I’ll never forget the day my son came home from Kindergarten talking about his first active shooter drill, how he and his classmates hid in the closet in the dark and totally silent. In the years since then, I’ve looked to leaders of Moms Demand Action and Everytown to learn more about how to make common-sense gun reform a reality. I’ve marched in the streets of NYC, I’ve contributed to those on the front lines and after the too-numerous tragedies, but I’ve continued to feel pretty helpless.
What I know, is that art wakes people up, starts discussions, and enables change. AfterMath, a new Middle-Grade novel from Emily Barth Isler, is such a work of art. It creates space for profound conversations around gun violence and recognizes that theater and imagination can bring people together, even in the wake of immense tragedy.
Emily and I were at Wesleyan University together. We were part of an eco-system that valued how the arts – and the liberal arts – had the power to make meaningful change in our communities. AfterMath puts this all into action and makes me so proud to know Emily and see the ways she’s putting her education, passion, and activism to work.
AfterMath is also a powerful tribute to the catharsis that theater arts can provide young people. It speaks to a generation of kids who are all too intimate with pathos. While it feels like a taboo topic, Emily confronts gun violence head-on. Instead of shying away from discomfort, this book asks us all to lean in, to listen, and to connect.
I encourage you to go and get (or pre-order!) this book.
It was an extreme pleasure to read AfterMath and to get to interview Emily about it too. Below is a transcript of our conversation. While the active-shooter drills may continue, this book provides us with a space to talk about gun violence with our young people, the inspiration for activism, and new characters with whom to fall in love.
“This book is a gift to the culture.” —Amy Schumer, Comedian, Actor, Activist, Writer
Emily, what is the boilerplate synopsis of your stunning AfterMath?
After her brother’s death from a congenital heart defect, twelve-year-old Lucy is not prepared to be the new kid at school—especially in a grade full of survivors of a shooting that happened four years ago. Without the shared past that both unites and divides her classmates, Lucy feels isolated and unable to share her family’s own loss, which is profoundly different from the trauma of her peers.
Lucy clings to her love of math, which provides the absolute answers she craves. But through budding friendships and an after-school mime class, Lucy discovers that while grief can take many shapes and sadness may feel infinite, love is just as powerful.
Tell me, who is the audience for this book?
I hope that kids, parents, educators, and families will see AfterMath as a vehicle through which to have important conversations. I know that AfterMath is not the answer to gun violence in schools— that situation is far more complex and requires moving bigger mountains than I can with my words. While I hope the book is a step in the right direction, I mostly hope it’s a conversation starter. School shootings are a taboo conversation for a lot of kids. A few don’t know of their existence yet. Others will see about them on the news or hear about them in school. Most kids in the United States participate in Active Shooter Drills of some kind, and even if the school calls them something else, kids will eventually figure out what they’re training for, huddled in closets and hiding under tables.
I wanted to give them a chance to say the scariest things out loud, to read the words they’re too scared to imagine, to put themselves in the shoes of those they hope to never be or understand. I wrote AfterMath because losing someone I love is my greatest fear. Writing into my fears is one way I deal with them. Putting the words out there makes it all a little less scary. It takes some of the power back from the fear and gives it to us.
I want kids who read this book to know they have the same options. Writing about your scariest fears can help take the intensity out of them. Talking about your deepest worries might make them less powerful. Reading a book about something that scares you doesn’t make it any more or less likely to happen, it simply gives you the tools to talk about it with a grown-up you trust. It takes away the mystery a little bit.
And for parents who, like I do, sit helplessly by their child’s bed at night, hoping something awful like a school shooting never happens to their kid, I see you. But refusing to talk about it— in an age-appropriate manner, of course— doesn’t help anyone. I want this book to give you a frame in which to see, feel, and talk about these fears we all have.
“Parents aren’t perfect, friendships aren’t perfect, and life most certainly isn’t perfect, but this novel comes pretty close to perfect in its fearless and compassionate exploration of the sorrows, struggles, and hard-won maturing of a spunky twelve-year-old as she deals with the aftermath of loss. The losses are real, the pain is real, but so—the author persuades us—is the saving grace of loving connection.”
What inspired you to write this story?
I started writing this book as a result of my feelings of helplessness following the mass shooting in San Bernardino, CA, in late 2015. I had an infant and a 4-year-old and didn’t know how to process all my fears about the world in which they are growing up. And I wanted to be an activist for change, but I wasn’t sure exactly how I’d use my voice.
There were several survivors of the San Bernardino shooting, and I remember the news coverage focused a lot on them. How “lucky” they were— that they could “just go on with their normal lives” as if this tragedy had never happened. I was shocked and horrified at the idea that we expect people who survive gruesome events like mass shootings to just “feel lucky” and “go back to normal.” Of course, they should feel lucky to survive, but it’s so much more complicated than that. What happens next? What about survivors’ grief? What about moving on? How do people feel later? How do they go back to “normal” life?
