Hello everyone! Today I’m going to be discussing Down in the Belly of the Whale by Kelley Kay Bowles, who writes cozy mystery, young adult, and nonfiction.
This book is a YA contemporary that follows the perspective of Harper, a teenager facing the ubiquitous feeling of not fitting in. She has an inexplicable sense for other people’s ailments, but without any way to decipher her intuitions, there isn’t much she can do with it. Her feelings of helplessness are amplified when her best friend starts acting strange and her mom becomes increasingly worried about her health. Harper must learn how she fits into her own life and what her role is in terms of her family and friends. Keep reading for my review, an interview with Kelley Kay Bowles, and the giveaway itself!
Harper Southwood is a teenage girl who can sense when people will get sick—but so what? She can’t predict her best friend’s depression or her mother’s impending health crisis. Being helpful is all Harper ever wanted, but she feels helpless in the face of real adversity. Now, she’s got a chance to summon her courage and use her wits to fight for justice. Laugh and cry along with this cute, high-spirited teen in her astonishing journey of self-discovery, as she learns that compassion and internal strength are her real gifts, her true superpower.
I would classify the writing style of this novel as middle-grade, but the content itself was quite mature. This caused a bit of dissonance for me because Harper is somewhat of a naive narrator, and she has some interactions with serious issues including child molestation/rape, chronic illness, homophobia, depression, and suicide. I’m still on the fence about having such a young character facing these sort of topics, especially because Harper seems to know very little about any of them, and she somehow maintains a semblance of innocence throughout it all. I realize that this is a good way to inform a younger audience about issues that they may face in their youth, and I applaud Bowles on her approach to writing about such topics. It was a good story to introduce these kinds of themes while still resolving with something of a “happy” ending, and it definitely presented the possibility of hope and joy even through some really tough situations. I think Harper, despite her simplistic viewpoint, is a wonderful role model for young adults who are just learning about some of the horrible things the world has to offer–through it all, she persists in making her own way when others can’t. She is an incredibly kind and giving soul, and it’s really inspiring to know that people like her are out there, ready to help her family and friends. I think that this may open the eyes of readers who have been afraid or unsure to reach out for help.
Also! This book had a hint of the supernatural (?) when it came to Harper’s “powers”. I really enjoyed this aspect of the book, and I’m excited to see Bowles expand on this type of genre in the future!
1. You seem to have written yourself into the book in the form of Isabelle. Were there other aspects of the novel that mirrored your own life and experiences?
Haha do you think that was too much of a Mary Sue? Isabelle was so much fun to write because she was diagnosed with MS—like me—and she writes murder mysteries—like me, but she’s EVER So much cooler than I am. That’s the nice thig abut fiction, picking and choosing from ‘non-fictional’ elements and then manipulating them however I want. Most all my characters have elements of me in then somewhere—even the evil ones. And characteristics of everyone I know and see show up in my characters (uh-oh, Lauren—better watch out! 😉)—I just pick little idiosyncracies here and there and use them to flesh out the characters.
2. Are there any books in particular that helped to guide/inspire the direction of Down in the Belly of the Whale?
Ugh. I don’t even know where to begin in answering this question. I read books all the time, am obsessed with books, and because I taught English for 20 years, and because my father owned a bookstore and I’m in a book club, this means I read and have read in many genres and eras too. It all inspires me! But it also means each book I write could take cues from . . . who knows? My favorite YA authors are Lois Duncan, C.S. Lewis and Madeline L’Engle, and they are all heavy on characterization, so I think I take cues from that and am always trying to concentrate on character. As far as the direction the story went . . . nope. Nothing specific, any story or life event or song or movie or myth can interest me and inspire me!
3. What audience is the novel targeted towards? Was there a particular group in your mind while writing it?
I think TO THIS DAY the target audience has been my publisher’s biggest annoyance. Is this a paranormal? Social issues? Suspense? Family? Is it even a YA or should it be more parents reading it to talk to their kids about it? Then I think about all the YA I still read, and I’m almost 50! And not just because I’m a YA writer or high school teacher—I have a gazillion friends who read all the Twilight and Harry Potter and Hunger Games, plus anything by John Green, and they aren’t either of those occupations! So, no. I write stories that I’d like to read, and I hope some other people would enjoy them too. That’s as far as I can go (again, to the chagrin of BOTH of my publishers, because they’d like me to just focus on one genre. Can’t. 😊 )
4. What was your thought process when approaching difficult and serious topics in the novel?
Hm. I guess I just tried to be real with the characters’ reactions to the events they were living or trying to understand how others were living. I researched the topics (I’m living one of them, but…) by talking to people who had actually experienced them, and then using that for characterization. One challenge I felt early on with this book was a review from a reader who had been a ‘cutter’ or maybe was still a cutter, I don’t know. Anyway, this reviewer thought I totally got it wrong, like, ‘I’m a cutter and that’s not how cutters feel.’ And I was angry for a minute, because Cora’s explanation of why she cuts is verbatim from a person I know who used to cut. Word for word. And then I felt sad for the reviewer, because I thought it must be very lonely to feel so isolated in your own problems, you don’t realize that lots of other people have the same problem, they just experience them in a different way. I do hope parents would talk to their kids about the issues raised in this book—my 13 year old is reading it right now, and we had a whole conversation about cutting, and when he’s finished we’ll talk about any questions or reactions he might have..
5. Harper’s best friend Cora must face some incredibly scarring trauma. What made you decide to write the novel from Harper’s perspective rather than Cora’s?
Jeez, Lauren! You do ask the hard-hitting questions,,, 😊 I’ve actually heard this as a negative from a few reviewers as well. They think it should be from Cora’s POV. But I guess I did it from Harper’s for a few reasons, one of which probably comes from my own life experience. Other than the MS diagnosis, I’ve lived this incredibly lucky life, and I’ve always been surrounded by people who love me and tell me they love me, on the reg. But I lost three friends to suicide when I was in the 7th grade, and then I’ve been in an occupation (teaching) or lifestyle (volunteering—4 years at a domestic/sexual abuse hotline, and on an MS Friends hotline since 2012) where my role is to be the helper, not the one suffering the trauma. I guess that bled over to this story. I want the focus to be the way people can get help or be helped or GIVE help, rather than the focus on the traumatic situation. I get that some readers may feel like they can relate to the situation better if their main character is the one experiencing it. But that’s not how I wanted to tell it.
6. Do you have any intention of turning this book into a series?
Nope, this is a standalone for sure. BUT… Pinewood and Pinewood High School is the setting for a trilogy I just started—way more paranormal hijinks are set for this trilogy (like…is Belly really even paranormal? Maybe she’s just an empath, and is THAT even paranormal or just really, really sensitive? That’s up to the reader.) But for this new trilogy, there is no question about the paranormal elements.
7. Do you have any summer reading recommendations?
I just finished Where the Crawdads Sing by Delia Owens, and that was really good. Also Fredrik Backman’s A Man Called Ove and anything by Lee Child, Harlan Coben or Stephen King. Any time, any day! As far as YA I’ve read recently, I loved Heartless by Marissa Meyer and Dorothy Must Die by Danielle Paige. I also just uploaded Turtles All the Way Down by Jon Green—I’ll let you know!
There will be three total winners–two people will win e-book copies, and one person will win an audiobook copy!