I first heard about Emily Barth Isler’s Middle Grade book AFTERMATH in a Children’s Lit newsletter I get from Sharon Levin, and I immediately fell in love with the premise. Emily also has a book coming out next year called The Color of Sound, which will be available for pre-order starting November 2023.
After her brother’s death from a congenital heart defect, twelve-year-old Lucy is not prepared to be the new kid at school–especially in a grade full of survivors of a shooting that happened four years ago. Without the shared past that both unites and divides her classmates, Lucy feels isolated and unable to share her family’s own loss, which is profoundly different from the trauma of her peers.
Lucy clings to her love of math, which provides the absolute answers she craves. But through budding friendships and an after-school mime class, Lucy discovers that while grief can take many shapes and sadness may feel infinite, love is just as powerful.
According to your website bio, you were a former child actress. In what ways, if any, did this lead you toward writing episodic television for the web?
My first love was (is!) storytelling. Over the course of my life so far and my career so far, this has taken on a few different forms, but it’s always been about sharing stories with people! Starting with books my parents read me as a kid, musicals they took me to see, and Jewish folktales my mom relayed, I just loved stories! It happened pretty naturally that I became an actor as a kid– I could sing and dance and I loved being part of musicals.
As I got older, I got more and more curious about how stories are written and made. I had a teacher in middle school who encouraged me to write a play– since I had been in so many– and it was a huge turning point moment for me. I had always assumed that only grownups or real people– honestly people named Rodgers and Hammerstein and Shakespeare– could write plays! So this teacher, Mr. Sullivan, encouraging me to write, was huge. I did write a play, and we performed it at my school and it was a very formative and joyous experience.
From then on, I wanted to be the person writing stories, not just acting them out. When the opportunity came about in my 20s to write AND act in a few different internet sitcoms and branded entertainment, all of which was super new at this time, it was a dream come true. Over the years that I did that, it became more and more clear to me that I loved writing even more than acting, and I wanted to focus on writing full time. It was really empowering but hard at the time to evolve, to admit to myself that I didn’t love acting anymore, that this thing I’d done my whole life wasn’t fulfilling for me anymore. But coming back to my true love of writing was very thrilling, and it’s such a fun, rewarding job. I can’t believe I get to write for a living now– especially writing books for kids, which is, to me, the ultimate!
It certainly is! I love the premise of AFTERMATH, and I love Lucy’s voice (from the excerpt I read). How did Lucy and her story first come together for you?
It felt to me like the idea for AFTERMATH came to me all at once one day in late 2015, but I am pretty sure it had been percolating in my mind for a while. The concept really became clear after there was a mass shooting in San Bernardino, California. I watched media coverage and was struck by the reporters saying that the survivors were so lucky— one said “they can go back to their normal lives with no injury.” It made me think about how our society does not do a great job of taking care of those who have endured trauma. We do not acknowledge emotional scars that well. Veterans, holocaust survivors, cancer survivors, mass shooting survivors… we often don’t give their trauma much weight when it is invisible. It made me wonder about the people who survive mass shootings. What about the kids who survive school shootings? Don’t they want to “go back to their normal lives,” and is that even possible? Even if we ban all guns tomorrow, there is a whole generation of children affected by the fear of school shootings, the practice drills, the news coverage, and more. (And a whole generation of parents, like myself, scared of them, too. I know we all think of it daily when we drop off our kids.)
But I wanted this book to have a more accessible entry point for kids, and that’s where the character of Lucy came in. Lucy, like me, is not a school shooting survivor. But, like most of us, Lucy is no stranger to loss or trauma, so she can relate to her new classmates who are survivors in some ways, and cannot in many other ways. Lucy is empathetic and curious, and she is also a typical 12-year-old in many ways. Writing her experience of making new friends and having a crush and navigating social structures at school amidst the backdrops of hard topics and difficult experiences was a fun challenge.
I hope the book gives kids an idea of how they might empathize with people who have gone through hard things. I hope it empowers them to talk about scary things with trusted adults. I hope it starts conversations about gun violence and loss and grief. I’m always so incredibly honored when people tell me they loved the book or when teachers say it helped a particular student, or when I get emails from educators who say they really needed the book for their library or classroom.
