Kathie: Hi Alyson, and thank you so much for sitting down with me today to talk about your upcoming book, TAKING UP SPACE, which comes out May 18th with Scholastic. I just finished it last night, and couldn’t wait to talk to you about it. I would love to see it in the hands of as many readers as possible because it touches on topics I haven’t seen in middle grade fiction that are impactful, illuminating, important for us to be discussing. Can we start with you giving us a brief summary of the story?
Alyson: Thank you for having me. TAKING UP SPACE is the story of a seventh grade basketball player who is struggling to feel good about her body and herself. This book is based on my experience overcoming struggles with body image, food, and self worth. At 11, I found myself stuck in a cycle of negative self-talk, restricting food, binging, and compulsive dieting that didn’t stop until I got help as an adult. What I went through with disordered eating is actually very common. More than half of eight-year-olds want to be thinner, and they feel better about themselves when they’re on a diet. A 2008 survey suggests that 75% of women struggle with disordered eating. And we know that the statistics for men with disordered eating are underreported.
TAKING UP SPACE is a chance for kids and adults to have an honest conversation about how diet culture–a society that prioritizes weight, size, and shape over actual health and well-being–has been passed down for generations. TAKING UP SPACE is here to start this conversation in a way that is comfortable for teachers, librarians, and parents. This book doesn’t require adults to be experts. It’s okay if you’re struggling to feel good about your relationship with food and with your body, and it’s also okay if you don’t understand why this issue is such a big deal. There is space for everyone to enter this story and feel seen and heard and valid.
Kathie: Your stories are all based on your personal experiences, but there’s an emotional element to this one that’s unique; what made this the right time for you to write it?
Alyson: Thank you so much for saying that. This book came from a very different place than my other books. I wrote a lot of this story while I was fighting to recover. I really let myself be vulnerable and uncomfortable and ashamed on the page. I think I knew deep down that I had an opportunity to tell a story in a way that might really change things for a lot of people if I was willing to dig deep enough. I’m so proud of how this book came out, and I’m excited for this story to be out in the world helping kids and adults navigate this very challenging topic.
Kathie: I really love your writing voice, and that Sarah’s words and tone are spot-on for middle grade. You so clearly show how her thoughts about her body and food got confused when she processed the rules and information others shared with her. What do you hope a young reader will learn from Sarah’s story?
Alyson: I work really hard to make sure my books are authentic. I was very skeptical of adults as a kid. I rolled my eyes a lot. So I try to think of myself at that age when I’m revising.
I’m so glad Sarah’s internal experience resonated with you. This was a piece of the story I worked on and thought about a lot. I knew I had to get it right in order for this book to work in the way I wanted it to. I really want young readers to come away from this story knowing that it’s okay to be confused. I want them to question and think critically about the information they’re getting. And I want them to consider that sometimes well-meaning adults can be wrong. TAKING UP SPACE gives kids the tools to recognize when this is happening and will help them to see that if they are in that situation, they have options. Ultimately, I want my readers to know that their pain matters and that everyone deserves to get the help they need.
I think this is also the tendency with disordered eating, because it isn’t a medical diagnosis to resist help, since these struggles have been normalized. But disordered eating can lead to an eating disorder. And early intervention is critical to eating disorder recovery.
Kathie: My daughter was involved in the dance world, which is filled with teens with food/body issues, and yet I never knew about changes related to puberty that can affect coordination and agility at this time. How do we better educate people of all ages about what to expect at this age?
Alyson: Thank you for pointing this out. I actually wrote Sarah as a basketball player for this exact reason. We typically think of struggles with body image and food in sports that emphasize appearance, size, or weight as well as endurance sports, but athletes who play team sports are impacted too. It’s so important to take a step back and consider that puberty actually changes everything. Hormones affect changes in the body and the brain in all different ways. Kids are unsteady and uncomfortable within themselves. And on top of that everyone who matters to them is also changing. I think reading TAKING UP SPACE is a great way to remember how overwhelming this time can be and help readers build empathy for themselves and others.
Kathie: How do you delve into difficult subject matter and step away from it after a writing session?
Alyson: I’m not sure I have this down just yet. I get better with each book, but it’s very hard for me to compartmentalize my writing life. I don’t know that I’ll ever be great at stepping away, and I think I’m okay with that.
Kathie: What’s one thing you discovered while writing this book that you didn’t know before?
Alyson: I learned a lot from writing this book. One thing that really surprised me was the history of diet culture. I had no idea that food restriction and giving food a moral value dated back to the early 1800s and could be connected to the temperance movement.
Kathie: Is basketball a sport that you enjoyed growing up, or what other sort of activities did you enjoy as in middle school?
Alyson: I actually never played basketball, but I always loved watching. I did play soccer, lacrosse, and field hockey, so I had experience being part of a team. I also danced pretty seriously, performing in Jose Mateo’s Ballet Theater of Boston, until I got my back brace. And I was really involved in theater. I loved acting and being part of a cast. Studying theater in college and participating in that type of storytelling had a big impact on my writing.
Kathie: Do you have another writing project on which you’re currently working, and where can our readers go to find out more about you?
Alyson: I do! But it’s top secret so stay tuned!
Kathie: I really appreciate you taking the time to talk with me today, Alyson, thank you! I wish you all the best with your book’s release, and I can’t wait to get it into the hands of young readers.
Alyson: Thank you so much!
Alyson Gerber is the author of the critically-acclaimed, own-voices novels Braced and Focused published by Scholastic. Her third novel Taking Up Space will be in stores on May 18, 2021. She has an MFA from The New School in Writing for Children and lives in New York City with her family. Follow her on Twitter and Instagram @AlysonGerber.
Braced, Focused, and Taking Up Space are all Junior Library Guild Gold Standard Selections. Braced received three starred reviews and has been nominated for state book awards in Oklahoma, Indiana, New Hampshire, Virginia, South Dakota, and Georgia. Focused was picked as a best book of year by The Today Show, Kirkus Reviews, and A Mighty Girl and has been nominated for state book awards in Rhode Island, Oklahoma, and Michigan. Alyson’s latest novel, Taking Up Space, based on her experience with disordered eating, will be published on May 18, 2021. Taking Up Space will help readers recognize how much they matter and see that if something negative is taking up space in their minds, even if there isn’t a name for it, they should ask for help.