I’ve been a fan of Chris Baron’s work since 2019, when I fell in love with his debut MG novel in verse, All of Me. My admiration for Chris’s books—and for his gorgeous, critically acclaimed writing—continued with The Magical Imperfect (2021), and most recently with The Gray, published last month by Feiwel and Friends/Macmillan, and hailed by Colby Sharp as “a magical and important book.” Now, it is my greatest pleasure to extend a warm Mixed-Up Files welcome to Chris Baron, shining brightly today in the Author Spotlight!
A Summary of The Gray
It’s been a tough year for Sasha―he’s been bullied at his middle school and his anxiety, which he calls the Gray, is growing. Sasha’s dad tells him to “toughen up”―and he does, but with unfortunate, hurtful results. His parents and therapist agree that a summer in the country, with his aunt Ruthie, might be the best medicine, but it’s the last place he wants to be. Sasha will be away from his best friend, video games, and stuck in the house that reminds him of his beloved uncle Lou, who died two years earlier.
Aunt Ruthie is supportive, and there are lots of places to explore, and even some potential new friends. When Sasha is introduced at a local ranch to a horse coincidentally, and incredibly, nicknamed the Gray, he feels he’s found a kindred spirit. But his own Gray is ever-present. When one of his new friends disappears, Sasha discovers that the country is wilder and more mysterious than he imagined. He tries to muster enough courage to help in the search . . . but will the Gray hold him back?
Chris Baron: The Interview
MR: Welcome to the Mixed-Up Files, Chris! It’s such a pleasure to have you here.
CB: Thank you! I feel so honored to be here with you!
MR: Could you please share your inspiration behind The Gray, including your thoughtful and detailed exploration of Sasha’s struggle with anxiety disorder?
The original inspiration for the story is rooted in imagery. That’s always an important part of writing any story. There was a time in my life where my parents abruptly left our busy life in New York City and moved us to a farm in Upstate New York. There were horses, an abandoned farmhouse, bats in the barn above the haylofts, and horses! That’s where I started riding horses—where horses became an important part of my life. Of course, as magical as it all was, there were all kinds of adventures, conflicts, and undiscovered things that I learned about myself and my family.
The other significant setting that really inspired me was my summer at Camp Shalom, a sleepaway camp that just happened to be across the lake from another camp, which had been abandoned. We spent some “unauthorized” times taking rowboats over to that camp. We were sure it was haunted!
As far as the anxiety: Certainly, my personal experience is a factor here in the inspiration—but also that we are in “undiscovered country” when it comes to understanding the kind of anxiety that kids are dealing with from the pandemic, and so many other factors in modern society. I see it in my college students, in my kids, and their friends. Anxiety is on the rise. I think books can help.
I Need A Hero
MR: In your Author’s Note, you state that Sasha, the protagonist of your novel, is an “unlikely hero.” Could you please elaborate?
CB: I don’t think Sasha would ever claim to be a hero. But sometime, somewhere in the adventure of our lives, we “step up” into something bigger than we are and play a part. In the story, Sasha is surprised when he feels a strong sense of purpose coming alive around his friends—discovering what they need, and how he might help. It’s love. Love inspires us to be a hero, even the most unlikely of us. For Sasha, it helps him get out of himself and navigate The Gray.
Dealing with Anxiety
MR: Like Sasha, you struggled with an anxiety disorder as a child. Can you tell us about this experience? How were your struggles similar to Sasha’s? How were they different?
CB: It’s true. I struggled a lot (and still do). When I was a kid, anxiety disorders were not commonly recognized or diagnosed, and mental-health awareness and treatments have evolved so much since then.
Just like Sasha, I shared a great sensitivity to my environment. That’s the core of Sasha’s gift: sensitivity to nature and his environment. That’s the core similarity. When the environment is challenging, overwrought, overwhelming, it can affect my nervous system, and growing up I didn’t always have the tools to handle things. So I often imagined worlds within worlds, sat beneath trees and read books, and played games with close friends to find safety and healing. This is true for Sasha, but he experiences a much more exacerbating and tangible form of anxiety that permeates his whole life: a world he calls The Gray.
MR: When Sasha leaves Manhattan for Aunt Ruthie’s house in Upstate New York, he’s forced to leave his devices and video games behind, at the suggestion of his therapist, to help ease his anxiety. Video games, phones—and social media in general—are pervasive features of modern life, but how are they particularly harmful for kids with anxiety?
CB: I am definitely not an expert, but one of the things I see is that technology and social media lives at the core of constructing self-image. As a parent, I see it with my own kids and their friends. Here is one article from the American Psychological Association that gets into some of it. For The Gray, I did extensive research including having Sasha “diagnosed” by a therapist. There are so many credible, peer-reviewed articles on this topic that are worth researching. For Sasha, devices and video games help ease his anxiety as part of his routine; but when those things stop working, the therapist suggests “an immediate break.”
