The Next Chapter

How Brian Francis captured the awkwardness of adolescence in his first YA book

The author and The Next Chapter columnist talks about writing Break in Case of Emergency.
Break in Case of Emergency is a YA novel by Brian Francis. (HarperCollins, Samuel Engelking)

This interview originally aired on Sept. 14, 2019.

Brian Francis is an author and regular The Next Chapter contributor. His debut novel, Fruit, was a finalist for Canada Reads 2009 and was listed as one of Amazon's 100 Canadian Books to Read in a Lifetime. He is also the author of the novel Natural Order.

His latest book, Break in Case of Emergencyis a YA novel, his first foray into the genre. Break in Case of Emergency was a finalist for the 2019 Governor General's Literary Award for young people — text

Francis spoke with Shelagh Rogers about writing Break in Case of Emergency.

Finding inspiration

"I struggled throughout the process of writing this book. Break in Case of Emergency started off as a story about a female impersonator and it was to be an adult contemporary book. A couple years into it, I realized I wasn't working. I reached a low point where I didn't know if I should keep going with this book or if I just need to give up. And then I remember picking up Medicine Walk by Richard Wagamese, which is such a beautiful story about a father and a son reconciling.

"I will never write a story as beautiful as that, but it was my moment of revelation where I discovered the story I wanted to write. That's when the clarity of the narrative came into shape. That's when the character of Toby took over the story as the 15-year-old narrator." 

Secrets inside

"Toby Goodman lives on her grandparent's dairy farm. Her mother has died by suicide five years prior. Toby is in a place in her life right now where she very much feels the legacy of her mother's death. In her mind, she sees that her legacy is to follow in similar footsteps of her mother.

"She is dealing with a situation that a lot of teenagers and young people deal with where they're living in an internal world, with fiercely kept secrets from the adults and friends around them. That's something I could relate to when I was growing up. To penetrate this world meant that you were vulnerable, that you needed help, that you might be judged and that you might be looked upon negatively by your peers.

I had a responsibility to write a story that was authentic and wasn't censored or glossed over in any way.

"Toby has this interior world where she's created this destiny for herself to follow in a similar path to her mother's. But she hasn't told anybody. I think a lot of young people also feel that way, that they can't reach out for help." 

Teen behaviour

"I was more aware of my writing in this book than I have been in others. There is a responsibility that comes with writing YA in the messages that you're putting out there. I had a responsibility to write a story that was authentic and wasn't censored or glossed over in any way. 

"I'm not an expert of teen behaviour. I've certainly read many YA books, but I'm not an expert in the genre. I was very nervous. But then as I got more into writing it, I got more excited because I remembered what books meant to me at 15. I remembered the magic hold they had over me at that age. If I'm able to have that effect on a young reader, that's all I can ask for."

Brian Francis's comments have been edited for length and clarity.

Add some “good” to your morning and evening.

A variety of newsletters you'll love, delivered straight to you.

Sign up now


To encourage thoughtful and respectful conversations, first and last names will appear with each submission to CBC/Radio-Canada's online communities (except in children and youth-oriented communities). Pseudonyms will no longer be permitted.

By submitting a comment, you accept that CBC has the right to reproduce and publish that comment in whole or in part, in any manner CBC chooses. Please note that CBC does not endorse the opinions expressed in comments. Comments on this story are moderated according to our Submission Guidelines. Comments are welcome while open. We reserve the right to close comments at any time.