Kacen Callender is the author of multiple novels for children, teens and adults, including King and the Dragonflies, winner of a National Book Award, a Coretta Scott King Honor and a Lambda Literary Award; Hurricane Child, winner of a Stonewall Book Award and a Lambda Literary Award; and the bestselling novel Felix Ever After. Here Callender discusses their upcoming middle-grade title Moonflower (Scholastic, September 6), why kids should learn about hard truths and how communities can take steps toward collective healing.
Moon is a 12-year-old Black nonbinary child with depression. An important part of their identity is their chosen name. How did you settle on Moon?
I'd never considered another name for Moon--the moon's symbolism of being a part of night and feeling very symbolic of spirituality, but still appearing during the day as well, and being a part of two worlds at once, felt perfect for them.
Moon writes a story in a journal and their entries are included in the novel. Did you keep a journal or write stories when you were 12?
Yes, I did both--this was around the age I first discovered my love of writing.
Moon also desperately wishes to leave the world of the living. Your story alternates between Moon's existence in the spirit realm and the world of the living, and the two worlds sometimes thread together in Moon's mind. Was there a reason you wanted to tell this story in this format?
For me (and for Moon), the spirit realm and the world of the living are so closely integrated that they're the same. The structure of going back and forth, and purposefully choosing to begin in the spirit world first when in Moon's perspective, was to show that they feel more a part of the spiritual world than the physical, because they don't want to be in the physical world anymore.
When Moon refers to the "real" world as "your world," it felt to me like the narrator was speaking directly to the reader. What did you want their verbal separation from "our" world to say about them?
Moon's separation of "your world" was to show that they don't feel a part of the world of the living--they feel more closely connected to the spirit realm. At the end of the book, when they finally say "our world" instead, they have accepted their life in the physical realm, and are excited by their life.
In a letter to readers, you refer to your own journey as a person living with depression. Was that part of your inspiration for the character? What was it like to write a book in which you share such a personal experience with your protagonist?
Yes, this was my inspiration for Moon's story--knowing that there are young people who have and still do feel the same depression and wanting to write a story for them and my younger self, was my motivation. Every book I write shares personal experiences with my main characters, since I'm usually pulling from my own experiences, wounds and lessons I've learned to create my stories.
Many adults in Moon's life make assumptions about how Moon must be feeling or what they must be thinking. Is there anything you wish more adults knew about young people living with depression or suicidal ideation?
I wish people in general would be more open to the realization that, just because one person has not experienced life a certain way, doesn't mean it's impossible or invalid for others to have had those experiences. Just because a person might not have grown up with depression when they were young, doesn't mean it's impossible for another child to have done so. Adults often dismiss children who struggle with depression or suicidal ideation. It can be traumatizing to a child to not have needs met and not be seen and heard. Validating each other's experiences and really hearing with empathy and curiosity, instead of dismissing those emotions because they are not what we have personally experienced or because we're uncomfortable with those emotions, feels like a strong step to collective healing.
After "a disease spread and there were protests in the streets," Moon attends school in a pod of three other students, and their instructor teaches virtually. Did you approach this book knowing you wanted to incorporate elements of the Covid-19 pandemic?
I began writing the book in 2020 in the beginning of the pandemic while not knowing what the future would look like, so I decided to imagine what that future could be. By the time I got to edits for Moonflower, there were more conversations about ending quarantine, but I decided to keep my imagination for what the future might look like to mark the uncertainty of the time and young people's anxiety about the future.
Moon's mom wants to shield Moon from current events about Black people being killed and incarcerated, and transgender and nonbinary people being discriminated against. Moon thinks that "adults like to pretend I can't see the truth... so they won't have to talk about how hard the world is." Is it important to you to include hard truths in books for young readers?
It's important because young readers like Moon are already accessing and experiencing so many difficult truths. Protecting young readers, and what that protection looks like, can be a form of privilege. Not every young Black transgender reader has the privilege of not experiencing violence against Black transgender people. The knee-jerk reaction of wanting to hide this from children I think again has more to do with the emotions of the adults that want to do the protecting, than the emotional safety of the child and helping them live in a world that can be violent towards them.
If you had read Moonflower as a child, do you think it would have changed anything for you?
I can't say if anything would have changed. I think I would have felt more validated and less alone knowing that others have and do feel the same way. And I would have been comforted by the spirit realm and the feeling that I chose to come to the world of the living--knowing that for every pain I experience, I will experience even more joy.--Kieran Slattery