I think it’s always good not to demonize things like video games and technology; there are many proven benefits for brain development, social activity, and so on. But in Sasha’s case, and the case for many of us, the things you mention can be so harmful. For Sasha, it was overwhelming for his senses and activated his imagination in unexpected ways. In the book, it’s alluded to that Sasha’s sensitivity to nature, his “gift” as Uncle Lou called it, gets taken over by his use of tech—until the tech squeezes out everything else.
This can happen sometimes: The technology dominates until it squeezes everything out and reforms the lens we look through. Sasha needs to make space for his natural gifts to grow, and shape him as they are meant to. I think that might be a little bit true for all of us.
Navigating Social Media
CB: Ha! Again, I am not an expert in this. I think we are all learning, all the time. My wife, Ella, and I are big believers in openness and honesty with our kids. We watched documentaries about social media and tech dependence. We monitor things while trying to allow freedom and discovery. Every family is different. For us, it was no phones until high school. But that isn’t for everyone. I think one concrete step might be community. Isolation can be one of the most harmful things, so being in a community of care and trust can help so much.
MR: Change is an important theme in this novel as Sasha grudgingly learns to love his gadget-free life at Aunt Ruthie’s house in the country. He also learns to ride horses and takes lessons in the martial art of Krav Maga. At the same time, Sasha’s dad wants his son to change—to “toughen up,” despite Sasha’s anxiety. What is it about change that, for most of us, is satisfying and terrifying in equal parts?
CB: Yes! I love this question, because it almost answers itself. The world is changing fast, and even good change can be difficult. Change is such a natural part of who we are—and this novel, like my others (and so many middle-grade novels)—is a coming-of-age story at its core. For Sasha (and like many of us), we don’t like change because it’s the unknown.
I suppose this is particularly hard for Sasha, because for him the unknown means that The Gray might find him. But by taking some control, and actively pursuing things like horseback riding, Krav Maga, and of course, new friendships, he learns that he is more capable, brave, and resilient than he thinks he is. This has a hugely positive effect on understanding his anxiety. Change can often define us, but Sasha doesn’t face these changes alone. None of us should have to.
An Unlikely Friendship
MR: Friendship is another central theme in this novel, when Sasha meets Eli, an older boy who is struggling to come to terms with a violent assault perpetrated against his younger brother. Sasha, who has struggles of his own—including bullying, which heightens his anxiety—hires Eli as his bodyguard. In time, the boys forge a strong if unlikely bond. Can you tell us more about the significance of Sasha and Eli’s friendship?
CB: Eli. One of my favorite characters ever. From the start, Sasha feels a connection with Eli. Eli, somehow, can penetrate The Gray and find Sasha in the midst of it, and because of it, Sasha and Eli form a sort of spiritual bond that draws them together. They need each other. Their unlikely friendship is a turning point for both of them.
(For more on Chris’s thoughts on The Gray, check out his interview in Publisher’s Weekly here.)
MR: While we’re on the subject of themes, the theme of bullying is present in all three of your novels. In All of Me, Ari is bullied for his weight
in The Magical Imperfect, Malia is bullied for having eczema; in The Gray, Sasha is bullied for his anxiety (aka “the Gray”) as well as for his uncommon name. What is it about this theme that impels you to explore it, again and again?
CB: It’s funny you ask this question. Forgive my answer. We were JUST rewatching Captain America: The First Avenger the other night (one of my favorite superheroes), and my daughters always watch my face during the scene where Dr. Erskine asks a then-tiny Steve Rogers if he wants to “kill Nazis.” His response is, “I don’t want to kill anyone. I don’t like bullies.” I tear up every time. My oldest daughter actually asked me recently, “Is this why you write about bullying?”
I don’t like bullies. One way or another, we all face bullying—physical, emotional, or spiritual—and it can have a severe and negative impact on our lives. It did in mine, and I always wish I had looked for help from a trusted adult. I was often told, like Sasha is in the book, to “toughen up.” But often we are too scared, too worried, too shy. Stories always helped me with this. I’m thankful I get to write stories that might help some readers feel seen, know they are not alone, and even get help.
The Significance of Judaism
MR: Changing gears, Jewish culture, traditions—and food!—are celebrated in all of your novels. (In The Gray, Aunt Ruthie’s kugel made my mouth water). As a Jewish writer, why is it important to incorporate Jewishness, and Judaism, in your books?
CB: The world is full of so many beautiful traditions. Judaism is part of me–and of course all of the incredible food traditions that go with it. I think Sasha’s Jewish heritage is very close to mine. The faith, the culture, and even the more mystical parts were all something I experienced with my family. For all of the Jewish holidays, big and small, I grew up hearing stories that helped me understand my heritage, my faith, my culture, and how I might fit into this giant world we live in. Those stories are relevant today, and I share them with my own children now. It’s fun to see them start to make these same connections as they grow.
MR: Also: Can you tell MUF readers about your upcoming Jewish MG anthology from Abrams, On All Other Nights: A Middle Grade Passover Anthology?
