Kate Messner’s latest middle grade novel, Chirp, is an engrossing summer adventure novel that takes place in Vermont. It’s the story of Mia Barnes, who is convinced someone is trying to sabotage her grandmother’s cricket farm. It’s also a book informed by the #metoo movement: Mia’s former gymnastics coach touched her inappropriately, leaving Mia feeling confused and robbed of her confidence. We asked Messner about the wild world of cricket farming, as well as the work that went into researching and writing a novel that addresses difficult emotional truths.
How did you settle on crickets as a central subject of Chirp? What intrigued you most during your research into this industry?
My interest in entomophagy (eating insects as food) began in 2013, when I read this United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization report on edible insects. A few years later, my husband, who’s part of a group that offers help to start-up businesses in Vermont, came home with a folder of information about a new business he thought I’d want to read about: a cricket farm. When I visited the new farm (and heard the chirping of half a million crickets in a warehouse!) I was absolutely fascinated and decided it would be an amazing setting for a kids’ book—a mystery that also explored ideas about entrepreneurship and sustainability.
Do you have any favorite cricket tasting experiences or recipes to recommend?
When I was doing research for Chirp, I sampled crickets in every iteration imaginable. I tried cookies, bread and fruit leather made with cricket flour, snacked on flavored, roasted crickets, ate Thai cricket pizza and topped it off with chocolate-covered cricket ice cream. My favorite cricket foods are the Texas barbecue crickets from Aketta, a cricket farm in Austin, and chocolate “chirp” cookies (chocolate chip . . . but with cricket flour added!). The recipe for those is in the book club and discussion guide for the book!
ALSO IN BOOKPAGE: Read our starred review of Chirp.
How does your background in TV news reporting help you as a novelist? Did the #MeToo movement prompt you to write Chirp, or was this a subject you had been considering writing about for longer?
This was definitely one of the things that fueled my writing. I was especially haunted by the courageous testimony of the gymnasts who were assaulted by their doctor, Larry Nassar. I read through pages and pages of their victim impact statements from the sentencing. It was horrific and gave me nightmares. But it also made me even more determined to craft a story that portrays a realistic look at how some adults gain the trust of kids in order to harm them. In Chirp, it’s an assistant coach at Mia’s gym whose too-long hugs, texted photos and unwelcome backrubs made her uncomfortable. He also gives her gifts and says things that are typical of grooming behavior. I want kids to recognize this and be able to talk about it with a trusted adult if it ever happens to them.
You’ve written that your characters’ experiences with sexual harassment and molestation “were inspired by stories in the news and my own experiences growing up, as well as those of many women I’m lucky enough to call friends.” How did personal experience inform your writing of this novel? Was it ever difficult to write?
This isn’t a subject I ever thought I’d write about. But like many women, the combination of the 2016 election and all of the #metoo related news stories stirred up tough memories as well as productive anger. For me, that took the form of a resolve to speak up about these issues so our daughters don’t have to struggle with the same toxic culture. I spent a lot of time talking with friends about their experiences as well as taking time to write about my own childhood memories in detail—from inappropriate touching from a family friend to a stranger who exposed himself to me on a beach while I was looking for shells on a family vacation. And of course that was difficult, but it was also important—to spend time processing those memories through the lens of an adult and a writer. If I hadn’t returned to revisit those tough places, I don’t think Chirp would have the same emotional truth.
What an exceptional passage this is: “Mia still felt icky when she got home. She wasn't even sure she could say exactly what happened, but something had, and it felt gross and wrong and probably she should have said something to her mom, but how could you say something when you couldn't even explain what happened yourself?” It’s so impossibly hard for kids to talk about incidents like these. Do you anticipate getting letters from readers about their own situations? Do you have thoughts about what you'll say to them?
That passage is very much rooted in my own experiences as a child. If no one’s talked explicitly with you about issues of sexual assault and consent, you don’t really understand or recognize what’s happening when it happens. And months before Chirp’s release, I started hearing from early readers who also saw themselves in Mia’s experiences. They wished they’d had a story like this when they were younger.
I’m sure there will be pushback to this book. There are always adults who think it’s their job to protect kids from uncomfortable ideas. But keeping stories like this from children is the opposite of protecting them. Information is what helps kids identify when someone isn’t acting in their best interest and empowers them to speak up. I do anticipate that I’ll hear from more readers when the book is released, and I have a file of resources ready to share, but the very first thing will be encouraging them to talk with a trusted adult, and reassuring them that what happened was wrong, and wasn’t their fault.
“[M]onths before Chirp’s release, I started hearing from early readers who also saw themselves in Mia’s experiences. They wished they’d had a story like this when they were younger.”
You’re quite the researcher, having visited the Vermont Ninja Warrior Training Center, the inspiration for the Warrior Camp that Mia attends. What led you there? Did you try some of the challenges?
I always try to make sure my characters’ hobbies are portrayed in a way that’s vivid and realistic, so that the book will feel real to kids who love that hobby, too. When I was working on Chirp, that meant talking with gymnasts, reading about how kids’ entrepreneur camps work and how they’re encouraged to draft business plans like Mia’s, and also figuring out what happens at a “Warrior Camp.”
I’d read about the Vermont Ninja Warrior Training Center, and with a quick phone call, arranged a visit during one of their camps for kids. I try not to become part of the story when I’m doing research—that’s left over from my years as a journalist—so I didn’t try any of the challenges that day. Instead, I sat off to the side while the kids had their normal camp day, stretching with their coaches and then breaking into groups to work on the different challenges. I observed and listened in, collecting details in my notebook—a bit of dialogue from a coach trying to teach the rings, kids shouting encouragement to one another on the quad steps, the squeak of sneakers on the spider wall. And then I talked with both campers and coaches about their experiences. I also spent a lot of time hanging from our pull-up bar at home—something Mia does as she’s trying to regain arm strength after her gymnastics accident—so that I could describe that burning feeling authentically!
Syd, “a fat sausage of an English bulldog puppy,” plays an important role in Chirp. You've also written a chapter book series about Ranger, a time-traveling golden retriever. Tell us about the dogs in your own life.
Ah, the truth is, everyone in my family is allergic to dogs, so we can’t have one in real life. I love other people’s dogs, though, and I think that’s why I keep putting them in my books. Ranger and Syd are sort of my imaginary dogs. Gram’s dog Syd in Chirp was inspired by the bulldog that used to hang out at the rink where my daughter figure skated before she graduated. The real Syd was also super-drooly and equally as affectionate.
You’re a mountain climber trying to summit all 46 Adirondack High Peaks between book deadlines. What number are you on? Any exciting experiences to share?
I’m not an Adirondack 46er quite yet (that’s the name given to people who have summited all of the 46 Adirondack High Peaks over 4,000 feet). At the moment, I’m only a “32er,” but I hope to finish in the next few years. I love hiking, even though many of the trails are muddy, root-tangled messes littered with giant boulders. It’s meditative for me, and I get some great thinking done while I’m out there.
Also? Hiking in the Adirondacks is a lot like writing a novel. It always feels impossible at first, and no matter how long you work, you start to doubt that you’ll make it. But ultimately, you have to take it one small stretch at a time. Just one more mile. One more chapter. And there are so many wonderful discoveries to make along the way.