“There were plenty of books in middle grade that had kids with differences but they were side characters. I wanted to create a kid that had these differences who wasn’t just this passive person you park in a corner.” Author Jamie Sumner talks to host Mary Laura Philpott about Tune it Out on NPT’s A Word on Words.
Jamie Sumner writes novels for children who may not see kids just like themselves in books all that often. In doing so, she taps into universal emotions, creating stories that open up conversation among both young people and adults. In this episode of A Word on Words, she talks with host Mary Laura Philpott about who she writes for, why she keeps writing, and what inspired her latest novel, Tune It Out.
Mary Laura Philpott: Welcome, Jamie.
Jamie Sumner: Thanks for having me.
Philpott: Thank you for joining us for one of these special Zoom episodes. Where are you joining us from?
Sumner: I am joining you from my kitchen, which I also use as a book storage unit. I’m in Nashville, Tennessee.
Philpott: Give us a quick overview of Tune It Out. Who and what is this book about?
Sumner: Tune It Out is the story of 12-year-old Lou Montgomery. She has the voice of an angel — like if you heard her on The Voice, you’d know she would win — and her mother wants to make her a star. Unfortunately, live performances are Lou’s worst nightmare. She has an undiagnosed sensory processing disorder that makes performing nearly impossible. And when child protective services separate the two of them, the mother and daughter, Lou really begins her journey to discover her own voice. Apart from what people tell her she is, she learns to fight for herself and really form opinions about the world and her place in it for the very first time.
Philpott: Wonderful. We’re going to come back to this book in a moment, but first — you’ve written nonfiction for adults as well as fiction for children. And I’m wondering at what point in your career as a writer you decided that writing about kids for kids is something that you wanted to do.
Sumner: I would say it’s kind of a loop. What I wanted to do from the very beginning is write fiction for kids. Like, from the time I was a kid, that’s what I wanted to do. And then the nonfiction sort of happened almost upon its own. When my oldest son, Charlie, was born, he was born with a lot of health complications, and the nonfiction that I started to write for adults came out of my experience in parenting him and the words that I wanted to say to a fellow parent going through that.
Then the fiction came when Charlie got to a place that he was stable and healthy, where you have more brain space because you’re not here [gestures] on Maslow’s hierarchy of needs. You can hop up a little bit. The fiction then came because I could let myself explore other ideas — still about kids who were different in really wonderful ways, but not my own life and my own kids.
Philpott: I’m curious about some of the writers or books that inspired you — and also what you weren’t seeing in literature that made you want to write the books that you write.
Sumner: Oh, I can talk about this all day. So the thing that really got me writing fiction in the beginning — with the first book Roll With It, my first book that came out for kids, which came out last year — was the idea that Charlie was going to be in the library, looking for books. And there was not a book for him that reflected his experience. There were plenty of books in middle grade that had kids with differences, but they were side characters. They were like, let’s just throw this person in to further the plot. And they were very one-dimensional. Or if they were the main character, they just felt too sweet, innocent and cuddly. I think if you ever meet kids that have gone through what my son has gone through, they’re so tough.
And that for me was why I wrote Roll With It in the beginning, because I wanted to create a character that had these differences. In the book, Ellie, the main character, has cerebral palsy. Like I said, it wasn’t just her wheels, you know — she wasn’t just this passive person, parked in a corner. That’s kind of why I wanted to write what I write.
As far as children’s books that I just adored, I love anything that Kate DiCamillo writes — anything at all. I love her voice. I love how she creates strong characters, and she can do it so succinctly. She has so many great one-liners. It’s like every line is a one-liner.
Philpott: We’ve had her on the show. She’s so great.
Sumner: So great. And I love Fish in a Tree, Lynda Mullaly Hunt. I love her and everything she writes too. Her book One for the Murphys was the first book that I just bought and cried and cried and cried and cried because it got me so hard. Those are some of the ones where I appreciate the style and the subject matter. I feel like kids in the middle grades especially are primed to deal with all different kinds of subjects, because — like Lou in Tune It Out — they are starting to look around and differentiate themselves from their family and their teachers and kind of get their own opinion. For better or worse.
Philpott: I would say you also seem amazingly capable of putting yourself into the mind of a child and taking on that child’s perspective of the world. How do you do that?
Sumner: The thing that never worked for me as a little kid is finally working for me now — that “you’re too sensitive” comment that I got when I was little, forever. If empathy could be a superpower, then that, as a kid, was my superpower. I just felt everything . . . which makes it a little rough when like boys are mean to you in gym class! And you remember things. I can still remember remarks that happened when I was in third grade, things like that. But now as a writer, it really helps me, because middle school is right there in my brain. It’s still there. For my job now that works out well.
