I don’t know about you, but in the fall of 2020, I was anxious. If you’ve read my books (The Nature of Jade and A Heart in a Body in the World, in particular), you can probably guess that anxiety is usually a struggle for me. But add a global pandemic and world events that felt entirely out of control, and, well . . . I felt like I was steering a ship in a storm when I knew nothing about steering a ship in a storm. One thing I had no doubt about: time online and on social media was making this anxiety worse. The message that kept hitting and hitting as I kept scrolling and scrolling was that imminent disaster was everywhere, likely to happen at any moment. Meanwhile, I tried to slap up pretty images on Instagram and Facebook, plugging the leaks and bailing the water of the sinking ship.
Admittedly, my relationship with social media was already rocky. I was certain of this from twelve million articles describing the Ten Signs of Unhealthy Relationship. Was there intensity between me and my partner, aka social media? Yep. Isolation? You betcha. Was my partner, social media, critical of me? Hahaha. Indeed. Manipulative? Can you say “filter”? Was I afraid to say what was really on my mind around them? Could I be myself? Are you kidding?! Did I feel drained when we were together? Did I walk on eggshells? Yes, yes, yes! Did I like who I was when I was around them? HECK NO, unless you like when you feel small and insecure and overwhelmed.
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We had a problem, social media and I. I was beginning to wonder if I knew who that woman was, a woman in a square, looking at a square. I wondered if I could care about anything, in the caring about everything. And I was worrying that we all had a problem, most especially young women, who, I kept reading, were feeling the effects of social media to alarming degrees. Social media use was deeply linked to both anxiety and plummeting self-esteem. The scrolling, the noise, the sense that we were in danger all the time (and not measuring up while we’re at it) hurt. If I was feeling all of these things, if I was scrolling in the middle of the night, my face lit in a circle of doom-light, a woman who’s lived awhile, who’s pretty sturdy from heartbreak and failures and trauma and life truths and the force of the storm over years—how might young people feel right now with all of this? How were they managing the constant assault of information? How were they coping with being so seen and so unseen at the same time?
In The Epic Story of Every Living Thing, seventeen-year-old Harper Proulx, at the height of her post-pandemic anxiety, sets out with her half siblings to find their sperm-donor father, a man she believes will tell her who she really is, that girl in the social media squares. The events of that summer and the man they discover—a charismatic deep-sea diver obsessed with fragile solving the mystery of a sunken shipwreck from the 1880s (whose real-life captain, the nineteen-year-old Mary Patten, has an astonishing story of her own)—drop Harper, literally, into the deep, beautiful, and, most of all, quiet waters of identity and connection. In the book, I wanted to explore who we are in dark times, and who we are after them. And I wanted to talk about social media and anxiety—the confusion of looking at that person in the square and wondering who she is. The dangers at the surface, when the real meaning is below it. The whirlwind of noise, where you see a plate of sushi, and a parrot, and then a tragedy. How the noise itself can be its own disaster, its own disease, flattening your land and deadening your empathy.
What I didn’t know, not until I did a ton of research for this book, was that this is how we’re supposed to feel when we use social media. This is how we’re made to feel ON PURPOSE, and BY DESIGN, for PROFIT. Small and insecure, so we’ll post and check and like and hope to be liked and click and click and click.
Subtle signs of disease your feet can reveal. Healthy foods that are actually ruining your diet. A kitten licking another kitten. A plate of macaroons. Someone hates a TV show, and someone else hates that person for hating that TV show, and someone else is announcing they are taking a social media break but no one cares. Pretend accidental selfies where the person looks fabulous. A gerbil wearing a tiny hat. Someone’s horrible wound, as you innocently eat your scrambled eggs. Tornadoes wars hatred. Ten Ways You’re Walking Wrong. Ten Signs of Other People’s Perfection, make that a hundred. A Thousand Ways You’re Not Measuring Up. Forty-Five Thousand Ways Other People’s Vacation Is Way Nicer Than Yours. A drawing of a bird. A real bird. A bagel, a muffin, a croissant, a donut, a cronut.
