Alumnae/i Feature

In Spite of Book Challenges, Author Jo Knowles '92 '95MA Forges Connections Through Stories

Tell us about your most recent novel, Meant to Be.

It's about a young girl named Ivy who has been living with her family in temporary affordable housing. While her family looks forward to moving to something more permanent, Ivy wants to stay because she's made close friends in the building. This is a companion novel to Where the Heart Is, which focuses on Ivy's older sister, Rachel. I loved writing Ivy's character when working on Where the Heart Is. She had such sass! Even my editor wrote in her comments that Ivy needed her own book. So, When I finished the novel, I asked my editor if she was serious about Ivy needing her own book, and she said yes!

In this book, which picks up a year after Where The Heart Is ends, l wanted to show how in spite of the challenges of living in financial insecurity, Ivy finds a way to feel at home and makes great friends. She's a very can-do kind of kid. She loves fixing things and baking and finds opportunities in her new home to do all the things she likes. I've spent a lot of time volunteering at similar living situations and wanted to portray the experience in a positive light, to show that  there can be moments of light, happiness and joy even in challenging situations

What do you find most rewarding about writing middle grade fiction?

Early in my career, I wrote strictly for a young adult (YA) audience. Moving to middle grade wasn't a conscious choice. When I began writing See You At Harry's, Fern [the main character] was fifteen years old, but the [narrative] voice wasn't working. One morning I woke up and started rewriting the first chapter in my head, but from a much younger point-of-view. I knew immediately that was the answer. Fern's voice changed, along with her level of naivety. See You At Harry's was based on my own experience growing up in the restaurant business. Like Fern, I also had an older brother who was gay and bullied because of that. I wanted to capture the helplessness I felt in not being able to stop the way he was treated, but I also wanted to show a more positive outcome for Holden, and for all kids labeled "different."

I wrote Still a Work In Progress when my son was in middle school, and I was observing a lot of the challenges kids that age face. Those voices and experiences just started coming to me in a much stronger way than those of older teens. One of the fun and unexpected outcomes of writing for middle school readers [fifth grade through eighth grade] was getting invited to speak at middle schools. There is something about that age group that is so unbelievably special. They're on the cusp of still being kids but feeling the pull of wanting to be teens. High school kids are often open when they talk to you one-on-one, but as a group they often tend to play it "cool," which makes it hard to know if you're connecting sometimes. Middle schoolers still tend to wear their hearts on their sleeves, giving hugs and opening their hearts to me. Both are rewarding experiences, but middle schoolers never fail to surprise me in the best of ways.

You have a debut picture book! What inspired you to write a picture book?

I fell in love with picture books during my time in graduate school at Simmons, when I must have read hundreds of them. I've always wanted to try writing one myself, but it's shockingly difficult! One night I woke up with an idea that I was sure would be a hit. I got up and wrote it down so I wouldn't forget. In the morning it was the first thing I thought of, but there was no pen or paper next to the bed — I had dreamed the whole thing! Not only that, but I couldn't remember the idea. Later, I took a walk, and when I turned into the woods I remembered: a little worm gets a song stuck in his head, and the title is Ear Worm. Little Worm tries to figure out who put the song in his head and meets and befriends woodland animals on his search. The fox's song would involve the fox trot, the rabbit's hip hop, and so on. It got complicated and fun really fast. Galia Bernstein, the illustrator, did such a beautiful job with the illustrations. It's been such a fun experience. And reading the story to younger kids at school visits has been pure joy.

Your books Pearl and See You At Harry's were included on a list of "challenged" books to be removed from school libraries. How have you handled this reaction to your work?

This year I've had four books (See You At Harry's, Pearl, Jumping Off Swings, and Read Between the Lines) on various challenged books lists. Pearl is now out of print, so if it gets removed from these places it can't be replaced, which is a bit heartbreaking. We are in a very dangerous time when it comes to censorship. Most of the books being challenged involve issues exposing racism and books with LGBTQ characters. When libraries remove access to books that help kids feel seen, the message it sends is that something is wrong with who they are. The result is horribly damaging to young people. I presented at a book festival at Youngstown State University in Ohio last spring, and after every presentation there were at least two or three kids who would approach me in my signing line and tell me, "this is the first book I read about a kid like me," or "you're the first person to talk about kids like me in a positive way," and burst into tears. That is the effect of a child growing up in a community that does not support all children. A book that acknowledges who they are with love can have a profoundly positive influence on a child — but when we take those books away, when we remove those lifelines, the negative results can be equally profound, and sometimes tragic.

We have to counter those negative messages whenever we can. My small town held its first Pride Parade this summer. More people attended than expected, some with signs, some dressed colorfully. Middle school kids arrived and congregated at the starting point, quietly observing everybody. We marched single file down a busy road. Cars slowed down for us and people honked and waved. The feedback was all very positive. I didn't hear of a single negative reaction. By the end of the parade, the kids were doing cartwheels and laughing and joking. They got to see their whole community embrace them and love them and show them that it was safe to be who they wanted to be. The difference between those kids who were so joyful at the end of the parade and the kids who were in tears at the book event I mentioned earlier is so stark and so painful. We have got to do better for all kids, everywhere.

Any advice for aspiring authors afraid of facing backlash for their work?

Everybody has a story to tell, and every person's story is valid. If you want to be a writer, tell the stories that matter to you, whatever that means. It doesn't have to be a trauma that you're sharing, it can be a wonderful fantasy novel that fills you with joy. Write what you want to write and think about the person you may connect with by sharing that story. That may help quiet any negative voices keeping you from writing the story of your heart. Tell the story you want and need to write. Think of the positive connection you might make with someone who needs to hear it, too.

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