Oh, my goodness–our upcoming Jewish MG anthology is full of incredible stories from writers we love: Adam Gidwiz, Laurel Snyder, Sofiya Pasternack, and so many others. It’s been a labor of love to help edit (and write for) this project along with Josh Levy and Naomi Milliner, and we hope that this will be a wonderful book for all young readers and a fantastic companion for any Passover tradition.
Verse Versus Prose
MR: Your first two middle-grade novels were written in verse. What inspired you to choose prose for The Gray? How was your writing process for this novel different from the others? Any challenges or surprises?
CB: Since poetry feels more like my native language, I wrote much of The Gray in verse during the writing process. Of course, there are so many books that are poetic and lyrical, and I am hoping that’s true in places for The Gray. But eventually, the verse chapters became prosaic. As I explored the story, it was clear that this is a novel meant for prose. The way chapters unfolded, I found the story demanded more detail and exploration of setting, of time, and of action. So, prose… but the spirit of the book is verse.
(From the MUF archives: 5 MG authors–including Chris Baron–share their thoughts about writing novels in verse.)
MR: In addition to writing novels for young people as well as poetry (“Under the Broom Tree” was published in the anthology, Lantern Tree), you are a professor of English at San Diego City College and director of the Writing Center. How do you juggle these very different roles?
CB: It’s never easy to juggle. I love ALL MY JOBS, and this is an absolute gift. I often joke around with my creative writing students that when we write, we MUST be sitting in the bay window overlooking the rushing river while holding a warm tea. The reality is that we do what we can—when we can—making space when we need it and asking for help, and learning to value the creative parts of our lives in equal measure.
Advice for Writers
MR: As a professor of English, what’s your go-to advice? Also, are you a proponent of the common wisdom of “Write what you know”?
CB: Don’t wait. The perfect moment to start is likely not coming. Just get to it. I try to teach my students that revision is not a bad word; it’s actually the fun part.
As far as “writing what we know…” Of course! Every book I write is layered with aspects of my own life and experience. It’s also important to push past the “simple” and literal truths that we know and into what we hope for, dream about, are terrified of, and desire most, in order to reach into the complexities of story and song that evolve into book-worthy ideas.
Writing Rituals: Map It Out
MR: What does your writing routine look like? Do you have any particular rituals?
CB: So many rituals! They are always changing. All of Me was written in the late hours of the night, The Magical Imperfect in the early morning. The Gray was written whenever time allowed. No matter what, I try to put on the right music. Of all my rituals, the most important thing is that I start with a map of the world, which seems to push my brain into the right focus. I always loved maps in books. I hope one day one of these maps will show up in a book!
MR: What are you working on now Chris? Mixed-Up Files readers (and I!) are dying to know…
CB: Oh! We already mentioned the Passover anthology….but next up is The Secret Of The Dragon Gems, a middle-grade novel I cowrote with the one and only Rajani LaRocca. We had so much fun writing this book. It comes out THIS AUGUST! Check it out here. https://nerdybookclub.wordpress.com/2023/03/30/cover-reveal-the-secret-of-the-dragon-gems-by-rajani-larocca-chris-baron/
Next year, I also have a novel in verse coming that might just be my favorite one I’ve ever written. Forest Heart. It’s a character-driven story about kids who experience a wildfire in their Northern Californian town, and how they try to save the forest they love.
MR: And finally, no MUF interview is complete without a lightning round, so…
Preferred writing snack? Any chip or chip-related snack.
Coffee or tea? COFFEE. Coffee forever.
Zombie apocalypse: Yea or nay? Nay. (Please nay–I hope). But I’m ready, just in case.
Magic… Real or imagined? Real.
Favorite place on earth? Right here with my family. (Cheesy enough?) Okay, there’s a little spot in the San Diego mountains that I discovered last year…it’s old forest and running rivers. It’s my current favorite place.
If you were stranded on a desert island with only three things, what would they be? A water filtration system, a Star Trek food replicator, and while I’m in Star Trek mode—a transporter array. This way I can unstrand myself but also get back to this awesome Island.
MR: Thank you for chatting with us, Chris. It a pleasure, and I’m sure MUF readers will agree!
CB: I am such a huge fan of The Mixed-Up Files. Thank you for all you do!
Chris Baron is the award-winning author of novels for young readers including All Of Me, an NCTE Notable Book; The Magical Imperfect, a Sydney Taylor Book Award Notable Book/SLJ Best Book of 2021; The Gray (2023), Forest Heart (2024)—all from Feiwel and Friends/Macmillion—and The Secret of the Dragon Gems, co-authored with Rajani LaRocca, from Little Bee Books (2023). He is also the editor of the forthcoming MG anthology, On All Other Nights: A Middle Grade Passover Anthology(Abrams, 2024). A professor of English at San Diego City College and the director of the Writing Center, Chris grew up in New York City and completed his MFA in Poetry in 1998, at SDSU. He lives in San Diego with his family and is represented by Rena Rossner from the Deborah Harris Literary Agency. Learn more about Chris on his website and follow him on Twitter and Instagram.