Hello, Jo! Thank you so much for stopping by the MG Book Village to celebrate the release of Where the Heart Is and to chat about the book. You write both Middle Grade and Young Adult fiction. How early on in your process do you know which category a story idea will fit into? Do you think about it at all before or while writing?
Thanks for having me! I do think about how old my character is when I first start writing, mainly because age is often how I introduce my characters. But… I admit that often after I’ve written several chapters I realize the voice sounds either too young or too old for the original age I thought they were. At that point, I need to decide which is stronger: the voice, or the need to have my character be a certain age to tell a particular story. But I don’t think in terms of, “My next book needs to be middle grade.” It’s the story idea that comes first. Then, I starting writing and let the story tell me what the book will be.
Is there anything about the Middle Grade age range that you especially enjoy or appreciate?
I love writing about 12-13 year olds because it’s fun to straddle childhood and adolescence. I realize I may be the only one who feels this way! But I think it’s such an emotional and exciting time of life to write about. Kids are on the cusp of gaining independence and developing their own identities, and I love going through that growing-up experience with them. It can be both hysterical and heartbreaking.
Okay, let’s get to the new book. Can you tell us a little bit about Where the Heart Is?
It’s about a girl named Rachel who just turned 13 and is looking forward to a fun summer with her best friend, Micah. But her parents are going through a financial crisis, and it’s causing lots of stress at home. In addition, she’s questioning her sexual identity and it’s causing a rift between her and Micah, who has had a crush on her since they were little.
One thing I especially love and admire about your writing is your use of humor – in this latest book and your previous ones. You tackle some seriously heavy, tough topics, yet still manage to infuse humor into your stories. Does this come naturally? Is it something you are conscious about including?
Thank you! I try really hard to keep my stories “real” in that they reflect every day stuff as well as the bigger, looming issues in their lives. I don’t think about it in the sense of, say, “OK, you just wrote a sad scene now you need to balance it with something funny.” I guess I think of it more in terms of a necessary part of character and world building. When I walk my characters through their worlds, there’s just naturally some funny stuff that plays out. And maybe as a writer, I need comic relief just as much as my readers.
I know there are both large and small elements of Where the Heart Is that were inspired by your own life experiences. Did you set out to write about these? Can you talk about what it’s like to transform such “facts” into fiction?
The book emerged from a writing prompt a friend of mine gave at a pop-up lecture. He said to think of an object that held a strong memory, and I thought of a sweater of my dad’s that I used to wear. As soon as I started writing, the memory of losing our home came to me very clearly and powerfully. I shared what I wrote with my friend, and he encouraged me to keep going. The problem was, I didn’t want to write a memoir. I decided to select some of the most important things that happened to me during that time, and try to weave them into a story that would work as a middle grade novel. Turning “facts” into fiction is a challenge for sure, because it’s hard to let go of what really happened. But once you do let go, you can see that by allowing yourself to create the emotion of what happened rather than the thing itself, you’re still essentially telling the same story, just in a way that’s hopefully more accessible to more people.
Before they even pick up Where the Heart Is, readers will notice that the word home has been “taken away” from the title. I’d love to hear your thoughts on that word. Home. What does it mean to you? How do you define it? Has your understanding of it changed over time?
I’m glad you noticed! The process of writing this story, and further back, losing my own home, led me to rethink about how I define home. So often when we meet people they ask, “Where do you call home?” What if we changed it to “Who do you call home?” The lesson for me, in all of this, is that it’s the people in your life that give you a sense of belonging. Home is something deep inside us. It’s more than walls, it’s the invisible structure of love we create through the people we care about, and who care about us.
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 Where the Heart Is to their classrooms and libraries?
Some teachers who have read advanced copies have said they are excited to use the book to open up discussions about poverty and identity with their students, which I love. I also have a discussion guide available on my Web site: https://www.joknowles.com/where-the-heart-is
Where can readers find more information about you and your work?
http://www.joknowles.com lists all of my books and information about school and library visits. Thank you!
Jo Knowles is the author of several young adult and middle grade books including See You At Harry’s, Still a Work In Progress, and Read Between The Lines. Her newest book, Where The Heart Is, has been called “an immensely appealing, hard-to-put-down story about friendship and love, heartache and bravery” by Newbery Award-winner, Rebecca Stead. Jo’s awards include a New York Times Editor’s Choice and Notable, the PEN New England Children’s Book Discovery Award, an ALA Notable, Bank Street College’s Best Books for Children, YALSA’s Best Fiction for Young Adults, and two SCBWI Crystal Kites. Jo’s books have also appeared on numerous state award lists. She teaches writing at the Mountainview MFA program through Southern New Hampshire University.