On Process and Pain | A Conversation with Debut Authors Mary Cecilia Jackson & Sonja K. Solter

Mary Cecilia Jackson and Sonja K. Solter discuss intuitive writing and thoughtfully addressing tough topics like sexual abuse for young readers.

In Sparrow (Tor Teen, Mar. 2020, Gr 8 Up), Mary Cecilia Jackson's evocative YA novel, a young ballet dancer grapples with the painful confusion of an abusive relationship with her boyfriend Tristan. Savannah has learned to keep secrets but this may be the one to break her self-discipline. Written in verse, Sonja K. Solter's middle grade novel When You Know What I Know (Little, Brown, Mar. 2020, Gr 3–7) centers Tori, a girl who does speak up about the sexual abuse she experienced by her Uncle Andy—and watches the agonizing aftermath as her family struggles to give her the support she deserves. The debut authors spoke with each other about taking on hard topics for young readers with nuance and honesty.

Jackson Photo by Richard's Photograph

Sonja K. Solter: What was your inspiration for Sparrow

Mary Cecilia Jackson: When I began Sparrow, I was struggling with the first draft of another novel. It wasn’t going well, and while I was trying to accept the fact that I wasn’t good at writing fantasy, I heard a terrible story on the news. A high school girl had gotten drunk at a party and passed out. While she was unconscious, a group of boys took pictures of her naked and posted them on Facebook. I was so horrified by the cruelty of those boys that I felt ill for days. I couldn’t stop thinking about that girl. After a few sleepless nights, I got up just before sunrise one morning, put aside the wretched fantasy, and wrote the first line of the first draft of Sparrow: "I am not the kind of girl who tells." 


I’m also curious about the origin of your story. What was the impetus for writing this book now, and why did you choose to write it for the middle grade age group? 

SKS: I believe that the time has come for this topic, which has a lot of taboo around it, to benefit from the light of truth and the diminishment of shame. I’m a very intuitive writer, so it felt like this story and it being middle grade found its way through me [as] a rather conscious choice. Yet it’s such an important age group for receiving this message because, according to the National Center for Victims of Crime, children are the most vulnerable to sexual abuse between the ages of seven and thirteen.


We’re both tackling difficult stories, so let’s talk a bit about process. For me, the verse form allowed the voice and emotions of my narrator to emerge in a way that felt true to how thoughts dance through our minds, and how emotions shift and surge through our bodies. In your novel, the alternating narratives between Sparrow and her longtime friend and dance partner Lucas each pull the reader deeply into the plot and move them in different ways. How was Lucas’s perspective important for this story? 

 MCJ: I’m the mother of three sons, so I’m passionate about creating loving, vulnerable, and brave male characters. Lucas is deeply shaken by what happens to Sparrow, the girl he’s secretly loved for years. He recognizes his own inability to imagine the nightmare Sparrow’s life has become or understand in any truly empathetic way how profoundly hurt she is. Lucas is important because he says what Sparrow won’t. Sparrow is an accomplished secret-keeper, so readers must discover parts of her history in different ways. Lucas can provide that exposition in conversations with his friends, his mother, and Delaney, while simultaneously revealing to us what Sparrow means to him. 


Solter Photo by ELC Photography

I know that your MFA thesis focused on writing trauma in MG and YA fiction. How did the research for your thesis inform your novel? 

SKS: It definitely informed my decision to start the story shortly after the abuse. Related to that was the choice not to directly show the abuse as its own scene. There are brief flashbacks, but they’re impressionistic, with details of the setting but not of the abuse itself. My research showed me that not depicting aspects that might be more disturbing for the reader didn’t have to conflict with realism. The intense realism is in the psychological and emotional depictions because this is what a survivor’s story is about: the intense processing and eventual healing. It was also important to me that the reader knows the book can feel intense so as not to be caught unaware, which is how the prologue came to be. It starts with, “When you know what I know, you’ll wish you didn’t.” Again, this craft choice didn’t have to conflict with telling a compelling story. It’s both an invitation to the reader to enter into the character’s world and a heads-up that it’s a tough story. I find that some of my craft choices are more conscious like this, while others emerge more organically as I’m writing. 


How did that play out for you, and which particular craft choices felt most essential to telling this story the way you wanted it to be told? 

MCJ: I always knew that I would use dual narrators to tell the story, so that choice was firm from the beginning. What I didn’t plan, but turned out to be deeply important to me, was Sparrow’s interior monologue during her most painful moments: her terror during that last car ride with Tristan. Her stream-of-consciousness memories as she lies broken after his assault. Her near-death observations in the hospital as she hovers over her shattered body. 

