Nest (Wendy Lamb Books, 2014) begins on a hot, hazy, and humid day on Cape Cod, when Chirp and Joey begin a friendship that will carry them through the tragic events of their sixth grade year. This debut novel by Esther Ehrlich has earned three stars and Kirkus calls it “a poignant, insightful story of family crisis and the healing power of friendship.”
It just so happens that Esther and I shared the same sixth grade teacher—although not at the same time—and so I reached out to Esther to talk about her amazing book.
JG: I love Chirp, the bird-watching heroine of Nest. Her nickname expresses her character too; how cheerful she tries to remain in spite of events and how se comforts herself by making a nest of blankets in her room. Which came first, the bird-watching idea or her name?
EE: I don’t really know which came first! When I write, everything develops in relation to everything else, so it’s hard for me to look back and tease apart what happened when. I do know that when Chirp was a baby she made a chirpy sound that her parents loved. The nickname “Chirp” stuck as Chirp’s love for birds declared itself!
JG: Chirp is Jewish, and occasionally her classmates make her feel like she doesn’t belong. How important to you was it to include the family’s faith in the story?
EE: Being Jewish is an integral part of who Chirp is. I think the range of feelings that she has—comfort and pride in who she is, but also that uncomfortable feeling of “otherness,” of feeling vulnerable and on the outside sometimes—is important to talk about. For Chirp and her family, being Jewish is a huge part of their backstory, a connection to the past. It also impacts their day-to-day life in a very real way, since there are so few other Jews in their community on Cape Cod. There’s a richness, I think, in exploring these layers of a minority identity.
JG: In addition to the challenges in Chirp’s life, we get a peek into her friend Joey’s life. This is handled so deftly and realistically—the helplessness of kids to do anything or even speak of something unspeakably sad. How did Joey’s role in the novel evolve?
EE: I had no idea that Joey was going to be such a central character in Nest. Originally, I imagined him as just one other kid who populated Chirp’s life. But he kept popping up. And I was captivated by his quirky, sweet, troubled self. I wanted to try and see behind the closed door of his family’s home. As I continued to write the story and Joey and Chirp had more chances to interact, Joey revealed himself as a layered, complex character. He became much more vital to the story because he kept proving himself as a loyal, courageous friend.
JG: Depression is so little understood as a disease, and you really capture the despair and lethargy. What inspired you to write about depression?
EE: Sadly, depression is just so common. I really don’t know if there’s anyone whose life hasn’t been touched by it in some way, yet there’s still plenty of stigma attached to it. Though I didn’t write Nest with a conscious agenda in mind, I do think it’s important to give voice to what we know—depression is mysterious, powerful, and can turn families upside-down. I’m convinced that Hannah would have been okay adjusting to the challenges of living with multiple sclerosis, but her depression on top of that was just more than she could handle.
JG: This is your first novel, and it’s getting rave reviews. Tell us about your love of language and story.
EE: Where to begin? I can’t remember a time when I didn’t love words and stories. As a young girl, I kept a running list of my favorite names and would speak the names out loud, just to hear the sound and “feel” of them. My mom was a poet and shared her poetry with me, which I think helped shape my love of words. I also had an amazing sixth grade teacher. She was insightful enough to set up a corner of our classroom as a living room and, a couple of times a week, we’d all get cozy on couches and pillows and she’d read to us! What a joy that was! As an adult, I was trained as an oral historian. I learned how to listen carefully to people’s stories, to hear the stories within the stories. It was deeply satisfying work for me. I think it helped me really listen to my characters as I worked on Nest.
JG: In Nest, Chirp takes an unauthorized bus ride into Boston. Have you ever run away from home?
EE: Yes, my friend Penny and I packed up our backpacks one Saturday morning and tromped down to the playground in our town. We were in fourth grade. We set up camp, which meant spreading out a blanket, lining up our books, and arranging our food in a neat row. Then we read, ate, lay in the sun, talked about everything we could think of, including how everyone was probably super worried about us. By the time the sun was straight overhead, we were hot, cranky, and bored. We stalled just a bit more to ensure that people would be really worried about us. Then we packed up and walked home. Of course, no one had noticed that we were gone, which seemed to us like a perfect reason to run away again. We talked about it but never quite put our plan into action…