This BookPage Icebreaker is sponsored by Running Press Kids.
In her new novel, Caleb and Kit, Beth Vrabel, the award-winning author of A Blind Guide to Stinkville, captures the power of new friendship—and the complicated heartbreak of needing to let someone go. Twelve-year-old Caleb is smaller and more protected than any other kid in his grade. He has cystic fibrosis, and his single mom does her best to keep him healthy and safe (while balancing her own life, like going on dates). But this summer, Caleb wanders off into the woods rather than attend summer day camp, and he meets the nonjudgmental, wild and free Kit. But as Caleb joins his new friend on adventures, he begins to realize that Kit has troubles of her own.
Cat: This book is such a balance of tough stuff and sweetness. I don’t know if it was a phrase that you picked or your publisher picked for you, but your books are described as having “grit and heart.” This sounds like a literary mantra that totally sums up what Caleb and Kit is all about.
Beth: “Grit and heart” is very meaningful to me in that it can tell stories to children who often shy away from dealing with the reality of their lives. Their lives are very messy, very complicated. Just like an adult’s life is a delicate balance of good and bad, a child’s is as well. We underestimate the amount of strength that children have. I think of my own two children . . . you can deliver bad news to them however minute, and they jest. They move on from it. They pick up and they move forward. And I think that it’s the same for most children, that we want to protect them but we end up sheltering them. We don’t have to. They’re capable of making these connections with a strength that we underestimate over and over and over again.
Absolutely. And giving kids the opportunity to find that power is so important, but it can be hard to let them go as a parent. But I think that’s what happens with Caleb. He finds his way to his own power, but it takes some doing.
Yeah. Caleb has all the information about cystic fibrosis, about his personal challenge. He’s done the research. He’s present at the doctor’s appointment. He knows what his numbers should be. But then you have Kit, who has not been given the information. She has to draw her own conclusions about what’s going on in her life. She still finds that grit. She still finds that power, and to me, that shows how we all will draw our own conclusions if we don’t have the right information, so we might as well just give people the opportunity to know the truth. If that makes any sense.
Yes, it does. Caleb and Kit seem to balance each other. What do you think is most important about writing characters like Caleb and Kit, who are struggling to find their own power? How do you honor them while also writing their difficult stories?
I think the most important thing in undertaking something like that is to not have it be a book about that issue. I did not set out to write a book about cystic fibrosis, and I don’t think that I did. I wrote a book about Caleb, who happens to have cystic fibrosis. That was really driven home to me in the process of writing my last book, A Blind Guide to Stinkville, which features a protagonist who is legally blind due to albinism. . . . My daughter has a form of albinism, much more mild that Alice’s, the character’s. She wanted to read a book with a character who is just a regular girl doing regular things and who happens to have this shared challenge. But when we looked for that book, and then spread that search out to look for a comic book or a movie . . . everything we found was purely about being blind or purely about having albinism. These characters tended to be villains or witches, or [have] all sorts of magical components instead of just being a regular person who happened to be born with an additional challenge.
And so it meant a lot to me to portray Alice as a typical kid, and then when it came time to write Caleb and Kit, I wanted it to be a story about friendship, about being in that situation that we all find ourselves at some point in our lives, when you realize you need to break up with a friend for whatever reason.
I think you made that clear right away. On page eight of my galley, there’s a wonderful bit about how trees have to grow apart from each other to share the sun, and there’s that one line that kills: “I wondered if it hurt, twisting away from your friend like that.”
Oh, and that hurts so bad.
That is such a hard concept.
It is. And you know, we’re not taught how to do that. We’re taught to—“OK, somebody hurt your feelings, tell them it’s OK. We’re all friends here”—instead of being taught that sometimes friendships don’t work out. And that’s OK!
When I set up to write this book, it was important to me that Caleb had an additional challenge because it was so important for my daughter to have that. I wanted that experience for other children as well. So, that’s when I set out to include cystic fibrosis. That’s when Caleb became very difficult to write.
In your acknowledgements you said it was so difficult that you almost dropped the first-person perspective and went to third person. That would’ve been a big change.
That was a weak moment for sure. I know each person’s process is different, but for me, I get to the point where I can really see a character in front of me and feel what they’re feeling. I can refer to them in conversations the way I would my children. Usually at that point the story is good. It’s cooking. It’s ready to fry onto the page. But with Caleb, that became very difficult. I didn’t want this [cystic fibrosis] for him. And I had to get over that and stop feeling sorry for him. Stop having the cystic fibrosis come first and have it be about Caleb.
I feel like there were two main things that really helped balance how tough Caleb’s life is, and as we learn more about Kit, how tough Kit’s life is. First, Caleb’s mom—who is my new favorite literary mom—and second, the setting of the woods.
[chuckles] I love her.
Her relationship with Caleb is so great, and yes, he does have to rebel against her. Even the greatest moms have to be rebelled against. But she’s just fighting for him, and when he gets in these moments of self-pity, she won’t let him stay there. She is a total hero.
I really like her, too. I’m glad you said that. She’s so, so strong, and yet she still carves out some time for herself, too. For herself to have this new relationship, this new part of her life—as Caleb’s getting independence, she’s getting some, too.
The world doesn’t revolve around Caleb.
Yeah! And she makes sure that he knows that “I’m always there for you, but we have our lives, too” and . . . it’s in a much gentler, more caring way than Caleb’s dad. And then, the woods!
The woods! In so many children’s books—well, all types of literature—woods are so scary. It’s where the fear and the unknown is, and you go in there and you come out changed. Caleb comes out changed, sure, but he meets his new friend, Kit, in there. And in your descriptions of those woods, I could picture forests that I grew up tramping around in Tennessee, that were sunny and secluded and precious.
The woods were always a natural place for me growing up. I thought when I was a kid that I lived in the woods. I didn’t. We had a little creek in our backyard and a few trees, and that was my thing. That was my world. And when I was writing Caleb and Kit, I actually did have a house in the woods. We lived in Connecticut, and we could look out and see some fox running through. We had some black bears. It was a magical place for my kids to run out and play and come back holding frogs, or they’d tell me about the turkey they just saw.
It’s so natural to me that Caleb would have this wildness inside of him. He just desperately wants to make his own decisions and be free. But his life is so structured and devout, so having Kit as part of that wildness was really important to me.
I love this idea of finding a friend exactly the moment you need them. Caleb meets Kit exactly when he most needs her, and later we find out it’s mutual. Have you ever had that?
Yes, I have. We moved to Texas in March, so our kids had a month and a half of school. My son could walk to primary school, and I’d be waiting there for him, and I’d wait for him to come back. He started [hanging] with a buddy, and I met that buddy’s mom who [lived] down the street from us. She had just moved to the area, too, so we were talking about how difficult it is and how we were worried about who our kids were going sit with in the cafeteria, and how are they going find these connections? Somehow or another, she said, “I think we’ve all been there. Even if you’re an adult, sometimes I feel like that moment when you walk into the cafeteria and you wonder who’s going let you sit beside them.”
Now she and I are really great friends, and I’m so thankful that I have her. But I think that is unique. You reach this point where you are lonely and you wonder if anybody else feels what you are going through. And you think that only happens when you are kids, but it happens your whole life.
This is why I tell people, you should probably go back and read children’s books because there are some things that you still need to work on. Like finding friends at exactly the right time.
Right. I know. My mind always goes back to middle grade. It’s when you’re starting to realize your connections to a greater picture and where you belong and whether you want to fit in or stand out.
Author photo by 179 Pictures