Zia Erases the World: A Talk with Bree Barton
Be honest. How do you feel about book blurbs? Do they make any difference to you at all? I’m in a funny position where there are just SO MANY novels out there begging to be read that I have to set up a kind of triage system. And when considering all the factors that help you to understand what makes a book worth reading, blurbs can play an important role.
The same can be said for the people I interview on this blog. Testimonials from authors I trust often prove invaluable. So when I saw that ZIA ERASES THE WORLD by Bree Barton (a fellow alliterative B-woman) had blurbs from Rebecca Stead, Katherine Applegate, and Tae Keller (that’s right, THREE Newbery Award winners) I thought maybe this might be worth my eyeballs.
Here’s a description:
“For fans of Crenshaw and When You Trap a Tiger comes the extraordinary tale of a headstrong girl and the magical dictionary she hopes will explain the complicated feelings she can’t find the right words for—or erase them altogether.
Zia remembers the exact night the Shadoom arrived. One moment she was laughing with her best friends, and the next a dark room of shadows had crept into her chest. Zia has always loved words, but she can’t find a real one for the fear growing inside her. How can you defeat something if you don’t know its name?
After Zia’s mom announces that her grouchy Greek yiayia is moving into their tiny apartment, the Shadoom seems here to stay. Until Zia discovers an old family heirloom: the C. Scuro Dictionary, 13th Edition.
This is no ordinary dictionary. Hidden within its magical pages is a mysterious blue eraser shaped like an evil eye. When Zia starts to erase words that remind her of the Shadoom, they disappear one by one from the world around her. She finally has the confidence to befriend Alice, the new girl in sixth grade, and to perform at the Story Jamboree. But things quickly dissolve into chaos, as the words she erases turn out to be more vital than Zia knew.
In this raw, funny, and at times heartbreaking middle grade debut, Bree Barton reveals how—with the right kind of help—our darkest moments can nudge us toward the light.”
And I, for one, am very very curious about this book.
Betsy Bird: Bree! I thank you so much for joining me and answering my questions today. As I understand it, ZIA ERASES THE WORLD touches on a number of issues and ideas, including anxiety, isolation, and depression. Can you give us a little of the backstory behind this book? Where did it come from?
Bree Barton: It’s so nice to be here, Betsy! My fellow BB. Thank you for having me.
So, ZIA is definitely a story born of my own blood, sweat, and fears. I experienced my first major depression when I was eleven, and it really felt like language failed me. The other girls in sixth grade were talking about shaving their legs and who liked whom; meanwhile I lay in bed every night, gripped by a nameless terror. Terms like “mental illness” and “mental health” were not in the vernacular then—at least not in Dallas, Texas—so I couldn’t find myself in the narrative. I just felt so broken, harboring this invisible darkness inside me all the time.
That was the origin of the Shadoom, the word Zia invents for the room of shadows in her chest. She, too, doesn’t have a word for what she’s feeling, so she makes up a portmanteau. Only, she calls it a shortmanteau. Like mashing two short men into a tall one. Zia does a lot of that.
Betsy Bird: Many authors have found success in mixing fantastical or surreal imagery with serious subjects like mental illness. When you were working on this book in the beginning, did you always imagine it as having elements like being able to erase words out of existence or was there a moment when the book was purely realistic fiction? How has the book changed since you first started it?
Bree Barton: The book has changed in ways big and small, but the magical dictionary—and its ability to erase words/concepts from existence—was always the lynchpin. In my earliest envisioning, Zia erased the letter A from the world. I thought this was a cool conceit, even if I never could quite wrap my head around how I would physically write chapters without As (there are eleven As in this sentence alone!). But after reading the first few chapters, my agent said she thought Zia—Zita, at the time—was smarter than that. If this thoughtful, sensitive 11-year-old could erase anything in the world, what would it really be? That’s what led me to the holy triumvirate of fear, pain, and sadness. And that paved the way for a more authentic exploration of my own depression. Because what is depression if not an amalgam of those things?
That conversation with my agent occurred precisely twenty days before the 2016 presidential election. As I drafted the first few chapters, I was thinking a great deal about fear, pain, and sadness, and what the world would look like without them. Not gonna lie: at the time, it seemed pretty ideal! But the more I probed and prodded at those feelings, the more I had to challenge my own assumption that they were “bad.” Do they serve a purpose in our lives? If so, what is it?
I love that you asked if there were ever a moment when the book was purely realistic fiction. For me, mental illness is so fantastical, so larger-than-life, that it actually felt truer to write about it with magic than without. At some point, once we’d been out on sub for a while, there was talk of removing the magical element, but I vehemently fought against it. In my personal journey with depression, it is rarely bound by realism, and never plays by the rules—at least not any rules I’ve been given. The C. Scuro Dictionary had to stay.
Betsy Bird: So many kids experience depression or anxiety and don’t have the words to explain what it is that they’re experiencing. Books for children today do such a better job of reaching out to these kids to let them know they’re not alone than they did even twenty years ago. When you write a book like ZIA, do you write for your younger self or do you write for the children that you know are out there today, needing a title like this? Or both?
Bree Barton: I think it’s a little of both. Years ago, someone told me, “Write the book you needed at age eleven.” That is exactly what I’ve tried to do. But I can’t reach back in time and hand this book to scared 11-year-old Bree as she lugs the Shadoom around—at least not until Zia’s magical dictionary becomes a magical time machine. So the book absolutely has to be for kids today.
