The Trowbridge Road is a 2020 National Book Awards Longlist Selection novel written by Marcella Pixley for young people. It revolves around childhood trauma, death, and redemption through friendship. Do you want to know the inspiration behind Marcella’s much-awarded novel? Are you coping with childhood trauma, and you’re seeking healing and redemption? Then this episode is for you. Marcella recounts her own childhood trauma and how it propels her to express her experiences to others so that you may understand that you’re not alone. Listen to this episode and be encouraged to share your own story because many people around you know your pain and suffering.
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Trowbridge Road: Finding Healing From Childhood Trauma With Marcella Pixley
Marcella Pixley is the author of four acclaimed books for children that all explore complex family dynamics and mental health issues.
Marcella, thank you so much for joining us. It’s a delight to see you face-to-face finally.
It’s great to be here. Thank you so much for having me.
What got you into the work you’re doing and what drives your passion for it?
I’ve always written stories when I was little. I started probably at about age seven telling stories into a tape recorder. The book, Freak, which was my first published book, was a memoir. It was my way of coming to terms with what I went through as a middle school student when I was bullied. I started getting interested in writing for young adults and children as a way to help me reflect on my own memories and my own experiences. I’m also a middle school teacher. I’m watching children who are the age that my characters are all of the time. I have a lot of inspiration as I meet them and make connections with them.
That’s powerful and it’s insightful. I have only read the Trowbridge Road book. I’ve read the summaries of the other books and I was wondering, “How does somebody who’s not old get that insight about people dynamics and relationships?” There’s part of it. You’ve gone through some of this yourself.
Honestly, lots of years of therapy. The more I write, the more I’m able to clarify some of the things that I have discovered as I’ve thought about my own life. The books are meaning-making tools for me. It’s a work in progress as life is.
I look at these books, the one I’ve read and the summaries I’ve read of the others, as therapeutic for young people and perhaps even for the adults who are trying to support young people going through difficult times.
That’s my hope. Young people need to be able to see people like themselves in the literature that they read. That’s something that we’re talking about a lot in teaching and the writing world. Most people are living with complications. I don’t think that the things that my characters experience in my books are all that unusual. For some reason, in our society, we’re taught to keep the things that are complicated about a secret and not share them. People are good at keeping things. You could go a lifetime and not read about kids who deal with abuse, depression, and different anxieties that many of us deal with. The purpose of the book is to show characters who are showing all of who they are, including the complicated and hard parts.
You’ve done an excellent job at that because I didn’t want to read it. I was getting uncomfortable. I was like, “I deal with this every day in my therapy practice. This isn’t fun.” I got hooked and it didn’t disappoint. There’s a lovely holding to the honesty. Most of us who understand the value of honesty realize we will be uncomfortable at the moment, at times, with honesty. We will be healed through that discomfort.
One of the messages of the book is that you can be uncomfortable and things can shake and things can become difficult as you face something. If we’re lucky, there’s enough substance beneath that we can become stronger as a result of looking at these things.You can be uncomfortable, and things can become really difficult, but you can become stronger as a result of experiencing these things. Click To Tweet
You don’t think these characters are that unusual and I would say the opposite. These characters in your books are more than the norm. The idealized version of life that we see in the people that we promote to King and Queen of the prom and the popular group, they’re always in the minority. There are far more people who struggle. Truth be told, even those popular people struggle and they hide it. Why aren’t we talking more about this? It’s because of the culture that we’ve got set up.
It’s a culture that’s changing, especially that mental health issues have always been problems in our society. During the pandemic, when it comes to the surface for many young people, it’s something that needs to be reflected upon in our society.
Also, acknowledge openly. What if we talked about how you’re doing now and caring about the response? What if the topic of mental health was as common as asking about the weather or your politics?
It should be. Students, young people, and people our age too need to be able to speak from the heart and that’s when things get better.
