J.H. Diehl is the author of Tiny Infinities, a new novel for older kids. Her other books include the picture book Three Little Beavers and Loon Chase. She lives in Chevy Chase, Maryland.
Q: How did you come up with the idea for Tiny Infinities and for your main character, Alice?
A: One day, when my daughter was in third grade, she brought home from school a picture she’d drawn of a fantastical bug, that she’d titled “Bugfire.”
The moment I saw it – I have no idea why – an image appeared in my head of an older girl standing over a younger girl, outdoors in the dark, with their hands cupped together around glowing fireflies. The smaller girl was saying “bugfire,” and it was the first word she’d spoken in years.
I knew the story behind this scene belonged to the older girl. And that she was babysitting, and unrelated to the younger one. I saw her as a newly turned teenager, again I don’t know why. Except that, when I finally began to draft the book, it turned out that 13 was an age I had something on my mind to write about.
Among the reasons she’s called Alice is that I liked the classic associations the other characters might make with her name, versus the reality of her namesake. My Alice is named after her dad’s beloved childhood family dog.
Q: Why did you decide to have her be a swimmer?
A: It had to be a summer story, because the season for fireflies is summer. My kids participated on our local community pool summer swim team for more than a decade.
Just like I knew swim team was a great activity for my kids, I knew it would be wonderful for Alice. Swim team is an opportunity to build physical and emotional strength, and to experiencing setting goals, achieving, failing, and persevering.
A swimming goal doesn’t have to be - like Alice’s in Tiny Infinities – to set a team record. Even if you never actually win a race, you can improve your own best time in an event.
There’s almost always a way to find something positive about swimming. You may race against other teams, but you’re really competing with yourself. As a member of the team, you get to be a part of something that’s larger than you, a wonderful community, of kids and families, with many fun traditions.
I wanted Alice to have a positive activity and community outside of her family structure, and I wanted her to have goals that were appropriate for a kid to have – unlike the impossible goals she set herself at home, to fix the things she has no control over: her parents’ decision to split and her mom’s depression.
She swears that since her dad is moving out, she’ll move out, too, and live in a tent in the back yard as long as it takes him to agree to return.
Alice cooks, picks up prescriptions for her mom and does household chores, all in the hope that she can help her mom get better. Over time, she realizes that she can’t control or fix what’s going on in the life of her parents. But she can commit herself to, and achieve goals in her sport.
As I wrote the story, it became partly about how a sport can anchor a kid through tough times. That’s true, too, for many other activities kids pursue with passion: art, music, community service…writing!
Q: What do you think the book says about parent-child relationships?
A: As Officer Gina says near the beginning of the story, every family and every situation is different. However, when parents’ lives are troubled, I think it’s not uncommon for kids to end up, in some senses, parenting their parents. It’s not a healthy situation; it’s too much responsibility in childhood.
Tiny Infinities depicts one version of what it’s like to navigate life as a child with a parent going through a period of depression. In this story, Alice bears up as best she can, and makes plenty of mistakes.
For a child of troubled parents, part of growing up is realizing that you can’t fix their situation and that it’s not on you to try. In the end, Alice – like her young babysitting charge – has to find the spark in herself, has to create her own resilience to move forward.
All that said, I don’t know if that’s what readers will take away from the story. One thing I love about novels is that each reader for whom a book resonates finds something unique in it.
Q: How was the book's title chosen, and what does it signify for you?
A: The title "Tiny Infinities" comes from a conversation Alice has with her odd, new friend on the swim team, Harriet. Harriet is very into math and science. She’s fascinated by the infinite number pi, and finds it strange that pi gets rounded off to 3.14 regularly in math problems.
“Shouldn’t there be a huge difference between infinity and any number that has a definite end?” she asks. “Isn’t it interesting that the real difference between an infinite number like pi and a finite one like three point one four turns out to be a very tiny decimal? An infinitesimal decimal, to be as exact as possible about that inexactness? Shouldn’t the difference between something and nothing be the same?”
She demonstrates the classic acting exercise of transitioning from laughter to tears, with no clear delineation between the two.
Alice can’t help wondering at what “point my parents had gone from loving each other to not loving – was that a teeny tiny change, too?...What had made the difference between deciding we could all be a family of five, and my dad living someplace else?”
Alice discovers that, in order to move forward with her own life, she has to draw the lines in herself.
Q: What are you working on now?
A: Another MG novel, but intended as a lighter entertainment.
Q: Anything else we should know?
A: There’s a lot of science in Tiny Infinities, and I hope the story will appeal to kids interested in S.T.E.M. subjects. Alice, Harriet and their friend Owen recreate firefly bioluminescence in a make-shift basement lab.
If any readers on swim teams want to use Tiny Infinities as a summer reading book, I’m offering to come to their pool to answer questions and talk about the story if they’re in the DC-Metro area. Or to Skype in, if they’re further away.
I hope the book will be meaningful to kids whose parents have parted ways, to kids who may have experienced life with a parent suffering from depression, and to readers who may have a sibling coping with a developmental delay.
My characterization of Piper, the little girl who can’t speak, is based on my research into a rare childhood seizure disorder, sometimes mistaken for autism. I was fortunate enough to be able to consult with a pediatric neurologist who had treated kids with this rare problem.
I’m in awe of the parents, medical professionals and educators working so hard to help children suffering from seizure disorders, autism and other developmental delays.
Thank you for inviting me to your blog. It’s an honor to be here!
--Interview with Deborah Kalb