2020 Nonfiction Award Winner: An Interview with Rex Ogle on Free Lunch

Rex Ogle won the 2020 YALSA Excellence in Nonfiction Award for his moving debut, Free Lunch, published by Norton Young Readers.  In it, he tells the story of his first semester in sixth grade, living in chronic poverty with his younger brother, mother, and her boyfriend. He vividly describes the emotional and social toll of being in the free lunch program that semester, along with other struggles he faced during that time. Rex graciously agreed to our interview for The Hub, and I was honored to get the chance to interview him about this important book.

Being a part of the free lunch program at your school was definitely a difficult experience for you, and you’ve described in other interviews how revisiting your memories to write this book also took a huge emotional toll. I am curious how all the recent news about school lunches has affected you. Some stories have been positive, reporting on places that are providing universal free lunch.  But many have relayed a shocking lack of compassion, such as instances where students with lunch debts have had their lunches thrown in the garbage when they couldn’t pay. 

It’s definitely frustrating to see and hear about adults, schools, and companies making an issue out of finances over school meals.  I experience firsthand what it was like to be held responsible for my parent’s financial situations.  And when I went without food, it made it all the more difficult to concentrate on learning.  You can’t focus on an empty-stomach.  It’s my hope that the conversation grows, and leads to all children—regardless of their socioeconomic status—receive the best of daily nutritional needs and an equal education.  

Are there any groups or resources that you would suggest people turn to for help, if they are trying to make changes to school lunch programs in their school or district? 

From what I’ve learned, every school district has its own set of circumstances and various groups—from parent-led to local government—so it’s hard to pinpoint one group.  (Mind you, I’m still learning, so if anybody has any leads, feel free to send them my way.). But I have been focused on supporting groups like No Kid Hungry: https://www.nokidhungry.org

Not only were you ashamed of getting free lunch every day, but you ended up sitting alone at lunch for a long time. Your descriptions of that isolation stirred up vivid memories for me of the first month of ninth grade, before I met anyone to sit with in my lunch block. Every day I wondered what was so wrong with me that I couldn’t find a single person to sit with and it was really awful. Have you had readers reach out to you about their own school lunch experiences?

In my school visits, I’ve met tons of kids—some who are quiet, but others who willingly share that they’ve had similar experiences.  I think that most kids—regardless of popularity or who they sit with at lunch—deals with those same feelings of loneliness and feeling like an outsider.  It’s a universal experience to feel that you don’t measure up.  But hopefully, kids can discover that they aren’t alone, and that most of the situations are temporary. 

I think I did an actual fist pump when I got to the scene where Ethan comes along and joins you at your lunch table, finally giving you a real friend to eat with.  I adored him from the moment he sat down and started talking to you, and I am curious if you two stayed friends. 

We did.  We were the best of friends for the next five years.  We grew apart a bit junior year of high school, and then I moved away.  But we managed to stay in touch through the years and recently reconnected via social media.  Now, when I head to Texas, I try to see him so we can catch up. 

For Christmas that year, you wrote a story for Ethan that featured him as a superhero, and he said it was the best gift he had ever received. Before writing that story, had you done much writing outside of school assignments? Had anyone ever responded to your writing with that much enthusiasm?   

I started writing stories at an early age.  I always loved making up stories, either with my friends or with my toys, but it was around second grade a teacher assigned us to write a short story on 1-2 pages.  I ended up writing a 20-page, fully illustrated book about me and a monkey sneaking onto a rocket shape and flying to the moon.  At the time, my teacher and my mom were very supportive. 

In the book, your relationship with your mother is incredibly complex. She was emotionally and physically abusive to you, and you eloquently describe wrestling with the hate, love, and anger you felt towards her.  Even as a sixth-grader, you realized that she was dealing with her own demons, including mental illness, and at the end of the book there is this moment where you make a promise to try harder to help her. As a reader, I understood your desire to help your mom and continue to forgive her. As a librarian, I want to make sure that when I recommend your book to young people, they understand that victims of abuse should never feel compelled to try to fix their abuser or deal with abuse on their own.  What suggestions and resources can you give for tackling that conversation with a middle or high school reader? 

I wholeheartedly agree, especially in terms of child abuse, that the child should never feel any responsibility.  Unfortunately, no matter what anyone tells them, they probably will.  Parent-child relationships, especially abusive ones, are full of so much emotional complexity that it’s hard to truly convey to a child that their situation is not their fault.

It’s also difficult to suggest resources because every child’s situation is completely unique, and in some cases, the child will work to protect their parents.  A neighbor once called Child Protection Services on my mother, and when they came, I covered my bruises and lied.  I didn’t like my situation but I didn’t want my little brother to be sent into the foster care system. 

For everyone, I would suggest treading delicately with this topic.  If there’s uncertainty in approach, speak to the school counselor to get a second opinion.  But a great resource, one that I wish I had growing up, is the National Domestic Abuse Hotline (https://www.thehotline.org) which offers everything from educational materials to 24/7 hotlines.  

This isn’t a question, but I would feel remiss not mentioning that your abuela was a huge source of support for you throughout the book, and I want to recognize her, and all the other abuelas out there, who make such a huge difference in kids’ lives. Yours sounded like an incredible woman. 

Thank you for that.  My Abuela was, and remains, an amazing woman.   I still write or email her every day. 

Finally, who is an author that you think everyone should check out right now?

Ooh, hard question!  There are so many fantastic and brilliant creators out there right now.  I’m personally a huge fan of Jason Reynolds, but also need to give love to graphic novels and mention Tillie Walden and Ryan Andrews. 

Thank you, again, to Rex for our interview!

– Whitney Etchison, currently reading You Are Enough by Jen Petro-Roy