The A Plus Interview

This YA Author's Debut Novel Is About Rachel Maddow, A Few Emails, And One Relatable Teen

"The books we read as kids form us into the people we become."

When you need someone to vent to, who do you turn to? Is it a family member, a best friend, or — and this is probably the case for many young people in our digital age — is it someone online? A new young adult novel, Dear Rachel Maddow from first-time author Adrienne Kisner, explores just that.


Dear Rachel Maddow follows the main character, a high school girl named Brynn Harper. She is dealing with a lot, including, but not limited to: a recent breakup with her first girlfriend, her brother's death, everyday struggles at school, as well as her less-than-ideal mom and stepdad. Brynn turns to none other than Rachel Maddow, drafting emails to the one person who has been a constant in her life but not sending them. She tells the MSNBC host about all these things happening in her life and, by asking herself what Rachel Maddow would do, tackles everything she faces.

A Plus got to chat with Kisner — who has a master of fine arts in writing for children and young adults from Vermont College of Fine Arts, as well as has a master's degree and a doctorate degree in theology from Boston University — over email and discuss Dear Rachel Maddow. Among the topics were what inspired her debut novel, why Rachel Maddow was the perfect cultural figure to write about, and about the current generation of tech-savvy young people and why she wrote this for them.

A PLUS: This is such a unique novel — and it's your debut. What inspired you to write this?

ADRIENNE KISNER: It started with [Beverly Cleary's] Dear Mr. Henshaw. For a long time I thought that it would make a great YA. I teach college-level writing and I still assign my students to write letters from time to time because it's a format that should not die. So, I thought, what would a reboot of Dear Mr. Henshaw look like today? Who would consistently write to a celebrity and who would that celebrity be? Thus emerged Brynn.

What made Rachel Maddow the perfect cultural figure to have your main character, Brynn, look up to?

For Brynn, it started because someone she loved looked up to Rachel Maddow. And then when that person dumped her, she kept watching because it was a way to try to hold on. Then she had to write to someone as an assignment and then she realized Rachel Maddow annoyed her parents. That sealed it. I admit when I started the book, I didn't realize Rachel would become one of the forces fighting for the continuation of the free press. That evolved over years.

Brynn has a lot going on in her life. She is clearly using these emails to deal with all that's happening. What does the book say about having an outlet to express how you feel?

There is a quote from Macbeth act IV, scene III: 

Give sorrow words. The grief that does not speak / Whispers the o'erfraught heart and bids it break.

Isn't that just life? It's unsustainable to be utterly alone. In the beginning, Brynn feels she doesn't have anyone in real life so she finds the friendly, consistent person who is at a distance and reaches out.

Brynn is indicative of the current generation of young people creating change in the world. Do you believe fictional stories like this are inspiring them to do so?

That's hard to say, but I do think the books we read as kids form us into the people we become. That formation is a journey, so stories we encounter can inspire or encourage real life action along the way. I don't approach writing hoping something I create will cause someone to act. I just try to tell my characters' stories as authentically as possible. I write the books I would have liked to read growing up. If this connects with a reader and is a nudge towards action in their own life — awesome.

Why do you think it has become that folks are discovering their voices and using them to speak out at such early ages? What is to credit for this?

I think their lives depend on it. They are dying in school. The natural world in which they have to live in is straining to the breaking point. Adults in power are systematically denying the personhood of countless marginalized communities. People in danger who want to live tend to scream for help and try to save themselves. I think that's what today's kids are doing.

What do you hope readers come away from "Dear Rachel Maddow" with? Any specific lesson or idea about the world?

None whatsoever. (Well, maybe that you should vote.) I hope I got Brynn's story right and that readers laugh or connect with her in their own way. I find teens can sniff out when an author is trying to impart life lessons veiled in fiction and then rightly run the other way.

I have to ask: Have you had any reaction from the actual Rachel Maddow for this book? If so, what was her response to it? If not, what would you hope she would say about it?

She hasn't since its publication. I imagine it'd be weird to think of what to say to such a thing. But I hope she knows it's an earnest and sincere tribute to her work. I'm nothing if not earnest and sincere. Same with Brynn.

Dear Rachel Maddow is available now.


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