It’s a big thing people always ask me: how did you do such a good job putting yourself in these people’s shoes? The thing I always kind of try to explain, or a caveat would be, these are all things that everybody feels. It’s not like just this person in this situation, because they are different, feels this. No. Lou has to start at a new school, and she’s the new kid. That’s terrifying, right? Or you wonder if your mother really loves you and if your mother loves you, why did she do this thing to you? Or . . . . all of those emotions, everybody feels. We’re all feeling all the things.
Philpott: You do a lovely job of finding the emotional core of the story. One of the things I find so gratifying in your stories is the way you address the failings of parents. You do it unflinchingly, but you also do it with real empathy. I’m thinking about, in this book, how Lou’s mother makes mistakes. She’s just human and she has problems of her own that she’s trying to deal with as a person, while also being a mother to Lou. Why is it so important to you to depict that angle?
Sumner: I think Lou’s mom could have been . . . it would have been very easy to make her a cliché, like this stage mom who’s in it all for herself. But that’s not real life. People are not just one-dimensional. I think as far as the parents go in the stories that I write, I want them to be as much a part of the plot as the kids, because the other half of this is, it’s hard for kids to see their parents any other way than almost one-dimensional. And I don’t mean that in a bad way, but —
Philpott: No, that’s real.
Sumner: I mean, right? And whatever that one dimension is changes as they go through ages, but I think it’s important for them to see and understand empathy for each other, but also for the grownups in their lives — the teachers, the parents. I don’t think it benefits them any if the parents come out flat in the story either, because it’s important to teach them to focus on all the other people in their lives and not just the kids. Also, I’m a grownup and I’m a parent in the thick of it. You could not be more in the woods than I am with my kids. And I just couldn’t not honor that relationship in a way that would make it real.
Philpott: The multi-dimensional aspects of the characters make for a multi-dimensional read too. My kids are older than yours — they’re teenagers now — but when they were younger, one of the ways that they took in books was that my husband would read out loud to them every night. Giving the parent, who may or may not be participating in this reading experience with the kid, a multidimensional adult to be reading about just enriches that whole experience.
Sumner: I love that your husband was the one that read. My husband’s the one that reads to mine too. We’re the writers, but like they end up being the ones who read the books. That’s funny.
Philpott: I didn’t have the patience for it.
Sumner: I don’t either! I will cuddle with my daughter and have her read next to me. But the co-reading is just a little . . .
Philpott: I didn’t get the DNA for co-reading. People who are made to be teachers and have endless patience, I have so much appreciation for that, because they are not me.
Sumner: Oh, I taught high school for 10 years.
Philpott: You did?
Sumner: Oh, yeah. I taught high school English. Creative writing classes and seminars. I did all of that, but it’s different when it’s not your own children and when you can issue demerits and things like that. And then after fifty minutes they trot out the door. That’s a little bit different.
Philpott: Very good point. Key difference. Speaking of school, how have your books been received by libraries and schools? What has your interaction been like with teachers and students?
Sumner: I miss school visits so much. The schools themselves have been incredible. I think we’re at a time where everybody is trying to increase diversity on their bookshelves in every way they can. And because of that, the librarians that are out there, just thinking outside the box in ways to get these books to kids, they’re just amazing. It’s been wonderful getting to visit the schools and talk about Roll With It. I’ve done Zoom visits with Tune It Out, but I haven’t gotten to visit yet.
You don’t appreciate all that the teachers are doing in the libraries until you get in there and you see how hard they’re working to be creative, to find solutions so that this one book can get in this kid’s hands, you know? And they’re not thinking globally, they’re thinking, “Oh, that one kid who sits in this corner would benefit from this book.” They’re the ones. I mean, it’s like the independent bookstores that really find . . . you really develop a relationship with them. They’re your biggest advocate for the message you’re trying to get out there. I love them. I love them.
Philpott: It’s a very personal kind of matchmaking that they do. I love how Lou in Tune It Out finds a sense of community with a theater production at school. Were you a theater kid?
Sumner: I was such a theater kid. The book is dedicated to my theater teacher, who has sent me many messages since the book has come out, because she’s so excited about it. I was the geekiest version of a theater kid, that was me. Starting in middle school, I was a thespian, but I was the one that liked to do the assistant directing. I was the one that would follow everyone around with the binder and tell them when they got their line wrong and where to stand. And like I wore the headset during the production and made sure everyone was backstage and not playing around in the bathrooms when they shouldn’t be. So I’ve grown up loving theater. You know how you when you’re writing a scene, you’re just like, “This is just delicious for me to get to write, because it is so part of me”? That was the theater aspect in this for me.
