Q&A with Nicole Melleby, Author of “How to Become a Planet,” “In the Role of Brie Hutchens…” and “Hurricane Season”

Shattering Stigmas is BACK. 2021 has been a trying year and it’s been my goal to bring Shattering Stigmas back in some form throughout the year instead of keeping it as a two week event that only happens once a year in October. I hope to use this space on my website as a place to host bloggers, friends and authors to talk about mental health openly, discuss craft with other writers and push the conversation past awareness into conversations around advocacy and accessibility. We’re kicking off this expanded version of Shattering Stigmas with an interview with my friend and middle grade extraordinaire, Nicole Melleby.

I met Nicole in May 2019 just as I was beginning to think about how to expand my commitment to discussing mental health online and elsewhere. I loved their debut, Hurricane Season, and over the past six months or so, Nicole has become a true friend. They’re the kind of fellow writing friend that pushes you to do better craft-wise. They are a true role model in how to approach writing for kids in the middle grade space. And they are absolutely killing it with regards to writing diverse fiction about queerness, mental illness and the intersections of both in middle grade. Nicole is a Shattering Stigmas veteran, and I’m so appreciative they continued the conversation with me. Their next middle grade novel,
How to Become a Planet, is out from Algonquin on May 25, 2021. You should order a signed copy and go to their virtual launch from The Curious Reader in Glen Rock, NJ. Admission, which can be purchased here, includes a donation to The Essex County LGBT RAIN Foundation. You can also find information about all of Nicole’s books on their website here.

Taylor Tracy: HOW TO BECOME A PLANET subtly looks at the difference in mental health and mental illness for queer kids even as they’re just beginning to explore their identity. Can you talk a bit about how you crafted the intersection of Pluto’s queerness and her depression and anxiety?

Nicole Melleby: When I sat down to write PLANET, I knew I wanted to show what happens after the diagnosis, which is where the story starts. I wanted to let Pluto explore what it meant for her, now that she has this diagnosis, moving forward. How does it change her? Does it change her? What does it all mean? Getting a diagnosis isn’t the end for Pluto—it’s a new beginning, like it ends up being for a lot of kids (and adults) struggling with mental illness. And once I knew that was where I was writing from, and I knew that Pluto was going to be queer and develop a crush on her new friend, I knew I had to address how that impacts her depression, too. So, I make a point in the manuscript to say, look, here are the statistics for queer kids with depression, and here are the statistics for how many of them end up committing suicide, too. There’s an overlap there that I thought would be irresponsible not to address. Pluto isn’t depressed because she’s queer, but those two parts of her aren’t mutually exclusive, either.

Taylor Tracy: Fallon is one of my favorite characters that you’ve ever written and it was so excited to see you delve into writing a genderqueer character. Can you discuss how Fallon came to be in the story as well as Pluto’s and Pluto’s mom’s roles in helping Fallon’s gender identity journey?

Nicole Melleby: Fallon was one of my favorite characters to write, too. She’s nonbinary, but very, very early stages in her exploration of that. So, while I think in the future Fallon would go by they/them, for now, she’s still trying to decide what feels right for her—and what it all means for who she is. And I think there’s a lot of overlap there, too, when it comes to Pluto’s journey to understand who she is, too, with her depression diagnosis. Both Pluto and Fallon didn’t wake up one day and go, “Oh, I’m depressed” or “Oh, I’m nonbinary”, but at the same time they’re both coming into their own with how they can be themselves moving forward. For Fallon, this means making changes. One of my favorite scenes is when Pluto cuts Fallon’s hair for her, and Pluto’s mom walks in on them in progress. Afterwards, Pluto’s mom is like “They’re going to have to cut her hair real short now because of this!” And Pluto just smiles real big and her mom realizes “Oh my God, that was your plan all along.”

Their journeys aren’t the same, though, which I thought was important to show, too. Fallon has a checklist, and when she does everything on it, she’ll feel more comfortable in her skin. Pluto has a checklist, too, but Pluto has to learn that she can’t go backwards to who she thought she was before her depression—she has to learn how to understand that she’s still that same person she always was, just with a new understanding of what that means, now. Ultimately, though, I think pairing the two of them up felt natural. They’re both eager to understand who they are, and they both offer support to the other because of that shared understanding.

Taylor Tracy: Something I love about HOW TO BECOME A PLANET is that you deftly touch upon the topic of mental healthcare and class, which is something Pluto is fairly aware of. Can you discuss a bit how you came to weave in the threads of financial precarity and Pluto’s parent’s relationship in the book?

Nicole Melleby: I’m no stranger to the struggles of crappy health insurance and what that means, so I knew if I was going to write about this small, single parent household, where their financial source is this little pizzeria they own on the boardwalk, I knew I’d have to, and wanted to, address what that meant for Pluto’s healthcare. Healthcare is, frankly, expensive as all hell. Pluto has therapists, psychiatrists, a tutor, medication, all as a result of her depression diagnosis. That’s going to add up, and it’s going to be a huge struggle for her mom. Pluto is aware of this, regardless of how much her mom tries to keep that part of it away from Pluto. And, since Pluto’s dad lives in the city, with a better paying job, and access to more resources because of his location, he kind of leverages that. And as much as Pluto’s mom wants to fight against the idea of sending her daughter to live with her dad, she’s also very much aware of the fact that it really might be best for Pluto. So it’s this really sad situation for Pluto’s mom, who only wants to do the best for her kid, but struggles to do that.

