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Elly Swartz: Dear Student (social anxiety, SEL)



Well-loved middle grade author Elly Swartz has a new one out! Sally J. Pla got to ask her some questions. Here's their exchange.


 

Elly: Sally, first, I want to thank you for having me on your blog and for all you and A Novel Mind do to promote empathy, understanding and compassion. Most grateful, my friend.


Okay, here we go...


Sally: All four of your books feature middle-school girls with big compassionate hearts who, often due to circumstances beyond their control, struggle a bit with their mental health. Can you briefly tell us about Frankie, Molly, Maggie and Autumn?


Elly: Oh, I love this question, Sally, as each one of these characters has stayed tucked in my heart long after their story was told. So being back in their worlds, even for a moment, feels like visiting old friends.


We’ll start with the newest addition to the family, Autumn from DEAR STUDENT. I love Autumn! She is compassionate, thoughtful, and quiet, and, most days, would rather hang out with the animals at her mom’s veterinary clinic than spend time in the crowded school cafeteria.


Autumn has social anxiety, and a pet guinea pig named Spud. Her dad—who is away in the Peace Corps—tasks her with getting involved in one thing at school. But first, she must find her Fearless Fred—the part of each of us that fear can’t boss around. And when she does, Autumn becomes the secret voice of the middle school advice column, Dear Student. Through her journey, Autumn not only finds her voice, but ultimately owns it and uses it to stand up for something she truly believes in. Even when that something puts her in the middle of what her friends want.


Autumn ultimately realizes that brave is not just for the popular, the confidant, and the loud. Brave is for everyone. Even the shy and anxious.


Next up, Maggie in GIVE AND TAKE. What I love most about Maggie is her heart – it’s giant. She loves big. And with that comes the challenge of letting go. Maggie’s nana had dementia. And one day, along with forgetting that she loved chocolate donuts, Nana forgot Maggie. Maggie doesn’t want to forget. Anything. So she holds on tight. To everything. Maggie hoards in her closet, her locker, and under her bed. But when her family takes in a beautiful foster baby who smells like powder, Maggie has to learn that sometimes love means letting go.


Now onto Frankie in SMART COOKIE. Frankie is hot ticket – equal parts spunk and heart. Her mom died many years ago, and with the help of her ghost-hunting friend, Elliot, Frankie secretly puts her dad on a dating site to find a new mom. She wants a family. Like she had. What she realizes is that sometimes family is much bigger than those who share a name. It’s the whole herd of people who’ve got your back.


And finally, where my journey started, with Molly in FINDING PERFECT. I love everything about Molly. The strength she doesn’t know she has. Her sense of loyalty and kindness. Molly has undiagnosed OCD. And this is her journey to realizing that she is so much more than her anxiety. She is a slam poet, a friend, and a sister. She is imperfect and beautiful.


Aw, I love all these girls!


What traits do these girls share?


I think underlying most of my main characters is a bravery they don’t recognize they possess and a sense of strength that is hidden behind their anxiety. These characters love deeply, are kind, and trying to figure out where they fit in the world. And, of course, they all love animals!


How are they different?


Each character is on their own path.


Autumn is a gentle soul and a thoughtful, quiet observer.

Frankie is spunky, resourceful, and a take-charge kind of kid.

Molly is introspective, driven, and poetic.

And Maggie holds on tight to all of it.


To me, their differences reflect that they are all imperfectly beautiful.


We love your website, especially all the resources for educators that revolve around Social Emotional Learning (SEL). How does SEL factor into how you decide what kind of stories you want to tell? Or, to put it another way, why is SEL so important to you, your mission, your stories?


Thank you for raising this issue, Sally. SEL is very important to me. I want all kids to see themselves on the page. I want all kids to feel seen, heard, and respected. And all kids to know they are not alone.


Mental health challenges are part of the stories I tell because mental health challenges are part of my readers’ lives. Kids have social anxiety. General anxiety. OCD. And hoard. The more we talk about these issues, the more we normalize the conversation and begin to break down the stigmas and stereotypes around mental health.


I don’t want kids to be embarrassed to talk about the invisible things that hurt their hearts and minds. The invisible hurt needs the same attention and love and care as the physical hurt.


Books are a way in. They are a bridge to talking about these difficult topics. They give readers the language they need. The space they require. And the courage to reach out.


Books matter. And what a huge a privilege it is to write for ALL kids.


In your interactions with students and classrooms and readers over the past few years, what things have you noticed? What are the kids you talk to thinking about and feeling?


Sally, the biggest thing I have noticed is that anxiety is on the rise. And kids need a safe place to parse, navigate, and share those big and complicated feelings.


And sometimes that safe place is a book.


It’s a hugely honored position when kids open up to me. And what they are sharing is that books help.


I was recently talking to kids about Dear Student. One sixth grader came up to me after. She looked around to make sure no one could hear her. She told me that she felt anxious, too. That kids made fun of her. That she was happy I was writing a book about girl like her.


A 5th grader came up to me after another school visit. She was crying and wanted a hug. She told me she didn’t have many friends, she was weird, scared, and did a lot of stuff like Maggie in Give and Take. I assured her that she was brave, that weird was a good thing – I was weird, too – and that she was going to be okay.


A reader sent me a letter that hangs in my office. It begins like this: Dear Elly, I just want you to know that you changed my life. This reader connected with Molly. She did strange things (her words, not mine) like Molly, didn’t tell anyone like Molly, was scared like Molly, and felt very alone. Until she met Molly. Then she told someone and is now getting help for OCD.


I get lots of letters, dm’s, emails from readers. Young and old. Kids, teachers, and parents. Sharing the impact Molly, Maggie, Frankie, and Autumn have had on their lives and their hearts. I am forever grateful.


The truth is that life can feel complicated. And sometimes we all need help navigating the waters.


What kind of books/stories are kids connecting with, wanting, needing most, emotionally speaking, in your experience?


I think kids want to feel seen and respected. They want to know that their choices, their experiences, and their hearts matters. They want to know that they’re not alone. That they’re not the only one feeling all the feels. It’s been a hard few years for all of us. The kids I speak to want to keep it real. No sugar-coating life. They want to lean into all the good stuff and have a safe space to navigate everything else.


What is in the works currently? What's coming next for Elly Swartz?


I have another middle grade novel entitled, HIDDEN TRUTHS, coming out in 2023 with Random House. HIDDEN TRUTHS is a story told in dual pov between best friends Danielle – a star baseball player – and Eric – her forgetful, but kind, goofy, crossword-loving neighbor.

Their friendship has begun to shift when a terrible accident happens, accelerating their rift.

At its heart, this story asks how far you’d go to keep a promise to a friend. And if forgiveness can really heal the hurt that comes when trust is broken.

I’m also working on a picture book and starting a new middle grade that I am bursting with excitement to write.

Lots more to come. Woohoo!



 


Elly Swartz grew up in Yardley, Pennsylvania. She studied psychology at Boston University and received her law degree from Georgetown University Law Center. Elly lives in Massachusetts and is happily married with two grown sons, a beagle named Lucy, and a pup named Baxter Bean. Finding Perfect, called “a clear, moving portrayal of obsessive-compulsive disorder” by Publishers Weekly, was her debut novel. She is also the author of Smart Cookie and Give and Take, novels for middle grade readers.

Read more about Elly on her website: www.ellyswartz.com. (Photo credit: Greg Swartz)