age range: 8-12
genre / topics: contemporary fiction; mental illness, art
Cathy Carr’s website
Carr sensitively explores mental illness, incarceration, and families in crisis, and she portrays her characters as flawed but caring. . . Unusual and gratifying.
Franny’s first-person narration shines in this approachable story about the ripple effects of mental health challenges within a family. . . Franny’s artistic inclinations, focused on found objects and mixed media, are thematically compelling, as she finds beauty in things that are broken and discarded.
—Bulletin of the Center for Children’s Books
Sincere and funny . . . leaves readers with a sense of hope.
–Sara Zarr, author of A Song Called Home
Will be treasured by readers everywhere.
–Megan E. Freeman, award-winning author of Alone
Please tell us about your book.
At the beginning of Lost Kites and Other Treasures, twelve-year-old Franny Petroski lives with her grandmother in an apartment above a coffee shop in suburban New Jersey. Franny lives with Nana because she was abandoned by her mom at four years old. Franny loves making art (especially with found objects), has some good friends, and enjoys a contented life with Nana—even if lately things seem a little dull. But when Nana slips on ice and breaks her leg, their routine has to change, and Franny’s Uncle Gabe comes to stay for a while to help them out. Uncle Gabe starts sharing memories and details about Franny’s mom, a subject Nana always has preferred to leave alone. In learning more about her family, Franny starts to learn more about herself.
It’s a novel with serious content, but it’s also a story with a lot of humor and family love that celebrates the redemptive power of art—the way a creative practice can give us strength and insight to get through rough times in our lives.
What inspired you to write this story?
Over the years, I’ve known many people with mental illness—people in my family, friends, boyfriends, children of friends. There’s such a wide variety of outcomes. Some people quickly get the illness under good control, a lot of people self-medicate, some people have the occasional rough patch, and others just have an on-going struggle. In Lost Kites, I wanted to bring out a few points about mental illness. One is the simple point that there’s a lot of it out there—way more than some people would think. Two is this point that there are all kinds of different outcomes. And three is the point that ignorance, secrecy, and shame are often the enemies of good outcomes. Why should someone be ashamed of having bipolar disorder, or some other inherited issue, when I don’t have to be ashamed of having asthma?
Could you share a few interesting tidbits about your writing process with this book?
One fun part for me was putting in a ton of art bits and references about some of my favorite artists. Maybe some readers will decide to look up Joseph Cornell, or check out Ruth Asawa’s incredible work, and I would love for more people to know about Judith Scott. Scott was a non-verbal deaf fiber sculptor with Down’s syndrome, institutionalized from an early age—talk about a person whose potential could have been overlooked! And almost was. To see what Scott could do with the right materials in the right environment should give us all food for thought about what disabled people might be capable of if they were given the support they needed.
What are some special challenges associated with writing about the delicate topic of mental illness?
Mental illness really is a delicate topic. I had to work very carefully through some sections and conversations in the book. I wanted to avoid being too didactic, but—at the same time—I felt as if those didactic conversations were true to life. These were conversations Franny would seek out and information she would need to have.
Some of my beta readers felt I was too hard on Franny’s mother and dwelt too much on the negative aspects of bipolar disorder, while other beta readers felt I was too easy on her and downplayed her neglect of Franny. There are a lot of strong opinions out there on portrayals of mental illness, often tied to the reader’s own experiences. At the end of all the edits, of course, it’s my book and I’m responsible for its content. I have to own what I wrote.
I wanted to be truthful about the possible impacts of having a mentally-ill family member. It can be exhausting, it can be discouraging—especially if the mentally-ill person resists treatment, which happens a lot. But I also wanted to portray someone with bipolar who was a well-rounded human being. Mia wasn’t just someone with a mental illness. She was also a jazz fan and a vegetarian who hated bullies and doted on her daughter. Someone who had loyal friends. Someone who loved fiercely and was fiercely loved.
What topics does your book touch upon that would make it a perfect fit for the classroom?
I think mental health is a good topic for classrooms and I’m happy to see more discussion about it.
I think an exploration of the difference between secrecy and privacy might be a good classroom discussion. I think social media has blurred this distinction in an unhealthy way for some of us. Franny and Nana discuss secrecy versus privacy briefly in the book. What’s healthy and what’s not? While secrecy and shame are often viewed as negative, for good reason, it’s important to let kids know that they have the right to privacy. It can be okay, even appropriate, to keep certain things about their lives to themselves.
Lastly, I would be happy if the book inspired anyone to think about starting a creative hobby. Or taking up a creative interest again that they’ve abandoned, especially if they stopped because someone criticized their efforts or they thought they weren’t “good enough.” Creative practice is a good thing for our brains and mental health. The more research on creativity I do, the more I’m convinced it’s essential to the human experience, and one of the best, healthiest, most joyful things we can do for ourselves.