Note: My answers may contain some spoilers for the book—please don’t read this if you haven’t finished the book!
How did you get the idea for this book?
Several years ago when I was working as a reporter for a newspaper in Indianapolis, I worked on a series of stories about how the state of Indiana helped—or didn’t help—kids in need. This was a large series involving several reporters; my part of the series was to look at the child welfare system set up to intervene when kids were abused or neglected. As part of my reporting, I interviewed several teenagers who had become wards of the state because their parents were unable or unwilling or just too messed up to take care of them themselves. The stories these kids told me were heart-breaking, and they haunted me for a long time afterward.
I tend to turn things that bother me into fiction, so even as I was writing the “true” stories for the newspaper, I started imagining a fictional teenager, Tish, who wasn’t exactly like any of the real kids I interviewed, but who had a similarly troubled life. I wrote the first version of Tish’s tale as a short story with a really stupid title—I think it was called something like, “The Big-haired Girl Crochets.”
Later on, I left newspaper reporting and taught briefly at a community college. Like Mrs. Dunphrey, I required my students to keep regular journals, but told them that they could mark passages that they wanted to keep private, and I would only check to make sure that they were writing. I was stunned when many of my students wrote about very private matters—suicide, unwanted pregnancy, abortion, mental illness—and yet didn’t mark those entries, “Don’t read.” I realized that, for some of my students, the journals became their only way to make a cry for help. I did everything I could for these students, but felt very frustrated that in most cases, all I could do was refer them to someone else. This also haunted me.
Eventually I began wondering what kind of journal Tish would keep if she was forced to keep one for school. The title, “Don’t You Dare Read This, Mrs. Dunphrey” jumped into my mind. (Much better than “The Big-Haired Girl Crochets,” right?)
Is the story based on anything in your real life?
I feel very lucky that I did not have a childhood like Tish’s. My parents actually like it a lot when I emphasize that they are nothing like Tish’s parents.