Author Spotlight: Jen Petro-Roy

Today is Valentine’s Day, but for middle-grade author Jen Petro-Roy, February 19 is the day to celebrate. Why? She has not one but TWO MG books launching that day, both from Feiwel & Friends: Good Enough, a contemporary middle-grade novel that explores a preteen’s recovery from anorexia, and You Are Enough, a self-help book for young readers who are struggling with eating and body-image issues. Here, Petro-Roy discusses why she chose to address the theme of disordered eating, and what she hopes readers will gain from her books.

MR: First, happy book(s) birthday, Jen! Publishing two books on the same day is a huge achievement—and highly unusual. What was your publisher’s strategy behind this? And what does it feel like to launch two books at once?

JPR: It is unusual—and exciting! I don’t think this is done very often in publishing, and I’m honored that Macmillan/Feiwel & Friends believed in me enough to market and publish these books together. Good Enough was the second book of my publishing contract (my MG debut, P.S. I Miss You, was published in 2018), and after I began writing it, I realized that besides the manuscript that I was writing, I wasn’t aware of many middle- grade books that featured a protagonist suffering from an eating disorder.

This made me realize that there weren’t many self-help books out there for teens and tweens with eating disorders, either–and that this disease, which seems to be starting earlier and earlier, is an all-too-common occurrence. When I was sick, the “recovery literature” was mainly geared towards college-aged kids or adults—either that, or to parents, and I really wanted there to be something out there that kids could turn to when they compared themselves to their friends; or saw their peers or parents going on a diet; or felt like their body was defective in some way. So I wrote up a proposal and my agent sent it on to my editors. They accepted, and I got to work!

MR: Let’s talk first about your contemporary MG, Good Enough. In this novel, 12-year-old Riley, an aspiring artist, is placed in an in-treatment facility for anorexia. I’ve read that the topic of disordered eating is a personal one for you. Can you tell us how this is reflected in your book?

JPR: Like Riley, I suffered from anorexia nervosa, with an accompanying exercise addiction. Unlike Riley, though, I got sick later in life, when I went to college. However, the feelings that I felt, both when I was sick and when I started to go through treatment and recovery, are universal. There’s fear and hope, bargaining, and doubt. There’s relapse and struggle and so much more. I have a huge stack of old journals from when I was sick, and like Riley, I wrote about what I went through and the people I met through treatment. I definitely cried at some points while writing this book, but I’m so glad that I reflected the journey accurately. I’ve heard from some readers who had once had an eating disorder that they related to Riley a lot.

MR: What most connects you most to your main character, Riley? How is she different from you? How is she the same?

JPR: Riley and I are definitely a lot alike. Like her, I struggled with running as a symptom of my disease and felt like my family didn’t understand how hard recovery was for me. I actually felt like no one understood what I was going through, which was a major reason I wanted to write this book; to assure kids that they aren’t alone, and to help others become more empathetic to the struggles of those dealing with an eating disorder. Riley and I are both highly internal and like to reflect on the world through words. She’s absolutely her own person, though; she has different insecurities than I do and her relationships play out in different ways. I love her so.

MR: Writing such a deeply personal book must have been an extremely emotional experience for you. How did you deal with the highs and lows? Were some sections/chapters harder to write than others?

JPR: Like I mentioned, I absolutely did tear up. I think that unpacking those emotions was really cathartic. I’ve gone through therapy but there’s always more to deal with, and it was interesting to be able to see my feelings and journey through Riley while also making her a unique character of her own. The beginning of the book, when she is more ambivalent and conflicted about recovery, was definitely more difficult for me to write. From my vantage point, I wanted to just tell her to get better; that life is so much more fulfilling on the other side! But I knew that for Riley, as for the many other kids who suffer from eating disorders, recovery is a process and she had to go through these struggles to move forward.

MR: What kind of research did you do for Good Enough? And what about for your self-help book, You Are Enough: Your Guide to Body Image and Eating Disorder Recovery?

JPR: I did so much research, and I honestly enjoyed every second of it. Above all, I wanted to make sure that You Are Enough was super inclusive, so I interviewed males who had suffered from eating disorders, those who identify as LGBQTIA+, people with chronic illnesses, and those who aren’t the size that stereotypically suffer from eating disorders. I also talked to people active in the fat-acceptance movement, to body-positive nutritionists, and to those who suffered from bulimia, binge-eating disorder, and more. The end result is that this book isn’t about the “typical” eating- disorder sufferer. It has lessons for anyone who is struggling with their self-image.

MR: Speaking of which, what is the main message behind You Are Enough? Do you consider it a companion to your novel?

JPR: I do consider You Are Enough a companion to Good Enough; in fact, I’m sure Riley would have gotten a lot of out of it! But the books can be read independently from each other, too. They’re connected in their message, though; that you don’t have to look a certain way, or act a certain way, or “seem” a certain way to have value. You don’t have to control your life through an eating disorder, because eventually it will come to control you. Deep down, you are enough just as you are. All you have to do is live…and BE.

MR: Finally, your first MG novel, P.S. I Miss You (Macmillan, 2018), garnered considerable controversy when schools and libraries, in both liberal and conservative parts of the country, declined visits from you, due to your book’s frank examination of sexual orientation, teen pregnancy, and religion. How did this affect you overall? And how did it affect your approach to writing Good Enough? Was it a help, or a hindrance?

JPR: I honestly don’t think the pushback that P.S. I Miss You received affected Good Enough in any way. Partly because the book was drafted by the time of my debut’s release, but mostly because I firmly believe that kids need books that deal with “tough” issues; books that talk about the sensitive issues that everyone deals with in some way. Every reader may not have an eating disorder, but they may know someone with one. Or they may struggle with another issue. It’s only by bringing the full range of humanity into the light that we can learn how to have to empathy for others and realize we are not alone.

For more about Jen Petro-Roy, visit her website and follow her on Instagram and Twitter.

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Melissa Roske
Melissa Roske is a writer of contemporary middle-grade fiction. Before spending her days with imaginary people, Melissa interviewed real ones, as a journalist in Europe. In London, she landed a job as an advice columnist for Just Seventeen magazine, where she answered hundreds of letters from readers each week. Upon returning to her native New York, Melissa contributed to several books and magazines, selected jokes for Reader’s Digest, and got certified as a life coach. She lives in Manhattan with her husband, daughter, and the occasional dust bunny. Kat Greene Comes Clean (Charlesbridge, 2017) is her debut novel.