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Gut reaction book review

Kirby Larson and Quinn Wyatt, authors of the new mid-grade novel 'Gut Reaction.' Photo courtesy

Author Profile: ‘Gut Reaction’

Book by Newbery honoree Kirby Larson and Quinn Wyatt exploring childhood Crohn’s disease out March 5

What do cookies, loss, the potential minefield of middle school lunchrooms, and Crohn’s disease have in common? They are all part of a day in the life of Tess Medina — the wonderfully quick-witted, observant, and persevering 8th-grade main character in “Gut Reaction.Aimed at middle-grade readers, the newest novel by Newbery Honor-winning author Kirby Larson, together with her daughter Quinn Wyatt, hits bookstores on March 5.

The story

Equal parts humorous and eye-opening when it comes to maneuvering through childhood with Crohn’s disease, “Gut Reaction” follows Tess after the loss of her father and a move, leaving her with the difficult task of adjusting to a brand new middle school and the often tumultuous business of making new friends.

In the midst of all that change, Tess relies on the love of baking she shared with dad, for comfort. As the story progresses, Tess relies on inner strength and perseverance to make hilarious friends, grieve the loss of her father, and bake up joy for herself and those around her. All the while, she must navigate a painful illness, which at the start of the book, she’s yet to learn the name of.  

Authors in the know

The book’s mother-daughter authors have first-hand experience with Crohn’s, a condition in the family of Inflammatory Bowel Diseases (IBDs) that causes inflammation of the gastrointestinal tract. They weathered the long, arduous journey to Wyatt’s diagnosis as a teen. Wyatt’s experience is reflected in the character of Tess. The book, she says, helps to address the dearth of stories exploring Crohn’s, which can leave children feeling lonely and embarrassed. 

IBDs by the numbers

More than 2.3 million Americans struggle with IBDs, according to a 2020 report in the journal Gastroenterology. Seattle Children’s Hospital estimates about 20% of those with Crohn’s disease or ulcerative colitis are kids. 

Kids grappling with such conditions often experience painful stomach aches and fatigue, don’t absorb the needed nutrients, so they must eat frequently, plan their days by bathroom locations, and often struggle with feelings of shame.  

At the beginning of the novel, Tess doesn’t tell friends or family that she is suffering. In a recent interview with authors Larson and Quinn, the conversation started there.

SC: When did you begin sharing what you were experiencing with your family?

Quinn: I started having symptoms very early on.

Kirby: We struggled with it for a very long time. She just kept getting different diagnoses. At one point, one of the doctors even said that it was juvenile arthritis and recommended she take dance classes…which we did. There was always something we couldn’t pinpoint. And the research wasn’t quite there yet. They weren’t really looking at kids when considering Crohn’s disease. 

SC: How old were you when you finally received a Crohn’s diagnosis? 

Quinn: I was sixteen. I had a colitis diagnosis for about five years at that point, and none of the treatments were working. Before that, the doctor basically said it was in my head that if I stopped worrying, it would just go away.

Kirby: But she wouldn’t be waking up in the middle of the night with severe stomach pain like she was if it was just worrying. It just didn’t add up. So we bounced around a lot, trying to find out what was wrong. 

SC: How did that end up shaping you and your worldview? 

Quinn: I was a really shy kid, very quiet. And I had to learn how to speak up for what I need. If I hadn’t had these problems, I think I would have stayed really quiet and shy. 

SC: How do you think having Crohn’s disease shaped Tess’s character, if at all? 

Quinn: I think Tess was really brave because of it. Braver than me! I definitely wish I could have been that brave at her age. 

Kirby: Well, and Tess’s friends too. We really loved creating her friend’s characters. In a lot of ways, those were the friends we wished Quinn could have had too, not because Quinn’s friends weren’t kind people, but, especially in Elly, we created a little rhinoceros of a personality that wasn’t going to let Tess build up a wall because of her illness.   

SC: Baked goods can be a source of pain for those with IBDs. You chose to have baking as a cornerstone for Tess’s character. What inspired baking as a central part of this story?

Kirby: Quinn has always loved cooking. I think I even have a picture of her when she was only two mixing things in a bowl. So it was something that was true of our own experience. 

SC: Before your diagnosis, did you struggle with loving baking but feel as though you couldn’t enjoy the things you made? 

Quinn: Surprisingly, back then, food wasn’t really being tied to things like colitis or Crohn’s disease. That’s a relatively newer part of the research. It was a long time before we ever even tried things like allergy testing. So I think I just loved it and ate it all and didn’t realize it could be hurting me. 

SC: Kirby, watching one of your children suffer is painful. Did you learn anything new about each other or about that time in your lives when Quinn was young?

Kirby: When Quinn approached me about doing the book, I wasn’t ready to revisit that time. It was terrible. I wasn’t inside that body, but I was there to watch what she had to go through. Quinn wrote all the parts of the story that show what Tess’s character is feeling or experiencing, and reading through all of it, even though we were a really good team when she was young, helped me to understand the day-to-day struggle. Just the loneliness? Such a lonely place. 

Quinn: I think it was somewhere around ten years ago, around the time I had my own daughter, that I approached my mom and asked if she would write the story. Once I wrote down some of the experiences I was thinking of for Tess, that’s when she chose to consider the project. 

SC: Tess’s character frequently struggles to discern if her pain is being caused by feelings, such as anxiety or sadness, or if it’s being caused by something physically wrong. Was that your experience as well? 

Quinn: We saw a lot of doctors, and I was told a lot to just stop worrying. One time at an appointment I could tell [they] weren’t hearing me. I stopped to stand up for myself and said, ‘No, this is not right, you need to stop and listen.’ And they said, ‘You’re getting too upset, I need you to leave.’ I think that was definitely a blockade to getting diagnosed, and often [the illness] attributed to anxiety.

Kirby: I remember a doctor one time asking me, “Why are you taking your daughter to so many doctors?” It was because no one was listening. Quinn’s blood work would always come back normal. She may have lost 20 pounds super quickly, but the lab work looked normal, so they would say there’s nothing wrong. 

SC: Is there anything that you want to share about the book that hasn’t been touched on in the interviews so far? 

Kirby: Even though it’s a story about a girl with a disease, it’s also a really funny friendship story. I love the friendships we created! We wanted to show that if you open up a little, people can help you. It’s a hopeful story! We wanted the story to always be full of hope. 

More information

Learn more about Crohn’s and other IBDs at the Seattle Children’s IBD Center. Or, check out the “Gut Reaction” website.

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WA Book Award winners in picture book and young-reader categories





About the Author

Amber Bell

Amber Bell has spent the last seventeen years raising and homeschooling three children in Seattle. If she wasn’t a writer, she would most definitely be a librarian, and is currently writing a picture book biography on the first Children’s Librarian of Canada and the British Empire.