Let me introduce you to my most amazing writer friend, Bree Barton. I am a huge admirer of her as both writer and all-round brilliant human, and so I'm excited to share this exclusive interview ahead of the release of her middle-grade debut, ZIA ERASES THE WORLD (Viking/Penguin Random House) on April 26, 2022.
It's not just that Bree is a dear friend that I'm plugging her latest book; it's because she writes true BOOKS WITH SPINE for young readers. Bree doesn't shy away from BIG issues; in fact, she runs towards them, ready to tackle them full on.
If you like what she has to say in this interview, you might be interested to note that she and I are plotting to run a special online writing-for-young-readers masterclass soon. If you want to be the FIRST to know when it's scheduled, register your interest today.
First, a Bit about Bree ...
Bree lives in Ithaca, New York, and is the author of the YA trilogy HEART OF THORNS (KT/HarperCollins), published in seven countries and four languages, and has published op-eds in The Washington Post, USA Today, and the Los Angeles Times. Her short fiction has appeared in The Iowa Review, McSweeney’s, Roxane Gay’s PANK, and sundry other literary magazines. You can find her on Instagram @speakbreely or YouTube @breebarton.
Soooo, tell us, what is ZIA ERASES THE WORLD about?
This is the tale of headstrong Zia and the magical dictionary she hopes will explain the complicated feelings she can’t find the right words for—or erase them altogether.
Zia remembers the exact night the Shadoom arrived. One moment she was laughing with her best friends, and the next a dark room of shadows had crept into her chest. Zia has always loved words, but she can’t find a real one for the fear growing inside her. How can you defeat something if you don’t know its name?
One day, Zia discovers a family heirloom: the C. Scuro Dictionary, 13th Edition. This is no ordinary dictionary. Hidden within its magical pages is a mysterious blue eraser with which Zia can erase words associated with the Shadoom and make them disappear from the world around her. But things quickly dissolve into chaos as the words she erases turn out to be more vital than Zia ever expected.
ZIA deals with a big topic: depression in childhood. Why was it important for you to take on this topic, and was it difficult, as an adult, to convey such challenging emotions from a child's perspective?
Please allow me to tell my sob story: in 2018, I lost my sixth grade journal. I was on tour for the first book of my YA fantasy trilogy, and I brought the journal with me to read funny excerpts at events. As a kid, I spilled everything in that journal: my fear, my pain, my sadness ... and, yes, also why Jonathan Taylor Thomas and I were destined to fall in love. (I loved animals! JTT loved animals! Clearly my OTP.) There it was, unfettered access to my thoughts, dreams, even my speech patterns as an eleven-year-old, the year I was slammed with my first major depression. The best guide to writing a middle-grade book about depression, ever, and I lost it. (If you happen to find my journal ... she answers to "Sage" ... call me! I beg you.)
In the absence of having that window into my past, I was forced to remember, to conjure the bodily sensations of the depression (a tightness in my chest, like being gripped by a fist), to recall the predominant visual landscape (darkness, so much darkness), to reflect on all the nights my mom held me while I sobbed. That was both hard and, ultimately, good for the story. I had to sit in that place of being a scared kid who didn't know what was happening to my brain and body. That's a place a lot of kids know well, more than ever after the last two years. My hope is that what Zia is going through will resonate with anyone who is hurting—of any age, really—and struggling to find the words.
What challenges or considerations did you have creating the character of Zia and telling her story?
There's a big bundle of my personal biography in Zia. In addition to the depression, I, too, had a tabby cat, a hard-working single mom, and a bff named J. But I was determined to give Z her own narrative and not make it a carbon copy of mine. Every draft of this novel was an opportunity to extract kernels of Bree Barton's biography and choose instead to shape Zia Angelis's unique story.
Also, since Zia is Greek-American, and her new friend, Alice Phan, is Vietnamese-American, it was extremely important to me that I be culturally sensitive and not inadvertently cause harm. My publisher, Viking/Penguin, hired Vietnamese and Greek authenticity readers, and they were indispensable, pointing out places I could do better as a white American writer. I took every bit of their advice.
Zia loves to create new vocabulary. What role does language play in book and why is language so important to Zia?
I love language—which will become immediately apparent to anyone reading the book. In my HEART OF THORNS trilogy, my style was more lush and lyrical, and I genuinely enjoyed wearing that hat. But with Zia, a contemporary story, I got to be wildly playful. And as a result, so did Zia! Language is the way she makes sense of her world. And creating new vocabulary is how she brings some lightness to the Shadoom—the room of shadows—in her chest.
One of the most fun things for me was the structure: I always knew I wanted 26 chapter interstitials that would be dictionary entries (early working title for this book was From A to Z). And there are a lot of made-up words, everything from shortmanteau ("mashing two words together to make a new word, like mashing two short men into a tall one") to kilarious ("marked by extreme hilarity, followed by an emotional sucker punch to the gut").
I would, however, like to take this opportunity to apologize to my copyeditor. I love seeing the publisher's style sheets for my books—it's where the bits and bobs in my head become canon—but, WOW. Not only did I not have chapter numbers, which threw the production department for a major loop, but also there were so many invented words! Pity the poor copy editor who had to query: "Um, by potado did you mean potato?" Little did she know a potado was a whirling tornado of violently rotating potatoes ...
Do you expect to follow Zia's story as she grows up, or do you expect this to be a standalone book?
Funny you should ask! I've always thought of this as a standalone story, but a sixth grade classroom read an early copy of ZIA last week, and I've now heard from several parents that their children are demanding a sequel because, the kids point out, there's a cliffhanger at the end of the book. And now that I've mulled it over: I think they're right! Kids are always right. But my gut says a second book wouldn't be Zia's story; it would be her friend Alice's ...
When you were growing up, which books had the biggest impact on you and why?
Such a great question. As a kid, I loved all of the Narnia books, which my mom read to me as bedtime stories—they were so imaginative and fantastic (and I've been jonesing for Turkish Delight ever since).
When I was a little older, I gravitated toward books with rich character work and a depth of emotion. We're sometimes told kids have a limited range of feelings, but I think they often feel things more deeply than adults, because they haven't yet learned how to seal themselves off from the parts that hurt.
The three books that had the biggest impact on me as a middle grader: Bridge to Terabithia (so tragic!), Island of the Blue Dolphins (so haunting!), and The Witch of Blackbird Pond (so much girl power!). Geez, was I only impacted by Newbery winners? I clearly haven't changed a bit, since Tae Keller's When You Trap a Tiger, which won the Newbery Medal in 2021, absolutely blew me away. Tae also blurbed my book, which felt like being kissed by the gods.
What is your next literary project?
So, I just—as in, two hours before writing this—sent the first 40 pages of a new middle grade book to my agent. Twelve-year-old Delores DiFazio is reeling when her famous sci-fi author dad walks out on her and her mom. But actually, her dad has jumped into an alternate universe ... and found a better version of Delores and her mom. Del must travel through the multiverse, confronting various doppelgängers, both friend and foe, to discover the truth about her family and find her true self. Get ready for:
a) more magic
b) more hijinks
c) chapters told in 'multiple choice'
d) all of the above!
Lorna Partington Walsh, Wordsmith