Coming up for Air: Janet Gurtler explores her inspiration for the book and her character development of a girl who has to learn to forgive herself for a tragic mistake that upends so many lives.
I haven’t made a secret of the fact that this book was inspired by my son, Max, a cool dude who happens to have a severe peanut allergy. This book takes my worst fears and puts them it into action. I used to joke with Max that before he kisses a girl, he has to ask her what she had for lunch. Or dinner. He doesn’t find it funny anymore.
We did have a talk when I decided to write this book. I told him that though it was fiction, it was partly to raise awareness of the dangers that kids with allergies face. And I told him of course, that it was something I never ever wanted to him to deal with. So no kissing girls. Ever. Ha ha. Not really the last part. He didn’t find that funny either.
Long before the character of Sam came to life for me, I remember hearing a story in the news, similar to the storyline in WHO I KISSED, about a child dying from a ‘peanut butter kiss’. It stuck with me as a parent of a peanut allergy kid. How horrifying it would be for everyone. Including the child who accidentally caused a death. I also remember hearing a story about a kid at a birthday party who died when the knife used to cut the cake (peanut free cake) was tainted with peanut butter. I don’t know if that story was true, but when you have a child with allergies those types of things make an impression.
As a parent of a kid with severe food allergies, you get used to people who don’t understand the severity of the allergy. People who complain about not being able to take a peanut butter sandwich to a peanut free school when it is “all their child will eat.” On one level, I totally get that. Confession. I LOVE peanut butter. But on the other hand, something innocent has the potential to cause my child harm, or even cause death and I don’t want to let that happen. I’ve had to shake off my loathing to make people uncomfortable. I have to speak up. I understand that most people don’t mean harm when they send a peanut butter sandwich to school or open a bag of peanuts beside me in the airport. But I have to ask them to put away peanuts or nuts when my son is around. Or to ask their kids to wash their hands after eating something with nuts before playing with my son.
My strongest argument for why other people should care is -- how would YOU feel if your child (or you) caused the death of my son. I know I would feel pretty darn awful (to put it mildly), but what would it do to your child and/or you? How could a child possibly deal with something like that? How could a parent possibly deal with their role in something like that? And the thing is, it’s possible.
It’s about taking ownership of that possibility, but also dealing with the consequences of a very honest mistake. WHO I KISSED looks at how an innocent girl, who unwillingly and unknowingly is involved in the death of a boy who dies. A boy who is allergic to peanuts. It’s about thinking how that would affect you? How would you cope? What would you do?
Ultimately, like most of the books I write, I think there’s also hope in this book. And some lighter moments too. I created two characters, Aunt Allie and Fredrick to help Samantha deal and also to help the reader deal with the emotional intensity of the book. Plus there’s hot boys. I like them too.