Writer of fiction and non-fiction for children and young adults
Brenda writes health articles for Woman's World, First for Women, Health Monitor Network and iVillage.com.
She’s also published a middle grade novel (Sleepover Zoo), two picture books (There’s Nothing Wrong With Claudia and Parrots and Popcorn) and an early teen novel (The Day I Washed My Face in the Toilet).
All four books are available in English, Spanish and French.
SD: First, I must say that your recent book, The Day I Washed My Face in the Toilet, has a very eye-catching and interesting title. How did you come up with it?
BK: Sadly, I came up with that title—and a pretty big chunk of the book’s plot-line—the day I washed my face in a toilet! A few years ago, we were hit by a really bad winter storm. It snowed like crazy, then hailed, then rained, then the temperature plunged...everything iced up. All across the region, ice-covered hydro poles toppled over and crashed to the ground.
We were living in the middle of nowhere, and we had no hydro, no heat, no lights and no running water for almost a week. I was cold and grimy, and by the fourth day I snapped. I had to wash my face. I stomped to the bathroom, pulled the lid off the toilet tank and peered in.
It was disgusting. The water had been sitting there four days, so it smelled funky. And every chain and bobbly thing in there was covered with a thick layer of (and here I’m using the scientific term) bleck.
I grabbed a bar of soap and plunged it into the tank. Then, with my eyes and lips shut so tightly that even oxygen molecules couldn’t squeeze through, I splashed icy toilet water all over my face and neck, and then scrubbed off four days worth of grime.
In a lame attempt to distract myself from this disgusting task, I started thinking about books. About my next book. About a book with a gag-worthy climax scene involving a girl washing her face in a toilet...
By the time I’d dried myself off, I had the basic outline of The Day I Washed My Face in the Toilet sketched out in my head. I wouldn’t want to go through that miserable week again, but I’m glad it happened once!
SD: Describe the main character, Monica Bloomfield, in The Day I Washed My Face in the Toilet.
BK: Monica is smart, quiet and introverted. She has a lot of common sense, she thinks logically and has a wry sense of humor. Like many teens, she feels uncomfortable during confrontations, and doesn’t like to talk to large groups (meaning more than two people at a time!). She’s also extremely anal and inflexible—she likes her world to be clean, tidy, orderly and predictable, and can’t understand why anyone wouldn’t want their lives that way.
SD: Does Monica Bloomfield remind you of yourself when you were a teen, if so how?
BK: Monica is the type of teen I wish I’d been. Sadly, I had all of her worst traits and very few of her good ones. If I could go back in time and “fix” my teenaged personality, I’d make myself more like Monica. She’s not perfect—far from it—but she isn’t nearly as much of a mess as I was at that age!
Interestingly, Monica’s appearance and self-image mimic mine during my teen years. She’s unhappy with her flat chest and frizzy brown hair, feels short and dumpy, and is embarrassed about how hairy her legs are. Yep, that was me.
SD: Tell us about the crazy naked brother scene and the curry incident. Are they fact or fiction?
BK: Fact—both of them! The crazy naked brother scene was based on what one of the neighborhood kids used to do when I was in elementary school. The little twit would wear a polka dot bandana like a mask and squish his bare bum against the living room window, trying to get our attention when we were outside. We’d have to pretend we couldn’t see him—because if he knew he had an audience, it encouraged him to keep going.
Sadly, the curry incident happened to me when I was in England visiting an old friend. On my last night there she took me out for curry. I’d never had curry before, and it was a buffet restaurant, so I tried everything. I hadn’t realized that curry is one of those things that might, um, “surprise” your digestive tract if you toss too much of it in there at once. I spent most of that night in the bathroom—it was like a colon cleanse gone wrong. By morning, I’d developed a massive case of explosive curry farts. I kept my coat zipped up for the entire flight home, hoping that would at least hide the smell. It didn’t. Toxic gasses kept leaking out through the neck of the coat, assaulting me and then all the passengers stuck sitting around me. Ironically, the coat made the problem worse, because it made me sweat—I was leaking curry vapors out of every pore of my body.
SD: I think it’s safe to say that some of the storyline is about Monica's dysfunctional family. Why such a storyline?
BK: The fact is, some of the most interesting families I’ve ever known are ones that, at first glance, seem quite dysfunctional. And some of the most interesting people I’ve ever met come from very dysfunctional families. I really think “normal” is over-rated. I have a plaque in my kitchen that says, “We put the fun in dysfunctional,” and I believe that should be every family’s goal. You don’t need to be normal—just balance each other out and be grateful for each other.