Years ago, I watched a TED Talk by a young psychologist. He was one of a pair of twins. He’d gotten separated from his brother going to school. His brother didn’t respond to him when he called. He went into a tailspin. He used that in this TED Talk because he knew tools that he could apply to his mental health. He called it Emotional Hygiene and he didn’t use them. They’re proven. People in the psychological and psychiatric fields understand a lot about how people work and what works to help them get better and what gets them stuck. He said that it struck him that here he is a psychologist who’s trained in this stuff but it didn’t even occur to him to use the tools. He started taking a look at it and realizing, “We teach 4 and 5-year-olds to wash their hands and brush their teeth and do the physical hygiene but we don’t teach people mental and emotional hygiene.” It’s available. If we make it more commonplace and we acknowledge it openly, perhaps we can shift that title a little bit.
It needs to be. As a teacher, I do see the needle moving in that direction. There’s a lot more emphasis on social-emotional health in the classrooms than there was when I started in teaching. The time is ripe.
One of the things that struck me about the Trowbridge Road book is that June Bug was subjected to the intensity of the abuse she was objected to, primarily, for one reason and that’s secrecy. Often, in my work with people, I try to get them to understand that it’s our secrets that keep us sick and that abuse needs secrecy to continue. If we can find a way to let people know that ripping the band-aid off is going to hurt a little bit but if we don’t get that wound cleaned out, things are going to get all kinds of worse.
Her job in this story is to become brave enough to tell her story. She needs to learn how to say the secrets. It’s her friendship with Ziggy and Nana Jean that allows her to feel safe enough to tell what’s happened in her past. She discovers that she can still love her mother. She discovers that she can have a better understanding of who her father was. The world shakes around her but she’s stronger when it’s over.
You mentioned her father. Of course, that’s a whole another level of secrets. I hadn’t even thought about that when I was talking about the secrecy. If I’m trying to hide from people my struggles, I may succeed at a surface level in keeping it hidden but I’m doing so much more damage to myself and making my life difficult to live than if I am open. That’s not common knowledge in our culture. We have a culture that’s based on the facade.
Keeping things under the surface. One of the pivotal scenes in the book is when June Bug is in Nana Jean’s kitchen with Nana Jean’s daughter, Jenny. Jenny has this moment of reckoning where she confronts her mother about things that happened in their earlier life. June Bug was an observer to this moment where she sees the daughter call her mother out on things that happened when they were younger and sees the anger between them, the love between them, and that things go on. They’re able to continue being a family and loving each other even though those things that they were keeping inside were explored and brought out to the table.
They can stay connected even though they’re being honest.
Honest and angry. It’s hard. It’s an important scene for her because she’s going to be telling her own story soon. That is one of the moments that drives her to be able to tell her own story.
One of the many things I appreciate about the book is that Nana Jean is not perfect. She’s not the Immaculate Conception and sinless. She’s a real human being who’s been through rough times and who, for whatever reason, had the resources or had some support in her life to cling to the loving, the maintaining, and the consistency themes that let us feel safe and grow together in a relationship.
She’s a better grandmother than she is a mother to Jenny.
How many of us could answer that description?
People grow and learn. The relationship with a grandchild is maybe an opportunity to not have the intensity of relationship you have with a child.
I was doing some emotional work of my own and I flashback to a scene when I was three years old and having an interaction with my father. One of the release pieces for me was when I got the actual image of my dad. In that interaction, I was viewing him as this deity. Truth be told, he was less than half my age. “What did I know when I was 30? What things have I learned from 30 to 66?” If we don’t have that perspective, if we don’t have people around us who are sharing their foibles and their stuck points, and everybody is dealing with the facade, “Look at here. Pay attention to this. This is who I am.” We don’t share. One of the things I loved about the book is that no superhero is flawless.
Everybody has flaws.
Everybody is working. Everybody is in the same soup. I was introduced to the movie Milton’s Secret, which has the same theme we’re talking about. There’s a grandfather who was a far better grandfather than he was a parent and he has a grandson who’s getting bullied. All of that lovely stuff unfolds without trying to make anybody into this magnificent superhero. When they get honest, share openly, apologize, and express their affection, life unfolds differently.
That’s one of the important things that I’m trying to get to with this book but also with the rest of my books as well, which is that everybody is imperfect and everybody is struggling with something. How wonderful would it be in a world to know that you are not alone in what you’re going through? This is the human experience, even though we all have our own things that are specific to us. The norm is that people are struggling and trying to get stronger and doing the best they can and failing and then, hopefully, learning from it and picking themselves up. I’m trying to write books that are showing people who are doing that. Not to set a path for other people to do it but to give away for young people to recognize that whatever it is that they are dealing with, they’re not alone and other people have been through it.
