With its interesting experimentations in form and engaging plot line, you would never know this is veteran author James Howe’s first novel in poems. Addie on the Inside is a companion piece to The Misfits (2001) and Totally Joe (2005), which began Howe’s path-breaking saga following the travails of four middle-grade friends negotiating their ways through school and their own identities.
Here, Howe steps inside the lone female and most outspoken character of the group, Addison “Addie” Carle. Addie’s first-person voice gains strength as it emerges from the poems, revealing the vulnerability of her interior thoughts and the determination that fuels her often defiant public persona. Howe’s introspective portrayal of 13-year-old Addie and “the middle school years / when so many things / that never mattered before / and will never matter again / matter” wonderfully capture the roller-coaster highs and lows of this developmental period, which still holds a special fascination for the author.
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So how many books do you have under your belt now?
I haven’t counted recently. I know it’s more than 80 and probably up to about 90.
Why are you so interested in portraying what you call the “purgatory” of the middle-school years?
That actually started when my daughter was in the seventh grade, she’s 23 now, and having a very hard time socially. I thought, you know, this has been going on since I was in school. Writers so often write because they have a question they need to answer or at least grapple with, and so my question was: Why does this have to go on? I was so tired of hearing the argument that “kids will be kids,” and how toughing out these years is supposedly good for socializing and helping you deal with the real world.
I suppose that depends on one’s definition of the “real world.” I think the real world can also be a world in which we respect one another and treat each other with kindness and allow ourselves to be the full individuals we are. And so I wanted to move us in that direction and explore why it’s so particularly hard during those years. I wrote The Misfits for that reason, and The Misfits inspired the national No Name-Calling Week, which I became involved with and for which I’ve done quite a lot of speaking in middle schools.
This period is a critical time in life because it’s when we’re really coming into and struggling to find ourselves as individuals, and we’re also pulling away from our families and moving into the world of our peers. The desire to be part of a peer group and to be accepted socially is a great desire and a great pressure, and so these two powerful forces are working on us and can so easily be in conflict.
Was this period particularly memorable in your own life?
Yes, it was. I actually moved in the middle of seventh grade. I grew up in a small town in upstate New York, where I had the experience of being both very popular and being teased and made fun of when it came to sports because I wasn’t good at them. I was targeted in gym class and at recess, and at the same time I was smart, funny, outspoken and looked up to in a lot of ways as a leader. It was a very odd mix, but for the most part I felt very much at home. It was a small town, and I felt very secure in my place there.
And then, in the middle of seventh grade, I moved to a very affluent suburban community where there was a great emphasis on status, and sports were very important. It was a country-club environment, and you had to wear the right clothes. I came from a family with not a lot of money, and we were not part of the country-club scene at all. So I experienced a sudden, radical shift in my standing and sense of security. I can remember being physically in pain because I didn’t belong, you know, just praying to feel more accepted because it was so important.
What about poetry best conveys the “inside voice” you say you want readers to get more in touch with?
I think that poems just naturally lend themselves to reflection and are so often about a moment. Wherever a poem may go, it’s usually about one moment that sparks first the reflection of the poet and then, hopefully, it’s shaped into something that will spark the thoughtfulness and reflection in the reader. A poem’s often based on observation, whether of actual objects or of feelings.
You’ve said that you really want your readers to reflect on the assumptions they make about other people. Do you have a sense of why assuming nothing about others is such a prevalent theme at the moment?
In a way, I think that’s the writer’s or artist’s job—to see with new eyes and help others to see with new eyes. Why write if you’re only going to write what’s already known or accepted as fact or truth? We all have our own unique views of the world to offer, our own truths. I think in doing that, we’re not necessarily bringing others around to our points of view but opening up thinking.
My hope—I know I’ve said this before—with my readers always is to open their hearts as well as their minds—not just to think about things in new ways, but to open up their compassion to themselves in order to have a more positive view that helps us to grow, to be fully who we are and also to see the commonality in all of us.