-- Or how EVERYWHERE BLUE started out as my own story, then went in a different direction.
The main character of my debut novel-in-verse, EVERYWHERE BLUE (June 2021, Holiday House) is a twelve-year-old girl named Madrigal, Maddie for short.
Maddie loves everything in its place. She prefers even numbers to odd numbers, longs to straighten piles of papers, calms herself by alphabetizing her books. Her heart pounds, she has frequent stomach aches, and often feels as if she’s about to throw up. Maddie is an anxious kid.
When her beloved older brother vanishes, her ordered world is thrown into chaos.
I’ve suffered from anxiety most of my life. I’ve always been a straightener. The pounding heart and stomach aches and nausea were (and occasionally still are) my symptoms. I remember my mother taking me to the doctor when I was in third grade, and he prescribed a green liquid medicine that I had to drink before meals. I suspect now that it was a placebo, but at the time it seemed to help. No one ever suggested therapy or counseling. That was a long time ago, a time when taboos about mental illness were firmly in place. I’ve always suspected my late father suffered from OCD and possibly ADHD, but was never diagnosed. He couldn’t sit still. And he constantly straightened the things in our house: pictures on the wall, a placemat on the table, books on a shelf.
I didn’t seek help for my anxiety until I was in my mid-twenties. Talking to a psychologist helped me immensely. Over the years, I was on different medications, first Lexapro, and later Xanax, to help calm my anxious, nervous mind. Deep breathing exercises and Yoga now help me the most. I know I don’t handle stress well, because I’ve survived two brain aneurysm ruptures, twelve years apart (yes, I realize how lucky I am!). My blood pressure can rocket up if I’m anxious. So I’m also on blood pressure meds and will be for the rest of my life.
When I first started writing EVERYWHERE BLUE, I gave my protagonist my own symptoms. After all, she plays the oboe, which I did in school, and her parents love classical music and play it all the time, as mine did.
Oddly enough, though, as I worked on the book over the space of several years, revising it (and revising it and revising it), Madrigal began to take on a life of her own. This is the magic of writing. She began to feel like a real person to me, and most importantly, separate from me.
So I had to do some research. I read books about kids with OCD, including Counting By Sevens, by Holly Goldberg Sloan, Finding Perfect by Elly Swartz, Not As Crazy As I Seem by George Harrar, and several nonfiction books about kids who worry. Then I gave Maddie some symptoms I never had. She loves even numbers, she counts when she’s anxious, and she cuts her sandwiches in quarters, keeping them exactly one thumb-width apart while eating.
I never did this.
EVERYWHERE BLUE has a hopeful ending, and I’m happy to report that counseling (for the entire family) is mentioned toward the end. I imagine with the pandemic, there are even more worried kids out there. It is my hope that anxious kids will read my book and see themselves and know they’ll be okay.
Joanne Rossmassler Fritz is a poet and a member of SCBWI. She developed her love of children's books by working at a school library, the independent bookstore Chester County Book and Music Company, and at a publishing company. She and her husband live outside West Chester, Pennsylvania. This is her debut novel.