I'm excited to be here today with Jennifer Blecher, as in Fletcher, who is the author of Out of Place, her debut middle grade novel. A former lawyer, she now lives in Boston with her husband and their three daughters. Welcome.
Jennifer Blecher: Thank you. Thank you so much for having me, Zibby.
Zibby: I'm also here with my older daughter who’s going to help us ask questions because she and I read this book together. We loved it. Jen, can you tell us what Out of Place is about? What inspired you to write it?
Jennifer: Out of Place is the story of a twelve-year-old girl named Cove who lives on Martha’s Vineyard, which is an island off of Cape Code, with her mom. She's never left the island once in her entire life, which was fine with her until the day that her best friend Nina comes and tells Cove that Nina’s going to be moving to New York City with Nina’s two fathers. In that moment, Cove’s entire life feels like it’s falling apart. She has no idea how to make it better. It’s a story about friendship and mistakes and big acts of courage.
Zibby: It was so good. I should've read, also, the subtitle, which is How do you find where you fit in? which is such a relevant question.
Jennifer: It’s something that people of every age struggle with. It’s particularly acute maybe when you're twelve and also maybe when you're forty.
Zibby: When Phoebe and I were reading this, we got to the part about the girls barking at Cove. Phoebe asked me -- I put a little sticky note at the time -- “Why does she want to write such a mean book?” Then when I was reading your website, it said that had actually happened to you, which I haven't even told Phoebe yet, which was crazy. Tell me the whole thing. What happened with you? You kept it a secret for twenty-five years. Tell us this horrible story.
Jennifer: The horrible story is that when I was in fifth grade, we moved cities and I started a new school. The girls who were a year older than me decided that I looked like a dog. Because I looked like a dog, they were going to call me Rover and bark at me in the hallways. It was shattering. I was new to the school. It absolutely crushed me. I did not tell a single person for twenty-five years until I actually told my mom a few years ago. She was furious. The reason that I wrote about these mean girls is because I think that things like that do happen to kids, hopefully not to the extent that it happened to me and not to the extent that it does to happen to Cove in the book. I do think that it’s important to recognize the challenges that kids face socially when we drop them off at school, when we drop them off at camp, when we throw them out into the world, and the impact that it can have on them.
Zibby: I like how in the book you have Cove befriend Jonah who works at the secondhand clothing store, where she buys everything, called Sal’s. He's the only one she tells about this. He says to her, “You know you look nothing like a dog, right Cove? Those girls, they're mean. They're just like mean girls everywhere, trying to bring down everyone around them to make themselves feel better. It’s not about you. It’s about them.” She doesn't really believe him, but it makes her feel better. You didn't confide in anyone. You did have Cove tell somebody. Do you think that helps? Why do you think girls do this? Not just girls, why do people feel the need to do this, putting everybody down? Does it make them feel better, you think, the mean girls? I don't know.
Jennifer: I think in the short term, it does make people feel better. I do like that you did mention that there's mean people everywhere. There's mean girls. There's mean boys. There's mean adults. That's just the way our world works, unfortunately.
Zibby: What do you think that we as parents can do about girls being really mean to other girls?
Jennifer: That's a great question. I don't know if we can prevent the meanness. One thing that I've really thought about both in writing this book and then also with my own therapist, reading my Brené Brown, who I love and I think everybody should read, is I think that we have to recognize that as parents, as mothers, our job isn't necessarily to fix things. Our job is to sit with our kids when they're uncomfortable. Let them be uncomfortable. Let them know that this is a really tough time, but they are going to get through it. As you know, I have three daughters. There's so many times in my own house where I'm laying in bed with one of my daughters as she's sobbing because something horrible happened at school today. I'm sitting there. I'm rubbing her back and telling her it’s going to be okay. Inside, I'm on fire. I am ragging with fury. As moms, it’s not always our job to intervene. Sometimes we just need to be there with them as they're feeling upset, letting them know that it’s going to pass, and using a judgement for when you need to take it one step further, but it’s not all the time. Sometimes it’s just listening.
Zibby: I agree. That's good advice.