To that end, I spent a lot of time disentangling my personal story from Zia’s. Anyone who knows me or has heard me talk about my childhood will recognize many autobiographical elements: my hardworking single mom juggling multiple jobs, my early origins as a word nerd, my tubby tabby cat. I even had a bff named J! But I don’t believe authors should write books solely as a form of catharsis (at least maybe not the ones they publish). So with every draft, I tried to expand the story so that it would reach more people, while paradoxically going deeper into mental illness and the devastating hold it can have on a family.
My family has a long history of mental illness. I’m also white, which afforded me plenty of privilege growing up. It was important to me that this book speak to children who might not have that same privilege. I worked hard on the Resources page at the end, partnering with social workers and teachers who could share diverse perspectives on the reality of kids’ lives today. It’s a scary world to navigate as a kid. Global pandemic, structural racism, political turmoil, banned books. No wonder US Surgeon General Dr. Vivek Murthy called the youth mental health crisis “a critical issue.” I am one voice in a much larger conversation, but I want to use that voice to ask: How can I help?
My sincere hope is that this book will function as a mirror. I hope kids who are hurting see pieces of themselves reflected in Zia Angelis or Alice Phan. I want to plant a tiny seed that begins to shift the narrative that they are broken—and gives them tools for how to ask for help.
Betsy Bird: Looking forward to that backmatter you alluded to there. And I love the idea of being able to wipe words entirely out of the public sphere, and all the complications that would ensue if you did. Knowing what you know (and knowing how the book goes) if you could erase one word out of existence, what would you delete? Or would not delete anything at all?
Bree Barton: What a terrific question! Funny you should ask, because this question is the basis for my new podcast that I’m launching in April: Erasing the Word. With my incandescent co-host, Brianna Reed, a teen actor, filmmaker, and writer, I’ve been interviewing kids around the country to hear what one word they would erase out of existence. I am SO excited about this podcast, I can’t even tell you. But this is the first time I’ve had my own question volleyed back at me!
While writing Zia, I thought of countless words I would erase with the C. Scuro Dictionary. I mean let’s start with the isms—racism, ableism, sexism—and the phobias: homophobia, Islamophobia, xenophobia, transphobia. The list goes on. While we’re at it, let’s add: pandemic. At one point during revisions, I actually said to my editor, “I have to rewrite the whole book. Why wouldn’t Zia just erase COVID-19?!”
Of course in the real world, erasures don’t come so easily. I think I might ultimately do what Zia does toward the end of the book, which is REDACTED. Guess you’ll just have to read and see.
(Did I successfully sidestep the question? I’m tricky that way!)
Betsy Bird: Sidestep accomplished! But here’s the flipside of that question: Lots of words exist in other languages and don’t appear in English. If you could add one word, what would it be?
Bree Barton: Oooh, I love it. After college I lived in Italy and was semi-fluent in Italian for a while, so I’m going to give you a slang word that really has no English translation. It’s just three letters: Boh! Pronounced similarly to “bow” in English, though you purse your lips more. Technically it means “I don’t know” or “who knows?” But it’s got loads more attitude than that. Italians often say it with a little shrug or dip of the head that conveys something along the lines of: “I don’t know, no one knows, why are you even asking me this? It’s a waste of time and I have better things to do while I’m alive on this planet like eat pistachio gelato or ride a vespa through Napoli in the shadow of an ancient volcano. Go bother someone else.” Boh. Try it, it’s fun! The Italians truly know how to pack a punch in their inflections and the way they say something. Next time someone asks you a question you don’t know the answer to and feel mildly irritated to be asked, I highly recommend Boh!
Betsy Bird: Boh! You’re right. That does feel good. Was there ever anything you wanted to include that simply didn’t make it into the final book?
Bree Barton: In early drafts, the plot was bigger, more external. As Zia erased words, we saw the fabric of the world unraveling beyond just her small corner of it. On a structural level, that meant a lot more media footage and intrusions from the outside. But as the book became more explicitly about depression, it felt right to tell an honest, intimate family story about Zia, her mom, her yiayia, and the secrets binding them together.
Even so, I do feel nostalgic for some of the sweeping set pieces that were part of prior drafts. Like the scene where Zia and Yiayia go to the hospital and find hundreds of patients walking out the front doors, even those with terminal illnesses—because they no longer feel any pain. It’s very chilling and apocalyptic. And perhaps a touch too dark for MG!
Also there used to be a mysterious, mischievous white-haired lady who kept popping up on Zia’s front stoop in a porkpie hat. She was the original purveyor of the C. Scuro Dictionary, and she spoke in riddles, which made her fun to write. Ultimately I cut the character so I could delve deeper into the nuanced family dynamics between the three generations of Angelis women, which in turn let me explore mental illness (and the way we cope with it) as a kind of inheritance. It was the right decision, though sometimes I do miss Mysterious Mrs. Porkpie.
Betsy Bird: Finally, what are you working on next?
Bree Barton: I’ve got another fun fantastical middle grade cooking: 12-year-old Delores DiFazio is reeling when her famous sci-fi author dad walks out on her and her mom. But actually, her dad jumped to an alternate universe—and found a better version of Delores and her mom. Del must travel through the multiverse, confronting various doppelgängers both friend and foe, to discover the truth about her family and find her true self. Get ready for:
- more magic
- more hijinks
- some chapters told in multiple choice!
Betsy Bird: What!?! How can you tease me with such an amazing premise? I want that now too!
Man. That’s a killer of a way to end an interview. All right, folks. As you might imagine, I have to thank Nicole Banholzer for setting this up and, naturally, Bree too for answering my questions in such magnificent depth. You can read ZIA ERASES THE WORLD on April 26th, in stores everywhere good books are sold.
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