I was also inspired by my grandfather, Alan Barth, who was an editorial writer for the Washington Post for 30 years and a well-known advocate for gun control and common sense gun laws. I grew up idolizing him, though sadly he and I never met. He lost a long battle with cancer right before I was born. I think some of the seeds of AfterMath come from experiencing the loss of him before I ever got to know him, comparing that grief to the grief of other people I know who have lost people closer to them, and wanting to carry on his admirable legacy of using the written word to enact social change.
I love how much theater you infused throughout AfterMath. The lead character takes a mime class, and it opens up her ability to communicate and make friends. Tell me more about why you added this.
Theater has always been such an important part of my life. My parents instilled in me a deep appreciation for it and all forms of performing arts, and I actually started acting professionally when I was five years old, in dinner theater, regional theater, and all sorts of odd industrials, commercials, and things in the Baltimore/Washington DC area. At the same time, school theater and acting classes were equally as important to me and as present in my life. Getting to do it all along with my peers was so much fun, from elementary school all the way through college. Theater is where I made all my closest friends and connections.
Despite all this, and I know it’s such a cliche, I was a shy kid. I felt anxious and self-conscious a lot of the time, but being on stage gave me permission to be anyone I wanted to be. I loved having a script, so I didn’t have to decide what to say– which is funny now that I’m a writer and I get to make up the words!
When I was in sixth grade, my middle school drama teacher led an afterschool class on mime, just like Mr. Jackson does in AfterMath. At first, I was disappointed– I loved musical theater and wanted to be singing and dancing, not miming. But as we got into it, I found that mime allowed me to express quite a bit, and it was my first introduction to both improv and to crafting my own story. I think mime, and my teacher, Mr. Terry Sullivan, are a huge part of why I became a writer!
Can you speak a little about theatre and its ability to heal? Have you researched this, experienced it directly? Seems pretty integral in AfterMath.
I did quite a bit of research for the book about art therapy and theater, specifically, as a healing modality. I talked to an amazing woman who leads the arts programs for a juvenile system for a major city, and she talked about what a helpful tool theater can be for kids who have been affected by gun violence and other tragedies.
I’ve also experienced theater’s healing abilities directly, many times over. First, it helped me overcome some shyness and social anxiety as a little kid. Then, in my late teens, I was the victim of a violent assault at school, and, in addition to therapy, the theater was hugely helpful in my dealing with the resulting trauma and feelings of not being safe or being able to trust anyone. Theater is a team sport– in college, when I thought I was ready to give up theater entirely after that violent event in high school, I found my way back into a play and the cast and crew helped me regain my faith in people, find the joy, and remember how much fun it could be to “play” on stage!
Like many creative people, you can be artistic in many ways: you are a writer, but you also trained as – and have been – a working actor. Tell us about the role has acting/theatre played in your life?
What I loved about being an actor was always the storytelling part. And in that way, it doesn’t feel all that different than writing a book! I always wanted to know “what happens next,” and to find out why characters did what they did, why they made the choices they made!
My same middle school teacher, Mr. Sullivan, who taught that mime class, also encouraged me to write a play in sixth grade. He saw my love of being on stage and wanted to offer me other ways of being creative, and it worked! My parents had always told me I was a good writer, but this was the first time someone outside my family encouraged me, and it was very exciting.
It was also the first time I thought about writing as another way to tell the kinds of stories I loved, and that I could write about things that felt really current and relevant to me. After having done musicals like The Music Man and Annie and The Sound of Music as a young kid, it was really refreshing to be encouraged to write a play about kids my own age, living in that current time, talking about the things my friends and I were talking about. I’d seen that on TV and in books, but not on stage. It was world-opening!
Both acting and writing have allowed me to hide and to be seen. In each one, I can experience the world through a character who is not me, and force myself to find common ground with them. Both literally ask the artists and the audience to put themselves in the shoes of someone else, oftentimes someone with whom they don’t agree. That is so supremely valuable in life! Actors and writers both talk about finding common ground with a character they’re playing or writing– that you can’t play or write someone you don’t relate to or, at a bare minimum, understand. For example, I would not have made literally any of the choices the title characters in Romeo + Juliet do, but doing scenes from it in acting classes forced me to consider where they were coming from and why they did the things they did! That’s empathy– a skill I try to bring not only to writing but to every moment of my regular life. The training I got to put myself in imaginary circumstances that were so different than mine.
How did theatre prepare you for life beyond the stage?
I worked a lot with a Maryland theater director, Toby Orenstein, both at her theatre and with a touring company, she led along with another amazing teacher/director/artist Carole Graham Lehan, called The Young Columbians. I was in the company for five years, from ages 13-18, and we would tour the mid-Atlantic area performing at places ranging from the White House Christmas Party to the Maryland State Fair to the Wolftrap performing arts center in Virginia. We would arrive at a venue and have a few minutes to survey the stage, which was sometimes not even a real stage, and figure out how to adapt our show– a 40-ish minute musical review of the history of the United States– to whatever space and context we were about to perform in! It was the most magical training for life! We learned to be adaptable, of course, but also to be flexible, to think of our co-performers’ needs along with our own so that we could adapt together, how to change our storytelling to fit the space and the audience, so many cool things. And how to make sure the show could “go on” no matter what!
