'Searching for stories waiting to be told:' Raleigh children's author on her new book and escaping the headlines
Posted April 13, 2020 6:16 a.m. EDT
Updated April 13, 2020 6:36 a.m. EDT
We last checked in with Ali Standish in 2017. She'd just moved back to North Carolina and debuted her first book, "The Ethan I Was Before," for children ages 8 to 12. She's been busy over the last three years — churning out more books for young readers and having a baby herself. We checked in with Standish to learn more about her latest book, "How to Disappear Completely," for kids ages 8 to 12, and how she's dealing with the news of the day.
Go Ask Mom: We last featured you when your first book came out, and you've been busy ever since! But, first, tell us about your new book that's coming out this month. What was the genesis for the book, and how would you describe it?
Ali Standish: "How to Disappear Completely" is a coming-of-age story—as all my stories tend to be—with mystery, heart, and a dash of magic! The novel is about 12-year-old Emma, who is grieving the loss of her beloved grandmother when the story opens. Gram filled Emma’s world with love and magic. While Emma is at Gram’s funeral, she sees a pale spot on her toe, and soon she notices more appearing all over her body. It doesn’t take long for her to be diagnosed with vitiligo, an autoimmune condition that strips pigment from areas of the skin. While Emma is trying to come to terms with these big changes in her life, someone begins writing to her in a secret journal she shared with Gram. As she unravels the puzzle of who is writing to her and why, she stumbles upon new questions about Gram and their relationship. Through solving these mysteries, Emma is taken on a journey of growth and self-acceptance.
I started this book in 2017, when my husband was diagnosed with vitiligo. When his skin first began changing, it was a scary time. He didn’t know how the vitiligo would affect his appearance or his self-confidence. To add to that, there is a lot of misinformation—even among the medical community—about vitiligo. For instance, we were told by a dermatologist that there was nothing he could do to treat it, which is simply not true. Vitiligo is a very common condition—about one in 100 people have it. And there is starting to be more awareness about it, thanks in large part to celebrities like supermodel Winnie Harlow and ballerina Michaela DePrince. But there is still a lot of room for more representation and awareness, particularly in children’s literature. So that was where this story began. While I hope it helps to shine a light on what living with vitiligo can be like, I also think it’s a universal story about stepping out of the protective bubble of childhood and into the wider, more complex world of young adulthood.
GAM: What do you love about the characters?
AS: I love Emma’s fierce love of books, story and magic. I love that she finds a way to use those things as tools to help her through her struggles. And I love how she learns to become an advocate for herself throughout the novel.
Gram is the type of wonderfully witchy character that always has a twinkle in her eye (and always keeps me turning pages). Her past is shrouded in mystery, but what we know for certain about her is that she is deeply kind and loving. As the novel goes on, we find out more about how she came to be this way, and I just really love her whole story.
And I love the energy and loyalty that Emma finds in a new friend, Fina. She is the ultimate bestie that everyone needs in their life, and brings a lot of smiles and laughter to the novel.
GAM: The pandemic has thrown all of our lives upside down, including authors. What's been the impact on your promotion of the book and your writing? Is it difficult to concentrate?
AS: Isn’t that the truth? You know, I struggle with anxiety (the downside of having a creative brain), but even in my most anxious imaginings, I never thought of what it would be like to try to release a book during a pandemic. The circumstances have certainly closed down a lot of the traditional routes of publicity—book launches, conferences, school visits, etc. But I’m replacing a lot of those with virtual events, like a launch party I’m hosting along with two other middle grade novelists, Supriya Kelkar and Mae Respicio. (More details on my website, Twitter and Facebook pages!)
Like some characters in the book, I have learned to use my imagination as an escape hatch when times are tough. So when I’m out walking the dogs or falling asleep at night, I very intentionally let my mind wander into fictional worlds, searching for stories waiting to be told. I find those daydream sessions to be really soothing and effective at taking my mind off of the news right now.
GAM: You've written several other books since "The Ethan I Was Before." Tell us about those.
AS: Yes! "How to Disappear Completely" is actually my fifth book (which is a crazy sentence to write—I wish my 10-year-old self could see it!).
After Ethan, I published "August Isle," a story about a girl who is sent to spend the summer on the Florida island where her mother used to spend summers as a child. Miranda has very low self-confidence, mostly due to the fact that she and her mother have a strained relationship. During her summer on the isle, she does some digging to understand why that relationship is so broken. August Isle is an ode to all the things I love about summer—the beach, the ocean, new friends, ice cream, and (of course) a simmering mystery hiding just below the surface of it all.
"The Climbers" is an illustrated tale—almost a fairy-tale, really—for younger readers. It’s about Alma, a girl living in an isolated town where prejudice has seeped in and made the townspeople wary of outsiders. When she discovers a bear cub in the woods, she is forced to flee the town to protect him from the town. Soon, she meets a boy who has adopted an animal friend of his own, and the four of them undertake a journey to find a home that will accept them. I love this story, but I have to say it might be outdone by the gorgeous, dreamlike illustrations by Alette Straathof.
And "Bad Bella," which came out last fall, is a novel based on my own sweet Bella girl! She was surrendered at the pound two days before Christmas, which breaks my heart to think about. I always wondered what would make someone abandon such a wonderful dog right before Christmas. So I decided to write a story about it! It was a really fun book for me to write, trying to develop a voice for my own dog. But also so hard to imagine what she must have gone through being abandoned by her original family. I think it’s a great Christmas story, and a great one for any fellow dog-lovers!
GAM: And you've not only birthed a book - but you've birthed a baby. How is motherhood going for you? How has it changed the way you think about your writing or how you work?
AS: Motherhood has been a wonderful adventure so far—truly! Though I write for children, it took me a long time to decide that I wanted to have one of my own. I was worried it would be an exercise in exhaustion and anxiety and self-sacrifice. And I wasn’t wrong! But it is also the closest thing to magic I have experienced since I was a child myself. Which is well worth all the other stuff.
When I write, I always try to create stories that I would have wanted to read growing up. Now I have a new audience to consider! As Luka grows, I definitely think I will always have him in the back of my mind when I’m writing a story. What would he think? Would he like these characters? What story does he need right now? What would make him turn the pages?
GAM: What's the best way for people to get your books?
AS: From an independent bookstore! Quail Ridge, McIntyre’s, Read With Me, The Regulator, and Flyleaf are just a few of the amazing indies we are fortunate enough to have in our community. They have an unwavering commitment to readers, and their booksellers are working hard to put books into hands as quickly as possible. Buying from them online now helps ensure they can open their doors to us again when this chapter of history closes, and a new (and hopefully brighter!) chapter begins.
Go Ask Mom features local moms every Monday.