I was so pleased to interview author Kerry O’Malley Cerra about her debut MG novel, Just a Drop of Water, a story about a middle school boy whose best friend’s father comes under suspicion in the aftermath of 9/11. So many of the issues raised in her book are still relevant in the current geo-political climate, and in addition to being entertaining, this novel is a celebration of the idea that knowing people from different backgrounds makes it harder to engage in bigotry towards them. -Jennifer
Jennifer: Just a Drop of Water is a timely book, even though it deals with events surrounding the immediate aftermath of September 11th. How and when did this story come to you?
Kerry: The idea for this book came to me in 2008, but it is based on real thoughts and feelings that I carried with me ever since September 11, 2001. Initially, a myriad of emotions flooded me that day: anger, sadness, and pride. But, when it was discovered that Mohamed Atta, the hijacker of American Airlines flight 11, lived just around the corner in my smallish town of Coral Springs, Florida—over 1,000 miles away from the closest attack—a new emotion took over. Fear! What if I’d seen him at a park, grocery store, gas station? It stunned me. When it leaked that these men had taken flight lessons in Venice, Florida, and it was believed they’d had help from fellow Muslims living there, hundreds of “what ifs” began to haunt me. Every single one of them boiled down to, “What if my friend’s parents had helped these men?”
My friend was someone I’d met in college. A fun guy who’d come to the U.S. to study. We grew so close that a few of us from school went to visit his devout Islamic family abroad, where his parents welcomed us into their home and treated us like old friends. A few years later, wanting to be closer to both of their boys who were then living in Florida, the parents decided to move to the states—Venice, Florida to be exact.
Flash forward to the days following September 11, I found myself doubting my friend’s family who was being questioned by the FBI for possibly helping these terrorists. Did they? I’d love to say I believed their innocence from the get-go, but I’d be lying. It took some time to really know in my gut that they weren’t involved. Not these loving, welcoming people. And, I hated myself for doubting them!
Not long after, I called my friend to see how he and his family were doing. He told me that though his parents had been cleared by the FBI, life had become difficult for all of them. I didn’t admit to him then that I had doubted him, but he knows now. So do his parents. And they’ve been very gracious in their forgiveness.
The feeling of regret stuck with me for a long time. I looked at kids around me who rarely saw racial lines and I wondered if this boy—my college friend—and I had been younger when September 11 happened, would I have ever doubted his family? Would I have had the prejudice that seemed to come with age? I began asking questions to anyone who wanted to discuss the subject. It was like a dip into the psyche of all types of people. Soon I was taking notes, scouring the Internet, and I read books—amazed to learn that many non-practicing Muslim kids in the United States actually turned to mosques for answers following 9/11. The basis for my story developed in my head before I even realized I was writing it.
As a former history teacher, this was a story I knew needed to be told. It’s the type of novel I myself used in my classroom to supplement the textbook and show kids, who didn’t experience that day firsthand, the enormity of the event 9/11 and the repercussions of it that followed.
Though 9/11 seems so long ago, I’m glad you point out that the book is timely. The themes of bigotry, hatred, bullying, peace, forgiveness, and friendship are definitely universal and timeless. I hope kids reading it today can reflect on the peace aspect and find ways to implement acceptance of all people.
Jennifer: Your book is told from the point of view of Jake, an 8th grade boy. Can you tell us a little bit about the decision to tell this story from a male point of view?
Kerry: I’m not entirely sure why. It definitely wasn’t a conscious decision. This is my first published book, however, it’s not the first novel I’ve written. That first one—though it may never see the light of day again—was also written from a male point of view. For those who like to slap labels on, I was considered a tomboy growing up. I loved to play matchbox cars in the sandbox, was obsessed with building things, and played basketball. Most of my friends, especially in college, were guys. I know this all sounds very stereotypical, and I’m not a fan of stereotypes! I wonder if subconsciously, because I’ve been told that, just like boys, I’m not deep and not emotional, that writing from a male point of view felt natural. Gosh, this is a really good question and you’ve made me think!
Jennifer: In the wake of the 9/11, Jake’s friend Sam, a Muslim, and his family become the targets of suspicion and anti-Muslim and anti-Arab bigotry. Jake has moments of doubt about their innocence, but seems to do better than those around him, including many adults. Do you think children are better are seeing people as individuals, or do you think Jake’s reaction turned mostly on the fact that Sam was his best friend?
