Naomi Milliner

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Courage and Kindness in CALEB AND KIT

I admit it. I saw Erwin Madrid’s exquisite cover for CALEB AND KIT, and couldn’t stop looking at it. Then I opened the book – and couldn’t stop reading it.CALEB AND KIT

Beth Vrabel has done a remarkable thing: created a story about a 12-year-old boy living with cystic fibrosis, without letting his disease take over the story. She depicts what it’s like to live with it (both for Caleb and for his family), with such grace, finesse and restraint that we see past his challenges and see him for the amazing child he is. One of my favorite things about the book is Caleb’s love of heroes – especially his favorite, Captain America.

This exchange comes near the end of the book:

Shelly (a girl his age): Why do you like Captain America so much?

Caleb: Because he was born sick and weak, but became strong.

Shelly: No, he was born strong. His body was weak.

To me, this powerful distinction epitomizes Beth’s book. Both it, and Caleb, will stay with me for a long time.

Apparently, I’m not the only one. CALEB AND KIT has been selected as:

Bank Street Best Children’s Books of the Year (2018)
A VOYA Top Shelf Fiction for Middle School Readers 2017 Selection
Finalist for the 2017 Cybil Awards, (Middle Grade Fiction)
Diverse Books Club pick (February 2018)

And here are a few of the many soaring reviews:

“…Caleb is an exquisitely imperfect protagonist… reminiscent of Katherine Paterson’s classic Bridge to Terabithia… Hand to readers looking for a novel about both the magic and the pain of friendship. ― School Library Journal

“A realistic story with strong, recognizable characters that doesn’t reduce cystic fibrosis to a tragedy.” ― Kirkus Reviews

“Filled with smart, witty, and magical writing, Kit and Caleb, and those around them, come to vibrant life in this heartbreaking story about the ties that bring people together, and the difficulties of facing the truth.”― Booklist

“A compelling story of two struggling kids making their own safe haven.” ―Bulletin of the Center for Children’s Books

“A can’t-put-it-down tale… From the beautiful cover to the last sentence, this book is a favorite to savor and share.”―Bibi Belford, author of Canned and Crushed

“Having a disability myself, my heart broke for Caleb who wants nothing more than to feel like a normal twelve-year-old kid – at any cost.”―Kerry O’Malley Cerra, author of Just a Drop of Water

“…Caleb’s heroism is the real deal. He’s determined, courageous, and witty despite his unusual physical challenges… Readers young and old will find this a unique novel well-deserving of a permanent place on the family bookshelf.” ―Melissa Hart, author of Avenging the Owl

beth vrabelI hope you read this interview with Beth, then treat yourself to CALEB AND KIT, a book as beautiful on the inside as it is on the outside. After that, be sure to check out Beth’s latest book, SUPER DORKS, which just happens to come out TODAY (also known as May 8th, 2018)!

What – or who – was the inspiration behind this story?

I wanted to write a story about friendship, particularly when they have to end.

Ending friendships is painful and confusing, and something we struggle with throughout our lives and relationships. I still carry guilt for how I pushed a friend out of my life when I was twelve. I’ve discovered writing is a way to sort out my emotions—plus it’s the closest thing to a redo there is.

CALEB AND KIT also is a story about information and our access to it. Caleb lives with cystic fibrosis, and this chronic, fatal illness affects every aspect of his life. Caleb understands that, he knows what it means to have CF, why he needs to be cautious with his health, and how important it is to keep up with his treatments. The truth is painful and harsh, but knowing it makes him strong. He’s educated and informed.

Then there’s Kit. She’s surviving on fairy tales given to her by her grandmother as explanations for her mom’s neglect. Only now Grandma has passed away, and the stories aren’t enough to keep her safe.

Could you tell us about your research? How long did it take? How did you find people to share their stories with you?

The research aspect of CALEB AND KIT was without a doubt the longest, hardest aspect of writing this book. I did months of research, of story crafting and character building. By the time I actually sat down to write, Caleb was practically screaming to tell his story.

As the mom of a child who lives with a little-understood disability (my daughter has albinism/visual impairment), I’m extremely cognizant of how misrepresentation can be even more damaging than a lack of representation. I had to get this right, particularly with regards to cystic fibrosis.

I read every article I could find, scoured the Cystic Fibrosis Foundation’s website, watched countless YouTube testimonials from young people who live with CF. But to really understand CF, I had to connect with people who live with it every moment of every day. I put out a call on social media, asking if anyone in the CF community would be willing to answer questions.

That’s amazing!

William Marler, an award-winning filmmaker and artist, wrote back right away. He answered every question I had and also shared a movie he had created called Pep Mask. It so beautifully captures the nightly ritual of breathing treatments while weaving in a deeper understanding of just how important this seemingly routine act is not only to him but to his parents. He and I quickly became friends, and I’m forever grateful to CALEB AND KIT for that friendship.

I also heard from Charlee Munn, a British mom, and her son, Jack, who has CF. They provided incredible insight and also are now my friends.

Maybe most surprisingly, I heard from a friend in my hometown. Here was someone with whom I spent countless hours at the playground as our children played, and I had no idea her son also lived with CF.

