The boys and I have been huge fans of The Lemonade War series for years now, and I was so excited when Jacqueline Davies said yes and generously donated her time to answer questions here at The Stone Age Techie. Several of these questions pertain to The Sincerity Project; as you will read, Ms. Davies thinks about this kind of thing too. If you would like to know more about Jacqueline Davies, please go here. My questions are in black, and her answers are in red. And now, without further ado, our interview!
1. Welcome Jacqueline Davies, author of The Lemonade War series! These five books are about a brother and sister, Evan and Jessie, and are so well written with such real characters that you feel almost as though you could knock on their door and asked them to play in real life. My boys and I loved the stories, narrated alternatively by Evan and Jessie so that we see the world from their perspectives; the challenges their family experiences, and the children's thoughts and ideas, are so well expressed. Are there aspects of The Lemonade War series, or what it is like to be their author, that you would like to share about?
I do a lot of school visits (about 50 a year) and I love going into schools and talking with kids about their responses to the books. Many of them have a particular favorite out of the five, and it's almost always because of a personal connection they make to the story. I hear things like, "That book reminded me of my grandmother." "Jessie is just like my little sister." "My parents are divorced, too." I like to think that I've written stories that allow kids to seem themselves in the pages.
2. I love the feeling that we, the readers, are right there in the action, and there is so much action! How is it that you come up with your ideas?
The first book in the series was unusual in that I wrote it very quickly; the first draft took just 19 days to complete. So the ideas for that story unfolded very quickly. A lot of the ideas came from things that had actually happened in my childhood or in the childhoods of my three kids. But some of the ideas just bubbled up out of that deep, dark unconscious place where thoughts and feelings dwell, just below the surface of articulation.
3. One of my favorite things about books is that you never label a condition or problem; as a result, a character with fairly severe autism or advanced dementia is treated as a regular person, and the other characters in the book approach that person not as A Person With X, but instead treat that person as they would treat anyone. I feel like, in our society, too much emphasis is placed on labels and not enough on people. I would love to hear your thoughts on this issue, and also I'm wondering if you planned from the start to have Jessie and Evan approach the world in this way?
I agree with your thoughts on labels. Sometimes we use them because it seems to make a complicated world less complex—and I'm not sure that's a particularly good thing. Also, quite frankly, I think if we broaden our ideas about The Spectrum (and I'm talking here about any spectrum that can be applied to many conditions or states of being) then we're all somewhere on that spectrum. There are a lot of traits that Jessie and I share. I don't have Asperger's Syndrome, but if you stretch that spectrum far enough on either end, you'll find me on it somewhere down the line. So I suppose my inclination to avoid labels is also about strengthening connections—between characters in the books, between readers and the characters, and between myself and each of my characters.
4. Did you have to work to avoid labels, or is that something that comes naturally to you? I ask because I have spent more than a decade working to avoid them, in my interactions both as a teacher and as a parent.
In this case, it came pretty naturally. It just "felt right" at the time of writing that first draft, and then later, as I pondered my choice more carefully, it continued to feel right. I can't tell you how many letters I've received from parents of autistic kids who thank me for writing the books without trying to turn them into some kind of lesson on autism. They're so grateful to have a book to share with their children and others that presents a character with Asperger's that isn't about Asperger's.
5. Do you think that not using labels helps avoid stereotyping? Is there any situation in which using a label might be beneficial, in your opinion?
Plenty of kids who read the books identify Jessie as a child with Asperger's. They're familiar with the syndrome, and they recognize it and name it. There's nothing wrong with that. Other kids just notice that Jessie's different, but they still identify with her in a lot of ways, and so they have the chance to get to know Jessie and like her without first applying whatever thoughts, fears, prejudices they might have about Asperger's. That's a useful approach, as well. The same is true with the grandmother, who is an important character in the third book, THE BELL BANDIT. She's displaying signs of the onset of Alzheimer's, and Jessie and Evan are frightened by the changes they see in her. But without a label, they need to approach her and relate to her as she is, rather than how Evan and Jessie might expect her to be, given her condition. It makes their interaction more authentic, I think.
