Jamie Sumner is the author of three critically-acclaimed middle grade novels, the most recent of which, One Kid’s Trash, was published last month. Much of Sumner’s writing is informed by her experience of parenting a child with special needs, and she has a particular passion for representing disability in literature. Kirkus Reviews described her first middle grade novel, Roll with It, as “an honest, emotionally rich take on disability, family, and growing up.” Sumner’s next middle grade novel, The Summer of June, comes out next spring, and she has six more scheduled after that, including a sequel to Roll with It. Sumner has also written two faith-based books for adults, Unbound and Eat, Sleep, Save the World, and her essays have been published in The New York Times and The Washington Post. A former Reviews Editor for Literary Mama, Sumner lives in Nashville with her husband and three children.
Literary Mama Profiles Editor Kelsey Madges conversed with Sumner via email, discussing her path to becoming a writer, character development, support systems, and advice for all parents.
Kelsey Madges: Your first book for adults was published in 2018, and your first middle grade novel was published in 2020. What did your path to publication look like? Did you imagine, as a child, that you’d be a writer when you grew up?
Jamie Sumner: I lived an entirely different life before I became an author. But I was always a writer. It’s important, I think, to note the difference. I have been writing for as long as I can remember—poetry, screenplays, short stories, speeches for a corporate communications department. I wrote all throughout college despite only taking two creative writing classes. My career took many turns. I moved to New York right after university and worked for a small publishing company in Chelsea. Then I returned to graduate school at Vanderbilt to get my masters in secondary education. I got married. I taught high school English for over a decade. I had three children. It was only after I stopped teaching that I began to write full-time with the goal of becoming a published author. I think it took having kids and wanting to make the world a better, more enlightened, and open-minded place for them to get me to turn my writing outward.
KM: In the acknowledgments of Eat, Sleep, Save the World you recognize the people who make your writing and your life possible. Tell us a little bit about your village and how they support you as a mother and a writer. Is there overlap between your writing village and your parenting village?
JS: In the very beginning I had no writing village! The people who supported this leap were my family. My husband is technically minded. He works in IT and will not pretend to understand my creative brain, but he is the steadfast support I need while I am texting myself lines of dialogue in the middle of the night and having a personal crisis on behalf of one of my characters. My children are just old enough to think it’s cool that their mom is a writer. They see their peers asking me to sign books, and it registers for a small moment that what I do actually takes place in their world, and that’s kind of awesome (until they hit high school).
My writing village came slowly, first with my agent Keely Boeving. She took me on when I had no “platform” to speak of, and we have worked together on every project since. She is always willing to ride a new train of thought with me, and that’s enough of a nudge I need to keep me going. I’ve pitched books in verse, faith-based books, middle grade novels, and sequels, and she’s always said, “If you feel it, then do it.” I also cannot say enough about Parnassus Books, my local independent bookstore here in Nashville. They set up in-person and virtual events for all my books. They chose Tune It Out, my second middle grade novel, as their inaugural pick for their middle grade subscription box. They support all their local authors with this generosity. The respect and love is mutual.
When it comes to the overlap between my job as a parent and a writer, I couldn’t do any of it without my own mom. When I found out I was pregnant with twins and my oldest son Charlie, who has cerebral palsy, was still under two, we moved to live down the street from her. She is ever-ready to babysit, entertain, or feed my kiddos when I am under deadline. We walk to Grandma’s, and they play out on her deck while I disappear to write. She is also always the most excited when I have new publishing news.
KM: The subtitle of Eat, Sleep, Save the World is, “Words of Encouragement for the Special Needs Parent,” but I have to tell you that I saw many of my own parenting struggles reflected in this book. I was especially moved by your reflections on special needs parents’ ability to be “soft for [their] kids and fierce for the world.” While my children may not have the same categories of needs, I still advocate for them. Did you have a sense, as you were writing, that the guidance in the book could reach parents outside the specific community you were writing for?
JS: I think most of the advice and encouragement in that book would apply to any parent. The worst thing we can do for ourselves is to compare the level of intensity of our parenting journey with others. But we all do it! It’s all over Instagram and Facebook, and it’s hard not to weigh and evaluate our choices against those of our peers. However, the beautiful thing about this life is that we are all deeply connected in these fundamental ways: we want to love the people around us. Eat, Sleep, Save the World explores how we go about loving our people to the best of our ability and then let the rest go. We all need to practice that, no matter what kind of child we are parenting.