I find this is often the case – when we reach out to people, we discover all sorts of unexpected, and powerful connections.

The insight they provided was immeasurable. Those conversations also are behind little things, such as how even a vase of flowers could be a problem or how CF patients would be separated in a waiting room, that added authenticity to Caleb’s story.

More importantly, it helped me move beyond the scary statistics surrounding CF and instead see the people who manage it with full and happy lives.

I think it’s really helpful for readers unfamiliar with CF to learn these things, to raise awareness.

“I wanted to be like Kit, to see stories everywhere… to make up a new world, one where I wasn’t sick and she was magic.”

Where did Kit – who Caleb describes as “shiny and brave, like a balloon just before bursting” – come from?

Oh, sweet Kit.

She’s created a world of her own, where she can become friends with birds. Where fairies watch over her as their princess. Where righting a wrong is as simple as offering a ring of dandelions.

I think there’s a little bit of Kit in all of us. When the truth is unbearable, part of us yearns for it all to be out of our hands, the work of magic to which we might someday escape.

Beautifully put – and poignant.

How much of Caleb is based on real children you met/spoke with, and how much is from your own imagination?

I spend a lot of time around children, but I think Caleb is a total work of imagination. That being said, of course he’s also got a lot of me in him, too. I remember thinking I had everything figured out as a kid, only to later realize now how myopic my perspective had been.

I suspect many of us can relate to that!

What was the most challenging aspect of this book?

The hardest part was ensuring that I wasn’t writing a book about chronic illness, but instead a book about a kid who happens to live with chronic illness. Here’s something I tell my children a lot: Everyone has a story, just like everybody faces challenges; but our stories are so much more than our challenges.

Beth, I love this so much!

What was the most rewarding?

My understanding of what it means to a have full life has forever changed. In one of our first email exchanges, I asked Will what he wishes more people understood about CF. He wrote: “I want people to be aware that CF is not the end of a long life, it’s only the start of one. …CF has taught me that if things are difficult to achieve, they are only more worth achieving.”

Such an important message, both for people struggling with CF, and people who meet/know/love them.

Were there any surprises along the way?

Yes! The ending was a surprise. I wasn’t sure how it was going to end until I wrote the last chapter, which never happens for me! Usually I know the ending before I’ve figured out the beginning.

I did have a mental picture—a boy standing on a sun-drenched rock—but I didn’t know what he would be saying or who would be with him until I got there, too.

That’s really interesting… and conveniently leads to my next question!

We spoke about 1st versus 3rd person for this book – could you please share the reasons you wrote in each, and why you ultimately chose first person?

Sure! I wrote the first chapter of CALEB AND KIT before I truly launched into researching cystic fibrosis—this was what my agent used to pitch the project. It was in first person, seen through Caleb’s eyes. I then put the book aside while I researched.

What I learned about this disease broke my heart—the statistics about shortened life expectancy, the overwhelming cost of medications, the pain these kids shoulder.

About this time, I started to think about putting the story in third person. I didn’t think of it as being connected to the research—I told myself it was me looking for a different way of telling the story.

I floated the idea of switching to third person to my friend Cecy Robson. Also a writer, Cecy saw through me, saw that what I really wanted was a barrier to Caleb, and told me to knock it off. If it hurts, if it’s hard, it’s important, she said. And, of course, she was right.

All writers need a friend like Cecy!

I leaned into the research, but I also was mindful to craft other aspects of Caleb’s life—his love for superheroes, his jealousy over his perfect brother, his yearning for independence, his physical awkwardness and his incredibly compassionate heart.

Soon I stopped seeing CF and instead just saw Caleb, a boy who happens to have CF. And Caleb wanted to tell his story himself.

Yes, this is exactly what I love most about your wonderful book!

What advice do you have for aspiring authors?

Our pastor has this saying: “Be the kind of person who sees the oak tree in an acorn.” Story acorns are all around us. But for them to truly sprout, they need to stretch deep as well as grow upright. They need roots. As writers, our experiences provide all the fertile ground for our stories—that’s what’s going to give them strength and nourishment. Be willing to root your stories in your own truth.

Excellent advice! 

Could you please tell us about your next book?

I have two books releasing this year!Pack of Dorks

SUPER DORKS, the third in the PACK OF DORKS series, hits shelves May 8. The series is about a group of misfits and nerds who recognize the hierarchy of middle school and opt to band together in a pack of their own, even if it is a pack of dorks. SUPER DORKS features an accidental goat napping, a devastating injury, an epic martial arts takedown, a middle school election, a human turtle and even a geriatric wedding.

In October, look for THE RECKLESS CLUB. This is about a Nobody, an Athlete, a Flirt, a Drama Queen and a Rebel who have to spend the last summer day before their freshman year volunteering in a nursing home in lieu of detention. All the action takes place in the course of this one day as the five kids move beyond their labels to reveal what they’ve done, why they did it, and what they’re going to do now.

Can’t wait to read them! I’m going to add them to my TBR list right now! Beth, thank you so much for taking time to answer these questions. Both you, and your book, are truly beautiful.

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