The Challenges of Returning to Middle School as a Cancer Survivor: An Interview with Halfway Normal Author Barbara Dee

Lawyer turned children’s book author Barbara Dee has written several critically acclaimed books about middle school kids struggling with the perils of growing up, including Star-Crossed, and Just Another Day in My Insanely Real Life. Her latest middle grade novel, Halfway Normal, is a beautiful and empowering story starring Norah, a twelve year old cancer survivor who is back at middle school trying to adjust to “normal” life after a two year absence. We got to speak to Barbara about the bake sale that inspired this incredible story, Greek mythology, and the importance of resilience.

Your wonderful new book, Halfway Normal, was inspired by an experience from your real life; can you talk about how this book came to be?
My oldest son has cancer—and a few years ago, when he was receiving treatment at Memorial Sloan Kettering in New York, a doctor there asked me what I was writing next. When I told her I wasn’t sure, she said, “You know what would be really great? A book about a kid who survives cancer—and doesn’t realize how tricky it can be to resume normal life.” She then told me about two different kids, a seventeen year old boy and a twelve year old girl, who had the same intense, visceral reaction to their school’s “breast cancer awareness bake sale.” Neither kid could explain why the bake sale unnerved them so much, and this unanswered question started my wheels turning.

I should point out that Halfway Normal is not about my son, who is older than Norah and has a different cancer. So to get the details right for this book, I read medical journals and interviewed hospital staff as well as several pediatric patients and their moms. But of course our own emotional journey as a family living with pediatric cancer is there in every word of Halfway Normal.

Why did you want to set this book once Norah was back at middle school and not at the hospital?
Because Halfway Normal isn’t about cancer—it’s about resilience and empathy. Kids deal with all sorts of tough experiences in their personal, away-from-school lives. The questions for these kids are: How much do you share with friends, classmates and teachers? How do you find the language to explain these experiences in a way they can understand? If you do share, how do you get people to see you as a whole person, and not just as “trauma girl”? And how do you empathize with others’ discomfort and confusion—even with their own inability to empathize with you?

That’s a lot of deep stuff for readers to think about! But middle school is when kids start to realize that every kid faces challenges. Some challenges are tougher than others—but every kid is a unique version of “normal.”

Twelve year old Norah is such a great and complex character! Can you describe her a a little and did anything about her surprise you once you started writing?
I have so much love and respect for Norah! She’s smart and artistic, a tenacious fighter, and a loyal friend. She isn’t perfect, and sometimes she’s unfair, but her introspection helps her to grow. And she’s a great self-advocate—I love the way she stands up to the doctor who treats her as if she were invisible, demanding that the doctor speak directly to her, not to her dad! As for surprises: I have to say I hadn’t realized how much Norah’s arguments with her parents would sound like typical tween/parent arguments!

I love how you weave Greek mythology into this story, why did you decide to do that?
Norah missed two years of school for her leukemia treatment—an unimaginably long, hard time away from “normal” life. I needed her to have a language, a story, that she could share with other people, especially with kids. The myth of Persephone being snatched away from earth and held captive in the underworld seemed to me like the perfect metaphor for the experience of illness.

One important thing I want to convey with both Halfway Normal and Star-Crossed, which is a version of Romeo and Juliet: if you’re going through something difficult, or you simply can’t find the words to express yourself, pick up a book and read!

The cover art is fabulous! Why do you think this illustration best represents the story?
Isn’t it gorgeous? I love the way it conveys Norah’s perspective, the fact that she’s an artist, her sensitivity about her hair—with a subtle hint of the Persephone myth in the flowers at the bottom.

What do you want kids to take away from this book?
I’m hoping this book is both a mirror and a window—a window into the life of a kid facing (and overcoming) a serious challenge, and a mirror for kids who feel different for any reason. I recently did a workshop in which a kid announced, “No one feels normal in middle school.” I’m absolutely convinced that’s true. But I also think kids need to know that some kids do climb steeper hills.

What’s up next for you? Any new books for us to get excited about? (We hope!)
I have two middle grade novels on the horizon. Everything I Know About You (Aladdin/S&S) publishes in June. It’s about a seventh grade field trip to Washington, DC in which teachers assign kids to room with their “enemies.” When quirky, rebellious math nerd Tally rooms with “Miss Perfection” Ava, she begins to suspect that Ava has an eating disorder. The question for Tally is what to do with her suspicion—and, more broadly, what we owe people who aren’t our friends.

In Fall 2019 Aladdin/S&S will be publishing my tenth middle grade novel—How to Survive Quicksand. This one is about a twelve year old girl whose family life is upended with her college-age brother’s diagnosis of bipolar disorder. I’m very excited about this one: It’s written in an unconventional (for me!) style, with a lot of flashbacks, some chapters as poems, some chapters as scripts. Quicksand is a deeply emotional book, but there’s plenty of humor, too. When you write “tough topics” for middle grade readers, you also need to entertain!

Halfway Normal is on B&N bookshelves now.

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