Razorbill: 288 pages | Buy it on Amazon | B&N
Michelle and her little siblings Cass and Denny are African-American and living on the poverty line in urban Baltimore, struggling to keep it together with their mom in jail and only Michelle’s part-time job at the Taco Bell to sustain them.
Leah and her stepbrother Tim are white and middle class from suburban Maryland, with few worries beyond winning lacrosse games and getting college applications in on time.
Michelle and Leah only have one thing in common: Buck Devereaux, the biological father who abandoned them when they were little.
After news trickles back to them that Buck is dying, they make the uneasy decision to drive across country to his hospice in California. Leah hopes for closure; Michelle just wants to give him a piece of her mind.
Five people in a failing, old station wagon, living off free samples at food courts across America, and the most pressing question on Michelle’s mind is: Who will break down first–herself or the car? All the signs tell her they won’t make it. But Michelle has heard that her whole life, and it’s never stopped her before…
Una LaMarche triumphs once again with this rare and compassionate look at how racial and social privilege affects one family in crisis in both subtle and astonishing ways.
Two sets of estranged siblings from entirely different worlds struggle to tame their demons and redefine what it means to be a family when they find themselves on a Hail Mary road trip without parental guidance—and running out of options.
2. What was your inspiration for writing DON’T FAIL ME NOW?
When I was a preteen I read the book Homecoming by Cynthia Voigt, about a group of siblings abandoned by their mother in the middle of a road trip. The kids have to make it the rest of the way on their own, and the book is about that journey. I don’t remember any of the specifics of the plot, and to be honest I didn’t even re-read it for research, but that idea—of kids having to grow up fast and make scary, adult decisions when the actual adults in their lives can’t be there for them—has always
stuck with me.
My first book, Five Summers, was about female friendship, and my second, Like No Other, was an all-out romance. I wanted my third novel to be about a different kind of love, what I like to think of as the third major type of deep, complicated human connection, and that’s family. Once I knew I was writing about a family the Homecoming thing sparked in my brain.
3. What kind of research did you have to do to make sure your characters were authentic?
My main character, Michelle, and her younger siblings, come from a low-income black family in Baltimore; their half-sister is white and lives in a much wealthier suburban area just a few miles away. Admittedly I’ve never spent much time in Baltimore, so I spoke to as many people I knew who were from that area to get a sense of how those economic and racial lines are drawn—what streets, what schools, what tensions if any exist and how they’re felt by the communities. I wanted to stay far away from sounding like a white girl who just watched The Wire.
I didn’t interview a single person who actually had the experience that Michelle has, of having an absent father and drug-addicted mother, but I spoke to people with parts of that experience and created what I hope is a three-dimensional, authentic character from a collage of those interviews. I spoke with black women who grew up poor, and with mothers who ended up in jail. I spoke with teenagers with absent fathers who had to act like the parent to their siblings far too young. One of the characters has a medical condition, so I spoke to people with that condition and with doctors. I spoke with a police officer from Maryland to find out how a drug arrest with a car full of kids would go down, and how Child Protective Services factors in. I also Googled a lot. A LOT. Since I couldn’t expense a cross-country road trip for research, the scenes from middle America in the book are pretty much entirely based on Google Maps Street View.
In the end, of course, it’s fiction, but I tried to do as much homework as I could. I think that’s essential when you’re writing outside of your own experience.
4. How does the diversity in your book relate to your life?
I’m white, but I grew up in a very diverse community in Brooklyn. So I guess it relates to my life in that my every day experience is an extremely diverse one, and I want the worlds in my books to reflect that. I recognize that there are risks inherent in writing characters of other races, but I think that whitewashing fiction, especially for teens, is inexcusable in 2015.
5. What are some of your favorite YA books about diverse characters or by diverse authors?
I love Jason Reynolds. I think he’s going to be a hugely important American author for decades to come. His latest, All-American Boys, is incredible. I also worship Nicola Yoon (Everything Everything), Matt de la Peña (Mexican WhiteBoy) and Jacqueline Woodson. If You Come Softly is one of my favorite books of all time.
7. What areas of diversity do you want to draw attention to or do you feel are underrepresented in young-adult books?
I personally write more racially diverse characters than anything else, but I think all areas of diversity are grossly underrepresented in young adult books. Diverse authors are underrepresented, first and foremost, and publishing really needs more diverse voices and experiences. But I can’t pick one area that needs improvement, because they all do. Kids need to read about characters of all backgrounds, all abilities, all sexual orientations. We’re still doing a terrible job, as a society, of basic tolerance, understanding, compassion, and decency. If books can even effect a tiny change in that tide, it will have been worth it.
Interested in the book? Make sure to read our Book Discussion at The Reading Date and We Heart YA’s post “A Tale of Two Families (With One Father in Common).”
Stay tuned in November when we discuss CARRY ON by Rainbow Rowell!