Diana López says that the first glimmering of the idea that would become Ask My Mood Ring How I Feel came to her at the end of a marathon; she’d run in the Komen Race for the Cure in honor of her aunt and was recapping the experience for her husband, telling him about a pink poodle she’d seen at the event. “I don’t know how they’d colored that dog such a vivid pink, but it was such a fun, celebratory image – that’s the feeling I got when at the race, that despite the way cancer had touched families in serious and tragic ways, there could still be celebration. I love writing for middle school kids, and thought it would be interesting to write about this subject from a daughter’s perspective.”

Before she’d really gotten to know who her characters would be, an image of a woman purchasing nine bikinis to wear in the days leading up to her mastectomy popped into her head. “Originally the book was called Nine Bikinis, 500 Names, which are now the book’s first and last chapter titles,” she says. “I had this image of a mom…what kind of woman would do that? It says a lot about her personality. That’s when the story began to take shape for me.”

That story unfolded to include eighth-grader Erica and her family and explores the strains that serious illness can cause but also the growth and maturity it can produce. Asked whether she approached such a serious topic differently for her younger audience, López says she did. “I write adult fiction too, and I notice that when I write for young people I want there to be some hope in the story. Hope is always important, but especially for young people because they don’t know everything’s going to be alright. They have no experience knowing that even if the worst happens, it is going to be painful but you do learn to cope.” She deliberately left the book open-ended. “What would happen with Erica’s mother in the future was not the question I wanted to answer. I wanted to ask, when faced with something like this, how are you going to deal with it? How do people deal with it?”

As a child, López loved mood rings and remembers that in fourth grade, she was fond of gazing at a little boy she had a crush on and thinking, “I love him, I love him!” to see if she could get her ring to change colors. “I thought I was being kind of retro to include mood rings here but I found out all the kids are into them—and Chia Pets again! So it came back around.”

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Lopez CoverLike López’s previous books Confetti Girls and Choke, her new novel feels very real, and not just because of its refusal to indulge in a pat ending: It’s also packed with believable, quirky characters like Erica (known as Chia) and her sister Carmen, who quarrel throughout the book – a relationship that López says is informed by sibling squabbles with her own sister. “My sister and I shared a room that we’d divided, and most of our fights were resource battles,” she laughs. López also weaves a multicultural element into the book very naturally, drawing again on her own experience growing up Latina in Texas. Though her character Chia is also Latina, López says that’s just one facet of her character, rather than a trait that defines her. 

“I don’t want to exclude readers, and sometimes when it comes to overtly cultural texts, there’s the idea we are a group – which is a good support system – but to be in a group also means you’re excluding others. I don’t want to do that at all; I want to give my readers a glimpse of this world I grew up in.” For López, it’s important to “start with who are these people, what are their struggles? I choose to focus on the characters, and to trust that the cultural details still come through.”

Jessie C. Grearson is a freelance writer and writing teacher living in Falmouth, Maine. She is a graduate of The Iowa Writer’s Workshop.