Beads on a Necklace: A Story Collective, a guest post by Kimberly Behre Kenna
Content warning: This post mentions sexual abuse.
Last month, in the middle of the busiest time of my writing life so far, I reflected on the fact that I had already achieved my top-of-the-list priority less than three months after the publication of my debut middle-grade novel, Artemis Sparke and the Sound Seekers Brigade.
It occurred at an author visit with 175 sixth graders. My presentation included a slide show about how I moved from a shy child to published author, as well as the stories behind my stories. During the Q&A at the end, a student asked me why I waited till I was an adult to start writing seriously. I took a deep breath and told her the truth. I’d experienced trauma as a child, which I didn’t address until adulthood, and when I finally met with a therapist, I couldn’t talk about it. My therapist asked if I could write just a sentence or two about how I was feeling or what I hoped for. I did. It was like a dam burst, and I haven’t stopped writing since. That was about ten years ago, and I am an author because of that wise therapist. There were a few follow-up questions: Was I still friends with my therapist? Did she know I wrote a book? (Answer: yes, and yes.)
As the students filed out after the presentation, a girl and her friend approached me, a few tears on her cheek. “I’m shy, too,” she said. “Kids make fun of me when I talk, just like Artemis. I see a therapist, too, and I like her a lot.” We talked about the power of one wonderful friendship and the help of a trusted adult. She thanked me and went back to class. The librarian who hosted me said, “That’s exactly why you write, isn’t it?”
Yes, it is. I had always hoped that my books would help kids feel seen and heard, that they’d come to understand the power of their unique voice. To have allowed this one child to feel less alone and connected to me, a person who had moved beyond challenges like those she was experiencing, means the world to me.
My decision to be vulnerable in front of a packed auditorium of children was planned. I’d decided that I wanted to be honest with readers about my journey. But I didn’t come to this decision single-handedly. I had some amazing role models, other middle-grade authors whose candidness about how their personal experiences inspired their novels moved me so deeply that I knew I wanted to do the same. Kate DiCamillo was one, and she sums it up like this:
“E. B. White loved the world. And in loving the world, he told the truth about it — its sorrow, its heartbreak, its devastating beauty. He trusted his readers enough to tell them the truth, and with that truth came comfort and a feeling that we were not alone.
I think our job is to trust our readers.
I think our job is to see and to let ourselves be seen.
I think our job is to love the world.”
Enter Book Two in my Brave Girls Collection, Jett Jamison and the Secret Storm (Black Rose Writing 8/3/23.) My “job” is about to get harder…the part about letting ourselves be seen, that is. There will be some people who don’t want to see what’s behind my public persona, and I respect their choice.
Like me, Jett Jamison is a survivor of child sexual abuse. Like me, she pushed those memories down deep and looked outside of herself for some way to quiet her mind. She searches for the book guaranteed to bring her peace and discovers it’s disappeared off the library shelves. Now, not only does Jett have to battle the creepy voices inside her head, but she’ll also have to fight the injustice of the censors in her small town. Jett’s story grew from my wonderings of how my life would’ve been different if I’d had access to age-appropriate books featuring characters who had survived trauma. I might not have felt so alone or ashamed. I might not have waited decades to tell my secret.
Putting Jett Jamison out into the world will be harder and different from how I offered Artemis Sparke. Though I’ve been assured that the book is appropriate for middle-grade, I will not only need to think through my author presentations carefully, but I must also think deeply about the audience for these presentations. Though the story focuses on book censorship, mental health issues stemming from her abuse hinder Jett’s ability to fight for freedom. The overarching theme of silenced voices is one that is necessary to discuss with children. However, my book won’t be a fit for every middle-grade reader. Their adults will help decide whether it’s a good choice.
I hope to rally concerned adults who understand the necessity of having these important discussions way before a child reaches high school. For victims of sexual abuse under the age of eighteen, thirty-four percent of those are under age twelve, and sixty-six percent are between twelve and seventeen. (https://www.rainn.org/statistics/children-and-teens) Breaking the silence early on may help prevent abuse from happening. Using books to promote the discussion provides a level of comfort and safety for both children and adults.
I’m grateful to Kate DiCamillo, Sonja K. Solter, Kimberly Brubaker Bradley, Laurie Halse Anderson and others whose gift to young readers goes beyond their published books. It’s hard for authors to be vulnerable and tell their truths, but as Jett herself says, “When we speak our stories aloud, we add our own bead to the necklace of strong survivors.” Last month, I witnessed a brave sixth-grade girl doing just that. Together, the beads on that necklace are less likely to get lost. Together, our voices will make a difference.
*If you or someone you know is being sexually abused, contact RAINN at 800-656-HOPE or online at https://www.rainn.org/
Meet the author
Inspired by writing and performing plays with her fifth-grade students, Kimberly Behre Kenna returned to school for her MA in creative writing from Wilkes University. Her debut middle-grade novel, Artemis Sparke and the Sound Seekers Brigade (Fitzroy Books) is the first book in her Brave Girls Collection. The second book, Jett Jamison and the Secret Storm, is forthcoming from Black Rose Writing and has been nominated for the National Book Award for Young People’s Literature. Born, raised, and still living on the Connecticut shoreline, Kimberly now writes children’s books full time, always inspired by the power of play, thoughtful questions, and a lifelong belief in nature’s ability to heal. Connect with her at kimberlybehrekenna.com.
About Jett Jamison and the Secret Storm
“Jett is no frozen victim: she’s a fighter, a detective, and when it counts the most, a trailblazer…” -J.R. Potter, award-winning teen mystery author of Thomas Creeper and the Gloomsbury Secret
Jett Jamison can’t catch a break.
Her home in small town Wisteria is noisy as a zoo on steroids, and her mind buzzes with bits of a traumatic memory she’d rather forget. She’s filled a shoebox with one hundred thirty-three to-do lists, her roadmaps to peace, but they only lead to dead ends. Sister Gia, master gardener and cat-whisperer extraordinaire, suggests a book by an anonymous author sure to bring calm quicker than those lists, but it’s disappeared from all local libraries, and nobody wants to talk about it.
Enraged at the injustice, Jett continues to dig for answers and is drawn into a censorship battle with a high-profile radio host. Her peaceful protest backfires big time, and the town goes berserk. Now, for peace to be within reach, Jett must either face up to her past or remain forever bound by silence much more suffocating than the din in Wisteria.
Publisher: Black Rose Writing
Publication date: 08/03/2023
Series: Brave Girls Collection
Age Range: 9 – 12 Years
Filed under: Guest Post
About Amanda MacGregor
Amanda MacGregor works in an elementary library, loves dogs, and can be found on Twitter @CiteSomething.
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