November 22, 2017

The Advocate's Toolbox

Writing About Addiction for Kids | Opinion

I was unloading groceries from my car one day a few years ago when my neighbor pulled into her driveway.

“Hey! How’s it going?” I called out over the lawn. I expected her to wave and call back, “Great! How are you?”

But she sighed, shook her head, and said. “Terrible.”

I put the groceries down and walked over. “What’s going on?”

“I’m having the worst week of my life,” she said. “Michaela just told me she’s hooked on heroin.”

I hugged my neighbor and stayed to talk, but inside, I couldn’t quite believe her news.

Not her, I thought.

Not heroin.

Not here.

Heroin addiction wasn’t something that happened in my upper middle-class neighborhood. It wasn’t something that happened to honor students and star soccer players, and it certainly wasn’t supposed to happen to the girl next door who’d taught my daughter how to hula hoop. Looking back, I’m ashamed of that reaction. It embodies nearly every stereotype about who’s affected by the opioid epidemic, when in reality, the crisis is affecting all kinds of families, including the one next door. Michaela’s decision to confide in her mother and ask for help probably saved her life.

Kate Messner on tour for The Seventh Wish.

A year later, Michaela had been clean for months, and I was working on a new novel for Bloomsbury. The Seventh Wish was to be a fairy tale retelling of “The Fisherman and his Wife,” the old wishes-gone-wrong story about a fisherman who catches a fish that offers wishes in return for its freedom. In my version, main character Charlie Brennan would be an Irish dancer who is ice fishing to raise money for her first solo dress when she catches a fish and hears a voice say, “Release me, and I will grant you a wish.”

My first draft began as a playful story about all the things a middle school girl might wish for— attention from the boy she likes, happiness for her friends, a new job for her mom. But as I worked on this novel, I thought more about wishing, about the things we wish for in the deepest places of our hearts. So often, those are the things we can never really have. What would make Charlie feel like she needed wishes more than anything? I thought about Charlie’s beloved older sister Abby, away at college. And then I thought of Michaela and her siblings, who’d lived through the fear of their older sister’s addiction. Of all the families living through that struggle every day. Suddenly, my playful story about wishes took on a heavier weight.

The Seventh Wish still begins as a hilarious wishes-gone-wrong tale, in which Charlie somehow manages to mess up every time she catches the fish and makes a new request. But as the story progresses, the family learns that Abby is struggling with heroin addiction. Their world shatters, and suddenly, everything revolves around helping her get well again. Charlie is terrified for her sister but also feels betrayal over Abby’s lies, and resentment that her own needs are being brushed aside as her parents focus on Abby’s recovery.

Researching this book meant piles of reading, at the library and online, as well as talking with people whose families had been affected by addiction. I reached out to my neighbor and told her what I was writing. “Do you think Michaela might be willing to talk with me?” I asked.

My neighbor didn’t hesitate. “She’d love to. Now that she’s come through this, she’s open about it because she wants people to know the truth about how it happens, that it can happen to anyone.”

Michaela had moved away for college, so we arranged a phone call. She started by saying, “You can ask me anything, and I’m going to tell you the truth. But I just want you to know, Mrs. Messner…some of it is pretty awful.” We talked for the better part of three hours. She described how it started, how it moved faster than she could have imagined, and how she knew she was in trouble. I asked Michaela why there weren’t warning bells going off in her head while it was all escalating. How could a smart, confident young woman think that trying heroin might be all right?

She knew on some level that it was a problem, she said. She’d been through her school’s D.A.R.E. program and gotten the message to just say no. “But you have to understand, all of my friends were doing this,” she said. “They were having fun, and they were fine. They were fine.”

Until they weren’t. One of them died of an overdose not long after she confided in her mom and got help. “I know that could have been me,” Michaela said. She couldn’t imagine what that would have done to her family. She’d already hurt them, she knew, by lying and hiding her drug use for so long. They were furious when they found out.

Parts of Michaela’s story are echoed in The Seventh Wish. Ultimately, the family takes Abby to a residential treatment center—one that I modeled loosely after Maple Leaf Treatment Center in Underhill, VT. I talked with counselors there to learn what Charlie’s experience might have been like, dropping her sister off for treatment, and later coming to visit and attending an open support group meeting. They explained the process of admitting a patient. They described what Charlie would have experienced, saying goodbye to Abby in the registration area before she was taken to primary care to see the nurses while her bags were searched. They walked me through what Abby’s treatment might look like after the family left—therapy and drugs for withdrawal symptoms—and shared what happens on a typical visiting day. All of that research laid the foundation for the second half of The Seventh Wish, in which Charlie realizes that there are things in life even wishing can’t fix.

