Middle Grade Gets Real with Kathleen Burkinshaw and Kerry O’Malley Cerra, Part II

This month, five middle grade authors have been talking about the tough topics kids deal with—and that middle grade lit can help them process—on sites all over the web, using the hashtag #MGGetsReal. You can learn more about the campaign here. Last week two of those authors, Kathleen Burkinshaw, author of The Last Cherry Blossom, and Kerry O’Malley Cerra, author of Just a Drop of Water, stopped by the Sky Pony Express to discuss their books and why they write for kids about situations that are both difficult and realistic. This week they’re back to finish that conversation! 


KathleenBurkinshaw: Kerry and I are back today, finishing up our chat about her book Just a Drop of Water and mine The Last Cherry Blossom. Again, it is wonderful to be discussing important book topics with another Sky Pony author.
KerryOMalleyCerra: Yes, and I’m still grateful to have met you through our #MGGetsReal campaign. It’s a great movement that spotlights books with tough topics for kids who might need them most.
KB: Exactly, and our goal is that these books might help a child replace fear with hope. So let’s get back to our books … Just a Drop of Water will be out in paperback next month and it will be the 15th anniversary of that terrible day.
KOC: Yes, and it never gets easier. The images of the horror that day are still so fresh in my head. I’m not sure they’ll ever leave.
KB: Speaking of images, did you look at many photos and do a lot of research for your book? Or did you go from memory?
KOC: Yes, much research. But I do love that part.
KOC: I can get lost in the research and forget to actually write.
KB: Same here!!
KOC: But, that said, for this book, I think the hardest scene to write was the actual day of Sept. 11. My main character is only 13, and I had to be authentic to his voice, a voice of a kid who had no idea what was actually going on. I worried he might sound shallow as he narrated the attacks. And when I viewed one YouTube video after another to make sure I described it as Jake would, it got to be too much. I actually went for a walk and threw up. Hard watching those people die over and over again.
KB: Oh, I can only imagine. It was very authentic though. Did the act in the cafeteria with Bobby and the burger actually happen somewhere?
KOC: No, that was fictional. Before I began writing, I visited an Islamic organization that was recording these types of incidents across the US, post 9/11. I took pages and pages of notes. So while this one was made up, there were many just as harsh. I needed one that fit the middle school scene.
KB: Oh, it felt so real, and I’m sure sadly that something like that happened somewhere.
KOC: But with Bobby, I wanted to show what a product of his father he was, hence that scene.
KB: You did a great job with that.
KOC: And that part is all too true—how kids can become their parents sometimes.
KB: Yes, and it still does. Sadly. That’s why I hope our books humanize the people.
KB: Exactly. Kids need to know that they shouldn’t hate someone because they are different from them, they don’t understand their customs, or worse yet, hate because that’s what they learned from adults in their life.
KOC: Yes, I hope our books can do this, too.
KB: Our books’ messages are important, so that we don’t forget the past. We need to learn, not blame.
KB: It was a powerful moment when I watched President Obama at Hiroshima.
KOC: Yes, and we can’t let fear steer us. I did that when I doubted my friend’s family after 9/11. I’ve never forgiven myself, though they’ve forgiven me.
KB: But that’s why your book is so good, because it is not emotions we didn’t have, but those we did, you showed how to work past the fear and blame.
KB: And open our eyes to the person.
KOC: I hope so.
KB: My mother gave me some interesting info when she said that she wasn’t hateful after the bombing.
KOC: She wasn’t?
KB: Maybe a little angry. But the mindset was that it was war, and war is hellish. There is no winner.
KB: It was the mindset of a lot of the people there.
KOC: That’s actually impressive.
KB: They had been at war for many years before 1941 and wanted it over.
KOC: She had every reason to hate, that’s for sure.
KB: Not that they didn’t grieve.
KB: Or resent for a while, but not outward hate.
KOC: I love talking to you about this. I’m learning so much more. You did a good job of conveying that in the book, that everyone wanted it to be over. I was super impressed with how you wove that in.
KB: Thank you. That is one of the things that surprises students is that Japan was at war for a few years before 1941.
KOC: That was another bit of authenticity we may not have otherwise known—how the Japanese people felt during this time period.
KB: So many supplies were gone, as well as the men.
KOC: Exactly. It was so drawn out.
KOC: Sadly, war usually is.
KB: Yes, you are so right.
KB: But in your book there is hope, too.
KB: Fear begins to be edged out by hope, understanding on both sides.
KOC: I definitely strived to convey a theme of hope in my book because honestly, if we don’t have hope, we really are left with nothing. You know?
KB: Absolutely. I loved how you used the song “Dust in the Wind.”
KB: You had me listen to it in a whole new light. The message that one drop can cause a ripple effect. It can tear down walls.
KOC: Ha! Thanks. I love that song, but it didn’t show up in the book until my very last draft.
KOC: Before that, the book was titled “September 13.” So it all changed when I added that thread in. Glad you liked it.
KB: Ah….it works very well as the new title!
KOC: Thank you.
KB: You know I had my title before I even had an outline for my book. 
KB: I was so glad I could keep it!
KOC: Your title is AMAZING and the cover, well…no words.
KB: Katy Betz is AMAZING. I would never have thought of it, but it fits so well. Beauty from ashes.
KOC: Oh, gosh! Beauty from ashes…so perfectly stated. Yes! That!
KOC: I have always loved cherry blossoms. I decorate my house with them. And the scent—well, at least the scent from Bath and Body Works—is my favorite. Someday I hope to see and smell an actual Cherry Blossom tree, even if it’s just here in America.
KB: Yes! Me too with Bath & Body Works and decorating.
KB: I believe Katy did an award-winning cover for you as well. 
KOC: Katy is pure talent and class.
KOC: We’re both lucky to have had her design our covers.
KB: Yes indeed!
KB: I’m involved with Green Legacy Hiroshima where seeds are taken from trees that survived the bombing.
KOC: That sounds amazing! How cool.
KB: I have set it up so that the University of North Carolina Charlotte campus will be planting one in front of their education building.
KOC: For real? When?
KB: Around September. It will be dedicated to all the victims in Hiroshima and especially to my mom and her family.
KB: Bringing a piece of Hiroshima to where I live now.
KOC: Incredible and moving!
KB: Thank you. I was thrilled when they agreed to it.
KOC: That is a step in the right direction, towards future peace and healing.
KB: Yes, I think so too.
KOC: Well, I can’t wait to find out if a sequel will actually happen. It’s been great chatting with you, Kathleen. And congrats on a beautiful debut.
KB: Thank you so much, and I’ve loved chatting with you about your book!
KOC: Friends, The Last Cherry Blossom is available now. Go buy it. It’s one you’ll want to keep on your shelf forever.
KB: They can put it next to your wonderful book! So relevant for today.
KOC: They will look fantastic together.
KB: Your paperback of Just a Drop of Water comes out September 20th, right?
KB: Friends, you must look for it in the stores next month. Definitely a book to be used over and over by teachers.
KOC: Readers, thanks for joining us. We hope see you, or at least hear from you, soon. Thanks for stopping by to read our chat. Peace!
KB: Yes thanks for stopping by!


