets implode.


I should say that whenever I explore a “tough topic” for this age group, I try to weave in something entertaining or amusing. Part of my reason for making Wren obsessed with special effects makeup was that I knew readers would find it offbeat and fun.


Also, I envision Wren as a creative kid who’s too introverted to be onstage. Working behind the scenes as a makeup artist allows her to be part of the school’s production of Wicked without being under the spotlight.


Q: The Publishers Weekly review of the book says, "With flawed, realistic characters and dynamics, this reconciliatory novel is a believable balm for young people at the mercy of adult choices and scenarios." What do you think of that description?


A: I’m delighted that PW finds the characters “flawed and realistic.” That’s always what I strive for. I never want my characters, both kids and adults, to be too anything—too spunky, too nice, too wise, etc.


I create characters with imperfections, quirks, weaknesses, and inconsistencies, because I believe these “flaws” are what make your characters come alive on the page.


I’m also pleased that PW zeroes in on Wren’s feeling that she has no control over her circumstances. Many middle schoolers feel this strongly, even when they’re not dealing with a family member’s addiction. So I think many kids will be able to relate to Wren.

Q: Can you say more about why you decided to include the topic of addiction in the novel?


A: Millions of kids in this country have been touched by the opioid epidemic. As educator Lesley Roessing notes, about 1 in 8 children in the U. S. (8.7 million kids under age 17!) live in households with at least one parent with a past year substance abuse disorder (www.samhsa.gov).


So it’s a topic we really do need to talk about—and I always think one of the best ways to have these sensitive conversations is by talking about characters in a work of fiction.


Q: How was the book's title chosen, and what does it signify for you?


A: As a makeup artist Wren is obsessed with the nuances of color. For her, “blue” is a meaningless adjective: she needs to know if it’s indigo, cornflower, cobalt, sky, etc. When Kai writes her a Valentine poem with the line “Violets are blue,” she expresses her discomfort by pointing out how illogical that is: obviously, violets are violet!


But one of the things Wren is learning is that things are not always what they seem, or what we expect them to be. 


She struggles with mermaid makeup, trying unsuccessfully to replicate the exact shade of blue the makeup artist Cat FX uses in a video. When Wren finally meets her hero, Cat FX, she learns that some violets are, in fact, blue.


She also discovers that in the video Cat FX had withheld a secret ingredient: a pigment with the paradoxical name Blue Violet. Why would Cat FX do a makeup tutorial and not be completely honest about her technique?


Wren has to decide if she’s okay with Cat FX’s secretive behavior, just as she has to come to terms with her mom’s. What she learns is that you need to expect illogic and imperfection in the world—even from your heroes, even from your own parents.


Also, sometimes life throws unexpected things at you, and you can’t cope by mindlessly following directions. You need to improvise: “Everything could change, nothing was decided, and there was no step-by-step how-to video for all the days ahead.”    


Q: What are you working on now?


A: My next middle grade novel, Haven Jacobs Saves the Planet (You’re Welcome), will be published by Aladdin/S&S Fall 2022. It’s about a kid with eco-anxiety—anxiety about climate change. This is a hugely important topic to many kids, and I’m excited for this book to start some necessary conversations!


Q: Anything else we should know?


A: My 2020 middle grade, My Life in the Fish Tank, appeared in both paperback and audiobook on Sept. 28, 2021! Violets Are Blue publishes Oct. 12, 2021.


--Interview with Deborah Kalb. Here's a previous Q&A with Barbara Dee.

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