‘Some kids do climb steeper hills’–Barbara Dee, on Halfway Normal

I had a real treat the other day, reading American author Barbara Dee’s terrific novel for tween readers, Halfway Normal (2018). It’s about Nora, a middle-school kid who’s had some time out because she’s been very ill, suffering from leukemia. Returning to school, she wants above all to be normal, and for no one to know, or talk about, what she’s been going through. As she gets back into the swing of things, she discovers that’s not entirely possible, but gradually life sorts itself out around her, and she sorts herself out too, with help from her family and friends, and from her love of mythology. That’s my main reason of course for reading this book, though I do love a good coming-of-age novel. Nora’s a fan of the D’Aulaires, the European-American writers and illustrators of myth, whose collection D’Aulaire’s Greek Myths is a classic in American children’s literature. Nora finds parallels between her own experience in the ‘underworld’ of illness and recovery, and that of Persephone, the (teenage) goddess of the Spring, whose abduction by Hades, and whose life thereafter, half in the shade, and half in the light, symbolises the seasons.

Halfway Normal, by Barbara Dee; cover image by Jenna Stempel

In an interview, for the Barnes and Noble bookseller, Barbara discusses the book in terms of illness and recovery. She comments:

I’m hoping this book is both a mirror and a window—a window into the life of a kid facing (and overcoming) a serious challenge, and a mirror for kids who feel different for any reason. I recently did a workshop in which a kid announced, “No one feels normal in middle school.” I’m absolutely convinced that’s true. But I also think kids need to know that some kids do climb steeper hills.

The Challenges of Returning to Middle School as a Cancer Survivor: An Interview with Halfway Normal Author Barbara Dee (Bianca Turetsky; https://www.barnesandnoble.com/blog/kids/interview-barbara-dee/)

What does it mean to be, or feel, normal, when one’s normality has changed so much? How does one climb out of Hades when one has ingested its fruit? Dee’s use of mythology gives profound resonance to this lovely story, one that is likely to help all sorts of kids thinking about all sorts of challenges. Halfway Normal is a terrific novel: sensitive and thoughtful, funny and sweet. I wished I’d had Barbara Dee books to read when I was a kid, and I felt privileged to be able to write to her professionally, to interview her on her thoughts about mythology and its connection to children’s literature.

On with the interview!–Elizabeth Hale

What drew you to working with Classical Mythology in Halfway Normal?

As I considered the “halfway” quality of life after cancer, when you’re no longer ill but also not quite well, it led me to thinking about Persephone returning to earth. Even when she was back to her regular life, she couldn’t (or wouldn’t) let go of her experience in the Underworld–despite Demeter’s best efforts. The myth just seemed like the perfect metaphor for the “halfway” nature of what doctors call “re-entry.”

I was struck that D’Aulaire’s Greek Myths is the collection that Norah refers to. What led you to focusing on that particular collection?

It was the book I shared with my three kids when they were little. Beautiful retellings of the myths, ethereally illustrated.

The parallels between Norah’s journey into illness and out again and Persephone’s journey into and out of the Underworld are very striking, and indeed moving. What challenges did you face in drawing on that myth, and how did you overcome them?

The biggest challenge was accounting for Persephone eating the pomegranate seeds. If the myth is a way to account for life-threatening illness, how do you explain Persephone’s willingness to eat the food of the dead, and return to the “underworld” of disease? It’s not as if Persephone initially visited the Underworld by choice, so why would she choose to return after she was rescued? What I realized is that the myth is about wanting to validate all of one’s experience–the good and the bad. Norah’s parents, some adults at her school, and several friends and classmates keep trying to get Norah to move past her cancer, act like “it’s all behind her.” But that cruel and unfair descent into illness is part of who she is now, so she wants it to be present in her life on earth, even as she moves forward. As she says in her speech at the end: “The underworld is real. It’s not like it goes away just because you’re back on earth. It’s always there, part of the whole big universe. And now I knew that.” Through no fault of her own Norah, like Persephone, has had a brutal experience that stole her innocence, but also exposed her to darker truths others can’t comprehend.

Do you have a background in Classics (Latin or Greek at school, or classes at University?) What sources did you draw on? Are there any books (besides the D’Aulaires) that made an impact on you in this respect?

I was an English literature major in college, but I also read Ancient Egyptian and Mesoamerican myths for pleasure.

We usually ask ‘Did you think about how Classical Antiquity would translate for young readers,’ but it seems to me that you handled this very carefully in presenting the myths through Norah’s interest and Ms Farrell’s classroom discussions. How did you strike the balance between inspiration and education?

It’s always tricky to present material for a young audience that may not have had prior exposure. You never want to be didactic, or you’ll lose them, but you can’t assume they’ll follow along without some explanation or context-setting. I had a similar challenge with Star-Crossed (2017), which relied heavily on Romeo & Juliet. But working with D’Aulaires, I didn’t have to explain (or translate) Shakespeare’s language, as I needed to do with Star-Crossed. One of the pleasures of working with myths is that they’re often written very simply.

Many writers present the Persephone myth as expressing a teenager’s desire to experience things her mother would rather she not think about just yet (love, sexuality, independence), and present Hades as an alluring shy-guy. I’m wondering what you think Norah would make of that interpretation? Did you think about the different aspects of the myth as you worked on presenting it to young readers?

Once many years ago I heard a child psychologist describing a particular boy’s journey into the remote, moody world of adolescence as a version of the Persephone myth, so I think I probably had that description percolating somewhere in my mind. It’s such a resonant myth, isn’t it? Every kid who grows up and separates from a parent is Persephone, and every anxious, loving parent desperate to reconnect is Demeter.

Are you planning any further forays into Classical material?

Not at the moment, but the myths are always there, waiting to be rediscovered.

Thank you!

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