Chappaqua author Barbara Dee has her finger on the pulse of older kids, and she knows what they are thinking about. For more than a decade Dee’s popular books for middle-grade students have been on the right track with topics that interest kids.
As the market for children’s books has evolved so have Dee’s books. From her debut novel, Just Another Day in My Insanely Real Life, to her latest Halfway Normal, Dee’s writing has gotten more serious, yet she has consistently maintained her trademark sense of humor.
“Kids want to feel like they are reading about themselves, so the voice has to be just right,” says Dee. As an adult you come to writing for young people with your own life experience: for Dee it is Mom and teacher. “I felt a strong connection to my 12-year-old self and was able to tap into those feelings easily.”
For many of Dee’s books, resilience and empathy are themes. Such is the case for Halfway Normal, a story about 12-year-old Norah Levy who returns to school after two years of treatment for leukemia. Dee wrote from her own experience as a Memorial Sloan Kettering mom whose child was undergoing treatment. She also spoke to girls who were survivors. Dee is thrilled that this book has been chosen as a Junior Library Guild title, a first for her.
“While kids today are so sophisticated and have such internet savvy, they are still kids. They can be confused, silly, anxious and testing their boundaries,” says Dee. “My books always have substance and are a great way to get kids to open up to a subject.” Dee’s idea for her book Star-Crossed came after she noted the acclaim that GEORGE, a book about a transgender child, received. She decided to dip her toe into the LGBT book pool. “I thought there are so few children’s books on this topic, why not take it down a notch.” Star-Crossed is a story of young love in middle school. “I know that kids question their orientation so this is a sweet and happy comedy about acceptance.”
Dee hears from a lot of her readers and the range of her audience has surprised her. She has discovered that teens and adults have been reading middle-grade books.
“I get a lot of letters and Star-Crossed has gotten the most response from teens and adults asking ‘where was this book when I was in middle school?’” They share their personal stories with Dee. “It’s so moving and I feel honored.”
Staying serious yet maintaining an upbeat tone and characters with spunk, her forthcoming book Everything I Know About You takes on the topic of tween eating disorders. The book deals with friendship issues. On a school trip to Washington, D.C. the main character that is fine with her large body notices that her roommate has an eating disorder, and handles it with humor. Dee says that humor is a great coping mechanism. “For kids, it is important to blend humor into the work, but it’s hard to be funny!”
In her spare time, Dee loves to read. She also visits schools and attends conferences and book festivals. She is a Founder and member of the Board of Directors of the Chappaqua Children’s Book Festival. Among her favorite books as a child are
A Wrinkle in Time, Island of the Blue Dolphins and Harriet the Spy. Now she reads a lot of contemporary fiction. But her readers would be most surprised to discover that she is obsessed with the English rock band Radiohead and has been to their concerts.
When she speaks to kids, Dee tells young writers to read lots of different things for pleasure, and to get used to sharing their work. “Develop a thick skin and take constructive criticism.”
Dee says of her own experience: “A rejection letter with feedback is a gift.”
When she was a child, Dee always thought of herself as a writer one day and she’s doing exactly that, although her journey began by teaching, going to law school, and reviewing books. And she never realized what a job writing was, its business aspect and all the traveling. It is less glamorous than kids think. But in the end Dee finds it a dream job. “I’m lucky to be able to do it. What a privilege to say this is my job even when I am having a hard day!”
Barbara Dee will be giving a talk and signing her books at the Chappaqua Library on Thursday, September 14 at 4 p.m. On October 14, 10 a.m. to 4 p.m., you can also find Dee greeting young and old alike at her table at the Chappaqua Children’s Book Festival.