Chris Baron is the author of the new verse novel, The Magical Imperfect. I enjoyed this story set in 1989 San Francisco about a boy who develops selective mutism, until a friendship breaks him open in the best way. I chatted with Chris Baron about his new book, writing about mental health and severe eczema, and why writing in verse comes so naturally to him. I loved this heartfelt interview, and I know you will too.
Chris is also giving away TWO signed copies of The Magical Imperfect. Deets at the end of the interview.
Hi Chris, I’m happy to be chatting with you about your latest verse novel, The Magical Imperfect, which I enjoyed.
Etan stops speaking after his mother has to leave to get treatment in a facility. Why did you decide to write about selective mutism (a rarely-explored topic in MG)? Do you have any personal experience with this mental health issue?
I do have personal experience, and like so many kids, I didn’t always understand why I was living with my issue, how it was caused, or what I could do about it.
In All of Me, Ari lives with a variety of struggles that came directly from my own experience. But there was one behavior that Ari didn’t express that Etan does in The Magical Imperfect. In the book, Etan stops speaking when his mother has to leave because of her severe depression. He didn’t choose it. His anxiety came on suddenly, maybe as a reaction, and like most kids his age, (and especially in 1989) he doesn’t know how to recognize it.
In Etan, I am writing about a character I know well — someone who suffers from anxiety. This is something I do deal with. Anxiety is something that many live with — especially today. It takes many forms.
My own anxiety emerged when I was younger. Because my mom is an artist, we moved all the time. Whenever I moved to a new town, a new state, a new school, I may have seemed calm on the outside, but inside of me was a storm of emotions. Of course, It was always a little exciting moving to a new place, new friends, new adventures, but it was all mixed together with the overwhelming feelings of being taken out of one life (routine, friendships, and environment), and then dropped into another. I didn’t know how I would fit.
For a kid, it can feel like a complete loss of control. Often, the way I reacted to this loss of control was to find something I could control. It was sometimes eating, but it was also something quieter. I found myself often unable to speak, so I embraced that. I stopped talking at school. I was quiet. I kept all my words to myself. Eventually I found friends and teachers, and even therapy I could trust who helped me through it, and slowly the words came out. Selective mutism can be different for different people.Selective mutism can be different for different people. – @baronchrisbaron on The Magical Imperfect Click To Tweet
I loved Etan’s relationship with his grandfather — and even with his dad. Jewish culture and religion also play a major role in their family. I loved your portrayal of Etan’s father and his struggle with his faith, as well as the dynamic that created between him and Etan’s grandfather. Why was this something you wanted to write about?
I love this question. Here are two people, from two generations, across cultures, who love each other — but are so different. It’s the differences clashing with the deep love that create the friction flowing up fiery sparks in every direction. I think kids see this happening all the time in their families, or school, and the urgency of these dynamics can be so challenging — often feeling so heavy to them even when they have nothing to do with it. This can be even more challenging when we involve the sacred.
Faith is meant to bring us together, and tradition to build foundations. But these very things can also create tension. I wanted to explore the dynamic of these two men who love each other, but have had so many struggles, work through them to try and come together — but as seen through the eyes of Etan. Part of the story, I hope, can help young readers see into a space where they can know that the kids are not the problem when these situations happen, but they can be love and light.Faith is meant to bring us together, and tradition to build foundations. But these very things can also create tension. – Chris Baron on The Magical Imperfect Click To Tweet
I really liked Malia. I felt deeply for her and her struggles with her skin. You’ve mentioned that your wife’s history of severe eczema inspired Malia’s character. What inspired you to write about Dead Sea clay and its impact on Malia’s eczema?
Yes. Eczema is part of our life. I think it’s something rarely discussed in books, but it is a condition that affects so many people. Ella and spent a lot of our marriage — at the start — struggling to find a way to be at peace. There were times when she had to go to a medical facility, and through our twenty years of marriage, our journey of health and the fight against eczema has been dynamic and complex.
Thankfully she is doing well now, but the truth is, There is no cure for eczema, and over the years Ella and I have tried everything you can possibly think of to treat it. Anyone who has experienced eczema knows this feeling. There is no miracle cure. No actual magic. But sometimes our new world is quick to find a medicine, or we won’t settle for anything less than an immediate cure.
What if in our quest for new technology and medicine, there was actually something more indigenous, something from a more ancient place that could break through and bring them together? Maybe even help with easing the pain? The story explores a lot of Jewish folklore. The clay from the Dead Sea is part of that.
But what if there was simpler magic in the process of being together with someone who cares for you? Friendship.
The San Francisco setting is undoubtedly a major part of this story. Was there a reason why you set this book in the late 1980’s?
