From the promotional copy of Lily and Duncan by Donna Gephart (Delacorte, 2016):
Lily Jo McGrother, born Timothy McGrother, is a girl. But being a girl is not so easy when you look like a boy. Especially when you’re in the eighth grade.
Dunkin Dorfman, birth name Norbert Dorfman, is dealing with bipolar disorder and has just moved from the New Jersey town he’s called home for the past thirteen years. This would be hard enough, but the fact that he is also hiding from a painful secret makes it even worse.
One summer morning, Lily Jo McGrother meets Dunkin Dorfman, and their lives forever change.
How would you describe your body of work for young readers? Are there themes you frequently revisit, and if so, what about them fascinates you?
I write for the lonely child I was when I visited the Northeast Regional Library in Philadelphia, looking for a friend inside the pages of a book. I often write on the themes of loneliness and feeling like you don’t quite fit in. My books broach difficult topics, like bullying and grief, but always, always conclude on a hope-filled note.
Congratulations on the release of Lily and Duncan! What was your initial inspiration for writing this book?
Thanks! I write about the genesis of both Lily’s and Dunkin’s story in the author’s note at the back of the novel. Lily’s story stemmed from an unforgettable documentary I saw about a trans girl, and Dunkin’s story emerged from a promise I made to our older son, who deals with bipolar disorder.
What was the time between spark and publication, and what were the major events along the way?
I saw the documentary that inspired me to write the novel in 2012. Recently, I was looking through my mountain of notes for the project and discovered that in 2012 I had written the ending of the novel . . . and that ending remains unchanged from the version that comes out May 3. It took all the time in between to figure out how to get to that ending — lots of research and deep thinking.
Would you elaborate on your research process?
I spent years researching this novel — talking to experts, watching documentaries, reading books, articles, memoirs and novels, etc.
How did you approach balancing the characters as joint heroes of the story?
This novel is told in alternating perspectives from each of the two characters. I had such familiarity with the mental health piece of this novel that I needed to remind myself to make Dunkin’s story as strong as Lily’s. When a reviewer recently said Dunkin’s story almost eclipses Lily’s, I know I have succeeded.
In this dual narrative, each character has a unique voice and tells their story from that very personal perspective. I felt this was the best way to get readers inside the heads and hearts of each character as they navigate very difficult terrain in their eighth grade lives.
What were the other challenges (literary, logistical, emotional, etc.) in bringing the story to life?
This was a difficult story to write because of the emotional intensity of each character’s journey, but it was a story I felt strongly needed to be told to help encourage empathy and understanding and end stigma.
What advice do you have for authors in approaching stories with similar elements?
It’s important to research thoroughly and tell the emotional truth. And don’t forget the humor. Humor has a way of shining light in the darkest of places.
Your co-protagonists are in eighth grade, and the book is marketed to ages 10+. This developmental/literary category sometimes gets lost between middle grade and YA.
Why should we pay more attention to tween-agers and books that reflect them?
Tween-agers deal with some difficult issues before the adults in their lives are ready for them to do so. I’ve already had teachers and counselors from elementary and middle schools tell me that students from their schools were transitioning. I know when I was teaching writing to young people, these tween-agers were dealing with some very difficult things that most adults would never have imagined.
It’s important that these books be available for those young readers who need them — which is all young readers, to increase empathy, understanding and kindness.
The more we know, the better we do.
What do you do when you’re not reading or writing?
Taking long walks, jogs or bike rides in nature always renews me. I love coming across wild turkeys or peacocks strutting around. And I enjoy cooking (and eating!) creative vegan meals. One of my favorite YouTube channels is Cheap, Lazy Vegan.