Kellye Crocker on Dad’s Girlfriend and Other Anxieties

Kellye Crocker is a journalist who has written for Better Homes and Gardens, Parents, and Glamour. She holds an MFA in writing for children and young adults from Vermont College of Fine Arts and a bachelor's degree in news-editorial from the Missouri School of Journalism. She lives in Denver, Colorado.

We talked with Kellye about her middle grade novel Dad's Girlfriend and Other Anxieties, dealing with anxiety through writing, and the bravery of shy girls.

How did you know you wanted to be an author? What draws you to writing for younger readers in particular?

Thank you for having me! I’ve always loved reading and writing my own stories flowed from that. But when I was 7, I decided I could NOT be a novelist when I grew up because I wouldn’t be able to pay my bills. (Yep, 7!) I don’t remember anyone telling me that, but I’m sure the idea came from my very practical parents. (Also: They weren’t wrong, LOL!) When I was 12, I realized that newspaper reporters were paid to write. I never looked back.

As for writing for younger readers, I’ve always had a deep interest in young people, even when I was young! When I was 21 and in journalism school in the 1980s, I had to do a big project for a creative nonfiction class. I chose to visit a middle-school English class weekly and interview the students outside of class. I wrote an in-depth story about what it was like to be a sixth-grader. Later, when I wrote about education for newspapers in Arizona and Iowa, I often focused on students. As a reporter for The Des Moines Register, I proposed and launched the “youth beat,” which was focused solely on people 21 and younger. I’d noticed that the newspaper often wrote about young people, especially teenagers, but rarely actually talked to them to include their experiences and opinions.

Although I’d long wanted to write novels, I didn’t start writing fiction seriously until I was in my 40s, and it never occurred to me NOT to write about and for young people! It’s such an important time of life, and young people tend to be so creative, smart, funny, and open. Also, I read a lot of middle grade and YA when I was younger, and I never stopped. For decades, I think some of the best, most innovative books have come from authors who write for young readers. I think adult readers who aren’t familiar with these books might be surprised by how much they’d enjoy them.

If you could only describe Dad's Girlfriend and Other Anxieties in five words, what would they be?

Fear, bravery, family, connection, ground squirrels (I’m pretending ground squirrels is one word!).

The book follows Ava, a seventh grader from Iowa with an anxiety disorder, as she confronts her fears during a Colorado vacation with her dad’s girlfriend and her daughter. What sparked the idea for this story?

The story grew from my surprise move to Colorado and my own anxiety disorder. I grew up in Iowa and, after living in other states, I returned and had lived there 26 years when my husband got an unexpected job offer in Denver. Our son had just graduated from high school, so it seemed like a good time for an adventure. I knew practically nothing about Colorado and was eager to explore my new home. I started a new story because Colorado was so different from Iowa, and I knew I’d never again see the state as a newcomer.

At the same time, though, my anxiety skyrocketed. I’d been diagnosed as an adult—in the late 1990s—although I think I’ve always had it. Thanks to a variety of tools, including therapy and medication, it had been well controlled for many years. When we moved in early 2015, suddenly, it wasn’t! I didn’t set out to write about anxiety, but it seeped into the story, and when I realized that, I wanted to work with it.

What was your favorite part of writing Dad's Girlfriend and Other Anxieties? What was the most challenging?

I haven’t met anyone who’s visited Colorado and hasn’t fallen in love with it. That made writing Ava’s contrarian view really fun. She is afraid of almost everything in Colorado, from the too-thin air to the ground squirrels who can carry plague. And, I have to say, Ava is not wrong! Colorado has many dangers. The thing is, Ava’s anxiety has only been recently diagnosed. She doesn’t have many tools yet to help her cope, and she doesn’t have perspective to be able to accurately assess the risks. Writing her exaggerated take was fun for me and, honestly, helped me deal with my own anxieties.

