Divorce can be a big adjustment for a child, bringing up many different feelings that are tough to make sense of. Settling comfortably into a new weekly routine, with two places to call home, takes a lot of love, compassion, and open communication.
Author (and Open Book contributor) Naseem Hrab explores this experience in her newest picture book Weekend Dad (Groundwood), a tale of a boy visiting his father's new apartment for the first time. While it might take a while to get used to this new home, the two spend the weekend doing everything they always do: eating a delicious breakfast, playing games, and visiting the park. There are mixed emotions when it's finally time to leave, but the boy's father hands him a letter to keep, telling him he will always be loved, even if dad won't be there every day.
Paired with wonderfully delicate illustrations by Frank Viva, Hrab's touching, thoughtful story will resonate with families navigating the tricky waters of separation.
We're thrilled to have Naseem at Open Book today, where she discusses how her own childhood experience with divorce led her to write the book, why cafés are dangerous places for her to work, and how her story has inspired others to share their own.
How did your memoir project first start? Why was this the right time to tell your story?
All my picture books contain aspects of my personality, but Weekend Dad includes parts of my story. The book tells the story of a child who visits his dad’s new apartment for the first time after his parents get divorced. It’s based on my own experiences of going back-and-forth between two homes when I was kid.
As for whether it’s the right time for me to tell my story, well, I’m still figuring that out. The fact that my father died many years ago definitely played a part in me feeling comfortable with sharing it.
Is there a question that was central to this project? And if so, did you know the question when you started writing or did it emerge from the writing process?
I think that the central question to Weekend Dad is: “How can a family evolve and rebuild after a divorce?” And, if I were allowed to choose two questions, the second one would be: “Will everything be okay?” I didn’t have these questions in mind when I started writing, nor did they emerge during the writing process. They didn’t come to me until I started trying to describe the book to others.
I feel very lucky that the illustrator of the book, Frank Viva, seemed to know to answer these questions right away. He did such a beautiful job capturing the big and little emotional highs and lows of our characters.
What do you need in order to write – in terms of space, food, rituals, writing instruments?
In beforetimes, I loved to pretend to write in De Mello Palheta, my favourite café in Toronto—with a croissant and a cappuccino on the table instead of a notebook and pencil. Here’s the thing: it’s impossible for me to concentrate in public places, but I always try. I usually end up people-watching instead. More and more, I’m realizing that I try to start writing too early in the process. I’m getting better at slowing down and doing more thinking first.
Most of the time, all I need in order to think or write is the pressure of a missed deadline.
If you have written in other genres, what was different for you in writing a memoir?
I love writing funny picture books and comedy essays, but funny writing doesn’t seem to get the credit it deserves. It’s so hard to do well! Writing a serious picture book based on my own experiences felt much easier in comparison, because I had real moments and emotions I could draw from. It took me a couple of months to write the manuscript for Weekend Dad, whereas it took me years to write (what I think is) the perfect fart joke for Ira Crumb Feels the Feelings.
Did you use any materials, documents, interviews, or other research that became part of the writing process?
After my father passed away, we discovered that he was a compulsive hoarder. His home—the house I lived in until I was eight years old—was filled with, well, everything, including a letter written to me in 1991 that I never received. Weekend Dad includes an abridged version of this letter. I was nine years old when my dad wrote it, and I read it for the first time after he died. I was twenty-six years old.
I also have a lot of the correspondence between my parents from when they were getting divorced, and having those letters helped me understand exactly what shouldn’t be in the picture book. That is, I didn’t feel as though the conflict between them needed to be a part of this particular story. Perhaps it will weave its way into another book—a book for adults—one day.
Did you experience any anxiety about making a part of yourself public in this way? If so, how did you or do you cope with the vulnerability of publishing a memoir?
Admittedly, this book gives me a lot of anxiety, but not because it’s made me vulnerable. I’m okay with being vulnerable. What I hadn’t quite thought through is the fact that people—kids and adults alike—would want to share their own experiences with me, and I feel a responsibility there. I really worry about being a good enough listener and holder of those stories. Ultimately, it’s heartening to know that so many people could feel comfortable enough to be so vulnerable with me.
Naseem Hrab is a writer and storyteller. She is the author of Ira Crumb Makes a Pretty Good Friend and Ira Crumb Feels the Feelings. Her comedy writing has appeared on McSweeney’s Internet Tendency and The Rumpus. Naseem worked as a librarian for a time and now works in children’s publishing. She lives in Toronto.