When the mundane sits next to the tragedy, it underscores the sense that disaster can happen at any moment. You can be eating your sushi and an earthquake happens. You can be holding your cronut in a beautiful sunsetty light and a grandmother dies.
And it can all be yours, any time, day or night, because the internet is like a 7-Eleven, open twenty-four hours. You can’t get great healthy food there, but you can get hot dogs that have been spinning around for hours. How can we possibly be capable and calm against so much? How can we not feel vulnerable and fragile? How can we care and care and care? How many hurricanes, how many shootings, how much cancer, until your heart shuts down? In the book, Harper can almost hear all the hearts, once warm and caring, shut, shut, shutting down, like closed doors, because it’s just too much.
Harper needed relief, and so did I, and so, over that summer, Harper connects with her larger family and with a vibrant community. She experiences hope and humor and that timeless thing called love. She goes from a noisy world to the quietest one—underwater. She dives down into the waves that have been waves forever, surrounded by a whoosh of bubbles in that old, old ocean. She goes below the surface, where no one will even see her, where she won’t be an object with an object but a real person in the real world. She experiences the ongoing life of astonishing creatures and human beings who have been here since the beginning of time, going through stuff, surviving stuff.
I wanted to say: Dear readers, I hear you. I get it. Me too. I wanted to say: Here we are with our anxiety, hanging out in this book together. I wanted to say: Girls, you know what? That story is a lie, the one you’ve been told, that you should be afraid all the time, and that you aren’t capable of handling hard stuff. Mary Patten, that girl taking Neptune’s Car around Cape Horn, she heard the same lie—it’s been going on a long time. I wanted to say that caring about everything is exhausting, and impossible besides, but that your empathy is a pure and permanent thing, a cherished gift, a birthright.
And most of all, I wanted to say: You may see yourself in all those squares, but, friend, there is only one you. The you yourself, a you with your own epic story, as every creature and human being who ever lived has an epic story. Step out of square, and look—there you are. Incredible, singular you.
Meet the author
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DEB CALETTI is the award-winning and critically acclaimed author of over sixteen books for adults and young adults, including HONEY, BABY, SWEETHEART, a finalist for the National Book Award; A HEART IN A BODY IN THE WORLD, a Michael L. Printz Honor Book; and GIRL, UNFRAMED, which received seven starred reviews. Her books have also won the Josette Frank Award for Fiction, the Washington State Book Award, and numerous other state awards and honors, and she was a finalist for the PEN USA Award. Her latest book for young adult readers is THE EPIC STORY OF EVERY LIVING THING, which Kirkus Reviews described as “an epic tale of life, love, and identity.” She lives with her family in Seattle.
About The Epic Story of Every Living Thing
From the award-winning author of A Heart in a Body in The World comes a gorgeous and fiercely feminist young adult novel. When a teen travels to Hawaii to track down her sperm donor father, she discovers the truth about him, about the sunken shipwreck that’s become his obsession, and most of all about herself.
Harper Proulx has lived her whole life with unanswered questions about her anonymous sperm donor father. She’s convinced that without knowing him, she can’t know herself. When a chance Instagram post connects Harper to a half sibling, that connection yields many more and ultimately leads Harper to uncover her father’s identity.
So, fresh from a painful breakup and still reeling with anxiety that reached a lifetime high during the pandemic, Harper joins her newfound half siblings on a voyage to Hawaii to face their father. The events of that summer, and the man they discover—a charismatic deep-sea diver obsessed with solving the mystery of a fragile sunken shipwreck—will force Harper to face some even bigger questions: Who is she? Is she her DNA, her experiences, her successes, her failures? Is she the things she loves—or the things she hates? Who she is in dark times? Who she might become after them?
Publisher: Random House Children’s Books
Publication date: 09/13/2022
Age Range: 14 – 17 Years
Filed under: Guest Post