The most challenging part of writing the book was figuring out what Ava truly wanted. That’s a basic thing you need to know when you write a novel! I knew Ava didn’t want to go to Colorado. I knew she didn’t want to go to the mountains. But once she’s forced to, I thought she just wanted to survive. But that isn’t a great story goal (unless you’re in The Hunger Games).

My wonderful editor helped me see that Colorado’s greatest threat to Ava wasn’t the wilderness or high elevation. It’s her dad’s girlfriend. If their relationship continues, Ava and Dad eventually will move to Colorado. (Dad works from home and is portable, and Jenn has an agreement with her ex to stay in the state for their daughter.) My editor said all of this was already in the manuscript. But when she helped me clarify that point, I knew Ava would have to make some pretty bad choices—because she desperately doesn’t want to leave Iowa. What made it especially intriguing for me, though, is that Jenn is great, and Ava really likes her and has never had a mom. (Ava’s mom died shortly after Ava was born.) It forces Ava to grapple with wanting two opposite, big things at once.

Was there anything you read, listened to, or watched while working on this book that influenced its creation?

No, not specifically. But I had so much fun exploring Denver and other parts of the state, especially the mountains. I was constantly taking notes. The YMCA of the Rockies inspired the fictional resort in my story. (It’s a little freaky when they tell you to close your windows at night to keep out bears!) It’s a wonderful place, and it’s next to Rocky Mountain National Park, which is gorgeous.

What do you hope readers will take away from Ava’s story?

Most of all, I hope they find a funny, entertaining book that also touches their heart. It was important for me to show that shy, quiet girls can be brave, so I also hope it helps them consider the many forms bravery can take beyond what we’re typically shown. Books are so powerful because, as Dr. Rudine Sims Bishop’s research shows, they can act as mirrors, windows and sliding glass doors. I hope my book helps young readers feel a little better about their anxiety or understand others who have anxiety.

What are you currently reading? Are there upcoming books that you are really looking forward to?

I’m reading Esme Symes-Smith’s debut middle grade Sir Callie and the Champions of Helston, which came out earlier this month. It’s got magic, a vengeful witch, dragons, sword fights, and a 12-year-old nonbinary protagonist who dreams of becoming a knight. I’m loving it, especially the themes around how found-family members can help each other show up as our true selves. Authenticity requires grit and courage for everybody, I believe, but it can be unbelievably difficult for folks that society deems too different or even “wrong” simply for existing. But claiming your true self can also bring peace and joy—and it allows you to share your valuable gifts, which the world needs. These stories are especially important for younger readers, who are discovering who they really are.

I’ve spent a lot of this year reading books by fellow 2022 middle grade debut authors, and there are so many great ones! One I haven’t gotten to yet is Andrea Beatriz Arango’s Iveliz Explains it All, which was released in September. It’s a novel-in-verse about a seventh-grade girl coping with grief and mental health issues. Reviewers have praised its humor and heart, which is the perfect novel combo for me.

I’m also really looking forward to Nicole D. Collier’s sophomore novel, The Many Fortunes of Maya, coming in January. I fell head over heels for her debut, Just Right Jillian, which came out in February. I also can’t wait for the April release of Katryn Bury’s Drew Leclair Crushes the Case. The mystery series launched this year with Drew Leclair Gets a Clue, which is a fun, page-turning mystery with great humor and emotional depth. Drew, who is named after the famous teen sleuth Nancy, is a wonderfully quirky character living with chronic illness.

Finally, I’m also looking forward to Nine Liars by Maureen Johnson, the fifth Stevie Bell mystery, which is scheduled to come out at the end of December. This year I’ve really enjoyed going back to mysteries. A friend gave me The Box in the Woods earlier this year, and I proceeded to read the other three in the series. I love the quirky, ensemble cast and the remote Vermont boarding-school setting, although the new book, from what I’ve read, has the gang traveling to England. That should be fun!

Thank you so much for having me!

Check out Kellye's full list of recommendations on Edelweiss Community!