SJP: I'm so thrilled to warmly welcome the wonderful Elly Swartz to A Novel Mind today. The paperback of her debut novel, FINDING PERFECT, and her latest middle grade novel, GIVE AND TAKE, both pub tomorrow -- and I just want to say that Elly, herself, is one of the most giving authors I know in kid lit. Elly's agreed to an online "give and take" conversation with me about kids, mental health, and the power of stories.
ES: Before I jump in, I want to say a huge and heartfelt thank you. For your kindness and your friendship. I truly cherish both.
SJP: I feel the same, Elly! First off, can you give us a brief summary of your three books?
ES: Of course. Brevity is a challenge, but here goes.
In GIVE AND TAKE, Maggie knows her new baby sister who smells like powder isn’t her sister for keeps: she’s a foster baby awaiting adoption. Soon, she’ll go to her forever family and all that sweetness will be gone. Except for those things Maggie’s secretly saving in the cardboard boxes under her bed… Eventually, Maggie’s hoarding will grow far beyond her control, and she will learn that sometimes love means letting go.
In SMART COOKIE, Frankie’s mom died many years ago and she feels like a piece of her is missing. So, she secretly puts an ad online to find her dad a wife. No spoilers, but what she finds instead, is her herd. Her community. We all have one. And this herd is often so much bigger and wider than those with whom you share a name or childhood.
And in FINDING PERFECT, you meet Molly Nathans. To Molly, perfect is the number four. It’s the tip of a newly sharpened number two pencil. A crisp, white pad of paper. Her neatly aligned glass animal figurines. What’s not perfect, is Molly’s mother leaving the family for a faraway job. So Molly hatches a plan to bring her mother home: Win the school slam poetry contest. But Molly’s poetry is becoming harder to create. Actually, everything becomes harder as new habits appear, and counting, cleaning, and organizing are not enough to keep Molly’s world from spinning out of control. Ultimately, Molly learns there’s no such thing as perfect.
SJP: In GIVE AND TAKE, Maggie develops hoarding tendencies. In FINDING PERFECT, Molly struggles with OCD. I was wondering: What do Molly and Maggie have in common -- and how do you see each of them?
ES: I love this question, Sally! I think Molly and Maggie would be friends. They both love big and are stronger and braver than they realize. They also both have heaps of anxiety. For Maggie, this anxiety takes the form of hoarding. She collects trinkets and scraps and things many would call junk or trash. She fears if she throws these items away, the memories tied to these objects will disappear forever. Like they did for her grandma. Who forgot her love of chocolate donuts, where she lived, and even Maggie, when her dementia worsened.
For Molly that anxiety takes the form of OCD. Specifically, counting and organizing and the intrusion of scary worrisome thoughts.
I see both Molly and Maggie as strong, brave, and incredibly special. Just the way they are.
As my readers meet Molly and Maggie, I want them to see their own strength. To feel empowered. To know they’re not alone. I want them to know their voice and heart matter.
SJP: I love that you say they are special just the way they are. And that they are brave and strong. Kids who struggle with mental-health challenges are among the bravest, strongest kids I know.
Another thing I see in common with these characters, is the need for control, which drives a lot of anxious behaviors. Life is unpredictable - and kids can feel so powerless. How can they feel any control at all? OCD behaviors give a false sense of control. So does hoarding.
Maybe we should talk about the portrayal of mental-health challenges in your work. Your approach is so sensitive and honest. What kind of research and/or personal experiences have led to the creation of your characters?
ES: It was incredibly important to me to respectfully and authentically portray Molly’s OCD in Finding Perfect and Maggie’s anxiety and hoarding in Give and Take. To that end, I did extensive research. For Molly, I consulted with Dr. Paul Cannistraro and Dr. Kathleen Trainor. Dr. Cannistraro is the former director of clinical pharmacology at Mass. General Hospital OCD Clinic, and Dr. Trainor, the founder of the Trainor Center, has been working with children with anxiety based disorders for more than 30 years, and is a senior psychologist on staff in the Child Psychiatry Clinic at Mass. General Hospital. I consulted with both on the manifestation, diagnosis and recovery of OCD. And, over the course of four years, worked with Dr. Trainor to specifically authenticate Molly’s symptoms and treatment. Additionally, I have people in my life with OCD and used many of the resources offered by the International OCD Foundation.
Just like in Finding Perfect, there was personal knowledge and a tremendous amount of research that went into understanding and authentically representing Maggie’s anxiety and hoarding. The manifestation and treatment were the result of endless research and consults with Dr. Kathleen Trainer who graciously, once again, gave of her time and knowledge, and the exploration of the invaluable information offered by the International OCD Foundation.
To me, all great fiction is rooted in truth. So it’s important that all those seeds are thoroughly understood and respectfully conveyed and researched. I’m humbled and grateful when readers with OCD, anxiety, or hoarding, have shared that Molly and Maggie feel incredibly real.
SJP: Elly, when you talk to school groups -- and I know you speak to many -- can you share with us any standout moments that may have happened? Why is it important to speak honestly with kids -- and listen to them -- on these mental health issues?
ES: Oh, Sally, there have been many standout moments that have touched my heart. Truly forever. Kids are so wonderfully honest and open and willing to share. What I’ve learned is that books matter. They connect. They let kids know they are not alone. They build bridges of compassion and understanding. Are platforms for conversations that breakdown stigmas and stereotypes. And have the power to change hearts and minds.
One heartprint moment came in the form of a handwritten letter after a school visit. It began, “Dear Elly, I just want you to know that you changed my life.” I always knew books made a difference, Sally, but I never felt is so powerfully as I did reading this letter. This reader shared she did weird stuff like Molly. Kept it a secret like Molly. Was scared like Molly. Then she met Molly in Finding Perfect and realized she wasn’t alone. And just like Molly, she finally told someone he secret. She’s now getting help for OCD and doing great.
I’m honored and humbled that the stories I write have left an imprint on readers’ hearts.
I want my readers to see what I see: A strong, brave, beautiful person.
Thank you, Sally and Merriam, for creating A Novel Mind. It’s an incredible resource for parents, educators, librarians, and readers. These books have the power to make a difference.
As a token of my boundless gratitude and a way of supporting #OCDweek (Oct. 13-19), I will be giving away a signed copy of Give and Take and the new paperback of Finding Perfect.
Sally, will you do the honors and share how the #giveaway will work?
SJP: This is incredibly generous! Thank you, Elly! Reader-friends, please note the details below, just above the Comments section. Thank you so much for reading, everyone. And thanks again for the give and take, Elly.
Maggie’s Playlist on Spotify - Maggie uses music to help navigate her anxiety and heal her heart
Elly Swartz loves writing for kids, Twizzlers, and anything with her family. You can find her at ellyswartz.com, on Twitter @ellyswartz, on Instagram @ellyswartzbooks or on her webseries #BooksintheKitchen with author Victoria J. Coe. Elly lives in Massachusetts with her family and beagle.
IN HONOR OF #OCD WEEK, ELLY IS GENEROUSLY DONATING COPIES OF GIVE AND TAKE and the NEW PAPERBACK OF FINDING PERFECT. FOR A CHANCE TO WIN:
1) PLEASE LEAVE A COMMENT BELOW.
2) THEN HOP OVER TO TWITTER AND FOLLOW @ELLYSWARTZ AND @NOVELMINDKIDLIT. GOOD LUCK!