In Kate Messner's 'Chirp,' Female Crickets Are Silent But A Young Girl Learns To Speak Up
“Chirp” by Kate Messner is a story about friendship, the joys of summer — and how to make yourself heard if an adult acts in a way that makes you uncomfortable.
Messner begins the story at a point when Mia has just moved to Burlington, Vermont, with her family. Her grandmother lives there and runs a cricket farm. But Mia, who is 12, has been keeping a secret.
Kate Messner, author: Mia is a gymnast, and she had always loved gymnastics and there was an assistant coach [at the gym she went to before she moved to Vermont] who everybody loved.
And it started with just hugs that were a little bit uncomfortable for her. He was always giving everybody back rubs and then there were texts that he would send at night sometimes that would make her feel weird, and she kept that secret. She was super uncomfortable, but is finding more and more that she needs to speak up about that.
At the same time [that] she's coming to terms with this and trying to find the courage to speak up, she's also dealing with a mystery, because somebody — she's discovered — is trying to sabotage her grandmother's cricket farm.
Jill Kaufman, NEPM: You know, there's a lot of background on crickets, and we're talking about crickets for human consumption. Why did you place so much of the story at a cricket farm?
I thought this was a world that would be really interesting to kids. Entomophagy, the practice of eating insects as food, was something I had read about back in 2013 when the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization put out a report called “Edible Insects.”
So, I thought this was fascinating, the idea that we know the science of eating insects and yet we still can't bring ourselves to consider that something that's food, and I thought kids would be interested in that too. When I was on book tour for this book, I [brought] roasted crickets for people to sample and that was a lot of fun too.
As a writer, is it your job to tackle issues for middle schoolers? Whether that's about how we eat, what we eat, or some of the heavier themes in this book?
As a writer, it’s my job to hold up a mirror to the world and share an honest look, an honest story about what kids’ lives are like.
You know, the young people that I know, the middle grade readers that I know, are busy. They're involved in lots of different activities. They are passionately curious and they also are not immune to tough things that happen in the world.
At the same time they are going to school and they have homework and tests, they are dealing with aging grandparents. And many young people deal with adults who act inappropriately toward them.
You focus in though on Mia not speaking up, meaning she held the secret inside of her that something wasn't right. She wasn't sure if she was imagining it. She wasn't sure if she would get in trouble herself. Can you talk a little bit more about Mia’s bravery?
I do think it's really important to show that sometimes people don't speak up for a long time and that is OK. And it's also OK to say, 'Wait a minute, this thing that happened, maybe six months ago, maybe five years ago, is still okay to speak up about and good to speak up about.'
We haven’t had too many books for young people that actually talk about this, that talk about kids dealing with an adult who's acting inappropriately. And it's an uncomfortable thing — I've gotten some pushback. This is one of these things where we have a whole culture that teaches kids, ‘You need to respect adults and you need to do what adults say and you need to be compliant.’ And there are times when that is really harmful for kids, and I think they need to know that there are times when, no, that's not right.
Readers are going to learn about a lot of a lot of issues and things in “Chirp,” including the lifespan of the crickets and about a key difference between crickets, that the males are the noisy ones and the females are the quiet ones. And at some point, Mia wishes that the females would make some noise.
So I was really trying to put myself in a situation and what would she be feeling? You know, this is a kid who has just moved to a new place. I mean, a place she lived before, but she's still moved to a new place. She's bringing this secret with her. She had had a bad accident on the balance beam that ... broke her arm. And so she's still healing physically as well as, you know, inside. How would she feel upon learning that when you walk into a warehouse full of crickets and hear this overwhelming chirping, that that's only the males who are chirping, that female crickets don't make any sounds? Because [Mia] really had been silenced in a lot of ways.
So there are all kinds of parallels in the book between the way other people, other women especially in her life, have been treated and have been silenced over the years. The way some other women have pushed back, and also the way her grandmother is treated as an older woman who is also an entrepreneur.
This is a book that's been selected for a lot of book clubs, particularly intergenerational book clubs, mothers and daughters and fathers and sons, too, reading together. I know it's sparked some really great conversations and that really was my greatest hope when I worked on this book.