Perhaps the biggest surprise to me was how Sparrow’s mother developed. As I wrote, she became more of a character than I’d planned and grew into a tangible, malevolent presence. It also became important to me to show Sparrow’s growing affection and respect for Seraphina Gray, which she refuses to speak aloud. That “silent conversation” emerged as Dr. Gray’s character developed. Sparrow’s refusal to speak became a form of protest, and Dr. Gray’s compassion and empathy allowed her to let Sparrow control the dialogue—something Sparrow desperately needed. 


The main character’s mother is so important in your novel as well, in her evolution from disbelief to realization, from grief to action. And Tori’s path to healing feels so true, so hard, so heartbreaking. What was your process for those separate but intersecting paths?

SKS: “Believe me” was the first poem that came to me, and I do think that’s because it’s the crux of several aspects of the story. In addition to putting forward the issue of Tori and other survivors being believed and the primacy of their voices, it sets in motion the complicated aspects of relationships that come into play. In particular, it shows how adults don’t always show up for kids in the way that they should, often due to their own denial or other issues. I think that’s something that readers recognize already. However, I want readers to discover the bigger, longer-term picture; that even when this happens, there are still paths forward. Even if an adult has failed you, don’t give up. In Tori’s case, her telling eventually cracks through her mother’s denial as her mother realizes something is wrong, and Tori’s teacher also intervenes.

This reminds me of the responsibility I felt for telling this story in the most helpful way possible. For example, it’s important to have specifics that make the story feel real and allow the readers to connect with the character, but I certainly didn’t want to imply that sexual abuse happens only in certain circumstances—for example, the fact that Tori is being raised by a single mother—because it can happen to anyone. 


What was the most difficult aspect for you in the process of telling Sparrow’s story?

MCJ: Writing Tristan was difficult, and the assault scene took many, many days. But I knew I had to write it to be true to Sparrow’s story. I couldn’t hide from the violence or turn away because I was afraid. So I wrote a little at a time. It was like, “Deep breath, write. Cup of tea, write. Walk in the sunshine, write. Pet the dogs, write.”  

SKS: I can definitely identify with that! It can be quite a personal journey.


MCJ: What brought you joy during your process, and is there a particular line or scene that encapsulates your book or one of its themes for you? 

SKS: “Say yes to the day” is my favorite catchphrase from the novel because of its promise of things changing—it’s a poignant joy, yes, but also a real, whole joy. Tori shows us what true strength looks like as she keeps moving forward, feeling her feelings, honoring her process. I believe we are moving more towards this kind of processing and integration in general—and it’s what will heal both individuals and the world. 


What about you? Is there a line or scene from Sparrow that expresses one or more of its themes?

MCJ: There’s a scene where Lucas finds a dead goldfinch in the winter woods, and I think it contains all the elements of the larger story: grief and powerlessness, love and redemption, and eventually peace. Also, I wish we could all hear Dr. Gray’s words at difficult times in our lives: “Nobody deserves to be hurt. Not little girls and not grown women. Not boys or men. No one ever ‘has it coming,’ no matter what they say or do.”


Your author’s note is beautiful; I love what you say about healing, and how all our stories are headed there. What do you hope your readers will take away from When You Know What I Know

SKS: I want readers to recognize the complexities of difficult life situations. Sometimes our ideas of what trauma or tragedy is like are conceptual and resistant to the reality of it. In the case of survivors, that can contribute to self-doubt or minimizing what happened, and it can also lead to a lack of empathy in others. My hope is that readers gain insight into a realistic situation and that it helps them understand their own lives more fully, as well as others’. I also hope that having a story like this can help with breaking the shame around the topic of sexual abuse. And that children in various kinds of difficult circumstances will be inspired to keep reaching out, and know that they can get help and that things will get better. 


Sparrow also has so much to say to readers that might influence their own lives and relationships. What do you want readers to take away from your novel? 

 MCJ: I hope that the words of Sparrow’s psychiatrist, Dr. Gray, will resonate deeply with readers. I wish for readers to know in their hearts and souls that loving relationships aren’t ever supposed to hurt—emotionally or physically. At the end of Sparrow, I hope readers will know that they are completely and unconditionally worthy of love and care and tenderness. We all are.  

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Ashleigh Williams

Ashleigh Williams (awilliams@mediasourceinc.com) is the Assistant Editor of Chapter Books and Middle Grade for School Library Journal. Find them on Twitter @bombus_vagans.

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