Author Interview with Barbara Dee on Her Reasons for Writing

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I always love reading a Barbara Dee book because she always addresses complex, real-life issues with reliability and brilliance. You may already know some of her middle grade books— books like Maybe He Just Likes You, Violets Are Blue, and My Life in the Fish Tank.

With the February 27, 2024, release of her middle-grade novel, Unstuck, I wanted to interview Barbara to understand more about her passion, her process, and her inspiration. She was kind enough to answer my questions via email.

Join me as we learn more about this prolific creator, her reasons for writing, and her heart’s desire for middle grade readers.

Read my (rave) review of Unstuck HERE!

Author Interview with Barbara Dee

Melissa: Your books deal with really important issues. Can you tell us more about the upcoming book UNSTUCK?

Barbara: Unstuck is about Lyla, a seventh grader facing writer’s block as she tries to write a fantasy novel for her ELA class. While Lyla struggles to find the words for the elaborate story in her head, she’s also navigating other challenges, including losing her best friend, and feeling overlooked at home, as her parents war with her big sister about college applications. Luckily, Lyla has a fantastic teacher who knows exactly how to offer support—and how to help Lyla see her story as a way to express herself.

Melissa: What are some of your other books and do you have any favorites? 

Barbara: Sometimes people say I write about “tough topics”—but I think of them as “real topics” which are already on kids’ minds. When middle schoolers tell me they have crushes on both boys and girls just like Mattie in Star-Crossed, or that they have a family member dealing with substance abuse, just like Wren in Violets Are Blue, I know I’ve helped these readers realize that they’re not alone. 

Another of my goals is to start conversations that might not have happened otherwise. I love hearing how Haven Jacobs Saves the Planet, which explores a seventh grader’s anxiety about climate change, has sparked some great discussions in the classroom. Of all my books, Maybe He Just Likes You, which is about sexual harassment in middle school, has been the most discussed, so I have to say that book has a special place in my heart. 

Of course, I have another goal as a writer: to entertain. Even when I’m writing about a serious “real topic,” I try to infuse my stories with as much humor as possible. My Life in the Fish Tank is about a serious topic—mental illness in the family—but because the main character tries to keep her younger brother smiling, there’s a lot of silliness in the story too. Everything I Know About You, which deals with a classmate’s eating disorder, has a protagonist who makes me laugh. And while I hope readers (and writers!) see themselves in Lyla, and engage in some meaningful discussion about coping with artistic/academic/social stress, I also hope they find Unstuck a fun and funny read.    

Melissa: What are your thoughts and concerns about your books being banned?

Barbara:  It was truly disheartening to find Star-Crossed on several banned books lists because this book has absolutely no “sexual content”; it’s about an eighth grade production of Romeo & Juliet in which the girl playing Romeo, who’s always had crushes on boys, realizes she has a crush on the girl playing Juliet. I wrote Star-Crossed because I wanted to write a sweet, positive crush story for middle schoolers who may be questioning their orientation. Anyone who wants a book like this removed from the shelves is basically admitting they don’t think LGBTQ+ kids deserve happy stories—or any stories, really.

Recently I learned that a school district in Florida has banned Maybe He Just Likes You, along with 1600 other books, including Webster’s Dictionary and Thesaurus for Students, Sherlock Holmes, and the Guinness Book of World Records.  I also learned that a school district in Iowa removed my 2014 book, The (Almost) Perfect Guide to Imperfect Boys. To be honest, I can’t fathom any objection to this book! So I contacted organizations like PEN and the National Coalition Against Censorship, which wrote a letter to the school district specifically mentioning how my book “contains no sexual content and appears to have been improperly removed.” Seriously, if a book like Imperfect Boys is banned, it’s clear that the book banners are snatching books off the shelves without bothering to read them. It’s crazy and scary.

Melissa: What do you hope for readers to get out of your books?

Barbara Dee author interview

Barbara: One thing I hope for readers to get out of my books is the idea that words are empowering. Often I write about kids who don’t know how to process or express their emotions. Once they learn the right word (“eco-anxiety,” “sexual harassment,” “writer’s block,” etc.), they have a tool to help them advocate for themselves. In Halfway Normal, Star-Crossed, Violets Are Blue, and Unstuck, when kids can’t access the right words from their own experience, they find those words in books and other forms of art.   

Something else I hope readers get out of my books is a sense of community. When readers talk to other readers about books, they speak a common language. And when readers deeply connect with a character—who may be imperfect, complicated, and ever-changing, just like them—it can feel as if they’ve made a friend. To me, reading has always seemed like a social experience, and I want readers to enjoy hanging out with my protagonists.   

Melissa: What is your best advice to encourage young writers?

Barbara: Unstuck is a novel, but it’s full of advice for young writers! I even collect these strategies in the back of the book (“Twenty-Five Ways to Get Unstuck”).

Barbara Dee advice to young writers

But of all the advice I share in Unstuck, I think the most important is: Write your feelings. One of the reasons Lyla gets “stuck” is that she’s trying to write an overly complex high fantasy in the style of her favorite authors. Her teacher gently suggests that she try writing in the first person, and from the heart, to help her connect to the characters.

I think many young writers stall out by thinking they need to engage in labyrinthine world-building before writing a word. I also think that while it’s sometimes useful to see other books as “mentor texts,” young writers should focus on developing their own voices, without comparing themselves to others, or feeling like they need to measure up to published authors. Most of all, they should write for fun, without worrying about impressing others or winning contests or getting published.   

Melissa: What is your advice for adults who want their readers to read more?

Barbara: Let your middle grade readers read any middle grade books they want. If they’re drawn to a certain book on a certain topic, they may just be curious about the topic—or there may be a specific reason for their interest. Trust traditional publishers to suggest an appropriate age range for readers. If you’re concerned that the topic may be too “edgy” or inappropriate, read the book along with your kid, and then have a conversation. 

Often middle schoolers are more comfortable talking about characters in books than about themselves, and once they’re in high school, they may not want to talk to you at all! So my advice to parents of middle graders: take this golden opportunity to talk to them about books—whichever books they choose. 

Melissa: Thank you, Barbara, for taking the time to share your heart with us! I am grateful and I know everyone who reads this interview will be, too.

About Barbara Dee

photo credit: Carolyn Simpson

Barbara Dee is the award-winning author of fourteen middle grade novels, all published by Simon & Schuster. Her books have earned several starred reviews and have been named to many best-of lists, including The Washington Post’s Best Children’s Books, ALA Notable Children’s Books, ALA Rise: A Feminist Book Project List, School Library Journal’s Best Middle Grade Books, and the ALA Rainbow List Top Ten. Her books appear on numerous state awards lists as well.

Barbara graduated magna cum laude from Yale with honors in English. She has a MA degree from Middlebury College’s Bread Loaf School of English and a JD degree from the University of Chicago Law School, where she was an associate editor of the law review. She has taught high school English and has practiced law. Barbara is one of the founders and a former board member of the Chappaqua Children’s Book Festival, now the largest children’s book festival in the country.

Find Barbara Dee Online:

Instagram: @barbaradeebooks
Twitter: @Barbaradee2
Threads: @barbaradeebooks

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