(with Ella deCastro Baron)
TWITTER GIVEAWAY: Chris is generously offering a copy of THE MAGICAL IMPERFECT to one lucky reader, over on Twitter. Look for it at @novelmindkidlit after you read his piece, below:
When All of Me came out, many people asked me if it was about my own life. The LA Times gave me a gift -- a phrase I could use and would use over and again -- All of Me is a fictional retelling of events that happened to me. In that story, Ari is just too big to fit in, and his thoughts almost destroy him. He thinks that maybe a diet could be a magic cure, but he learns quickly that the diet is not the real answer. It’s the help and hope of his friends that guide him to acceptance. While The Magical Imperfect is not a fictional retelling, there are many connections to the life of my family, and in particular, the physical and mental health issues the main characters face. For me, suffering from anxiety, and for my wife, her severe eczema. The themes of our experiences are threaded into these stories: both the good and very difficult truth of how hard it can all be.
I wrote about the tumultuous (and often adventurous) life of an artist's family quite a bit in All of Me. But there was one behavior that Ari didn’t express that Etan does in The Magical Imperfect. Anxiety.In the story, when Etan’s mother has to leave, his words suddenly disappear. Etan’s mother deals with severe depression, and as she moves through an especially terrible bout of it, she decides out of love for her son that she doesn’t want to expose him to it. She and Etan’s father decide to let her go to the hospital to be safe.
When she reached down
to say goodbye one last time,
she said, I love you, Etan,
just like when she used to tuck me in
after she finished a story.
But when I opened my mouth
to say it back,
Etan’s selective mutism manifests because the anxiety from his mother leaving (and other things in the story) is so far beyond his control, and he does not know how to get his words back.
In Etan, I am writing a character I know well: someone who suffers from anxiety. In the artist’s life, we moved all the time. Whenever I moved to a new town, a new state, a new school, I may have seemed calm on the outside, but inside of me was a storm of emotions. There was always joy and excitement in new things: places, people, adventures. But of course, it was all mixed together with the brutal pain of being taken out of one’s life (routine, friendships, and environment), and then suddenly dropped into another.
I suffered from anxiety. I didn’t know how I would fit. For a kid, it can be a complete loss of control. Often, the way I reacted to this powerlessness was to find a thing I could control. I found myself often unable to speak, so I embraced that. I stopped talking at school. I was silent. I kept all my words to myself. People would often tell me to, “Just make friends.” “Talk to them.” If I could have snapped my fingers I would have. But there was no easy fix. Eventually I found friends and teachers I could trust who helped me through it, and slowly the words emerged.
In the book, it’s when Etan meets Malia, the girl they call, “The Creature,” that he begins to find his words again. There’s something about her, some sort of magic that helps him to talk. But she has her own problems. She suffers from severe eczema.
Eczema is very complicated. Most people have rashes that itch, but as my wife explains it, she has itches that rash. Ella has suffered from extreme eczema off and on her whole life. Her memoir, Itchy Brown Girl Seeks Employment (2009) is about a life lived with eczema. The triggering effects of the condition can cause so many secondary problems: depression, insomnia, isolation, and hopelessness. Malia’s situation in the book is not far from this. After an incident at school, her parents decide that she needs to be separated from everyone else. I asked Ella to reflect on Malia’s situation a little more deeply:
Doctors call Malia’s eczema, “atopic dermatitis.” “Atopic” comes from the Greek word, atopy, meaning “out of place” or “strange.” Growing up with this inherited skin affliction causes a person to avoid anything that exacerbates their itchy, painful, rashy skin: allergens like many foods, animals or blooming flowers; the sun’s rays, certain fabrics on our skin.
Soon, and too often, this isolation causes us to avoid other peoples’ gaze, having to explain our limitations to them, and our own reflection. There is no surefire cure or treatment, just rounds of trial and error to minimize triggers. Secondary illnesses take over: insomnia from discomfort, social anxiety, and depression that this is will never end. Truly, eczema separates a person in almost every way.
I find it ironic that for Malia (and for my family history as Filipino immigrants) this ailment is one of trying to “fit” into her own skin. Even more, it’s the perpetual displacement, a disaporic dis-ease of never knowing what shade of brown is acceptable.
If you know Ella, then you know that she is a luminous, hilarious person full of life, even when she is struggling. I confess that Malia’s character is much like this (although Ella doesn’t dream about being a singer). But her good humor has helped her to process the countless “magic cures” that people have tried to provide, from a vast assortment of creams, to oozing tablespoons of omega fatty acids, to herbal tea that smells like the compost bin, to vials of water with traces of invisible elements.
There is no mistaking that The Magical Imperfect is a story with ancient magic colliding with the magic of the modern world. But it’s also true that the healing process for both of these conditions is not simple magic. There is not one perfect cure. It rarely ever works like that. In each case, it’s a complex journey, but the hope itself leads to moments of magic that provide joy and healing from the most unexpected places. That’s a big part of what I explore in the book.
For Etan and Malia, this is the story of finding the magic that will actually heal them even if it’s not what they expect. For them, the first step is when they find each other.
I know that there are so many kids out there dealing with things like anxiety, and eczema, and all that comes with it, and right now, somewhere, they are wishing for the magic cure that will save them. My greatest joy is to write books from the heart, and from a place of experience to let those kids (and adults of course) know that they are seen, that magic is real, even when it doesn’t look like we expected, even when it’s imperfect.
TWITTER GIVEAWAY: Chris is generously offering a copy of THE MAGICAL IMPERFECT to one lucky reader, over on Twitter. Look for details over at @novelmindkidlit. Winner will be chosen at random and notified in about a week.
Chris Baron is the author of the Middle Grade novels in verse, ALL OF ME, an NCTE Notable book, and THE MAGICAL IMPERFECT (2021) a Junior Library Guild Selection. from Feiwel & Friends/Macmillan. He is a Professor of English at San Diego City College and the director of the Writing Center. He grew up in New York City, but he completed his MFA in Poetry in 1998 at SDSU. Baron’s first book of poetry, Under the Broom Tree, (CityWorks Press 2012) is part of Lantern Tree: Four Books of Poems (which won the San Diego Book Award for best poetry anthology).Learn more about him on Twitter: @baronchrisbaron Instagram: @christhebearbaron and www.chris-baron.com
Ella DeCastro Baron is a second generation Filipina American born and raised in Coastal Miwok territory (Vallejo, California). She holds an MFA in Creative Writing and is a part-time English and Creative Writing instructor at San Diego City College and Brandman University. Ella's first book of creative nonfiction is, Itchy, Brown Girl Seeks Employment and she is most recently published in (Her)oics: Women’s Lived Experiences During the Coronavirus Epidemic, Anomaly, and The Rumpus. An embodied storyteller, Ella using images, words, dance, and honest cultural insight to reflect the dynamic identities in all of us. Ella explores what it means to have integrity—to be integrated—as a woman of color who lives with chronic illness. She leads workshops and kapwa (deep interconnection) gatherings that aim to reconcile the “whole person” through nourishing acts such as writing, art, movement, food (yes!), and community. She lives and loves on Kumeyaay territory (San Diego, CA) with her husband and interracial family. Her favorite preferred pronoun is We.