Claire Swinarski is a returning author (this is her second Reading Middle Grade interview!) and she’s the first one yet. That’s how much I loved her sophomore novel, The Kate in Between. Claire and I talk about her book, writing flawed characters, MLMs and suburban moms, and finding work-life balance as a mom. I enjoyed reading her answers and I know you will too!
Hi Claire, what a pleasure to chat with you for the second time about books! I enjoyed your debut What Happens Next, but I have to say: I ADORED The Kate in Between. It’s one of those books that is burned into my memory.
Thank you so, so much!
Kate is such a dear character to me. I loved her voice and reading through her internal monologue as she made bad decisions. Was there a reason why you wanted to explore a flawed, often frustrating character?
She’s a dear character to me, too. I have a lot of empathy for girls who are going through a difficult time navigating social situations in middle school because that was very much me. I have things I did in middle school that make me cringe SO hard. I made choices that were cruel, odd, and just completely unjustifiable. But people aren’t “good” or “evil”, as Kate learns throughout the book. We’re all just a whole bunch of choices we make every day. And you can change your mind and decide to make different choices at any time.
Bullying is a major theme in this story. Kate’s experience shows that bullies don’t always have to be the instigators. Sometimes, passive onlookers can be just as harmful. Why did you want to write about bullying, especially from the bully’s perspective, in a sense?
I feel like there are a lot of middle grade books available written from the perspective of someone who’s bullied. And that’s very, very important. But I wasn’t seeing as many written from the perspective of someone who’s making those harmful choices, and I think that’s a really interesting narrative. The vast majority of kids aren’t either totally mean or totally picked on–these things are so much more fluid than most books would have us believe. So I wanted to explore why someone might turn from a generally nice kid into kind of a jerk, and how a kid’s woundedness and shifting sense of identity might play into that.
Kate is different from Abby in What Happens Next. She’s an only child, her parents are not together, and she has to essentially parent her mother sometimes. You’ve mentioned that you have several siblings. Was it harder to write an only child whose circumstances are different from your experiences?
It was! Believe it or not, in an earlier draft, Kate had a sister. But sometimes, you just have to kill your darlings when writing, and her sister didn’t quite fit into the narrative. So the poor girl got the axe–ha! Kate’s family is different than mine in pretty much every way possible, so it was fun to change things up and explore the parent/child dynamic when the kid’s the only one. Kate’s parents are also very young, which impacts a lot of their decisions and how she views her role in the family. She’s often just as responsible, if not more so, than her mom.
I really liked Haddie. Anyone who’s been a tween knows how hard it can be to march to the beat of your own drum. Her persistent belief in Kate and in their friendship was both heartbreaking and endearing. I liked your resolution of the girls’ relationship. Was the resolution something you went back and forth deciding or did it just feel right to end things as they did?
You know, I did go back and forth about it! Without giving too much away, it would have been nice to be able to tie a bow on things and give everyone a perfect happy ending. But I didn’t find that very realistic. Real damage has been done to that relationship, and it will impact it going forward. That being said, forgiveness is a powerful virtue, and an underappreciated one. Who knows where Kate and Haddie’s relationship will end up in high school? But when they’re adults, I definitely think they’ll look back fondly on the years they were best friends.
And yes, let’s talk about True U Cosmetics! I’ve never read about a parent in a middle grade book whose part of an MLM. I’m so curious as to what inspired you to create Kate’s mom as a character.
As a work-from-home mom in suburbia, you would not *believe* how many times I get approached to join an MLM. And I’ve done so much research on the ways network marketing harms women–if someone sends me a DM asking me to join their Young Living downline, they may find themselves being lectured on participating in an exploitative industry, ha! It’s extremely, extremely common in my social circle to go through a few months as a network marketer and then kind of emerge from the cave, awkwardly blinking and realizing you just spent hundreds of dollars on what’s essentially a pyramid scheme.
That being said, there are a few girls in my wider acquaintance circle who have really committed to an MLM, and they’re always posting photos of their kids and talking about how it’s all for them. It just made me wonder what it would be like to be that kid. I definitely poke a lot of fun at MLMs in the book, but the truth is, they can really have strong negative impacts on women’s lives.
Kate plays basketball — and interestingly isn’t necessarily a rockstar on the court (which I liked). Did you play basketball?
This question cracks me up, because since I’m over six feet tall, people *always* ask if I played basketball growing up. And the answer is 100% NO. I’m the most unathletic person I know. Truly, I can barely walk and chew gum at the same time. But I always wished I had a little athletic skill, mainly because I love the idea of being part of a team!
It was fun to give Kate a very specific basketball talent and write out some of my tall-girl-issues onto her. One of my favorite parts of writing is being able to explore niche hobbies that I always wished I’d had, like ballet in What Happens Next and basketball in Kate. And thanks to the Brookfield East girls’ basketball summer camp for letting me come hang out at their practices!
I know you have a real life baby due pretty close to when this book baby’s due. What do you wish more people understood about work-life balance, especially as a mom and a writer?
Yes! My third baby is due May 12th and the book comes out May 18th. I think the secret to work-life balance is to marry a good man, honestly–ha! One of the keys to my success is to have a partner who takes me seriously and prioritizes my work time. He’s a very, very hands-on dad. But also, just to give yourself permission to have passions. There’s so much pressure on parents these days to go above and beyond. You don’t need to *constantly* be entertaining your kids. Kids learn a lot from boredom and self-entertainment, and it’s a great life skill to give them when I’m on deadline.
It makes me sad when I see moms who have something they’re really passionate about put it way on the back burner because they think they shouldn’t be allowed to spend time on their own careers or hobbies. Every member of my family is important and deserving of time…and that includes me!
Have you read and loved any middle grade books so far this year? I’d love to hear!
There are several unique elements in The Kate in Between: going viral, an evolving friendship, young parents, and MLMs. Are there any themes you would love to see more in middle grade literature?
I love when middle grade books incorporate social media. I understand that teachers or librarians may want their kids to spend more time offline–I certainly do, too! My kids are too young for Instagram and the like, but they don’t even have a tablet. That being said, social media has changed a lot about the way kids communicate. In my opinion, it’s mostly been a negative influence. I think exploring that dark side of virality can be helpful to show kids that internet fame isn’t all it’s cracked up to be.
What do you hope The Kate in Between does for readers?
I hope The Kate In Between reminds readers to see people as PEOPLE–not stereotypes, not boxed-in categories, but complicated humans with needs and wants and mistakes and talents. It’s so dangerous to sum people up as great or a monster. Our media loves a good narrative, as Kate learns in the book, but whether it’s the news their parents watch or their own favorite vlogger, they should be empowered to make their own decisions about people and know that most of us are just out here trying to do our best.
Buy The Kate in Between
Meet Claire Swinarski
Claire Swinarski is the author of multiple books, including What Happens Next and The Kate In Between. Her writing has been featured in The Washington Post, Seventeen, Milwaukee Magazine, and many other publications. She lives in small town Wisconsin with her husband and three kids, where they read a lot of books and bake a lot of bread. You can follow her on Instagram and Twitter.