Kerry: I love this insight and it’s something I’ve thought about for a long time. To be honest, I think the answer is a combination of both. When I had the original idea for this story, I needed to find the angle in which to tell it. I asked my then twelve year-old daughter if our neighbor down the street (who is the father of her best friend) were to be questioned by the FBI, would she believe he did something wrong. She didn’t even hesitate to say no. When I asked why, she replied, “Because I know him.” It was so simple and so honest. It made me want to explore what age kids go from being innocent and trusting to being jaded and fearful due to the world around them. Kids don’t tend to lump individuals into groups because they have no reason to. The world hasn’t grabbed hold of their thoughts yet. Jake is the perfect age for this story. I think if he’d been younger, he may have taken his mother’s thoughts about the Madinas to heart more. He is on the border of independence, but still pretty sheltered from the outside world. It made him complicated, which was perfect to explore this theme of prejudice in the story. Jake is forced to grow up and see the world for its ugly reality, but he refuses to doubt his friend’s family’s innocence. I really love him.
Jennifer: To the extent that knowing someone from a different background serves as something of a bulwark against hate, what role do you think fiction like Just a Drop of Water plays in that?
Kerry: I think fiction in this vein is powerful—as long as the book’s not didactic. Allowing young readers to experience a situation though fiction, as opposed to preaching, provides them the opportunity to think about how they’d react if they were in the character’s shoes. Good discussion is pivotal in these instances. The majority of the world around us tends to instill fear of whole groups into peoples’ minds. Kids sometimes grow up thinking that the words Muslim and terrorist are interchangeable. We need to work super hard to change this. Sure, I am scared when I hear about Islamic extremists, but they are extremists first and foremost. They do not encompass all Muslims. We must train ourselves to look at people as individuals and not as groups. I think kids get this way more than adults do, but sadly they lose it as they age.
Jennifer: How did you familiarize yourself with Islam/Muslims to write this book? What has the reaction from Muslims been to the narrative?
Kerry: I did a boatload of research about Islam and Muslims on both the Internet and by reading books that I scoured over and over. Books like Mecca and Main Street: Muslim Life in America After 9/11 by Geneive Abdo, Islam for Dummies by Malcom Clark, and The American Muslim Teenager’s Handbook by Dilara Hafiz are a few that still have homes on my bookshelf. In the end, the best help I received was from two Muslim friends who read the book and corrected my mistakes before I submitted it to agents. It’s a good thing too, because I had no idea there are no candles in mosques.
As for the reaction from Islamic community, I honestly don’t know. Other than those two friends who read for me, I’ve not heard any feedback from the Muslim community. I’m definitely curious to hear thoughts from them.
Jennifer: Can you tell us a little bit about your path to publication?
Kerry: It’s actually a really long story, but I’ll aim for a condensed version here. I didn’t try my hand at writing for publication until a hearing loss that I was born with deteriorated quickly in my twenties and forced me from the teaching profession. I was devastated to leave the classroom but having always liked to write, I decided to try penning a book that could be used in schools. It hoped it would be my way to still contribute to education. I signed up for a two-year course at The Institute of Children’s Literature and then joined SCBWI (The Society of Children’s Books Writers and Illustrators) where I knew I’d found my niche.
I was able to land an agent for my first novel, but we later split and I put that book in a drawer. My second agent fell in love with Just a Drop of Water before she even finished reading it and offered representation immediately. She was able to sell it very quickly. While this all sounds like it happened in a blink, it took me over eight years to get published from the time I decided to write that first book.
Jennifer: Do you have any tips for writers who want to write about characters who come from communities other than their own?
Kerry: Do your research! All authors owe it to their readers to get the facts straight. But, those writing historical fiction and fiction dealing with other cultures have an even tougher job. Readers are smart and they’ll know when you’ve made an error, so be thorough. Most importantly, find a beta reader who belongs to the community you’re writing about. This was the most valuable help I received with Just a Drop of Water, in that regard.
Jennifer: Can you offer some advice for new writers in general who hope to get published?
Kerry: Learn all you can! I know when I started out I thought I was a fantastically talented writer. When I go back and read some of my early picture books, all I can do is laugh at myself. They are so bad! Studying the craft of writing has been instrumental and has allowed me to grow. Whether you prefer to read books on writing or go to conferences to learn craft, commit to getting better every day. It will show in your writing.
Jennifer: What is next for Kerry Cerra?
Kerry: I’m excited to be halfway through a new middle grade novel. I can’t even talk about it without a big, stupid smile spreading across my face because I love it so much. It’s my first book written from a girl’s point of view and basically contains all things I love most—especially a cool dog named Shazam and surfing. The main character is really positive despite the euthanasia component she’ll have to deal with. Cross your fingers for me that I can finish it soon and sell it, please!
Kerry O’Malley Cerra is the award-winning author of Just a Drop of Water. Inspired by a deeply personal experience following the tragic events of September 11, 2001, this book has won a Florida State Book Award, the Crystal Kite Award, made the Maine State reading list, and was named to VOYA’s Top Shelf Fiction for Middle Readers’ 2014 list.
Though she’ll always consider Philly her home, she currently lives in Florida with her husband, kids, and three poorly behaved dogs.