Today I’m interviewing Lisa Jenn Bigelow about her upcoming middle-grade novel, Hazel’s Theory of Evolution, a delightful and heartwrenching story about friends, family and growing up. Also, to the best of my knowledge, the very first middle-grade novel with an a-spec protagonist. I’ve been lucky enough to get a review copy (thank you, Lisa!) and the review will go up next Monday. Hazel’s Theory of Evolution releases on October 8th, 2019. That’s a little under a month from now, so you still have time to preorder this charming story! It’s so sweet. Definitely also get it if you (or your child) love animals. You’ll have a goat time! (Yes, I occasionally pun. Badly. Sorry not sorry?)
For now, though, let me give you the blurb of the book and pass the blog on to Lisa Jenn Bigelow! We talk about asexuality and labels, balancing laughter and tears, and friendship.
Hazel knows all about life on Earth. She could tell you anything from what earthworms eat to how fast a turkey can run. That’s because when she’s not hanging out with her best friend, Becca, or helping care for the goats on her family’s farm, she loves reading through dusty old encyclopedias. But even Hazel doesn’t have answers for the questions awaiting her as she enters eighth grade.
Due to redistricting, she has to attend a new school where she worries no one will understand her. And at home things get worse when she discovers one of her moms is pregnant. Hazel can’t wait to be a big sister, but her mom has already miscarried twice. Hazel fears it might happen again.
As Hazel struggles through the next few months, she’ll grow to realize that if the answers to life’s most important questions can’t be found in a book, she’ll have to find them within herself.
LEO: Hazel’s Theory of Evolution is one of the most heart-warming, queer books I’ve ever read, yet it deals with some extremely heavy topics such as bullying and the fear of her mother’s pregnancy going wrong. Did you find it difficult to balance between the two?
LJB: Pregnancy loss and infant death can tear families apart, but that wasn’t the story I wanted to tell in Hazel. I wanted to tell the story of a family that stays together, no matter what. That meant giving Hazel’s family (and friends) a lot of love and a lot of laughter because, at the risk of sounding corny, love and laughter are how we all get through the tough times in our lives. I took inspiration from Beverly Cleary’s Quimby family, Lois Lowry’s Krupnik family, and Madeleine L’Engle’s Austin family: funny, frank, and not without drama, but always loving to the core.
Plus, I’m only half-kidding when I say my personal rule is that every book I write has to make me laugh out loud and also has to make me cry. The most memorable rejection I got for my first novel, Starting from Here, complained that the book either needed to be happier or sadder. I guess my heart is balanced on that bittersweet cusp.
LEO: You’ve said in other interviews that you don’t really get along with labels, so how did this affect the writing of Hazel? You mention that Hazel is aroace in a lovely author’s note, but how did you balance people’s dislike of labels with people’s need for them in the story itself?
LJB: Labels are tricky. There are the labels other people give us and the labels we claim for ourselves, and sometimes the two don’t mesh. I describe Hazel as aromantic and asexual for the sake of readers who may not be familiar with those concepts or terms. Whether Hazel herself would claim those labels, or different labels, or any at all, would be a personal choice beyond this story’s scope. In contrast, Hazel’s friend Carina firmly claims the label transgender.
Beyond that, I minimize the use of labels. For example, Hazel’s moms have been married for over a decade, but I don’t delve into their dating histories or label their identities, because it didn’t seem relevant to the story. Instead, they are defined by their relationship to Hazel and to each other.
LEO: When the book starts, Hazel decides that she’s going to hibernate for a whole year. Obviously, this doesn’t work and the whole book calls out the stereotype that aros and aces are cold and unfeeling, but was busting stereotypes on your mind while drafting the book?
LJB: If my guiding image while writing Hazel was Darwin’s Tree of Life, my mantra was “Only connect!” from Howards End, by E. M. Forster. I wanted to explore the idea of all life, and all lives, being interconnected, whether we like it or not. You can’t opt out, you don’t exist in a vacuum. And you can’t disconnect from your own feelings, either, however appealing the idea might be. Love makes you vulnerable. Connection makes you vulnerable. But it’s also key to survival.
I hadn’t originally conceived Hazel as aroace—more on that later—so stereotype busting was not on my mind. I just had this idea of Hazel being a bit of a misanthrope and desperate to insulate herself against further pain. But I’m very glad the story worked out the way it did, with the theme that there are many ways to forge connections with other people, many different types of love out there, and that they don’t have to fit a certain mold to be valuable and valid.
Side note: I recently rewatched Ghostbusters (2016) and realized that, just possibly, Holtzmann’s toast to her friends at the end of the movie subconsciously inspired Hazel’s declaration of love to her friends in the school cafeteria.
LEO: Over the course of the book, Hazel and her best friend start to grow more apart. I’ve heard a lot of aces and aros talk about wishing that more books dealt with friendship break-ups. Though Hazel and Becca stay friends, can you tell us a little more about the importance of friendship in the book?
LJB: I wanted to show that a strong friendship can survive change. People change, and it follows that their friendships will, too. These changes may be painful, but they don’t have to be intentional or cruel or even necessarily harmful. Sometimes we seem to think friendships have to be all or nothing. They don’t. They wane and wax according to circumstances.
Too many stories villainize girls especially for “becoming popular” and ditching their old friends. I know this sometimes happens in real life, but I think it’s usually more complicated, as in Hazel and Becca’s situation. Once they were each other’s lifeline, but now that they’re at separate schools, they have to explore new options.
And they flourish. Their relationship loses its codependent aspect. So maybe it’s not just that strong friendships survive change. Friendships need to change to survive.
LEO: Hazel is going to be, to my knowledge, the first middle grade novel with a deliberately aroace protagonist published. Did that impact how you wrote the book at all? I’d imagine that can cause a lot of pressure during the publishing journey.
LJB: I hadn’t set out to create an aroace character in Hazel (though writing an ace character had been vaguely on my to-do list since I began considering myself on the ace spectrum a few years ago). So there wasn’t any special pressure at first.
But once it became apparent this was the direction Hazel’s orientation was taking, the questions began. How much of a discussion point did I want it to be? How should I explain terminology? Since I myself felt relatively new to the concepts, and at the fringes of the community, what if I accidentally wrote something hurtful?
Ultimately, I just wrote from the heart, drawing from my own experiences and emotions, though my journey toward self-understanding has been very different from Hazel’s. I read a-spec fora and think pieces to try to fill in the gaps. And as with any character I write, I asked myself, “What if I was a reader who feels the way Hazel feels—would I feel validated and supported?” Any answer less than 100% would have been unacceptable.
Lisa Jenn Bigelow grew up in Kalamazoo and still considers the Mitten State home. Lisa’s young adult novel, Starting from Here, was named a Rainbow List Top Ten Book by the American Library Association. Drum Roll, Please is her middle grade debut. When she isn’t writing, she serves as a youth librarian in the Chicago suburbs. Visit her online at www.lisajennbigelow.com.