Welcome to the My Life in the Fish Tank Blog Tour!
To celebrate the release of My Life in the Fish Tank by Barbara Dee on September 15th, blogs across the web are featuring original guest posts from Barbara, plus 5 chances to win My Life in the Fish Tank and swag!
What’s in a Name? Writing Characters in My Life in The Fish Tank
Every author has a special way to procrastinate. For me it’s reading up on names. Whenever I start writing a new book, I spend hours on various baby-name websites, researching the popularity, connotations, origins, and variations for all the names I’m considering for my characters. And yes, some of this research is simple work-avoidance…but it’s also true that reading about names helps me define my characters.
For the most part, I like names that are a little quirky, like “Zinnia” in My Life in the Fish Tank. But I don’t merely gravitate toward quirky–the name has to be right for the character. When choosing a name, I keep in mind:
–The age of the character. Names are like fashion trends. I look at popularity charts for the name the year a character was born. Adults should have names that sound right for their birth year; same for twelve-year-old protagonists.
–The personality of the character. For example, in My Life in the Fish Tank, Zinny’s sixteen year old sister is a dramatic door-slammer, so I named her Scarlett.
–The character’s family. The same parents who named Zinnia also named her siblings– Scarlett, Aiden and Gabriel. Names of kids in a family don’t have to be uniform (especially when, as in Fish Tank, there’s an age difference among the kids), but the names do have to work together.
–Ethnicity. It’s important to me that my books have a diverse cast of characters, and that this diversity is reflected–at least to some extent– in the names. My Life in the Fish Tank has characters named Kailani, Luz, Li-Mei, Imani, Marisol and Jamilla. Last names include Ramos, Molina, Halloran and Felsenstein.
–Malleability. This is mainly a factor when I’m naming the protagonist. I look for names that lend themselves to various nicknames, because these help to depict the character’s relationships to others. In My Life in the Fish Tank, the protagonist is Zinnia Manning, but no one calls her Zinnia except her sister Scarlett when she’s being condescending and/or ironic. To friends and family she’s Zinny. When she joins the school’s Lunch Club, Luz, who’s friendly but a little bossy, insists on calling her Zin. Cute boy Jayden asks Zinny her name; she gets flustered and responds, “Um, Zinnia.” Afterwards he teasingly calls her Umzinnia, a nickname that painfully reminds her of her awkwardness around him, but also suggests a little flirtation.
These are only a few of my considerations when choosing names. Sometimes I pick a name because in some mysterious way it feels “right” for the character’s personality –for example, Aspen, Darius, Keira, Asher and Rudy. Once I named those secondary characters in Fish Tank, I could see them more clearly. It’s hard to explain how this works, but it just does. The name becomes the character, and the character becomes the name.
So when, for a variety of reasons, you need to change a character’s name, it can really throw you. As I was first drafting My Life in the Fish Tank, Kamala Harris was in the news for the way she interrogated Brett Kavanaugh in his confirmation hearings. I decided to name one of Zinny’s best friends Kamala as a nod to this senator.
But when Kamala Harris entered the Democratic contest for President, I reconsidered. Would readers conflate this character (a loyal but somewhat docile kid) with the tough former prosecutor? Would the name be construed as a declaration of preference for the Democratic nominee? Would it be distracting?
Some of my author buddies urged me to keep the name, but suggested giving her a nickname like Kammie. I considered this, but decided that it would detract from the protagonist and her own many nicknames. So after a second round of time-sinking on the baby-name websites, I decided to go with Kailani. Now I have a hard time thinking of this character as anyone but a Kailani.
Given my obsession with names, I guess it’s not surprising that the power of names is one of the themes of My Life in the Fish Tank. Scarlett, who’s focused on gender justice, jokingly suggests renaming the family Hu-manning. The kids in Lunch Club reject the name “Lunch Club” as dorky, dubbing their weekly sessions with the guidance counselor “Ralph,” Gladys,” Bertha,” and “Eunice”–a small rebellion that bonds them as a group. And one of the reasons Zinny adores her science teacher is for her obsession with “scientific names for things”: “Like she believed that if you just knew the right words, you could unlock a whole treasure box of information.”
When Zinny hears that her beloved big brother has a mental illness, it comes as a shock. But learning that it has a name–bipolar disorder– helps her come to terms with it. As Zinny’s guidance counselor. Mr. Patrick, says, Gabriel isn’t “crazy”– he has “a specific treatable medical condition.”
“The right words are important,” he tells Zinny–and of course no word is more important, more powerful, or more humanizing than a name.
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From acclaimed author of Maybe He Just Likes You and Halfway Normal comes a powerful and moving story of learning how to grow, change, and survive.
When twelve-year-old Zinnia Manning’s older brother Gabriel is diagnosed with a mental illness, the family’s world is turned upside down. Mom and Dad want Zinny, her sixteen-year-old sister, Scarlett, and her eight-year-old brother, Aiden, to keep Gabriel’s condition “private”—and to Zinny that sounds the same as “secret.” Which means she can’t talk about it to her two best friends, who don’t understand why Zinny keeps pushing them away, turning everything into a joke.
It also means she can’t talk about it during Lunch Club, a group run by the school guidance counselor. How did Zinny get stuck in this weird club, anyway? She certainly doesn’t have anything in common with these kids—and even if she did, she’d never betray her family’s secret.
The only good thing about school is science class, where cool teacher Ms. Molina has them doing experiments on crayfish. And when Zinny has the chance to attend a dream marine biology camp for the summer, she doesn’t know what to do. How can Zinny move forward when Gabriel—and, really, her whole family—still needs her help?
About the Author: Barbara Dee is the author of eleven middle grade novels published by Simon & Schuster, including My Life in the Fish Tank, Maybe He Just Likes You, Everything I Know About You, Halfway Normal, and Star-Crossed. Her books have earned several starred reviews and have been named to many best-of lists, including the The Washington Post’s Best Children’s Books, the ALA Notable Children’s Books, the ALA Rise: A Feminist Book Project List, the NCSS-CBC Notable Social Studies Trade Books for Young People, and the ALA Rainbow List Top Ten. Barbara lives with her family, including a naughty cat named Luna and a sweet rescue hound named Ripley, in Westchester County, New York.
Follow Barbara: Website | Twitter | Facebook | Instagram
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