Popular and acclaimed middle grade author Barbara Dee's newest book, VIOLETS ARE BLUE, releases Oct 12. It’s been called “a moving and relatable middle grade novel about secrets, family, and the power of forgiveness.” When twelve-year-old Wren engages in her creative passion for special effect makeup, she can create a different version of herself. A girl without friend problems. A girl without divorced parents or an awkward new stepmom. But it all gets harder when Wren and her mom move to a new town, and her mother’s behavior and mental health start to deteriorate.
Sally J. Pla virtually sat down with Barbara to talk about this newest story in her lineup of honest, realistic treatments of modern mental health issues in middle grade. Here’s what Barbara had to say.
Sally: The mental health of parents can so deeply affect the mental health of children. Can you tell us about the relationship between Wren and her mom in VIOLETS ARE BLUE? What issues are each grappling with?
Barbara: Wren and her mom have a deep, loving, complicated relationship. In some ways Kelly is the perfect mom: for example, she gets why her daughter wants to change her name, and supports her choice, even though it’s painful for her. She also encourages Wren’s exploration of special effects makeup.
But Kelly is dazed and withdrawn after Wren’s dad leaves their family to create a new life in Brooklyn—and becomes depressed when shortly afterwards he re-marries and has twin babies. Kelly has knee pain and back pain, which she treats with painkillers she filches from her job as an ER nurse. But the main reason she takes these pills is to numb her post-divorce depression.
Soon she’s sleeping at odd hours, and absent from home without explanation; she’s also moody, with an unpredictable temper. Wren learns to tiptoe around her mom, not speak about her dad’s new family, and not ask too many questions. But enabling her mom’s behavior takes a toll on her, and eventually she explodes.
Sally: Opioid misuse is a devastating public health crisis. What research did you have to do to present this issue in just the right way?
Barbara: I was fortunate to interview two health professionals who work with opioid addicts. One was a nurse at New York Presbyterian Hospital’s inpatient substance abuse program. The other was a social worker who heads an outpatient treatment center that serves many health professionals with opioid addictions. Both of these folks were extremely generous with their time, and I was so grateful to them for sharing their perspectives.
I also read several books, both traditionally published and self-published, by former opioid addicts and their family members. The one I’d most recommend is AS NEEDED FOR PAIN: A MEMOIR OF ADDICTION (HarperCollins, 2020) by Dan Peres. Reading this personal history by a famous magazine editor helped me understand how it’s possible for opioid addicts to mask their substance abuse and continue a high-pressured, high-functioning lifestyle…until they can’t.
Sally: In the story, Wren is a makeup artist. This struck a chord in me, because in the autistic community, the effort of putting on a socially-aware, appropriate, public face for the world is called "masking." In what sense does makeup-artist Wren "mask" -- and how does that work for or against her?
Barbara: Wren feels as if she has no control over her life when her dad leaves to start a new family and her mom decides they need to move to a new town. Her mom’s behavior, along with her insistence that Wren not talk to her dad “behind her back,” forces Wren to mask her emotions and stifle her questions.
Transforming her face into a superhero, or an alien, or a mermaid, is a way for Wren to take charge of her identity. But the flip side of masking is that you’re hiding your true self, and everything you’re thinking and feeling. Eventually Wren has to take off the masks and reveal herself to both family and friends.
Sally: Your books all deal head-on with the social-emotional impacts of modern childhood and adolescence, and we at A Novel Mind absolutely love them. You bring tough topics out into the sunlight, and write in just the right tone for kids.
Your main characters contend with sexual harassment at school, or come to terms with their conflicted feelings about their sexual orientation. They deal with bipolar disorder in their family, or a friend’s eating disorder... Tell us: Why is it so important that kids have books on tough mental-health topics? Why do these types of books need to be written? And why do you need to write them?
Barbara: I never think about these topics as “tough”—I think about them as “real.” Kids today are dealing with so much stress and upheaval, partly because they have access to unlimited, 24-hour information that often compounds their anxiety about the world. I believe that one of the best ways to address kids’ anxiety is by handing them a book and talking about it. Kids often feel more comfortable discussing a sensitive topic when you’re just chatting about characters in a work of fiction—and not pointing fingers at people in the room.
As for why I write about these topics: a few years ago my son battled cancer. One day I was sitting in the waiting room of the Pediatrics floor at his hospital, and I looked around at the other patients—regular kids who’d been zapped by a proverbial thunderbolt. And I had an epiphany: Kids go through things. They’re living in the same world as grownups. They get sick, they survive trauma, they experience loss…! That day I decided to reinvent myself as a writer.
My mission is to do justice to these topics in an age-appropriate way. I never want my books to be one-note, didactic or depressing, so I try to make them entertaining, relatable, even funny--but mostly I want them to ring true. We can’t keep handing kids books that we call “realistic fiction” unless we’re mirroring something close to reality.
Sally: What's next from the wonderful Barbara Dee?
Barbara: My next book, HAVEN JACOBS SAVES THE PLANET (YOU’RE WELCOME), which will be out Fall 2022, is about a kid dealing with eco-anxiety-- anxiety about climate change, which so many kids are experiencing these days. Hoping it starts some important and necessary conversations!
Barbara Dee is the author of twelve middle grade novels published by Simon & Schuster, including Violets Are Blue, My Life in the Fish Tank, Maybe He Just Likes You, Everything I Know About You, Halfway Normal, and Star-Crossed. Her books have earned several starred reviews and have been named to many best-of lists, including the The Washington Post’s Best Children’s Books, the ALA Notable Children’s Books, the ALA Rise: A Feminist Book Project List, the NCSS-CBC Notable Social Studies Trade Books for Young People, and the ALA Rainbow List Top Ten. Barbara lives with her family, including a naughty cat named Luna and a sweet rescue hound named Ripley, in Westchester County, New York.