In general, theatre taught me to work with all kinds of people who were different from me, to lead when necessary and follow when necessary, to think creatively in myriad contexts, to gauge an audience– whatever that might mean in the “real world,” to always have a back-up plan, to roll with change, and to enjoy the moment, because everything, the good and the bad, changes.
What do you wish young people knew about this book?
The main character of AfterMath, Lucy, is an outsider at her new school. She’s the only kid who didn’t live there when a shooting happened four years earlier. I wanted Lucy to be the narrator of this story because I think readers will relate to her situation– maybe not exactly or specifically, but I think each of us has had a moment or two (or ten!) in life where we felt like an outsider.
Some of the most fun I had writing the book was working on all the math jokes and math problems in the story. I hope you’ll find the jokes as funny to read as I did to write.
I also wrote AfterMath because it scared me. Putting my fears down on paper and then out into the world feels really good! I encourage readers of all ages to do the same thing: don’t ignore your fears! Often, the things that scare us are the things we need to pay attention to. They’re telling us that they matter, and we have to do something about them. I’m glad I listened to my fears and turned them into something I hope will start conversations and action.
What do you want parents to know about the book?
I encourage parents to read this book– and any book, really– as their kid reads it, but then, when discussing it, to let the kid talk about it first. The generation of kids in middle school today have to cope with things we did not have to think about when we were their ages– social media, the pandemic, active shooter drills, climate change fears– kids have a lot to bring to the discussion that we haven’t experienced.
On the other side of that same coin, I think that as parents we bring a lot of additional knowledge and context to a book like AfterMath. We might have apprehensions about our kids thinking about hard things, or worry that a book like this will make them sad. That is not the experience I have found in researching other, similar books and from talking to teachers, librarians, and parents about introducing tweens to hard topics. Conversely, kids are often relieved to find an opening to start a discussion with the grownups in their lives, or to see that they are not alone in their thoughts or feelings.
If people are inspired after reading AfterMath, how can they get involved in gun violence prevention advocacy?
I am so glad you asked! There are so many amazing advocacy organizations out there doing the important work. A few of my favorites are Moms Demand Action for Gun Sense in America, which is part of Everytown.org; March for our Lives, because it was created by students who experienced violence firsthand and know what we need to do to help survivors; The Ana Grace Project, which offers amazing resources for school-based clinical services and other programs fostering empathy and understanding, as well as The Sandy Hook Promise; Giffords Law Center; and The Jesse Lewis Choose Love Movement. There are so many people doing excellent work. It always makes me happy that there are so many ways to get involved, so many kinds of action to choose from! All of these organizations have ways to participate that don’t involve just donating money, which I think is important for kids who want to do something. They can find a way to use their unique talents or energy to be part of the solution, which fosters a future lifetime of activism by showing kids how to do it and what we can accomplish!
So much talk is spent these days on Social-Emotional Learning. It strikes me that your characters in AfterMath are at the fore of that, having lived through unimaginable tragedy. How did you prepare to write about these big feelings, and what was the kind of journey you were hoping your characters could go on. What take-aways about emotion and feeling are there here for your readers?
I wanted the kids in the book to grow and develop more emotional intelligence over the course of the story, and they surprised me with how much capacity they had.
It was really important to me to show a realistic disagreement in the story– there is a fight between Lucy and Avery involving a misunderstanding and a healthy dose of both jealousy and fear. I hope I was able to model a healthy way for them to resolve this; in a culture where so many people just give up and stay angry or walk away when something bad happens, I wanted to show that some disagreements can be worked out and some betrayals can be forgiven. That said, I hope I also show that some cannot, that some hurts are too big and too awful, and that we don’t owe forgiveness to everyone. It’s a lot more nuanced than I remember learning as a kid!
I also loved getting to create a world where kids talked openly about their traumas, where going to therapy was super normal, and where showing emotion wasn’t unusual or taboo. I liked creating a teacher who was empathetic and involved, but not too involved, who could admit that sometimes he didn’t know how to deal with things, who gave kids space to be the people they wanted to become. I got to create a world that was, in some ways ideal, but in the midst of a very-much-not-ideal one, following a nightmare situation.
I hope I show the readers that there can be joy and healing and resilience and friendship beyond even the most horrific of tragedies. It doesn’t happen overnight, and it should never be forced, but it’s certainly possible.
It’s hard to have the context of long-term healing when you’ve only been alive for 12 or 14 years. Everything feels urgent when you’re that age because it is! But a gift that we grownups can give to our kids is the knowledge that there’s always a next chapter. If we’re lucky, as Lucy says, there’s always more: more time, more love, more friendship, more opportunities to keep trying.
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