It’s here–Jennifer Longo’s new #YA,
WHAT I CARRY
(Random House Books* January 21st, 2020)
In celebration, I’ve asked Jen a few questions about her book and her process. (See below.)
People, I can’t say enough about this wonderful, much-needed novel which seamlessly combines themes of #fostercare, #adoption, and John Muir!
But don’t take my word for it:
Check out this KIRKUS STARRED review–
“The power of relationship—both those experienced and those denied—is expertly explored throughout this novel with nuance and humanity. An exceptional addition to the coming-of-age canon.
At 17, Muiriel needs to make it through one more placement, then she will age out of foster care and into state-sanctioned self-sufficiency.
Muir is white, woke, and keenly aware that her experience of not knowing any family from birth isn’t representative of most foster kids. She meticulously follows the wisdom of her hero and namesake, John Muir, and keeps her baggage light. However, it quickly becomes apparent that her new temporary home will challenge her resolute independence. The island forest beckons to her. Francine, her latest foster mother, is insightful and socially aware. Kira, a heavily tattooed artist, is brimming with best friend potential. And then there’s Sean, the beautiful boy who understands that the world can be terrible and wonderful at the same time. As these people show up for Muir, the survival strategy she clings to—don’t get attached—diminishes in validity. This is terrifying; Muir has only ever learned to depend on herself. The trauma she contends with is not perpetrated by a villain; it is the slow boil of a childhood in which inconsistency has been the only constant. The power of relationship—both those experienced and those denied—is expertly explored throughout this novel with nuance and humanity. The central characters are immensely likable, creating a compelling read sure to leave an imprint. Most main characters are white; Kira is Japanese American.”
“An exceptional addition to the coming-of-age canon.” –Kirkus starred
This PUBLISHERS WEEKLY review also has a shiny STAR–
“Having grown up in foster care, Muiriel—’Muir’—is good at packing. Per writing by her namesake, John Muir, she carries the bare minimum, and following 20 placements, has folding down to a science. After one more year, she’ll be 18 and out of the system. In an effort to have some control over her life’s uncertainties, Muir has also mastered keeping people at arm’s length by being helpful, staying out of trouble, and keeping her grades up. She’s not so good at making friends, trusting people, and talking about her feelings. But her new placement, a ferry ride away from Seattle on Bainbridge Island, stands to play havoc with all of that. Her new foster mother is smart and kind, and Muir makes a real friend, gets a job that she loves, and meets a boy who really likes her. But Muir, used to packing emotionally lightly as well, will have to make changes to be able to let people in. Longo (Up to this Pointe), a foster and adoptive parent, wrote the book for her adopted daughter, who wanted a “hopeful, happy” tale; she provides it—and the book, well-written and heartfelt, is a pleasure.” Ages 12–up. Agent: Melissa Sarver White, Folio Literary Management. (Jan.)
Time for some Q & A with this amazing author,
Q1 What was one of the most surprising facts or discoveries you made in writing this book?
Jennifer Longo: This is going to sound really naive, but in researching and writing this book, I was shocked at how many adults in this country know virtually nothing true about foster care or how it works, and how they believe and promote lies including the one about how children are in foster care because the child did something wrong, or the child is ‘bad’. I have had to explain to more than a few people my age that children are in care for one of two reasons: Because of the actions of adults in their lives. Or they have lost their parents or caregivers. Either way, they did nothing wrong and they need to be cared for. The end.
“It’s nothing the child did.”
Jennifer Longo: I’m not sure the people I explained this to believed me.
They learned these lies as kids themselves, probably because so many families never talk about other family realities aside from the ones they live in, then those kids grow up and never learn the truth, and they perpetuate the lies. It is really dangerous and part of the greater problem of trying to legislatively improve the foster care system. I was also stunned to learn about the lack of empathy so many adults have for kids living in foster care. The moment I decided to start writing this book (aside from my daughter asking me to write it) was when a close friend said, about a young girl we both knew who was living in foster care and who was (understandably) acting out in anger, that the child’s problem was that, “She didn’t know how to be grateful. She doesn’t know how good she has it.”
“I was about to flip a table I was so furious. But that’s not productive so instead I wrote a book.”
Q2 Do you find yourself drawing on your theater background at any point in your writing process—from creating characters or voice, to book store appearances?
Jennifer Longo: My favorite question! The short answer is yes, absolutely. In fact, my first two novels were play scripts I wrote in grad school that I turned into prose for the books.
SIX FEET OVER IT (Random House 2014) was a play called AT NEED,
and UP TO THIS POINTE (Random House 2016) was a play called FROZEN.
And the “long answer”?