You said to give away for that. I would put the word permission in there to give an overt, directly stated permission. Loss is half of life. David Whyte, the poet, talks about that beautifully.
For some of us, it’s more than half.Everybody is imperfect, and everybody is struggling with something. Click To Tweet
Everything about our lives is gain and loss. If we aren’t raised in a family that’s willing to talk about that, as you’ve got June Bug in the story, it’s important to find somebody outside her core home with who she can talk about that loss. She can be honest about its impact on her. In Freak, at some point, you had to be able to come to terms with the bullying.
People don’t do that alone. That’s what other people are in our lives for, among other things. We depend upon our communities. We depend upon the people in our lives that we come into contact with to be those supports, like Nana Jean is for June Bug, Ziggy, and June Bug’s uncle, Toby. She’s got a difficult home life but she’s also blessed with supports that people can find if they look, hopefully. It’s not always a given that those supports are going to be there.
One of the powerfully true things about the way you’ve written the book is that it wasn’t easy for June Bug to allow the connection with either Nana Jean or Ziggy. You described that beautifully. I’m yearning for that connection. I can see that they’ve got something that I would love to have in that house over there that I’m spying on. I’m yearning for it but I’m not even sure that once it gets presented to me, I’m going to let it in. The honesty about even that battle, that struggle internally, is an important part of the book, too.
Thank you. June Bug is hungry. She’s the metaphor of hunger through the book that’s often symbolized through the meals that Nana Jean makes that June Bug smells and the tantalizing sense of the cooking. June Bug’s hunger is much deeper than food. What she’s yearning for has to do more with her soul being fed and to be cared for and held.
It’s delightful. You’ve mentioned Freak, which was the first book. If you would, whet people’s appetite for the four books you have published already. Start with Freak.
I was a quirky kid throughout my life. Now I’m a big, older, quirky kid. When I was in middle school, because of the strange way I dressed, I used to wear my hair in three ponytails, and I read the dictionary, my 6th through 8th-grade years were not easy as a result of that. I was mercilessly bullied by one person in particular but a group of girls that were in my middle school. I wrote Freak as a way to think about my experience in middle school. At the time that I was writing Freak, it was also when I was getting started as a teacher. I was able to see these 12, 13, 14-year-olds while I was writing about my own experience. It was a rich way to do it. Miriam, in Freak, walks to the beat of her own drum, doesn’t try to conform, and is teased for being a nonconformist. She becomes a proud young woman who speaks her own truth in her own way. That’s what Freak is about. That was the first one.
That would be the next one I read.
I then wrote Without Tess.
One of the things I like is that you’re writing all of these about people who have gone through losses. You’re opening that conversation for people. I love that.
Thank you.Without Tess is abouta girl whose sister dies. I don’t want to give too much away about how the death occurs but there’s a mental illness in her sister’s life and the death is surrounded by that reality.The story is told in two time periods. One is in the current day, which is whenLizzie, who is the main character, is sixteen.Also, flashbacks to when Lizzie and Tess were younger and when Lizzie was ten. Lizzie and Tess have this fantastical, imaginary world, which Tess takes more seriously than her sister does. For her sister, it’s a game. For Tess, it becomes something real.
The story is about letting go of some of the relationships and not feeling the guilt that’s surrounding the sister’s death and Lizzie discovering her own voice. Tess is a poet. The book has a lot of Tess’s poetry sprinkled through it at the beginning of chapters. Part of what happens to Lizzie in the book is for her to realize that she has her own poetry to tell. I love that book. Part of that book was inspired by a cousin that I had who died when I was sixteen. She wasn’t much like Tess in the book at all.She was a mentally healthy person who had cancer. The feeling of grief and having an emptiness inside you because of the loss of somebody important was something that was a big part of myolder childhood as a result of the loss of my cousin.
Were you sixteen?
I was sixteen, yes. The experience of writing this book was a way to think about that loss, although it became something different. The character of Tess hasall kinds of dimensions that had nothing to do with my cousinhood with Jill, who was my cousin who I lost.
