Greetings from Witness Protection, Jake Burt’s debut middle grade novel, walks the line between funny and poignant so perfectly, I couldn’t put it down. That same light touch shines in his second novel for middle grader readers, The Right Hook of Devin Velma. In this story of friendship, anxiety, families and basketball, Burt creates characters who struggle with some of the harsher aspects of modern American life and yet come out stronger for the experience.
You use basketball in a number of ways in Devin Velma yet it doesn’t feel like a ‘sports’ book to me. Was it difficult to get the balance right? (And are you a fan? Do you play? Who is your favorite team?)
Basketball has been a passion of mine since I was a kid. My dad coached, both my brothers played, and we’d get some downright vicious games going in the backyard. I’ve never been particularly good at it (my claim to basketball fame is averaging seven points, seven rebounds, and seven assists a game as the starting point guard for the B-team at the University of Aberdeen in Aberdeen, Scotland, in 1998), but it has always been a part of who I am. I think that’s where the balance comes from in the book – Addi is a basketball player, but he’s pretty much got that figured out. I wanted to focus on the parts of his life that vexed him. The basketball (hopefully) gives him a source of comfort and strength from which to draw. It did for me when I was his age. Oh, and I’m a rabid Cincinnati Bearcats and Golden State Warriors fan.
Addi and Devin are so different – Addi suffers social anxiety and Devin is outgoing and comfortable around people – yet the differences make their relationship stronger. Was it your plan to show how friends don’t have to be a mirror images of ourselves?
Absolutely, though it runs counter to what we so frequently see in middle school, when kids begin to navigate toward those who confirm their own senses of self rather than seek people who will positively challenge them. I wanted to portray Addi and Devin as either past that phase or above it – not because I was interested in showing the reader a better-than-thou form of middle school friendship, but rather because I wanted the foundation of their relationship to seem unshakable. . .so that it would be all the more traumatic for them when I shook it.
It’s so powerful how you illustrate the darker side of social media and how a ‘like’ in cyberspace is not the same as a living breathing friend who has your back. Was this idea a driving theme of the novel or did it arise from the plot?
It was actually the genesis of the novel! I began writing it immediately after jumping into the world of social media as a debut author (for Greetings from Witness Protection!). I felt a lot of anxiety about creating a Twitter account, cultivating followers, and establishing a website. I fully understand the value, but I still feel uncomfortable self-promoting; Addi’s nervousness toward social media is essentially mine. Further informing the tension around kids with an online presence were some of the issues my students have faced over the past several years. They’re younger than Devin and Addi, but we’ve still had to help them navigate through fraught episodes of misuse and abuse of social media. I think we’re all still learning what the true benefits and drawbacks of the digital world are, and I wanted to show a couple kids trying to figure out what that means for them.
I love how you write the dialog in Addi’s head as he’s ‘freezing’ from social anxiety. It’s funny, yet very effective at putting the reader directly into the experience. What was the process for getting this part of Addi’s character just right?
Research, research, research. And even then, I shied away from portraying Addi’s experience so viscerally on the page. It was my editor, Liz Szabla, who pushed me to really get into Addi’s head. Once I decided to go for it, I found it truly eye-opening. I asked myself some tough questions about students I’ve taught who have been anxious (was my classroom environment truly set up in ways that allowed them to feel comfortable? Did I provide safe opportunities for them to test themselves? Did I see and sufficiently celebrate their successes, no matter how small?), and I did a great deal of reflection on my own reactions to anxiety as well. TED Talks, medical journals, interviews: they were all helpful, but nothing was as illuminating as thinking about my students and myself.
I was so touched by how the parents in this novel struggle, yet do all they can to protect their children from the spill over. It felt very realistic to me. What made you decide to add this element to the story?
My daughter is the same age as Addi and Devin; I think it’s fair to say I did a bit of projecting when I wrote the Gerhardts and the Velmas. It was also important to make them genuinely good people – it ups the stakes for Devin and Addi as they do their best to help their families through difficult times. I never wanted the reader’s question to be, “Why do Devin and Addi care so much?” Rather, I wanted it to always be, “How could they not?”
What is on your summer reading list?
SO MANY FABULOUS THINGS. First up will be Supriya Kelkar’s Ahimsa, which has been at the top of my TBR pile for far too long. I’m also eagerly anticipating Melissa Sarno’s Just Under the Clouds. After that, well, I’ve still got to catch up on ARCs from last BEA…
What are you working on next?
We’re knee-deep in revisions for book #3, another stand-alone MG from Feiwel and Friends, due Fall 2019. I’ve got four other books waiting in the wings, too, so I need to figure out which one is going to force its way into my brain and demand to be written next.
How do you prefer readers get in touch with you?