As far as when a label might be beneficial—in fiction, I would say almost never (it's often a shortcut, and a lazy one at that), but in medicine, I would say certainly (it provides the protocol for treatment).
6. It is clear that, in your books, nearly all the adults take the children very seriously, really respect their thoughts and ideas and treat them as rational thinkers. I'm thinking of Evan and Jessie's mom and teacher especially; do you have memories of being taken seriously by the important adults around you?
Honestly, that comes directly from my experience as a single parent of three very different children who had very specific parenting needs. I've always liked children—I like their honesty and spontaneity and depth. But the concept of taking them seriously—which to me means seeing the world from their perspective and truly respecting that perspective—didn't come naturally to me. My own needs as a young, harried mother with three kids to raise clouded my view of their needs. So that was something I really had to work at, and I'd say it's the bedrock of my relationships with all three of my children, who are adults (or close to it) now.
7. Can you think of a time where a grown up in your life either got it right, understood and really took you seriously – or, failed spectacularly to do that? For example, when I asked my 14-year-old son, Max, if there was a time where I failed to take him seriously, he told about a time when he was six and his younger brother Jay was two; my husband and I were outside gardening, and the boys were inside, we thought perfectly safe as we checked on them frequently, but there was a two-or-three minute period were Max was trying to alert us to the fact that Jay was hanging by his hands from Max's loft! As he put it while we were talking about this recently, our not taking him seriously was an "epic fail."
Growing up in my childhood home, there was one thing that was always downplayed, and that was illness. This is peculiar because my father was a physician, but perhaps that's at the heart of it. Spending his days taking care of truly sick patients might have made him less inclined to take our aches and pains seriously. So in my family, sickness was never taken seriously, until it was really serious! We had a motto: "If you're not dead, you're fine." I can remember a few times when even I didn't take my own pain seriously. When I was in the sixth grade, I was playing on the jungle gym after school and fell, broke both my arms, and then walked home, because I figured it wasn't all that serious. (I wasn't dead, so I must be all right!) My instinct wasn't to look for help or to assess my condition, but my instinct was to go home.
8. These days, you don't have to look very far to find a parent who is more engaged with his or her smart phone than his or her child; a private worry of mine is that children, and their thoughts and ideas, garner far less respect because parents are so distracted. Do you share this worry, or do you feel more optimistic about this than me? Any advice or ideas for parents to help them take their children more seriously?
Oh, no optimism here. I think our brains are being eaten alive by the electronics in our lives, and the situation is only get worse as we allow ourselves to be more and more wired (think the Apple Watch). There's all kinds of research about the neuroscience behind our addiction to meaningless digital input, the ways in which those little hits of useless information and hollow contact stimulate the brain in an illusionary simulation of pleasure. The advice I have is simple. Get off the digital merry-go-round. Take control. At specific times of the day, in specific situations, turn off the device. I know it's hard to do. I live a large part of my day on my laptop (writing) and hooked up to the internet (doing research). But I set specific limits. When my teenage daughter walks in the door after school, I walk out of my office. I can't pay attention to her when I'm sitting at my computer. So I leave the computer behind. As for cell phones—oh, just put them away. You're missing your life when you're on your cell phone.
9. Are there any new projects on the horizon that you could talk about?
I'm writing a four-book series about two smart girls in a very small town who can't help but get into trouble because they're bored. (Think Tom Sawyer and Huck Finn as seventh-grade girls in the 21st century.) The pub date for the first book is Fall 2015. And I'm writing a middle-grade time-travel novel with a thirteen-year-old boy protagonist who finds himself traveling on a ship of ghosts, which will be released in Spring 2016. Also, in the Summer of 2016, I will have a picture book out that's called PANDA PANTS. It's about a boy Panda who wants pants and his father who just thinks that's ridiculous. (Back to the idea of parents not taking their kids seriously!)