YA author Kate McGovern’s first novel for younger readers is the story of a girl who has been keeping a big secret: She can’t read very well. When her secret is discovered and she is held back a year, she struggles to conceal the reason from her friends and classmates.
Secrets are an important theme throughout the book: why we keep them, how hard it is to continue them, the effects they have on our friends and family. What drew you to exploring the power and peril of secrecy?
I was interested in exploring the question of how and why we keep secrets from ourselves as much as from other people. Maple obviously knows she has a hard time reading. But she has also been hiding from this reality, by finding tricks to avoid facing her struggles head-on. I think when we don’t want to tell other people something about ourselves, it’s very often because we are afraid that saying that thing out loud will make it more real—even though of course that isn’t usually true! So keeping this secret from other people is really Maple’s way of protecting herself from dealing with her own emotions about how hard it is for her to do something that she perceives other people can do more easily.
In your acknowledgments, you note that you’ve worked in education for many years, including as a reading tutor for young people, and that this book is “the meeting of my worlds.” Will you share a bit more about that with us?
I’ve always loved working with kids. Even as a high school and college student, I gravitated toward opportunities to volunteer with younger kids, to babysit and to work as a camp counselor, that kind of thing. One of my first jobs out of college was with an incredible organization called the Harlem Children’s Zone. I should be clear that I was not a certified or even particularly well-trained reading interventionist! But I was hired to help middle school students who were struggling with reading, so that’s what I tried to do. And that kicked off a deeper passion for working within education. After graduate school, I spent a year as a teaching assistant at an elementary school in London, and when I came back to the U.S. I started working in education nonprofits.
For the last decade or so, I’ve been writing fiction for kids in my “spare time” and working directly with students or writing about education in my “work time.” There hasn’t been much overlap. With Maple, I’ve had the chance to tell a story that deals with issues I’ve been exposed to through work, such as how and why students can get to older grades without fluent reading skills, which is really much more common than you might think.
You do a wonderful job of immersing readers in Maple’s mind so they can experience her reading challenges, from how words and pages appear to her to her feelings as she struggles to comprehend what she sees. Can you tell us about the research you did that helped to ensure these moments felt true and real?
Since I’ve been working in education for a while, both in and out of schools, I’m lucky in that I have a lot of colleagues and former colleagues who know a lot more than I do about reading instruction! I started there, just asking them to talk to me about what Maple’s struggles might feel like, tricks she might use to hide them, what types of interventions her teachers could use to support her and that kind of thing. There are also a lot of online resources that I found incredibly useful, such as understood.org, which has these great videos that show students talking about what it feels like to have different kinds of learning disabilities.
Through one of my former colleagues, I was introduced to an amazing reading interventionist named Trish Geraghty, who was generous enough to read the entire manuscript, give me notes and make sure everything rang true based on her and her students’ experiences. I also drew on my own experiences with students. I thought a lot about how they were gifted in so many ways, but how often they didn’t have a chance to show off those gifts in school because reading had become a barrier. I was really inspired by my former students and how wonderful and special they each were in their own ways.
Learning differences are quite common in children and adults, especially dyslexia. What stood out to you most as you learned about the range and scope of reading challenges?
That’s a really important point. I want readers to understand that Maple’s experience is truly just one person’s experience. We often tend to think of dyslexia as that thing where you flip letters around, but it’s much, much more than that. It was eye-opening to me when one of the reading experts I spoke with used the phrase “characteristics of dyslexia” to refer to this huge umbrella of reading challenges. She helped me see it as much more than just a single diagnosis.
Maple’s parents are very interested in her life and sincerely care about her happiness, so they’re disappointed with themselves when they realize they missed how much trouble she’d been having with reading. Why was it important to you to include their perspective?
I wanted to explore how Maple’s parents might have missed this big thing that was going on for their child—not to blame them for missing it, but to show how parents are human, too. We make mistakes, and sometimes we are guilty of putting our own expectations on our kids without recognizing who they really are as their own people.
Maple and her parents refer to her as a “Hin-Jew” because she’s Hindu and Jewish, and as “Whindian,” white and Indian. You’ve said that Maple’s family reflects your own. Why was it important to you that the Mehta-Cohens reflected your family? Did basing this aspect of these characters on personal reality make writing them easier, or more challenging?
I wanted to write a book that my own kids could (eventually) pick up and see themselves in. It’s a wonderful thing to watch children’s literature diversifying so rapidly, but biracial and multiracial protagonists and families are still a little bit less common. I especially wanted to write a story in which the family looked like ours, but in a narrative that wasn’t all about being a multicultural family, because in our house, our lives are made richer by our mix of cultures, but we have a lot of other things going on, too.
Using our family as the jumping-off point definitely made the writing process easier. I was able to pull in very familiar details, and I also had readily available readers (i.e., my husband) who could fact-check for me! (I should add, though, that Maple’s family isn’t exactly ours. They’re still fiction! One fun way that we’re different is that my family has grandparents raised in four different traditions—Judaism, Catholicism, Hinduism and Jainism. I simplified!)
Some characters are mean to Maple when they find out she was held back a grade, but Maple’s harshest critic is often herself. Will you share a bit about why reading challenges might be so central to her identity and to how she feels about herself?
I think Maple feels conflicted internally because she identifies as a person who loves books and stories, so she feels like she should be able to read well. Her reading struggles don’t fit with her idea of who she is. Of course, her challenges with reading independently have nothing to do with her love for great stories and her own gift of storytelling. There’s no reason you can’t love stories and also have a hard time with reading fluently! But it takes time for Maple to recognize that and to embrace all the parts of who she is.
Will you tell us a little about fifth and sixth grade Kate and who she was as a reader? Do you think your teachers would be surprised to learn that you grew up to become a published author?
I don’t think they’d be surprised at all. I was a lot like Maple, actually, although I did not personally struggle with reading fluency. I used to tell myself stories out loud in my room, pacing back and forth. For years and years, my mind was constantly spinning stories. I was and still am very much a nose-in-a-book kind of person.