Chris Baron is the author of ALL OF ME, a middle-grade verse novel (Feiwel and Friends/Macmillan, 2019). He tells the story of Ari, who faces many relatable challenges in his life including family, religious identity, friendships, and the struggle of being an overweight adolescent in a sometimes unkind world. Chris does a beautiful job of portraying Ari in an honest way that will surely connect with readers. ALL OF ME is both brave and tender, a must-read for kids, parents, and teachers. ALL OF ME is a book that can heal hearts. I’m honored to have the opportunity to chat with Chris about his work.
Tell me a bit about your inspiration for Ari, your main character.
Ari is the main character in a book of my heart, so he is definitely a character born from my experiences both internally and externally. The book has also has been called a fictional retelling, and I like how that sounds because I think it really captures the inspiration for Ari. Here’s a little piece from the article in the LA Times: “A lot of people ask me, ‘Is this book true?’ It is kind of a fictional retelling of my life. I have an artist mom in real life, and my parents were just very busy parents. And I had to deal with my weight issues. I had a lot of fun growing up, but it was really hard.”
I think that the other side of Ari is that he is more of a gentle soul, and I’ve known so many kids like this growing up–kids who would adventure, take risks, challenge themselves, but don’t necessarily want to step on anyone as part of it. I wanted to give some voice for them too.
You do a lovely job of weaving in Ari’s Jewish identity in both traditional and non-traditional ways. Why was this important for your development of the character?
Thank you. This was such an emotional and challenging part of the story to write, and so much of this, again, comes from some direct experience. I felt that the traditional and non-traditional aspects of Ari’s Jewish identity are such a crucial part of the book, of Ari’s sacred journey. This is such an important time for kids who are starting to discover their own identity in their own way, and Ari grapples with this directly. Even though his parents might not be extremely involved in their own practices(for one reason or another) his extended family is, and this had a huge impact on him. It’s his culture, and his heritage, and it feels “off” since they have moved. Especially since his parents are too busy to even help him get ready for his bar mitzvah. I really loved writing the rabbi character so much, and the relationship between Ari and the rabbi really develops Ari’s intense coming of age, independence, and also trust in not only his Jewish identity but trust in himself.
You provide some unusual details about Northern California in the setting – from the city to the sea, including a most unusual dwelling where Ari and his mom stay. Are you very familiar with this area?
Yes! So this is another aspect of the inspiration for the book that comes from experience. She actually did take over an old Nursery on Shoreline Highway, and we lived there all summer–much like Ari and his friends do. I wanted to capture that adventurous and soaring, natural landscape of Marin/Stinson Beach as well as on the streets of San Francisco where so much of the story takes place.
I went to Mill Valley Middle School, and I lived in San Francisco, so this is all familiar terrain that holds a special place in my heart. It’s part of my own geography. These are all places where I spent a lot of time riding my bike with friends, learning what we were capable of, making a lot of mistakes, avoiding bullies, but also exploring such a diverse and inspiring setting.
Ari struggles with his weight, but he also struggles with his parents, friendships, and more. What part of Ari’s journey do you think most readers will connect with?
I love this question: I want to shout something like self-confidence! Hope! Adventure! Now that the book has come out, and I am connecting with more readers, it’s been interesting to talk to them. Lots of young readers really connect with the idea of feeling like an outcast, and like Ari expresses in the book internally, feel full of emotions but rarely share it–or even know how to. I really hope this story can help clear the way for kids to know that it’s okay to have emotional responses and to share them with people who care about them.
I do think that many kids, teachers, librarians, parents will relate to the body image issues–but also gain some understanding (or relate to) what it feels like to deal with it day in and day out without feeling accepted for who you are–always pushed to change, but not always in the healthiest ways. Through the story I am hoping people will connect with the journey of self-acceptance.
I think readers will learn about empathy and kindness for others, Jewish faith, culture and tradition, but also faith in general, overcoming struggles with body image, friendship, taking risks, and learning more about being brave and being themselves no matter what. I hope readers, especially the young ones, will know that if they are going through difficult things like the characters in the book, they will know that they are not alone.
ALL OF ME is a middle grade novel, but you didn’t shy away from some difficult issues. Was it a challenge for you to balance these issues while keeping the story age-appropriate?
This was maybe the greatest challenge. I wanted to make sure the book was real and faced this issue with honesty and power. So this is where I can say how thankful I am for my writing group, my agent, Rena Rossner, and my editor, Liz Szabla, because they really worked with every ounce of this book to make sure that we really could stay true to the difficult issues, face them in a raw and real way, but also make sure that the voice and the approach stays authentic and age-appropriate (while still pushing the boundaries just enough). It’s been a real joy getting a chance to talk with lots of educators and readers about some of these tough issues. I’ve found that kids are so brave, and they jump right in with the most honest questions. They are so hungry for stories that reveal truths about the world they live in.
I am also excited because soon enough, working with my publisher, we are developing a study guide for educators, readers, and families to have and use as a guide when reading about some of the tougher issues in the story.
Personally, I am really looking forward to being available to readers to discuss the themes of the book in whatever way might.
Thank you, Chris!
Learn more about Chris and ALL OF ME at Chris-Baron.com