I’m looking forward to reading that book as well. One of the things that I’ve written about and talked about for years, and I was taught this by a friend in graduate school, she used to call the process termination. Arnold Schwarzenegger had that movie and nobody liked that term. I had to come up with a different title. I chose to call it saying goodbye to good people without saying goodbye to good memories while holding on to those good memories. Without Tess, is part of that process and showing a way to do that, letting go of what needs to be let go of and retaining what enriches us from our life experiences.
For me, that book had to do with make-believe and the relationship that the two sisters have where they’re playingin their imaginary worlds that they create. That was the part that was real for me because Jill and I had incredible, imaginary play. That’s the idea of imagination. The power and magic of being able to imagine yourself in other situations is something that I’ve been working with in the books. It’s there in Without Tess.
It’s certainly there in Trowbridge Road.
The imaginary play that June Bug and Ziggy have in Trowbridge Road is directly from my experiences playing make-believe as a kid. Even with Ready To Fall, which is the book previous to Trowbridge Road, there’s a magical, realistic element that teeters between make-believe and imagination and also the dark places where the mind can go and it often does.
That aspect of our abilities, creativity with our minds, enriches this life. For some, with Without Tess, it can become a problem if it’s not mediated, if it’s not balanced, if there isn’t one foot in both worlds.
That’s what happens to Tess, her two feet are firmly planted in her imaginary world and it becomes evident that there’s some psychosis that’s going on with Tess as the book develops. The book is also about Lizzie realizing that you don’t have to completely abandon creativity to be sane and whole and healthy, which is true.
Thank goodness for all of us.
In Trowbridge Road, I enjoyed writing about the imaginary play of the two children. As I was writing it, I discovered that they were using their imaginations to be strong, to be able to influence things in their own lives, to create things, and to be angry in a powerful way. June Bug becomes a dragon and breathes fire. She screams and rips a hole through the universe. She’s able to fly and move things for somebody who feels ineffectual. Using imagination as a way to recognize that she has power and can influence things is important in the book and important for all of us. If you can’t imagine yourself as powerful, it’s hard to get there.
There’s an ancient wisdom that says, “For lack of vision of the future, we perish.” If we can’t even imagine the future for ourselves, we may not get there. What is it that I haven’t even asked you about whether it’s your writing, family, passions, your next book that you want to share with us?How wonderful it would be to know that you are not alone in what you're going through. Click To Tweet
I would love to tell you about something unexpected that came from Trowbridge Road for me. I have suffered my whole life with obsessive-compulsive disorder, probably from the time that I was about eight years old. That’s something that I have dealt with my entire life and continue to deal with. When I wrote Trowbridge Road, I was feeling, as the author, a lot of empathy for June Bug and was seeing myself as June Bug. It’s because of the experiences of the pandemic and what was going on in my own life around that time, I realized that I was June Bug’s mother as well. Hopefully, not in the way that she was abusive towards June but in her fears.
During the time between the book being finished and the book coming out, 2020 occurred, the pandemic appeared, and I lost my father, who died right after the pandemic began. I started experiencing compulsiveness that I had never experienced before. Usually, my OCD took the shape of worries about death. Throughout my life, that has been a constant way that my brain does its thing but I had never been a classic germaphobe, what you might expect when you stereotypically think about obsessive-compulsive disorder.
It’s because of what had happened with my father’s death and my own fears that developed through the pandemic, I realized that I was Angela Jordan as well. This character, in some ways, was maybe preparing me for something that was going to come out in the perfect storm that existed when the pandemic hit. What was unexpected was realizing that both characters needed empathy. There needed to be an Angela Jordan who was struggling and there needed to be a June Bug that was struggling and that both characters deserved love in the end. Even though Angela was difficult and had problems, she was coming from a place of her own internal struggles.
One of the things that’s difficult for me to get across to people or at least get them to start questioning and observing is that it is impossible for somebody to do hurtful things to another human being unless they’re in pain or fear themselves that they’re running from. My condolences on the loss of your father.