Ever since he was little, Jake Green has longed to be a soldier and a hero like his grandpa, who died serving his country. Right now, though, he just wants to outsmart—and outrun—the rival cross-country team. But then the tragedy of September 11 happens, and it’s quickly discovered that one of the hijackers lived nearby, making Jake’s Florida town an FBI hot spot. Two days later, the tragedy becomes even more personal when Jake’s best friend, Sam Madina, is pummeled for being an Arab Muslim by their bully classmate, Bobby.

© Erica Brooks

According to Jake’s personal code of conduct, anyone who beats up your best friend is due for a butt kicking, and so Jake goes after Bobby. But soon after, Sam’s father is detained by the FBI, and Jake’s mom doubts the innocence of Sam’s family, forcing Jake to choose between his best friend and his parents. When Jake finds out that Sam’s been keeping secrets, too, he doesn’t know who his allies are anymore. In the end, Jake must decide: either walk away from Sam and the revenge that Bobby has planned or become the hero he’s always aspired to be.

Kerry O’Malley Cerra is a former high school history teacher who often enhanced textbooks with historical fiction to bring time periods to life. Just a Drop of Water, her first middle grade novel, was inspired by a deeply personal reaction to the tragic events of September 11, 2001. Visit her online at KerryOMalleyCerra.com.

Additional links for Kerry: Website | TwitterInstagram


If you missed last week’s chat, don’t forget to go back to learn more about Kathleen Burkinshaw and The Last Cherry Blossom! And don’t forget to check out the #MGGetsReal campaign, and the other wonderful books and authors featured, here.

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