Interview: Jenn Bishop

Hello, Jenn! Thank you so much for stopping by the MG Book Village to talk about your new book, THINGS YOU CAN’T SAY!

Thanks so much for having me! I love the variety of posts on MG Book Village and that it’s a space dedicated to middle grade literature.

That’s so kind of you to say! Thanks! Now, let’s get to it… THINGS YOU CAN’T SAY is your third novel. Was your writing process at all different for this book than it was for THE DISTANCE TO HOME or 14 HOLLOW ROAD?

I’m starting to discover that other writers weren’t kidding around when they said that each book teaches you how to write that book. Things You Can’t Say was the first project I started writing as a published author, and it was an adjustment to learn how to quiet the noise of the publishing world and keep my eyes focused on my own page, so to speak. I wrote Things in fits and starts, largely because it took me a while to figure out what it was about, never mind how to get into the head of a contemporary twelve-year-old boy. There was so much that got left on the cutting room floor over various drafts and incarnations. Once upon a time, one of the characters accidentally burned down his house, and there was also once a scene with a seahorse birth! (Turns out neither moment was exactly related to Drew’s internal journey and those scenes fell by the wayside during revision.)

That’s all so fascinating. Thanks for giving us some insight into your process. And now that we know there’s no burning houses or seahorse births in this new book, can you tell us what THINGS YOU CAN’T SAY is all about?

At its heart, Things You Can’t Say is a story about family, friendship, and communication. Three years after his father’s suicide, Drew is getting by just fine on the surface, but bubbling beneath he has so many questions and worries, and, as far as he can see, no one to talk about these things with. The one person who could answer these questions are his dad, and he’s gone. But as Drew discovers over the course of the story, there are people you can say anything to: your true friends and your family.

Parental suicide has got to be one of the toughest imaginable topics to write about. Why do you think it’s important for kids to have stories like Drew’s?

I’ve been heartened to see over the past several years more and more books delving into tough topics for kids that were previously relegated to YA literature. I firmly believe that whatever situations kids might find themselves in in real life belong in the literature for them. I think we’re doing a disservice to young people by avoiding the sometimes harsh realities they may be living in, and only further ostracizing hurting kids in the process. Suicide is the tenth leading cause of death in the United States according to recent CDC reports, and, alarmingly, suicide rates are on the rise among young people. Looking the other way doesn’t address the problem; it only furthers the stigma.

As you mentioned, in recent years, the border between Middle Grade and Young Adult has grown increasingly blurry, as Middle Grade authors and publishers explore darker, tougher topics in these so-called “Upper MG” books. What would you say to those adults who argue that kids “aren’t ready” to grapple with such material, or that such books shouldn’t be marketed to them at all?

What makes books different from visual mediums like movies or TV shows is that if you’re uncomfortable with something happening a book, you can always close it and walk away. In my experience as a librarian (and as a former kid!), I’m impressed by how often kids, especially more sensitive kids, know their own limits. Of course, parents can make decisions with and for their own children, but it’s alarming when they try to step in and decide what’s wrong or right for someone else.

What do you hope your readers – especially the young ones – take away from THINGS YOU CAN’T SAY?

I hope that Things You Can’t Say helps them empathize with kids like Drew, who have been forced to grow up early in the face of a huge loss. Statistically speaking, there are more kids in Filipe and Audrey’s situation (friends of the kid who’s lost someone to suicide) than there are Drew’s, and I hope this book helps kids like them understand the kinds of concerns Drew is quietly wrestling with. And for any readers who’ve lost a loved one to suicide, I hope they find a kindred spirit in Drew.

Many of our site’s readers are teachers and librarians of Middle Grade-aged kids. Is there anything you’d like to say to them – in particular those planning to add THINGS YOU CAN’T SAY to their classrooms and libraries?

I’m delighted to share with them that Simon & Schuster has made a reading group guide with a fantastic list of discussion questions and extension activities to go along with Things You Can’t Say. The guide can be accessed online:  https://www.simonandschuster.net/books/Things-You-Cant-Say/Jenn-Bishop/9781534440975#reading-group-guide

When can readers get their hands on THINGS YOU CAN’T SAY, and do you have any exciting upcoming events or blog stops to celebrate the release and spread the word about the book?

Things You Can’t Say will be in bookstores and libraries starting March 3rd. I’m having a local launch party in my hometown of Cincinnati on March 7th. Full information about other appearances can be found on my website: https://jennbishop.com/events/

Where can readers find you online, and how can they learn more about you and your work?

Oh, where can’t they find me online? (I kid. Though really, I should get offline a bit more.) I’m on Twitter as @buffalojenn and also have a Facebook author page: https://www.facebook.com/jennbishopauthor/

I recently relaunched my website: jennbishop.com. But most importantly, for picture of my stunning cat Lilly and other exciting updates, readers should sign up for my newsletter! https://jennbishop.us11.list-manage.com/subscribe/post?u=3d3d69e2e31b002c0dc292076&id=a27347b636

Jenn Bishop is the author of the middle grade novels 14 Hollow Road; The Distance to Home, which was a Junior Library Guild selection and a Bank Street College Best Children’s Book; and Things You Can’t Say. She grew up in New England, where she fell in love with the ocean, Del’s frozen lemonade, and the Boston Red Sox before escaping to college at the University of Chicago. After working as a teen and children’s librarian, she received her MFA in writing for children and young adults from Vermont College of Fine Arts. Jenn currently calls Cincinnati, Ohio, home.

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