SD: In the book you talk a lot about Monica’s batty Grandma. Do you or did you have a batty Grandma such as Monica’s?
BK: My maternal grandfather was a gem, just like Monica’s grandmother. He was one of the smartest, kindest people I’ve ever met. He also had a fantastic sense of humour and loved to play pranks. When I was around three years old, he managed to convince me that an empty wine bottle was a microphone. Somewhere buried in my parent’s memorabilia is a recording of me, as a toddler, gripping an empty wine bottle and singing into it (very loudly and out of tune). When my mom and dad were dating, my grandfather climbed up the outside of his own house, peeked in the living room window and made faces at them. My grandfather’s totally endearing but wacky personality was the starting point for Monica’s grandmother.
SD: The Day I Washed My Face in the Toilet is said to be very comical, but it is also said to have a few serious issues such as caring for the elderly and how to handle problem children. Why did you choose to write about such issues?
BK: Someday I’m going to be old and feeble (probably sooner than I realize), and I want to make sure my kids feel hideously guilty if they pitch me into a nursing home to make their lives easier! It can be a real quandary for busy families these days—what do you do with a slightly-loopy old relative? When do you start making decisions for them and taking away their autonomy? Most families will be forced to deal with this at some point—and many teens are watching their families struggle with these issues right now. Sometimes we’re too quick to judge the elderly and assume that they’re incapable. I wanted readers to see that if you’re tolerant of people’s differences, it can be a whole lot easier to navigate those difficult decisions.
As far as the issue of problem children goes, well, I was venting. Four of my kids are adopted, and all four came to me with very serious issues—some fixable, some not. So I’ve been dealing with “not normal” kids for the last 12 years. It’s been an enormous struggle and I’ve discovered that it’s not always as rewarding as the do-gooders claim it will be. I’ve also discovered that I’m not alone—a lot of families struggle with kids that don’t fit the “he’ll be normal someday” mold. So, I felt this was an opportunity to reach out to those families—but to do it in a way that would help them see the humour in their struggles.
SD: You wrote a bit about letting people be themselves in the book. How important is this to you?
BK: Oh, my, it’s huge! Although, I do think there’s a compromise involved, here. If you try to squelch who you are to make others happy, you’ll never be happy yourself. However, I also believe it isn’t kind to just throw your dysfunctional self out there and make other people feel uncomfortable, either. It’s important to figure out how to be yourself, without stomping on other people’s feelings. It’s a delicate balance, isn’t it?
Edward (Monica’s brother) is a great example of this. Some readers—adult readers, not kids—have mistakenly assumed that he’s autistic or has ADHD. Nope, he’s just ridiculously smart, high-energy, obsessive and thinks differently than the norm. Should he be crammed into some mold and then drowned in counseling or medication? No, I don’t think so. Should he be allowed to drink coffee before his family’s next eight-hour flight or left unsupervised during their next tour of an 860-year-old castle? No, I don’t think that worked out very well, either!
SD: What did your children think of The Day I Washed My Face in the Toilet? Do you ever ask their opinion/feedback with any of your manuscripts?
BK: I’ve always hesitated to ask their opinion about manuscripts because they’re kind kids and wouldn’t want to hurt my feelings. So, basically, they’d feel compelled to lie if they didn’t like one of my books!
So, what I do is give them manuscripts to skim through when they’re already sitting in my office reading (just for their own interest, of course...not for feedback). Then I pretend I’m working at my computer, while I watch them out of the corner of my eye to see how they’re reacting to the thing. With The Day I Washed My Face in the Toilet there was a lot of grinning, nodding, snorting and giggling as they read the manuscript. That made me feel good. But I don’t ask any of them for specific criticisms about books—I hire an editor for that.
SD: You are a writer of children and young adult books, is there a reason why you write in this genre? Any future plans to write in a different genre?
BK: Well, my “day job” is writing for magazines such as Woman’s World and First for Women. I absolutely love my job, but I’m hideously immature and felt the need to do something more kid-centered in my spare time—that’s why I write children’s books, too. I can’t imagine writing novels for adults, because that would require being mature enough that I could see the world from an adult’s perspective—and that sounds like too much work to me!
I’ve heard a lot of adults say this, and it’s true for me, too: physically, I’m aging (my kids would say I’m falling apart) but mentally, I feel like I’m still 18. Writing for younger age groups gives me a chance to tap into that mentality and helps me feel young!