Jenn Bishop is one of my favorite middle grade authors. I’ve read three out of her four books and I loved them all. Her most recent release Where We Used to Roam is about a girl whose teenage older brother develops an addiction to opioids. She’s sent away to Wyoming to be with some family friends while her brother goes to rehab. All the while, she’s dealing with her own normal middle school issues and evolving friendships.
In this interview, Jenn and I chat about her new book, writing about difficult topics (her previous book is about a boy whose father dies by suicide), middle school friendship drama, shadow boxes, and her love for bison. I know you’ll enjoy this interview as much as I did.
Interview with Jenn Bishop on Where We Used to Roam
Hi Jenn, I’m so glad to be chatting with you about your work, but especially Where We Used to Roam. As you know, I love your work and your ability to write children’s books about difficult topics. You’ve written about the death of a sibling, a parent’s suicide, and now opioid addiction. Why do you think you gravitate toward these hard subjects?
I’m so excited to talk with you, Afoma! I’ve really enjoyed reading your reviews and blog posts over the past few years. Part of the reason I gravitate toward these hard subjects is because of the reader I was as a kid. I was curious and empathetic, but I didn’t personally suffer any significant tragedies. Still, I found myself drawn to books where the characters did–books deep with feeling that helped me make sense of the greater world around me. As an author now, I can’t help but write for the kid I was then.
I loved the way you explored Emma and Becca’s friendship and the ache of evolving relationships. Did you ever experience the situations Emma and Becca face as they widen their individual circles?
Oh my goodness, yes. Like Emma, I had a longtime best friend through most of elementary school, but things changed in junior high as our interests and classes changed, and as we grew up at different paces. If anything, I was much more of a Becca in some ways–bookish and a little slow to mature.
At the center of this story is Emma’s relationship with her brother, Austin. You do such a beautiful job of showing the before and the after of Austin’s opioid addiction. I like the realistic, but thoughtful way things are handled. What did you want to highlight with Austin’s illness, the way he gets into it, and the impact on his family?
Between writing 14 Hollow Road and my next two middle grade novels, I worked on a YA novel that touched on the opioid epidemic. I was living in Boston at the time, and it was ravaging New England in a way that was impossible to ignore. Though nothing ever came of that YA novel, as I was feeling my way around very early drafts of Where We Used to Roam, I found that Emma’s story could intersect with aspects of that story. By that point, I had resettled in Cincinnati and saw how Ohio too was struggling with the opioid epidemic.
Though there were some trailblazing authors who wrote about these topics for a middle grade audience a decade or more ago, it seemed there was an even greater need for these stories now and a wider acceptance among educators. Kids need books that reflect all the realities of their lives, so I felt compelled to return to this subject matter, only this time from a middle grade perspective.
As a former librarian, I love how you weave books, libraries, and bookish characters into your story. Emma, though, unlike her bestie Becca, is into art. Are you into shadow boxes as well?
As a college student taking a class on Surrealism, I was introduced to Joseph Cornell’s shadow boxes and have seen many of them at museums in the years since. In short: I’m obsessed! I’ve long been interested in art, but more from an appreciation than a practicing perspective. My artistic skills are pretty stuck at where I left them in middle school, when I abandoned taking art lessons. But I hope that Emma’s love of art spurs readers to try making their own shadow boxes or see Joseph Cornell’s boxes.
This book is very atmospheric, especially when Emma goes to Wyoming. Do you have history with Wyoming and bisons? The scene with Emma and the baby bison took my breath away.
That means so much to me, Afoma! That scene is probably one of my favorites of any scene I’ve ever written. And it’s a bit of wish fulfillment because, like Emma, I spent a summer in Wyoming and became obsessed with bison. I was staying with my friend’s family in Gillette (northeastern WY), and we took a trip to the Big Horns and Yellowstone where I got to see so many bison. Friends and family still heavily identify me with my love of bison and will likely send me any kind of bison story that goes viral. I’ve always kept a safe distance from them though. Promise!
Which wonderful middle grade books have you read and loved recently?
I just finished a magnificent middle grade debut, Clues to the Universe, by Christina Li. It hits all of my sweet spots at the moment: an unlikely friendship, big feelings, and multiple POV.
I know your book is barely out, but what can we expect to read from you next?
While we haven’t officially announced it yet, I will have a title coming out in fall 2023. It’s a return to the sports world–basketball, this time– and my first book set in my new hometown of Cincinnati. I’m eager to share more about it when we get closer to publication. In the meantime, I’m deep in the revision cave working on it with my editor.
What would you like readers to take away from reading Where We Used to Roam?
You know, what I love best about fiction is the way that each reader can interact with a book differently, and often differently from how the author ever imagined! And how it can change, depending on the reader’s circumstances, both overall and in the moment. Given that it’s releasing during a pandemic when most of us are still staying at home and delaying travel, I hope it gives readers a glimpse of a place they’ve never been, and a window into one family’s experience with substance abuse that generates a deeper empathy and understanding.
Buy Where We Used to Roam
Meet Jenn Bishop
Jenn Bishop is the author of the middle-grade novels Things You Can’t Say, 14 Hollow Road, and The Distance to Home. She grew up in Massachusetts and as a college student spent one incredible summer in Wyoming. She has been obsessed with bison ever since. After working as a children’s librarian, she received her MFA in Writing for Children & Young Adults from the Vermont College of Fine Arts. Jenn currently calls Cincinnati, Ohio, home. Visit her online at jennbishop.com.