As soon as you said that you had that issue with obsessive-compulsive disorder, I thought about Dr. Julia Britz. She works for the Alternative To Meds Center. I had the privilege of interviewing her. She’s a naturopathic physician. She decided to become a naturopathic physician because, in her young life, she struggled with a severe obsessive-compulsive disorder. She went to a naturopathic physician for some medical situation and they did some tests and came back with the results of all those tests, bloodwork, etc. The physician asked her, “Do you ever struggle with obsessive-compulsive disorder?” She was shocked because she hadn’t mentioned it. She fessed up and said, “Yes.” She said, “How would you know that?” They said, “It’s because of the bloodwork. It looks like that would be something you could be susceptible to.” I would point you in that direction.
Many times, as people move out of the allopathic medical model that says, “We have symptoms. I need to find a doctor who will give me a medication to suppress those symptoms.” When we step out of that model and we recognize whatever symptoms are going on that aren’t healthy and life-affirming, it’s the result of some kind of dysfunction. If I can correct that dysfunction at a cause level, the symptoms pretty much fall away whether it’s a nutritional thing or it’s a trauma thing that I need to process or the combination of the two hormonal imbalances. I will make sure and send you a link to that talk. It’s part of the Journey’s Dream On Your Mind show. By the way, this is about one year since we launched our first episode. Congratulations on being here on the one-year anniversary.
Congratulations on having a one-year anniversary. That’s wonderful. What you’re doing is great work.
Anything else aside from the surprise benefit of writing this book and then going through your loss with your heart open?
This book, Trowbridge Road, is the book of my soul. I love all of my books but this book is the best of what I have inside me. Hopefully, there are other good things coming.
There’s more to come.
This is the sharpest I’ve come to what I want to say in the world. I’m glad that it’s out in the world. I hope people will find it and read it. It’s nice to have an opportunity to come and talk about it.
It’s an honor. I count it as a privilege because this is a book that is right in line with what we’re trying to do, make discussions about our lives and our health, mentally and emotionally commonplace. You’re doing a beautiful job of it. I’m looking forward to reading the other three books. Thanks for making them short and big print. It’s nice for an old guy like me.
That’s always part of the marketing. That has to do with who they’re marketing it to. I do like the print in Trowbridge Road. I like the print size, it’s comfortable.
I look forward to the next book. If you’ll allow me, I’ll reach out when I find out you’ve published another one and we’ll have another conversation.
Thank you. There’s another one in the works. One of the things that are in the works that I should mention is that I’m going to be part of an anthology that’s coming out in 2023 called Absolutely Normal, which is an anthology of own voices authors who have struggled with mental health issues. All of the book and all the stories in the anthology are about characters who are struggling with different mental health issues. That book is going to come out from Candlewick Press in 2023. Absolutely Normal is the title and the editors are Nora Shalaway Carpenter and Rocky Callen, who are wonderful writers themselves.
That’s something else to get excited about and look forward to. Congratulations on that. Thank you so much for spending this time with us. It’s been a delight.
Thank you so much. It was great to be here.
Marcella Pixley is the author of four acclaimed books for children that all explore complex family dynamics and mental health issues. Her first book, Freak, was published in 2007. It was Kirkus’ best book of the year. Her second book, Without Tess, was published in 2011. It was a Junior Library Guild selection. Her book, Ready To Fall, was published in 2017. It was a Bank Street best book of the year. Her novel, Trowbridge Road, was published in 2020. It was long-listed for the National Book Award and was named best book of 2020 by Shelf Awareness, Junior Library Guild, Amazon, Reading Group Choices, and Kansas NEA. Marcella teaches eighth-grade language arts in Carlisle, Massachusetts.
About Marcella Pixley
Marcella Pixley is the author of four acclaimed books for children that all explore complex family dynamics and mental health.
Her first book – FREAK (2007) was a Kirkus Best Book of the Year,
Her second book – WITHOUT TESS (2011) was a Junior Library Guild Selection,
Her third book – READY TO FALL (2017) was a Bank Street Best Book of the Year.
Her most recent novel, TROWBRIDGE ROAD (2020) was longlisted for the National Book Award and was named the best book of 2020 by Shelf Awareness, Junior Library Guild, Amazon, Reading Group Choices and Kansas NEA.
Marcella teaches 8th Grade Language Arts in Carlisle, Massachusetts.
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