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  • Beth Delany

Q&A with: Jasmine Warga

Children's book author Jasmine Warga tackles gun violence and mental health

While the topics of gun violence and mental health can be challenging to discuss, even for society's most mature audiences, author and mother Jasmine Warga takes young readers on an important journey that's relatable, engaging and empathetic.

The Shape of Thunder is Warga's second elementary-level novel and it's on stands today. The Chicagoan and Newbery Honor-winning author's book beautifully captures the hardship of one of America's most distressing topics -- school shootings. By underlining the impact of friendship, loss and healing, our country's most impressionable readers will find comfort in a shared voice. Characters Cora and Quinn, at just 12-years-old, teach lessons of love when traveling back in time to uncover the unspoken aftermath of grief and violence. The Shape of Thunder's ability to demonstrate grace through tragedy is a lesson that can transcend generations, which is Warga's greatest hope for her work.

Here, Warga accounts for her writing process, the agenda-driven news cycle and the resilience of young Americans.

You're a beautiful writer. How did you decide to share these difficult topics with younger audiences? I have always wanted to be a writer. I was a really shy kid, but I lit up when [sharing stories]. When I was a junior in college, I was feeling mopey in the way that one does at that age when you don't really know what to do with your life and you can feel the real world coming towards you. I was in the library and stumbled into the section of the library that held classic children's literature and I started pulling off the shelf all these books that I loved as a kid and I remembered what a voracious reader I was when I was younger and how much I loved those books. And it kind of hit me that maybe this is the kind of writing I want to do. I said I wanted to be a writer, but I wasn't writing anything. And then right after college, my first job was teaching sixth grade science and I think the combination of those [experiences] planted the seeds. The books we read when we were younger really shape us. They live inside of us and raise us. I think the power books can have on young people feeling seen and feeling empowered is just amazing.

Why did you write Shape of Thunder when you did? This book was born out of my own parental anxiety. I was thinking about how I would talk to my daughter about school shootings because I became aware that she would eventually have active shooter drills like so many schools across America now do. And I realized that I didn't know what I would tell her -- I didn't have the language. I started wondering about why the world is the way it is and about how we've kind of thrust[ed] this issue of [gun violence] onto our kids. The book was born out of wondering what it means to grow up in a world where [school shootings] happen and the responsibility our kids feel to fix the problem and that shouldn't be theirs [to fix].

How did you find the language? Kids are really bright and they're really intelligent. They can tackle really difficult things and they can have opinions. I think [kids] are hungry for books to reflect the world that they live in and challenge them in that way. When books challenge kids, I think they empower kids because they're saying, "I trust you as an intelligent person who has thoughts and observes your own world." But you also want to be aware that you're writing for younger audiences so it's not about sensationalizing and not being graphic in descriptions of violence. It's all about writing in a way that's going to make your reader feel comfortable and want to engage with the subject. I've never tried to scare or scandalize kids. I personally believe I'm not writing books that have material in them that kids aren't already aware of. It's more of a chance to say, "Hey, does this bother you too?" or "Do you wonder about this too? and provide that forum for them to meditate on these issues that they're already aware of. I can write books about really tough things, but I want my readers to feel empowered and that they could change the world for the better.

Have you found that parents and educators are hungry for these books or are they hesitant? Of course I sometimes get letters from aggravated parents or educators who think that children shouldn't be thinking about [difficult topics] like race or the refugee crisis, but that is a drop compared to the ocean of reception and I love that I get. Our educators and librarians are amazing and they believe and know that their students are incredible and can handle tough topics. There's an amount of discomfort obviously, but they understand that too. At points of time in literature, it's right to feel unsettled. I really appreciate all the educators and librarians who go to bat for these more difficult books, because I know it's not always easy.

Why should adults join their children and students in reading this story? My dream for this book would be that it's a book that parents read alongside their kids, or teachers read with their class. I hope it creates that intergenerational dialogue, because I think there is a gap sometimes [because] we don't want to accept as a country how much [gun violence] is affecting our kids. It's easier for some of us to bury our heads in the sand about how much trauma our kids are carrying. But, I wore this book for kids and I hope it speaks to them and serves them. I take the responsibility of being a writer for young people very seriously.


The Shape of Thunder is available now wherever books are sold.

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