Philpott: Okay, now it’s not surprising me at all that you went into teaching. You were a little teacher!
Sumner: I was. I’m sure it was annoying.
Philpott: What’s the hardest part of writing for you?
Sumner: Currently it’s finding a place to write. My best spot right now is in our giant bathtub in our bathroom. It’s empty. I sit in it in my son’s supportive bather. I use it as an actual chair and I turn the bathroom vents on so the kids think that I’m actually in the shower. I’ll sit in there and hide and write.
I think the hardest part for me, what takes me so many rewrites, is that I really want to make sure that every character in the story gets their screen time, I guess, and has their own character arc, their own thing they’re working through. For me, I think that takes so many drafts because when I write initially, I write really, really fast, like two weeks for a first draft.
Sumner: Well, don’t say wow anymore — because then it’s like a year after that that I spend on the next drafts, and it all gets worked out in the wash. But I’ll do the first draft really fast. And then that’s when I pick through who’s not coming across quite as clear as I want, and I go back and do my empathy thing with them and make sure that they get what they need.
Philpott: I’m just picturing you just sitting in the bathtub, trying to hammer out that two-week draft.
Sumner: With a bed pillow on my lap because it’s a little uncomfortable in the bathtub.
Philpott: Jamie, I know you’re tapped into the wonderful community of fellow authors of books for young people, both here in our area and across the country. Can you tell me a little bit about the relationships and the camaraderie that you find in that community?
Sumner: So I have to give a shout out to Kristin O’Donnell Tubb, who is a fellow Nashville author. If I had to pick someone who was my first local author friend, it would be Kristin. And she is just one of those people who you just want to be around. She was so welcoming. I thank her in both of my books, because she’s just one of those people who really is generous with her time and her knowledge. I think that’s really important, no matter what stage of the writing journey you’re on — to find those people who you can lean on and complain to and celebrate with and all of those other things. And they get it. Your spouse, your significant other, is probably not going to get it. Your kids are definitely not going to get it. I was in a Facebook group with fellow debut authors last year, and that was just a blast because we were all going through that initial journey together. It’s really important to find those people.
Philpott: It is. I agree with you both generally about finding groups of people and also specifically about Kristin. She is a very generous soul. I hope her ears are burning right now, wherever she is while we’re talking about her.
Okay, so the last thing is really fun and easy. It’s our lightning round. I’m going to ask you just a handful of short questions, and you can answer in as brief a response as you like.
Philpott: All right. If you could be anywhere other than where you are right now, where would you be?
Sumner: Here’s why: I’m currently reading a murder mystery set in Ireland, but the scenery just sounds lovely.
Philpott: Early riser or night owl, which are you?
Sumner: Early riser by a thousand percent.
Philpott: When you read, do you like to read a physical book, do you like to read on an e-reader, or do you like to listen to an audio book?
Sumner: I like the physical book. I like to be able to hold it in my hands and I I’ve tried everything else. I can sometimes read on an e-reader, but I just like the book. I like to hold it.
Philpott: When you are writing, do you tend to write on multiple projects at one time or are you creatively monogamous?
Sumner: I love that. I’m creatively monogamous for the first draft. And then once my focus is a little less magnified on that one thing, then I can do other things. Like I can edit this manuscript and then I can go and do my copy edits for the next book and I can kind of dabble and do non-fiction essays and things like that.
Philpott: Back to when you’re reading, when you have to put your book down and go do something else, do you put in a bookmark? Do you fold down the corner of the page or are you a monster who cracks the book open and sets it down?
Sumner: I’m almost embarrassed. I fold the page. People get very upset about that.
Philpott: It’s okay. You can’t be too precious about the book. I underline. I flip down pages.
Sumner: You’re making it your own.
Philpott: Last one: If we were going to meet up for coffee and you said, meet me in the bookstore or meet me in the library, where would I look for you first? What section?
Sumner: Okay. Hmm. Oh, for the bookstore I always gravitate toward the new releases because I’m a sucker for a shiny display. I can’t help it. My husband calls it my gas station tendency, because I’m the one that can’t go into a gas station to buy anything and not come out with 12 things because they’re all at the register — you know, like all the candy and all the fun gadgets. Anything that’s shiny, I’m just there for it.
Philpott: Ha! I love it. Jamie, thank you so much for joining us.
Sumner: Thanks for having me. This was so fun.
Jamie Sumner Recommends
All Adults Here by Emma Straub
Genesis Begins Again by Alicia D. Williams
The Death of Mrs. Westaway by Ruth Ware
The Mountains Wild by Sarah Stewart Taylor
What You Wish For by Katherine Center
The One and Only Bob by Katherine Applegate