Taylor Tracy: Just curious in terms of the trajectory of your books, what are your short and long-term goals with writing different facets of queerness and mental health in middle grade? Like, where do you want the Nicole Melleby Middle Grade Universe to be in 5 to 10 years?

Nicole Melleby: My plans really are to just keep at it, really! My next book is called The Science of Being Angry, out spring 2022. It’s about an 11-year-old girl named Joey who has anger issues she’s trying to understand. She throws temper tantrums and sometimes gets violent and gets in trouble a lot in school and at home because of it. She’s a triplet, and her brothers never get angry like she does, and neither does her mama, the one of her moms she shares DNA with. In her search to figure out why she is the way she is, she and her best friend (and crush) end up turning to 23-and-Me to try and find out information on the sperm donor her moms used to conceive the triplets. It’s a messy story about family, as Joey tries to fix things so that her mom (the one she doesn’t share DNA with) will love her anyway, and Joey won’t keep hurting the people she loves most, either.

At this rate, because I set my stories in the same area of central Jersey, I could probably write a story with all of my main characters interacting in the same group therapy program.

Taylor Tracy: What topics would you love to see explored more in middle grade fiction (or non-fiction!) about mental health? What do you think could be done better or differently in the middle grade space to tackle the stigma against mental illness?

Nicole Melleby: I want to see more and more stories where the main character, the 11, 12, 13 year olds, are the ones struggling with their mental health. We’re starting to see more, but the majority of middle grade books about mental illness tend to skew towards a loved on or family member of the main character being the one struggling with their mental health, and the main character struggling with that. It’s what I tackled in Hurricane Season: Fig’s desperation to understand her dad and the way his mind works, all the while making a point to show that her dad’s mental illness didn’t make him any less of a great father, didn’t make his love for Fig any less, either. And those stories are important, but I think, particularly now post-pandemic, we’re seeing kids struggle with these issues, too.

Mental illness seems to be viewed as such an adult issue still, and it’s not. It’s just as much a child issue, and I’d love for publishing to make room for more and more of these stories in the middle grade space.

And, let these characters, let these kids, be messy and make mistakes and struggle and be the “bad kid” and not let representation of mental health be “clean and neat”. Be honest about what mental illness looks like.

Taylor Tracy: What are some of your recent or upcoming favorite middle grade reads about mental health?

Nicole Melleby: Thanks A Lot, Universe by Chad Lucas and Finding Junie Kim by Ellen Oh are two that everyone should have on their radar this year.

Taylor Tracy: What writing advice do you have for tween readers who see themselves in your books and want to write their own stories about queerness and mental health?

Nicole Melleby: Do it! Write your truth, be honest, be hopeful. Don’t hold back. Trust yourself, and trust your story. And, to my tween readers, just to reiterate: mental illness is often seen as an “adult issue” and that’s just not true. There are many, many kids who struggle with depression and anxiety and other mental illnesses. You’re not alone if that includes you.

And, because I can’t help myself, some actual craft advice: You don’t have to write every day—I see so many writers wracked with guilt over how much or how little they write day-to-day, and it’s hard! Write how much you want to write, how much you need to write. You decide what those answers are.

Also, and I’m pretty sure I said this the last time I was interviewed for Shattering Stigma (so you know I totally do this!): If you’re facing a rejection? I find it best to sing this ridiculous song, because it’s so ridiculous it makes me feel better every single time I have sung it to myself (which has been often, because rejection is part of being a writer!): Nobody loves me, everybody hates me, I should just go eat worms. Worms! Worms! Worms!

Taylor Tracy: Finally! You’re venturing into the picture book space with SUNNY & OSWALDO, a book that touches upon mental health issues for an even younger audience? Can you discuss that shift and writing experience, and how it differed from writing about these issues for a middle grade audience?

Nicole Melleby: It’s funny, because I feel like I approach the subject of depression for the picture book audience the same way I do for my middle grade one: as honestly as possible. I don’t talk down to my middle grade audience, and I won’t talk down to my picture book audience, either. The biggest difference, of course, is that while in middle grade I basically write “This is Pluto, she has depression”, for the picture book I tell the story by way of a girl, her dad, his missing cat (that Sunny hates), and a handful of metaphors.

Though, I suppose, Pluto has plenty of space-related metaphors, too. 

Nicole Melleby, a born-and-bread Jersey girl, is an award winning children’s author. Her middle grade books have been Junior Library Guild Gold Standard selections, recipient of the Skipping Stones Honor Award, and a 2020 Kirkus Reviews best book of the year. Her debut novel, Hurricane Season, was a Lambda Literary finalist. She lives with her wife and their cat, whose need for attention oddly aligns with Nicole’s writing schedule.. Feel free to follow her on Twitter @LadyNeeko.

Buy Hurricane Season
Buy In the Role of Brie Hutchens…
Buy How to Become a Planet

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