KM: You share quite a bit of your personal journey, first with infertility, then with raising a child who has significant physical challenges, in your books for parents. You’ve also written a number of candid essays about your motherhood experience. How do you determine which stories are fair game and which need to remain private?
JS: I would never publish anything about my children or my spouse without their permission. When my kids were younger, the details I shared revolved more around me than them—where my mind and heart were during the scary years when they were all so medically fragile. They are older now and aware of the greater world and what I do in it, and so it is paramount for me to check in with them first before sharing anything that might compromise their privacy. There are many stories I do not tell because they are personal to our family and will remain so, but the ones that are more universal and could potentially help others in the special needs community, I am proud to share. It’s a powerful thing to recognize yourself in someone else’s story and take comfort there.
KM: What made you decide to write fiction for a middle grade audience in addition to the essays and books for adults?
JS: There is a freedom to fiction that you can’t find elsewhere. There is a power to world-building that opens up my mind to possibilities that would not be available if I stuck to nonfiction, and it stretches me as a writer in ways I would never expect. As for the middle grade audience, I honestly think they are the best! That eight-to-twelve age range is where we begin to first see the world through our own lens rather than that of our parents. It’s also when we own our likes and dislikes while also being open to new ideas. It’s still cool to read books at that age. It’s still cool to dream big. There’s no filter when they ask me questions, and there’s nothing better than meeting a kid who thanks me for making them feel seen in a story.
KM: The main characters in your middle grade novels all have vulnerabilities that they work to overcome, and you do a marvelous job of making sure their challenges aren’t the most important thing readers learn about them. What advice do you have for creating rich and relatable characters?
JS: It’s funny you bring that up. I just had a conversation with my dad the other day about my most recent middle grade novel, One Kid’s Trash, which I dedicated to him. He said he loved the main character, Hugo, and I said, “Hugo’s subconscious is so much louder than anything he hears in the outside world. He cracks me up!” And my dad laughed and said, “You talk like he’s real!” But to me, after having spent so much time with Hugo and all the other characters I create, they become so alive to me that they almost operate independently by the end of the writing process. I think that’s the best advice I can give—before you pick your plot or your setting or anything else, know your character. Know what they’d eat for breakfast and when. Know which brand of jeans they’d buy, and how they’d react to someone bumping into them on the sidewalk, and if they call their mom on a regular basis as adults, and their favorite genre of music. Once you know them inside, you can make authentic choices for them when they are settled into a plot. There’s nothing worse than reading a book and feeling like the character is a cog in the wheel meant to drive some sort of agenda by the author. Readers, especially kid readers, can sniff that out from a mile away.
KM: Speaking of characters, your novels also feature loving, realistically flawed, adults. In One Kid’s Trash, Hugo makes some stark observations about his parents. He also comes to the heart-wrenching realization that they are not invincible. How do you decide which adult issues should filter through your adolescent protagonists? Are there lines that you consciously decide not to cross?
JS: Kids see every bit of the reality of their parents’ lives—divorce, substance abuse, midlife crises, anxiety, depression, loss of self-confidence, job insecurity. They feel it all even if they can’t name it. It would be an injustice to them to create stories that portray an idealized version of family life and call it truth. If they live it, they should be able to read about it in books. In this way, it gives them language to talk about their own experience. To see another kid like them struggling with what they are struggling with empowers them much more than painting an idealized, gentler version of family life that invalidates their own reality.
KM: What advice do you have for other parents who are trying to balance writing and child-rearing?
JS: I write in fits and bursts when the story gets loud enough in my head that I cannot possibly ignore it any longer. The world is loud and distracting. It does not want you to explore the tiny threads of emotion required to write a novel. So you have to fight hard to make it a priority.
My best advice for parents who are also pursuing writing is to find your peak time of creativity and guard it like a pot of gold. I’m not kidding. If you are a morning person and you know your brain will slowly start to shut down by three in the afternoon, block off the time you need to feel creatively tapped before then. Even if it’s thirty minutes. Thirty minutes every day adds up to a lot of words, and more importantly, a great deal of time spent pursuing what you love, which is something your children need to see you do.
When my kids were little, I wrote in the dark, in the morning, before even the birds were up. Sometimes all I managed was five minutes before someone needed me, but those five minutes were enough to keep me going. There is nothing selfish about seeking this outlet. If anything, consider it self-care. You are taking care of your needs so you can then turn around and take care of the needs of your people. It’s always a shifting scale. Sometimes I’m a terrible writer and a great mom. Sometimes it’s the reverse. But I always keep trying.