Knowing and Not Knowing, a guest post by Barbara Dee
Not long before I started writing Violets Are Blue, I was talking with my husband about his experience growing up with a family member struggling with addiction.
“Did you know?” I asked.
“I knew and I didn’t,” he told me.
That answer—I knew and I didn’t—has always stayed with me. Kids are perceptive and sensitive, especially when it comes to family. But that doesn’t mean they correctly process everything they’re seeing. And sometimes they simply don’t want to see, because the truth, especially about a parent, is too disturbing.
As I was writing Violets Are Blue, I kept coming back to this sentence—I knew but I didn’t—as a way both into the character of Wren, and also into the story I wanted to tell. When you get a sentence like this stuck in your head, it’s a kind of gift from the writing gods. Having the line “Maybe he just likes you” kept me focused on the story I wanted to tell for my MG #metoo book. The expression “halfway normal” kept me on track as I wrote about a kid returning to school after two years of cancer treatment.
For Violets Are Blue, my challenge was to write a main character who was extremely observant about special effects makeup, and extremely close to her mom– and at the same time not getting the fact that her mom was struggling with an addiction to opioids. How can a character be able to detect the very subtle difference between two similar shades of purple eye shadow, and yet not be able to understand that the lock on her mom’s bedroom door is a red flag? Or that her mom’s frequent illnesses are suspicious? Or what it means that her mom is hoarding unmarked bottles of pills, or that money is missing from the house?
I had to make it plausible that Wren could see so well, and so much, and still not get what was going on with the beloved parent right in front of her. This was a difficult balance—but the more I thought about it, the more I realized that it was no different from the balance you always have to strike when you’re writing MG fiction from the main character’s point of view.
Middle-school-age narrators need to be perceptive and sensitive, but they’re not omniscient. They see a lot, but they don’t see all—and even when they do see, they don’t always understand.
In My Life in the Fish Tank, Zinny witnesses her brother’s alarming behavior, but she understands it only in retrospect. In Maybe He Just Likes You, Mila senses that the boys’ behavior is out of line, but until she finds out about the scorecard, she doesn’t get why she’s being targeted. In Everything I Know About You, Tally has a close-up view of Ava’s behavior (in fact, she’s “spying” on her roommate, as a sort of game), but it takes her awhile to figure out the truth—that Ava has an eating disorder.
I never want to write a book that condescends to the main character, or to the kid reader. So even though I’m writing about a twelve year old with imperfect information, or with the (age-approprate) inability to know what all that information means, I still need the main character to be bright, alert, sensitive, worthy of being the focus of the story. Because if the main character is merely unobservant and shallow, why would you want to be in her head for 300 pages?
I think of all my MG books as journeys, with the main character ultimately discovering that people are complex, nothing is simple, and ambiguity is okay. It’s a journey that often begins with that paradoxical state of knowing-and-not-knowing, and ends with acceptance and understanding.
And—spoiler alert!—in Violets Are Blue, it also ends with forgiveness.
Meet the author
Barbara Dee is the author of twelve middle grade novels published by Simon & Schuster, including Violets Are Blue, My Life in the Fish Tank, Maybe He Just Likes You, Everything I Know About You, Halfway Normal, and Star-Crossed. Her books have earned several starred reviews, have been shortlisted for many state book awards, and have been named to best-of lists including the The Washington Post’s Best Children’s Books, the ALA Notable Children’s Books, the ALA Rise: A Feminist Book Project List, the NCSS-CBC Notable Social Studies Trade Books for Young People, and the ALA Rainbow List Top Ten. Barbara lives with her family, including a naughty cat named Luna and a sweet rescue hound named Ripley, in Westchester County, New York.
About Violets Are Blue
From the author of the acclaimed My Life in the Fish Tank and Maybe He Just Likes You comes a moving and relatable middle grade novel about secrets, family, and the power of forgiveness.
Twelve-year-old Wren loves makeup—special effect makeup, to be exact. When she is experimenting with new looks, Wren can create a different version of herself. A girl who isn’t in a sort-of-best friendship with someone who seems like she hates her. A girl whose parents aren’t divorced and doesn’t have to learn to like her new stepmom.
So, when Wren and her mom move to a new town for a fresh start, she is cautiously optimistic. And things seem to fall into place when Wren meets potential friends and gets selected as the makeup artist for her school’s upcoming production of Wicked.
Only, Wren’s mom isn’t doing so well. She’s taking a lot of naps, starts snapping at Wren for no reason, and always seems to be sick. And what’s worse, Wren keeps getting hints that things aren’t going well at her new job at the hospital, where her mom is a nurse. And after an opening night disaster leads to a heartbreaking discovery, Wren realizes that her mother has a serious problem—a problem that can’t be wiped away or covered up.
After all the progress she’s made, can Wren start over again with her devastating new normal? And will she ever be able to heal the broken trust with her mom?
Publication date: 10/12/2021
Age Range: 9 – 13 Years
Filed under: Uncategorized
About Amanda MacGregor
Amanda MacGregor works in an elementary library, loves dogs, and can be found on Twitter @CiteSomething.
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