Jennifer: I want Phoebe to know the reason I wrote about those mean girls is because I knew that Cove was strong enough to handle it. Cove didn't know at the time. I think a lot of kids don't know at the time. I wanted anyone that reads the book to know that they are strong enough to handle these situations. They will get through them just like Cove did.
Zibby: That's why you decided to take your experience and turn it into a novel?
Jennifer: I didn't do it intentionally. I sat down, and I had this voice of this girl named Cove who lived on Martha’s Vineyard. I knew her best friend had moved away. I knew she was having a hard time with it. When I wrote Out of Place, my kids were really little. I used to write really early in the morning before they woke up. I remember writing that scene and it just flowing from my fingers. It wasn’t intentional. Now looking back, I'm sure it was in my subconscious and it’s something that I've wanted to write about for a long time. For me, my head is super messy. All of ours are as moms, as women, as people working in the world. The way I process things and make sense of things is by writing them down. That's a big reason why I think that scene appeared in the book. I'm happy that it’s there. I'm happy that kids get to read about it.
Zibby: By the way, for people listening, Jen looks nothing like a dog. She's adorable and looks amazing. The fact that she would be picked on is tragic. There's no barking here. [laughs]
Jennifer: Thank you. I've seen pictures of myself when I was in fifth grade. I did not look like a dog then either.
Zibby: Not that that would've been justified or anything, but just as an aside. Cove does decide to confide in Jonah, who’s a college graduate who’s working at Sal’s, the secondhand clothing store, which is a store her mother insisted she shop at rather than buying any new clothes. He takes an interest in Cove. When she tells him the story, he says, “You know you look nothing like a dog, right Cove? Those girls, they're mean. They're just like mean girls everywhere, trying to bring down everyone around them to make themselves feel better. It’s not about you. It’s about them.” She doesn't really believe him, but it does make her feel better. Talk to me about the importance of confiding in someone.
Jennifer: The reason I love Jonah is because if something like this is happening to you, the person doesn't need to be your mom, your dad, your teacher. It’s important to look for a person that listens to you, that looks you in the eye, and that sees you as a whole person. For Cove, that's Jonah. He’s young. He’s awesome. He’s got his own life that he's out there living. I'm so grateful that he was that person that could step in for Cove and listen to her story. If something like this is going on, it can be really hard to talk about. One of the things that I've been thinking about as I've been talking about this book is that it doesn't need to even be said out loud. Sometimes you can leave someone a note on a table. Sometimes you can just send them a text message. Letting someone know what's going on is really important and can make a huge difference.
Zibby: I agree. Things get worse when you keep them inside. It’s like the middle of the night, how things seem worse when you're in the middle of the night. Then you wake up and it’s not as bad. Confiding can help in that as well. Do you have any interest in fashion design? A big part of your book was this show called Create You, which I feel like Phoebe wants to dash out of here and go start watching if it were a real show, where contestants have to design and get picked and everything. How did you come up with that show idea? Do you want to actually start that show, which would be pretty cool? Let's start with those questions.
Jennifer: When I was writing this book, my oldest daughter was learning to sew and loving it. At the same time, we were stuck in one brutal Boston winter. We were stuck inside the house for all these snow days. We started watching Project Runway: Junior, which is what the fictional show is based of off. She doesn't get to watch it that much anymore. Personally, I love to sew. I love to knit. Throw a craft at me, and I will fully embrace it. I have made my kids clothes when they were little. I've knitted them sweaters. That came to a rapid end as soon as they were old enough to tell me what they actually wanted to wear. Anything creative does hold a special place in my heart, as it does Cove’s.
A lot of times in middle grade novels, what I've noticed is that people will try and give kids a defined character trait. This person will be super, super smart. This person will be super into science. This person will be an amazing athlete. Cove is just a regular girl trying to get through her day. She does love to draw. She is creative. It’s not her defining characteristic as she moves through the world. This was something that caught her eye. It caught Jonah’s eye. It’s something that they bonded over and had a lot of fun watching together.
Zibby: One of the challenges in the show was if you were to design clothing that reflects your inside on the outside, what would that look like? Do you have an idea of what that would look like for you?