Jennifer Longo: The structure of plays and novels is so different – a play is nearly all dialogue. There are two things to consider in a narrative, play or novel: What happens in the story, and what’s the story about. A playwright can put in all the stage directions among the dialogue they want but a director is not obligated to follow them. In fact many directors ignore stage direction completely and get pissed about it even being in the script. (Bernard Shaw writes the longest, best stage directions and I love him so much for it! But that’s because I’m a writer and an actor, not a director, and I love all the guidance I can get.) So then I go to write a novel, where dialogue is not the crucial storytelling element but it’s the thing I’m best at, I let it fly – and then my editor is constantly telling me to trim the conversations, and “Stop putting in so many descriptions of weather what is that even about also they’re called chapters not acts what is wrong with you?!”
Plays have a different narrative story structure, too. Novels are all about plot, they love external conflict, action – then I’m over here like “But in WHO’S AFRAID OF VIRGINIA WOLFE and THE CHERRY ORCHARD no one leaves the living room and it’s great!” Literally, those two plays – if you had to say what actually happens in them? Basically, some people sit around a living room for two hours and discuss issues and scream at each other. Then some trees may get cut down offstage indicated by a sound effect, and also there’s a lot of drinking. The End. That’s what happens. But what are the stories about? Oh, my god, all the conversations and internal conflict, they’re about everything and nothing – the minutia of human interaction and betrayal, and the impossible universe of the reason for human existence. It’s all there in the living room! Which can also be said for the best books – you just have to make it less talk-y. And more action-y. And take it out of the living room.
“(It’s really that simple! Said no one ever. But you get my drift.)”
Q3 What takeaways do you wish readers will have after reading WHAT I CARRY?
Jennifer Longo: Mostly this: That kids in foster care are not “bad” or “damaged” or inherently, molecularly “wounded.” Kids living in, or those who have aged out of foster care are human beings who have actual lives that are important as anyone else’s, every one unique in circumstance. Kids living with good foster or adoptive families are not “lucky.” They do not owe the world a debt of gratitude for having their basic needs met. Like any human, kids living in foster care did not ask for the trauma they experience.
“I hope readers take away the truth that every person born is entitled to at least one decent person in their lives who loves and cares for them, and is always on their side.”
Jennifer Longo: I think the more we learn about other people’s lives, other realities, our empathy can blossom. Maybe we don’t all know someone living in foster care. But we can learn about the reality of the lives of our fellow humans. Listening to the voices of kids (First, last and always) in and aging out of foster care can help us to learn, and reading books can help. I hope this one does.
Q4 Do you have a favorite John Muir quote?
Jennifer Longo: I do! I love the last half (and rarely noted) of the most famous of Muir’s quotes, taken from a letter he wrote to his sister. It encompass Muir’s devotion to protecting the most vulnerable of lives (the natural world) the way a good social worker or parent fights to protect their vulnerable children. Which is never easy, takes hard work and, coupled with Muir’s idea of Home being the planet all humans share as one family. This is why I love this man so much and why his words guide Muiriel’s life in the book as well.
The words are:
“…I will work on while I can,
Jennifer Longo: The first half of this sentence is forever taken out of context and printed on bumper stickers and t-shirts and coffee cups on Etsy in dumb fonts that make it seem like Muir was just hearing some ethereal ‘call’ to go take a nice stroll in the woods, and that is not at all what he meant. He meant the opposite – that the mountains were depending on him to save them from destruction, that he felt an urgent, parental obligation to work for them, and he could never rest.
Because of Muir’s tireless efforts, in 1872 President Teddy Roosevelt named Yellowstone (officially) America’s first national park. By 1873 Muir had climbed Mt Whitney, he explored King’s River Canyon, and he was writing exhaustively, articles for the Boston Weekly paper describing the beauty of the Hetch Hetchy Valley trying desperately to save it from being washed away by the construction of a dam (Spoiler Alert: The dam was built, and the valley was washed away forever in 1923, thirteen years after Muir’s death. Thanks a lot, Gifford Pinchot. Jerk.)
All to say, that it was in the midst of this fervor of constant words and work and climbing and exploration and literally begging people to help save these natural wonders, our Home, that Muir wrote his 1873 letter from Yosemite Valley to his sister, Sarah which reads, in part:
“The Scotch are slow but someday I will have the results of my mountain studies in a form in which you all will be able to read & judge of them… but neither these magazine articles nor my first book will form any finished part of the scientific contribution that I hope to make…The mountains are calling & I must go & I will work on while I can, studying incessantly.”
I love it so much. Muir was like “Hey Girl, crazy busy but wanted to say hi and I love you, okay gotta get back to work saving the planet K byeeee.” Just how the only way kids’ lives in foster care are improved is when adults are not lazy, when they shut up and listen to the kids and get actual legislation passed, when the laws about helping families are made better, when adults work tirelessly for the needs of the kids, for their safety and well-being, and not to keep adults comfortable at the kids’ expense. Laziness will never do. John Muir, and any kid who has survived trauma, can tell you that. I try to live by these words.
OR–join Jennifer and me for our book signing at Face in a Book, Sat. Feb. 29th, 4-6pm
and get a cool tattoo!