Learning to endure trauma, especially the invisible kind, is so important! You’ve also written for Allure, Oprah Daily, and Organic Spa Magazine. What do you like most about writing shorter pieces, and in what ways, if any, have they contributed toward your novel-writing journey?
I love writing for magazines because it gives me a chance to shine a spotlight on people and companies who are doing really amazing things! I write primarily about sustainably-made and eco-friendly skincare and makeup, and I regularly get the chance to share the stories of people who are changing the world and protecting the planet while creating things other people need. I’m really interested in how the “clean” beauty industry is evolving– how packaging made of recycled materials or compostable materials can really reduce our waste; how ingredients that are sourced in a way that doesn’t harm the environment can have a huge impact; and how the way companies treat and compensate those who work for them is probably the most “sustainable” factor we should consider. Regenerative farming is a huge issue that I hope is becoming more recognized, and that’s something I’ve really enjoyed writing about recently. Organizations like the Rodale Institute estimate that if all farms in the world used regenerative practices and farming methods, it would have a significant impact on our ability to reverse global warming. People are always going to need personal care products– soap, shampoo, moisturizer– and if we can change the way they are made and distributed to have a positive impact on the earth, that would be huge!
I mostly think of my journalism and my novel writing as separate endeavours, but of course they affect each other! Any practice writing makes me a better writer– it’s like a muscle, so the more time I’m perfecting my skills and working with smart, talented editors across both genres, it’s good for my work overall. Plus, I love having multiple irons in the fire, so to speak– it helps my creativity to have more than one project going on, so working across two different areas of writing is mutually beneficial and really helps stave off writer’s block: there’s just no time for it!
Those are such important topics to write about too! What are some of your current projects?
I wrote a piece for Organic Spa Magazine called “Farm to Face” that is coming out in September– it was a lot of fun to investigate the different ways ingredients in our personal care products can be sourced without not only harming the planet, but while actually helping it in the process.
And, of course, I’m most excited about my forthcoming second middle grade novel, called THE COLOR OF SOUND. It comes out in March 2024, and here’s the blurb about it. I can’t wait to share it with readers!!!
Twelve-year-old Rosie is a musical prodigy whose synesthesia allows her to see music in colors. Her mom has always pushed her to become a concert violinist, but this summer Rosie refuses to play, wanting a “normal” life. Forced to spend the summer with her grandparents, Rosie is excited to meet another girl her age hanging out on their property. The girl is familiar, and Rosie quickly pieces it together: somehow, this girl is her mother, when her mother was twelve. With help from this glitch in time―plus her grandparents, an improv group, and a new instrument―Rosie comes to understand her mother, herself, and her love of music in new ways.
Emily Barth Isler is the author of AfterMath, an award-winning middle grade novel about grief, resilience, friendship, math, and mime. Comedian and activist Amy Schumer calls AfterMath “A gift to the culture,” and author Judith Viorst pronounced it “pretty close to perfect.”
Emily writes regularly about sustainability, organic/eco-friendly skincare, and healthy beauty products for Oprah Daily, Allure, Organic Spa, etc. Her recent feature for Oprah Quarterly Magazine, What “Clean Beauty” Means Now, investigates the science and ethics of sustainability, consumption and beauty.
A passionate advocate for gun control in America, Emily has written extensively on the topic for publications like Publisher’s Weekly, Today.com and Kveller.com, as well as donating a portion of proceeds from her debut novel, AfterMath, to gun violence prevention organizations such as Everytown, Moms Demand, Teachers Unify, Survivors Empowered, and March for our Lives.
AfterMath was chosen as a Nate’s Reads bookclub pick by Nate Berkus, a Mighty Girl’s Books of the Year winner for 2021, and won the Mathical Book Prize in 2022. Emily’s next book, The Color of Sound features a character who, like Emily, has synesthesia, and will be published March 5, 2024.
Emily has a BA in Film Studies from Wesleyan University and lives in Los Angeles with her husband and their two children.