Backlash: “It’s not an issue here”

When the book came out in June of 2015, the industry reviews were glowing, noting that the story addressed a national crisis in an age-appropriate way. While I was aware that there had never been a middle grade novel that addressed opioid addiction, I wasn’t anticipating any backlash. So I was genuinely surprised when one Vermont school canceled my book-tour author visit the night before. The librarian explained that she and the principal felt that the book and my visit might raise questions that they weren’t prepared to talk about with their fourth and fifth graders. I was devastated—especially since the school is in a community with a significant opioid problem, and some of those students surely would have seen themselves in Charlie’s story.

Soon after that, I received an email from a librarian in a different state, letting me know that she loved my books and had ordered The Seventh Wish for her library. But when she learned that it addressed addiction, she canceled the order because she didn’t believe it was an issue that affected families in her community. She feared that the story might scare kids who read it.

But the argument “It’s not an issue here” has become more and more difficult to support. Headlines about heroin overdoses have only intensified, and that’s opened up new conversations about the importance of sharing stories like The Seventh Wish with kids.

Young adult literature has never shied away from the topic of drug addiction. YA authors have been confronting the issue since the publication of Beatrice Sparks’s Go Ask Alice in 1971. More recently, Jacqueline Woodson’s Beneath a Meth Moon (Nancy Paulsen Bks, 2012) and Ellen Hopkins’s “Crank” trilogy (Margaret K. KcElderry Bks) explored the lives of characters struggling with addiction, while Jordan Sonnenblick’s Are You Experienced? (Feiwel and Friends, 2013) followed a teen whose uncle died of a heroin overdose.

“My life has always been affected by the addictions of adults”

Jarrett Krosoczka Photo by  Derek Fowles

Dealing with addicted family members is also a focal point of Jarrett Krosoczka’s upcoming YA graphic memoir, Hey, Kiddo, which will be published by Scholastic Graphix in Fall 2018. In his 2012 TEDx talk “How a Boy Became an Artist,” Krosoczka shared his story of being raised by grandparents because his mother was a heroin addict. That element of his life is also a focus of the upcoming graphic memoir.

“My life has always been affected by the addictions of the adults in my life, so that plays a very prominent role in this book,” Krosoczka says. “Since one’s own life isn’t defined by the choices their parents make, the book covers my coming-of-age in all aspects—school dances, art classes, etc. But since addiction weighs so heavily on a kid, that reality is always coming back to haunt the Jarrett character, as it did me.”

From Jarrett Krosoczka’s “Hey, Kiddo.”
Courtesy of Scholastic

While Krosoczka’s new project is aimed at middle and high school readers, a number of new and upcoming books explore the issue of addiction for younger audiences. Jennifer and Matthew Holm’s graphic novels Sunny Side Up and Swing It, Sunny (Scholastic, 2015 and 2017), are about a girl whose older brother is struggling with an unspecified addiction, while Cecilia Galante’s upcoming Strays Like Us (Scholastic, 2018) takes on the opioid epidemic more directly with a character who has transitioned to a foster home because her mother has been arrested for stealing prescription pain killers from the pharmacy where she works.

Krosoczka wishes these books had been around when he was growing up. “When I was young, I didn’t know a single peer who was being raised by their grandparents. And while I would later learn that some of those kids also had parents who suffered from addiction, I didn’t learn that until much later,” he said. “Kids need books like this so that they feel less alone.”

 

 


Kate Messner is the author of more than two dozen books for young readers, including The Seventh Wish and the forthcoming Breakout (Bloomsbury, June, 2018).

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Comments

  1. Thanks for this thoughtful and important post. And bravo to Kate and Jarrett for their courage.

  2. Anonymous says:

    There is a huge difference between middle grades and elementary school.

    You wrote, “The librarian explained that she and the principal felt that the book and my visit might raise questions that they weren’t prepared to talk about with their fourth and fifth graders.” But your headline is about middle school.

    I can see your book in middle school, quite possibly, but for 9 year olds in 4th grade? 67% of them are developmentally at age 9 according to basic statistics theory, but 15% or more are psychologically developmentally at age 7 and below.. And that is just too young to get into these subjects in public school. Let the parents raise it with 4th graders if they want. They know their children. You do not. I think the elementary school was right, here. They just should have said no from the start.

