Q&A with Kereen Getten
When Life Gives You Mangos By Kereen Getten
Twelve-year-old Clara lives on an island that visitors call exotic. But there’s nothing exotic about it to Clara. She loves eating ripe mangos off the ground, running outside in the rain with her Papa during rainy season, and going to her secret hideout with Gaynah—even though lately she’s not acting like a best friend.
The only thing out of the ordinary for Clara is that something happened to her memory that made her forget everything that happened last summer after a hurricane hit. Sometimes things come back to her in drips like a tap that hasn’t been turned off properly. Other times her Mama fills in the blanks…only she knows those aren’t her memories and it is hard feeling like she is not like everybody else.
But this summer is going to be different for Clara. Everyone is buzzing with excitement over a new girl in the village who is not like other visitors. She is about to make big waves on the island—and give Clara a summer she won’t forget.
Random House Teachers & Librarians (RHTL): When Life Gives You Mangos is your debut novel. Congratulations! Can you share a little bit about the inspiration for this story and the road to being published?
Kereen Getten (KG): Thank you! I have been writing stories since I was eight years old. I had read all the Enid Blyton books and wanted to create those worlds myself. I wrote my first novel in 2012, and looking back, it was really bad. I’m not sure I even edited it! I wrote three more novels over the next three years. Then I took a break and focused on entering short-story competitions. In one of these competitions, I won Highly Commended for what would later become When Life Gives You Mangos. I went back to writing novels after that and wrote a YA novel that got me my agent. A year after that, I expanded my short story and When Life Gives You Mangos was born.
I had always wanted to write a book about friendship. It’s such an important part of our lives, especially when we’re younger. I wanted to explore the intensity of having a best friend and set the story in the small fishing town where I was born. It was such a beautiful place with so much possibility. This book is sort of my love letter to it.
RHTL: When Life Gives You Mangos carefully handles difficult topics, including trauma, anger management, and grief. Why did you want to focus on these topics for middle graders, and how did you approach writing about them?
KG: When I first started writing the story, that wasn’t at all my intention. It really was just about friendship. But as I reread, I felt there was another story about the pain Clara was carrying. I decided to be completely honest about what Clara was going through—no sugarcoating. I imagined how I would feel if I had suffered the way she had, and how I would express those feelings if I was among people I trusted and felt safe with. I think it is so important for middle graders to see an honest depiction of trauma. I wanted them to see in Clara that trauma takes many different shapes, and they may not initially understand those feelings or where they are coming from, but that their feelings are valid and part of a process.
RHTL: Sycamore Hill, the setting of your novel, is prominent in the story—it is almost its own character. Can you talk about how you crafted this setting and its importance to you and the characters?
When I sat down to write this book, there were two things I knew for sure: that it was going to be about two best friends, and that it would be set in the small town where I was born. Some of the scenery is fictional, but most of it is real. The river is fictional; the forest is real, but you can’t walk through it in real life; and Eldorath’s house was inspired by an old house in Montego Bay that I visited when I was eleven years old. I took real and imagined settings and put them together to make a safe place for Clara to have her adventures. The setting tells the story. It is as important as the characters themselves. It almost triggered the things that happened to Clara, so it was important to me that the reader saw the scenery as clearly as I did—that they smelled the smells, felt the heat, and were right next to the characters, experiencing the story alongside them. I wanted it to be an immersive experience so that whatever happened to Clara, the reader would feel it, too.
Another major theme of the story is community—how members of a community can support and build each other up or keep secrets and bar people from coming together. What does community mean to you, and why do you write about it?
KG: My most vivid memory of living in that fishing village is that everyone knew each other. The kids played together; the adults spent evenings together. Sometimes they got along; other times they didn’t. It was like a family. I felt safe, and not once did I feel afraid. My sense of community comes from that experience, where everyone was family even if they weren’t blood family. It meant calling on your friends to play, saying hi to your neighbors, and occasionally being told off by someone who wasn’t your parent.
Community is an important part of this story. Clara couldn’t go through what she did and not have the community be involved. If you’ve lived in a small town, you know that everyone knows everyone’s business! I wanted to show how influential a community can be, good or bad. It didn’t make sense to not have the village involved when it was such a small community.
RHTL: Since authors are currently unable to have in-school visits, could you give an elevator pitch of what you would share with students if you were visiting their classroom?
KG: When Life Gives You Mangos is about Clara losing her memory. I would walk students through writing a similar story. We would discuss how their character loses their memory and why. What would be an interesting setting for a mystery? What would be an interesting backstory for the hero? After a discussion, I would have the students write a short story about a character in an interesting setting with an unusual villain.
RHTL: We love to hear from authors about their inspirations and favorite things! What books, resources, and tips have been getting you through this time?
KG: It’s been hard to focus on much of anything during the pandemic, but when I can, I have been reading a wide range of books, from contemporary adult to YA sci-fi, including The Girl with the Hazel Eyes by Callie Browning, a Caribbean author. I have been meditating every morning, going on walks and the odd run, and watching an insane amount of Netflix. I have just finished the Netflix series The Baby-Sitters Club, which was SO good!
RHTL: Lastly, could you tell us what’s next for you?
KG: I have just finished the first draft of a historical middle-grade novel, and I am writing the first draft of another contemporary middle-grade novel, which will also be set in the Caribbean.