"When a Novel Might Just Be Too Much to Handle . . .
. . . Take It One Drop of Water at a Time."
The Gray is a fictional story full of mystical countrysides, abandoned-haunted summer camps, and ancient Jewish mysticism -- which are certainly things I identify with -- but have I experienced them the way Sasha and his friends have?
It’s a work of fiction, but that doesn’t mean that any of it is less true. When I say that The Gray might be my most personal book yet, I mean it with my whole heart. It’s the story of Sasha, a boy spending the summer in the country with his widowed aunt to help deal with his anxiety. When he meets up with a horse at a local ranch, coincidentally named The Gray, he feels a kindred spirit, and everything starts to change.
This story is inspired by my own pre-teen move from New York City to a farm upstate, (and back again). The farm was an escape from bullying, and spending time in nature and caring for and riding horses helped me to develop confidence, to manage stress and anxiety in unexpected ways.
Horses are bigger than we are. The countryside is out of our control, and facing our lack of control can be the perfect opportunity for us to learn how to face something like anxiety, which is itself something out of our control, something that manifests in unexpected ways.
My first goal as a writer is always to write the best story I can. I want to understand the characters, give them as authentic a voice as possible. With The Gray, this came naturally, but was also challenging. I wanted to write an action/adventure story, but I also knew that these kids are dealing with real concerns, real middle school issues, happenings that are far out of their control, but impact them greatly.
Anxiety is more and more common these days for so many kids (and adults of course), and we don’t always know how to react. It’s not easy to understand its triggers, its symptoms, and its effects. It is hard on the person experiencing it. It is also hard on loved ones. In the story, Sasha’s father loves him deeply, but he doesn’t know how to relate to what Sasha is going through. He tells him to “Toughen up.” This phrase has a multiverse of variations and can often feel toxic to the hearer.
Sasha’s father is not trying to be toxic. He’s trying to help the way he knows how, but he’s from a different generation. Sasha takes it to heart -- too much -- and it ends badly between him and another kid. This leads to consequences, as well as opportunities for Sasha’s father to learn more about his son in an even deeper way.
That’s a core of this book: Generations learning from one another, needing to be more open and accepting than ever.
There are no magic phrases like “toughen up,” or “pull yourself up by your bootstraps,” that will save us. Sometimes it seems like we are learning a whole new language of how to relate to one another. And if we can do it, it might just save our lives. For Sasha, he misses his uncle, who he learns shared a similar experience to Sasha. And through his Aunt Ruthie, he learns that ancient stories, family stories, are medicine and wisdom just as important as his modern medication and grounding techniques.
I see this in my students, as a parent of three kids, and as an educator of over twenty years. Our mental health needs serious attention. The way we understand and learn is so different after the core pandemic years, and we are still trying to figure out all of the consequences. Parents and teachers are typically the safest harbors in this, but none of it is easy. And most parents and educators don’t have a mental-health degree or certificate (although that might be helpful for the world). Plus, it can be difficult to find mental health professionals to help. According to The American Psychological Association, clinical-level anxiety is on the rise. Almost 20.5% of youth worldwide struggle with anxiety symptoms from a variety of factors. (https://www.apa.org/monitor/2022/10/child-anxiety-treatment)
It’s a real thing. Our kids are dealing with it. The Gray, I hope, can be a window into the realities of middle schoolers dealing with this -- but without simple answers or easy endings. Through endless research and personal experience, I wanted to make sure that all the techniques Sasha uses to cope with his anxiety and panic are real-world, trusted techniques, like box breathing and grounding, that anyone who reads the story can try themselves -- techniques I use for myself.
The Gray, which comes like a fog to envelop the real world, might also be something of a gift, a special sensitivity of Sasha's. Perhaps somehow it was corrupted or changed through some of life’s more difficult situations -- like losing a loved one -- bullying -- disappointment -- or just being wired differently.
Along with the practical, in The Gray, Sasha and his friends, living on the middle-school-aged border between elementary and high school, wrestle with the way they see the world: both as a competition to be won, and as a source of wonder and magic. They spend time at a place called “The Stone of Power,” and they discuss the idea that maybe the world is bigger than they imagine -- that there are worlds within worlds.
What if we could find a way to reconnect with that sense of wonder and magic? What if we meet friends along the way, just like Sasha does, who have experienced what we do? Who understand us? Finding “our people,” and being understood are some of the healthiest ways for our heart, mind, and body to thrive.
That’s the story I wanted to tell: A story that sends the characters on an adventure where they discover just how much is possible in their lives, even if all is not completely well.
Where they learn that they are brave even when the world might tell them they are not.
That their “well-being” is not a matter of choice alone, but of practice, and taking a journey.
Sasha’s unexpected bond with horses, his reconnection with his Jewish heritage, and his aunt’s Talmudic stories, his practice of martial arts, and especially his courage to make new friends, are all a part of how he is learning to live his life.
He is learning that he’s not alone, that he is loved, and help is there when he needs it. Even if he still sometimes faces The Gray -- just like we all do.
Chris Baron is the award winning author of middle grade novels in verse, All of Me, The Magical Imperfect, and new novel The Gray from Feiwel & Friends/Macmillan, as well as The Secret of the Dragon Gems, a Middle Grade novel co-authored with Rajani LaRocca from Little Bee Books. He is a Professor of English at San Diego City College and the director of the Writing Center.
Learn more about him at www.chris-baron.com and on Twitter: @baronchrisbaron Instagram: @christhebearbaron