    • Jennifer Laughran says:

      “Middle Grade” means 8-12 year olds. I know that the terminology can be confusing for people unfamiliar with children’s books – but this book is absolutely appropriate for 4th and 5th grades.

      • Anonymous says:

        Looks like SLJ changed the headline of this, anyway.

        Thank you for clarification on what middle grade means, but it actually just supports my point. We go out of our way to protect our children from psychological harm, even that harm might fall on just a small percentage of those kids. That’s good. But why is it hard to acknowledge that 15% of 8 year olds are actually at a developmental physical and psychological age of 6, and that out of respect for their slower-but-normal development, school discussion of opioid addiction is probably a subject that is best held until children are at least 10? This does not stop parents from buying Messner’s book for their five year olds, if they want, or having conversations about Oxycontin and heroin at the dinner table, of course.

  3. Maddie S. says:

    I am a school librarian for grades 3-8 and I have read The Seventh Wish. We have 2 copies in our general fiction section. Kate Messner does a beautiful job of writing about a devastating issue that is rampant in our country today. I feel it is very appropriate for middle grade readers and up. As much as we want to shield young children from the horrors of today’s society, we can’t. What we can do is offer guidance, support, and keep books in the library that all children can relate to or learn from, like The Seventh Wish.

  4. Laura Gardner says:

    Thank you for writing The Seventh Wish and for this wonderful opinion piece. We have copies of The Seventh Wish in our middle school, but it also belongs in elementary collections. As with any book, students and parents can make their own decisions about what they’re ready for (I see students do this all the time!). But if only ONE student needs to read this book in an elementary school to help him or her feel less alone then I think he or she should be able to. It is absolutely age-appropriate and some of our students are experiencing addiction in their families.

    • Anonymous says:

      There is a difference between a book being in an elementary collection and the book being assigned for a classroom read; there is a difference between a book being in an elementary collection and having an author come to talk to a captive audience about it. Agree with Laura about the one student who could benefit; can she agree with me about the one student who is chronologically age 8 (or 9), is developmentally age 6 (or 7), and could be harmed, traumatized, or retraumatized by that experience? How is that student to be looked after and kept safe?

  5. Chris Gifford says:

    It is a shame folks bury their head in the sand. It is one reason we are dealing with so many other issues and kids of all ages. Just because a book is in the collection, that is not forcing anyone to read it. So if a child/kid/teen needs something similar isn’t it better to have it in the collection than not have it to help?

  6. Holly Eberle says:

    It is so interesting how adults deem certain topics inappropriate for kids based on some subjective concept of what childhood should be like. For instance, I know a heroin addict whose older brother gave him his first heroin injection at age 13, when he was in 7th grade. It seems to me that waiting to discuss addiction until middle school is already too late, at least in some cases. I 100% know 9-10 year olds who got PTSD from being forced to sit in their living room with their mom at gunpoint while police raided their home for drug issues of an older sibling. It is not good but it is a reality for some kids.

    I think a fundamental problem is that the immediate response to a child having mental issues is prescribing them pills. That teaches kids that pills/substances/drugs are the answer to all of life’s problems. I know a lot of people really do need medication but for kids whose brains are still developing, maybe it should not be step #1. Opioid pills, morphine, heroin, and fentanyl all have the same/similar chemical makeup and work as a painkiller. The underlying problem is our country is full of youth who are in so much pain that heroin seems like a good idea. It is horrifying to me that instead of listening to kids and meeting them where they are at, many adults/parents/teachers are simply dismissing them as too young to really experience any sort of negative emotions. This is especially prevalent moving forward, as we have an entire generation of opioid orphans, many who were born addicted to heroin themselves, coming up on the public school system.

  7. As a parent of an 8 year-old and 3rd gader, I too think it’s too young for kids to be forced onto a subject of heroin addiction.

    However, there are just as bad of things that they are exposed to often and even innocently on the interweb. Even with the smartest of smartphone filters set, one can’t stop discussions with my daughter’s friends who bring up inappropriate topics. It’s the age of “too much information” we now live in.

    After all, I’d rather my daughter learns to say “no” now. But please give the parents the option to withdraw their child from that library/author visit. Courtesy goes both ways.

    Thanks

  8. Stacy Dillon says:

    I think that middle grade is the time to have these conversations. And what better way than through quality books?
    I have a giant commute with my daughters, and they have seen people overdosing more than once. They have seen police reviving a person with Narcan. We have had many conversations as a family, but I welcome the books like Messner’s that show addiction doesn’t only happen to those on the margins of society, but that it also happens next door.

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