Alyson Gerber talks about struggles and strength and her upcoming novel, Taking Up Space (Scholastic, 2021). I’ve enjoyed all of Alyson Gerber’s work since I had the opportunity to review her debut, Braced (Scholastic/Arthur A. Levine 2017), and I continue to be a fan. Her second novel, Focused (Scholastic 2019), tackles ADHD with sensitivity and honesty. I was thrilled to get the opportunity to discuss Alyson Gerber’s upcoming novel, Taking Up Space, which focuses on another huge topic in mental health: body positivity and learning to love yourself.
I am a big fan of your first two middle-grade novels, your debut Braced (Scholastic/Arthur A. Levine, 2017) and Focused (Scholastic, 2019), both of which focus on characters feeling “different” from their peers. Can you tell us about your upcoming novel, Taking Up Space (Scholastic, 2021)?
Thank you very much for your kind words about Focused and Braced. I’m so glad to hear that my books resonated with you. My new middle-grade novel, Taking Up Space, is a story about a seventh-grade basketball player who is going through a lot of changes and struggling to feel good about her body and herself.
Taking Up Space is about what happens when the adults you rely on aren’t always dependable. And how bad information about food and bodies gets passed down through generations and can mess up the way you see everything—even yourself. Sarah’s story is about learning to trust that you’re worth believing in, even on days you don’t win or get picked, and about finding the courage to love yourself and to stand up for what you deserve.
I hope Taking Up Space gives readers a chance to recognize how much they matter and help them 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.
Your second novel, Focused, features Clea, who struggles with ADHD. There aren’t (yet) very many books about ADHD even though it’s very common. What made you write Clea’s story? What was important to you to convey to readers?
In Focused, I wanted to give readers the chance to live inside the mind of a character who sees the world in a completely different way. Clea is really hard on herself at the start of the book, in part because she doesn’t understand her mind or how she fits into the world.
My hope is that Focused encourages readers to consider that their biggest deficits are often their greatest strengths. I also hope that readers come away with more compassion for themselves as well as for other people. Right now, in the middle of this pandemic, that feels more important than ever.
The way you present ADHD as both a struggle and the source of unexpected strength is particularly powerful. What do you hope Clea’s story will bring to readers, librarians, and educators?
Thank you. That means a lot to me. I really tried to find a balance in the storytelling between staying true to the difficult experience of living with ADHD, while also telling an engaging, compelling, and really fun story about a chess-playing seventh-grader.
As someone with ADHD, I wanted to give readers, librarians, and educators a chance to see how ADHD impacts every part of a person’s life. It can be hard to get what someone with ADHD is up against, especially because people with ADHD are often able to do things one day and then unable to do the same exact thing the next day. For the people around us, that can be frustrating. It also doesn’t help that there is a lot of bad information out there, which makes getting diagnosed and getting access to the appropriate support challenging, especially for girls. One of the hardest moments for me was admitting that I’d been struggling and handling things on my own for a long time and realizing that asking for help didn’t make me weak—it made me strong and honest and brave.
Do you approach your stories through a character or an idea, like body dysmorphia, wearing a back brace or having ADHD? Can you talk a little about your writing process?
I almost always start writing by hand in a scene with dialogue. I hear voices, awkward pauses, and silence first. I spend a lot of time thinking about what my main character wants and why this person needs what they need and why we should care. I tend to feel around the story, until I back my way into the opening scene.
Then, I rewrite the first 50 pages over and over and over (so many times) until I figure out the book I’m trying to write. That gives me time to learn my characters and put them in place, like a game of chess. It’s just about at that moment when I realize that I’ve actually given away the entire plot of the book and I start taking pieces out of the first 50 pages and moving them to the end. After that, I sprint my way through the middle. I revise with beta readers along the way and then a different set of readers when I think I’m done.
Your upcoming book is very personal to you. Why was it important for you to talk about mental health through the lens of body dysmorphia?
This is such a great question. Thank you for asking about my personal connection to Taking Up Space. It has taken me a long time to get to the place where I feel comfortable speaking openly about my struggles with self-esteem and body image. And for a while, I wasn’t sure I’d get here.
For me, writing about what I’ve been through in a fictional world is how I’ve survived and been able to cope with my pain. I believe deeply that writing gives you power over your own experience. I avoided facing this topic for a long time, because I was ashamed of how I’d learned to value myself.
I also wasn’t sure I was the right person to write this book. I didn’t feel entitled to this story, because even though for many years of my life food took up nearly all the space in my mind, I’ve never been diagnosed with an eating disorder. It wasn’t until I started writing that I realized just how many people struggle to value themselves and how many of the people suffering with disordered eating symptoms and all different types of mental health challenges also feel they don’t deserve help or support. Ultimately, I found that I was writing a book that would give readers a chance to recognize how much they matter.
Anything else you’d like to add?
The emotional journeys of the main characters in Braced, Focused, and Taking Up Space are based on my experience wearing a back brace for two and half years to treat my scoliosis, living with ADHD, and struggling to overcome my disordered eating.
Maybe it’s because I have ADHD and I see the world differently, but I’m very curious to know everything about someone else’s perspective. I’m fascinated by people who see things and do things that I don’t understand. It really pushes me to think critically about my own choices and views.
Alyson Gerber is the author of the critically-acclaimed novels, Focused and Braced, published by Scholastic. Her third novel, Taking Up Space, will be in stores on May 18. She has an MFA from The New School in Writing for Children and lives in New York City with her family. Visit her at www.alysongerber.com and find her everywhere else @alysongerber.
Best of Books LIVE! presents Alyson Gerber in conversation with Jarrett Lerner on self-worth, body image, and taking up space!
Wednesday, May 19th at 7pm CST (Today)! Register here: https://www.eventbrite.com/e/alyson-gerber-and-taking-up-space-tickets-152108359197
Signed bookplate with each order of Alyson’s newest book, Taking Up Space!
Rebecca Kirshenbaum has an MFA in WCYA from Vermont College of Fine Arts, an MA in children’s literature from Simmons University, and an MA in English literature from Columbia. She really, really likes being a student. She grew up in Cleveland and roots for all Cleveland sports teams even though she now lives in Boston.
She lives with her husband Mark, her teenage sons, Caleb and Eli, plus a lot of animals – guinea pigs Frisky and Sprinkles, a bunch of fish, and her family’s therapy dog (AKA best dog in the world), Quimby. (All you kidlit people should get the Ramona reference!). When not reading and writing, she teaches fourth and fifth grade literacy and organizes her bookshelves in rainbow order.