Jennifer: This is a good question. If I was going to design something that would represent who I was on the inside, first of all, it would be a dress. It would be long and flowy. It would look amazing on whatever beach I was walking on. The important part is that -- you know those leggings that are really popular where there's a lot of stuff going on with the leggings? There's emojis and all kinds of different patterns. Phoebe’s wearing some pretty awesome star leggings right now, which I totally love. The fabric that my dress is sewn from would be really busy. There would be hearts. There would be arrows. There would be puppies. There would be skulls. There would be fear. There would be envy. There would be all kinds of things. It would be really messy. I would wear it on the beach and be super proud because that's actually how I do feel on the inside. I think it’s the way a lot of us feel on the inside, no matter how we present on the outside. If I was going to be totally honest about my outfit, that's probably what it would look like, a little chaotic.
Zibby: My outfit would have a spin-y top on the outside of a skirt like spinning, spinning, spinning. I feel like sometimes everything's going so fast. My brain is spinning.
Jennifer: Nothing can slow it down.
Zibby: One interesting thing is that you painted such a specific portrait of Cove’s mom as this modern-day hippie. I don't want to use the wrong labels, but incredibly environmentally aware to a pretty extreme extent. She doesn't want to leave the island. She won't let Cove wear commercially manufactured clothing, not to mention all the eating requirements, all of that. Do you think that as parents, we can take our beliefs to such an extreme that it can actually harm our kids or make them feel alienated?
Jennifer: There's completely an extreme that people do take it to. Cove’s mom, she's clearly a little bit of the villain in this book. Although, the thing I love about Cove’s mom is she comes from such a good place. Her intentions are so pure. She, in my opinion, is way too restrictive and way too rigid. At the same time as a mom myself, I absolutely can see where she's coming from. For example, my daughter Ella, who’s Phoebe’s age, who’s in fifth grade, desperately wants a cell phone. She’ll ask me a for a cell phone. I will look at her. My voice will get super deep. I will say, “Ella, in our family, we don't get cell phones until we’re thirteen years old,” as if it’s this grand edict that has been passed down from God through the generations like, “This will not happen. [Indiscernible] your family.” Really -- don't tell her this, Phoebe -- what it is, it’s my husband and I late at night looking at each other saying, “What do you think we should do?” “I don't know. What do you we think we should do?”
Cove’s mom does take it to an extreme. She doesn't let Cove ever leave the island. She has her reasons. In my mind, I know what they are. We’re all trying to the best we can as moms in the particular moment. I have a lot more empathy for that kind of situation when it’s behavior as opposed to something medical or the physical health of a child. I have a lot harder time in those situations, putting myself in those parents’ shoes. For someone like Cove’s mom, she does have a little place in my heart even though she really does need to let Cove grow up a little bit.
Zibby: It was so great how her best friend Nina had two dads. It was just like any family. There was no attention paid to it. In other words, it was so natural. This is the way life is. There are all different types and shapes of families. It should be in fiction more often. I feel like it is not. I don't read that much middle age fiction. I haven't seen, in anything I've read with Phoebe -- have you seen that before, Pheebs? No. I thought that was great. Tell me about your decision-making about that.
Jennifer: When I started writing Out of Place, Cove’s voice just came to me. I knew it was going to be a middle grade novel narrated in the first person by a twelve-year-old girl. What I really wanted to do is write a very modern, contemporary, middle grade novel. I wanted to reflect what my kids see in the world and what I see in the world. At least where we live in Boston and where they go to school, there are so many same-sex parents. It’s not a conversation. It’s, “Is Jane’s papa or her dad going to pick her up from the playdate? Is Suzie’s mom or mama going to meet us out for ice cream?” I really wanted Nina’s situation, having two fathers, to be a complete nonissue. I wanted it just to be about her family as a loving family that's trying the best they can the way most other families that we see are. I hope it came across that way.
Zibby: It did. It absolutely did.
Jennifer: I didn't even want it to be commented on by Cove or by anyone.