Just like in All of Me, this book takes place in the Bay Area, where I went to middle school in the 80s. This would probably be enough of a reason by itself. This place is just a part of me. From the Redwoods to the Sea, I can’t get away from it. But there is just so much more. For this story, I wanted to explore the concept of a community coming from different parts of the world, through incredible strife, and starting again in a new way-despite wide cultural differences. The more I researched Angel Island Immigration, talked with historians, and then the discovery that my own grandparents came through Ellis Island, I became deeply involved in the “world-building” of the book’s landscape.
It seemed like 1989 was a perfect fit. One of the ways that people from different worlds come together is through sports–and there was no bigger World Series than The Battle of the Bay between the A’s and the Giants. But of course, this was disrupted by the Loma Prieta Earthquake. I’d experienced earthquakes before, but somehow this one, in the middle of the World Series, seemed to disrupt life in such an unpredictable and deep way. This story is all about the ways in which life is disrupted for the people in the story in unexpected ways by things that are beyond their control. Something as big as an earthquake is terrifying, but it also has a chance to bring people together.This story is all about the ways in which life is disrupted for the people in the story in unexpected ways by things that are beyond their control. Something as big as an earthquake is terrifying, but it also has a chance to bring people… Click To Tweet
Your debut middle grade book, All of Me, is also a verse novel. What is your favorite thing about writing in verse? And do you think you’ll ever write in a different format?
I like to say that verse is my native language. Verse can be such a powerful tool for unlocking and exploring the internal landscape of a character. The imagery and figurative language provide a way to articulate these weighty and complex concepts our characters face. Abstractions like, fear, pain, and love, become visceral as the verse describes the spooky forest, the aching skin, or the joy of laughter in friendship. The verse provides structure for the action, the thoughts, and then even provides the white space — a chance for readers to breathe and imagine. I think this draws a reader more deeply into the story in an interactive way.
I have been writing a few non-verse books, and it is a wonderful and challenging process!I like to say that verse is my native language. Verse can be such a powerful tool for unlocking and exploring the internal landscape of a character. – Chris Baron on writing in verse. Click To Tweet
Friendship takes center stage in this story. Etan loses the connection with his friends when he stops speaking, but I loved seeing Malia and Etan interact. They bring out the best in each other right from the start. What do you love most about their friendship — and good friendships in general?
Thanks for asking this. I love their friendship. I agree — they bring out the best in each other. I love that they don’t judge each other. From the start, even though Malia hides behind the door at first, she is still fully present. That’s something that Etan really needs. And for her, she finds someone in Etan who isn’t afraid of her. They see each other, and because of that, each of them feel truly seen. Together they can fully be themselves, and that is something so wonderful about good friendships.
Which middle grade books have you read and loved recently?
Reading has been difficult lately — but there have been several that I absolutely love!
- Red White and Whole by Rajani Larocca
- The Adventure is Now Jess Redman
- Adrianna Cuevas’s The Total Eclipse of Nestor Lopez
- Jenni Walsh’s I am Defiance
- Unsettled by Reem Faruqi
- Sol Invictus by Ben Gartner
- Mulrox and The Malcognitos by Kerelyn Smith
- These Unlucky Stars by Gillian McDunn
What do you do to clear your head when you’re having a rough time emotionally/mentally?
Great question. I try to play with my kids, do something fun with my wife — but none of that is on demand. So I try to develop healthy rituals — I practice martial arts, Krav Maga. I garden as much as possible. Sometimes just some time outside is enough.
What do you hope readers gain from reading The Magical Imperfect?
I hope that readers will get enjoyment out of going on this journey with these characters. I hope there is not only a layer of history and setting added, but also more connection, hope in friendship, empathy and a sense of wonder for the incredible and mysterious world we live in.
Thank you for your time, Chris!
Chris Baron is kindly offering TWO signed copies of The Magical Imperfect to two readers! This giveaway is open to US and Canada addresses. Enter below.a Rafflecopter giveaway
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Meet Chris Baron
Chris Baron’s Middle Grade debut, ALL OF ME, a novel in verse from Feiwel & Friends/Macmillan, is coming June 2019. His next MG novel in verse, THE MAGICAL IMPERFECT is coming in 2021 from Feiwel & Friends/Macmillan.He is a Professor of English at San Diego City College. Baron has published numerous poems and articles in magazines and journals around the country, performed on radio programs, and participated in many readings, lectures, and panels. He grew up in New York City, but he completed his MFA in Poetry in 1998 at SDSU. Baron’s first book of poetry, Under the Broom Tree, was released in 2012 on CityWorks Press as part of Lantern Tree: Four Books of Poems (which won the San Diego Book Award for best poetry anthology). He is represented by the amazing Rena Rossner, from the Deborah Harris Literary Agency. You can also check him out on his website, Instagram and Twitter.