Zibby: They have this great family game where they start drawing at the dinner table. They pass the drawing after a little bit and add on. Everybody adds on until they have a complete drawing. Do you do that at your family table? Where did that come from?
Jennifer: I wish. I so wish. I have no idea where that came from. I don't plot. I rarely think things through in advance. I write in the quiet in the early morning. I remember writing that scene and being like, of course this is what Nina’s dads would do. They're artistic. They're creative. They're loving. They're trying their best just like Cove’s mom is. Although, maybe they're doing a little bit better of a job in that regard.
Jennifer: Different, right. No judgement. [laughter]
Zibby: On your website, you said that when you write, you feel sparkly and glittery and alive even though as a child, you weren’t the type who would set off confetti bombs of excitement. When did you realize how great writing made you feel?
Jennifer: I've always known how great writing makes me feel. What happened for me was the more complicated my life became, the more I had to write about. I remember very clearly writing a lot when I was pregnant with my first daughter. I remember writing even more when I was pregnant with my second daughter. Then I had my third daughter. It was really the only way I could keep ahold on what I wanted to accomplish in this artistic realm. It’s really snowballed for me. I've realized that it’s absolutely the way I love to express myself. I express myself much better on the page than I do verbally. It makes me feel really, really complete to write, and to write fiction and to tell these stories. I feel very grateful that I'm able to do it.
Zibby: We were chatting before. You said you hope to be writing this kind of book for a long time. You love doing this. Is that your long-term plan or what you would love to do?
Jennifer: I would love to write so many of these books. It’s funny because before, I had been writing a lot of adult fiction. I still definitely play around with adult fiction. There's just so much material out there. What it comes down to is when I've taken a step back, I love the voice of middle grade. I feel like middle grade is the core of life. In middle grade, there's a lot of issues that you're not necessarily going to write about, which leaves you with just the most wonderful parts, friendship, family, love, finding where you fit in, finding who you are. It’s funny because when I do write for adults, I'm writing about the exact same stuff. I'm writing about friendships between moms as opposed to friendships between girls. I'm writing about relationships between adults as opposed to parents and children. It’s all the same. This middle grade space, it’s such an honor. I cannot wait to be able to talk to kids about this book. I want to talk to Phoebe about this book and hear everything. We’ll see. This is a really nice space to be in.
Zibby: Do you have any advice to a middle grader? Let's start there. Let’s say another twelve-year-old girl or boy who’s out there really struggling, feeling on the outskirts of things, not knowing what to do next.
Jennifer: Don't do what I did. Tell somebody, like we were talking about before, in any way that you feel comfortable. It doesn't have to be a parent. It doesn't have to be a teacher. There are a lot of adults in this world that really want to lend a hand. It’s not something that you should have to sit with on your own. A lot of it’s overwhelming. It can feel like it’s sinking you. There's no reason for it to be like that. There's adults that want to help. There's books that you can read. You are not alone. Reach out and tell somebody.
Zibby: And also read your book.
Jennifer: Yes. Read Out of Place. You will see what Cove goes through and ultimately how she comes out the other end.
Zibby: They should read this in school. This should be the required summer book.
Jennifer: That would be awesome.
Zibby: That would be great. You have to campaign. How about any advice to aspiring authors?
Jennifer: My advice to an aspiring author -- which I'm sure we heard at some point, which I'm sure I heard at some point from Dani Shapiro, who we both absolutely adore -- is when I write those really messy first drafts that are confusing and feel like they may never turn into anything, I'm only writing for one person. For everything I write, the person changes. When I sit down at my desk, it’s only one person that's ever going to read this book. For Out of Place, it was one of my daughters. Later on when you get to editing and there's other people involved, you can think more broadly. When you're trying to just get the words on the page, just be in the room by yourself with one particular reader.
Zibby: Interesting. Love it. Thank you so much for coming on “Moms Don't Have Time to Read Books.”
Jennifer: Thank you so much for having me. It was so fun. Thanks for coming, Phoebe.
Zibby: Phoebe, any parting words about the book? Did you like it?
Phoebe: I really like this book.
Jennifer: Thanks, Phoebe. Bye.
Zibby: Bye, guys.