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IU Media School professors experience terror, true collaboration in writing their daughter’s birth story

Oct. 19, 2016

Stories don’t always need to be written. But Juniper French’s birth was no ordinary story.

She was born at 23 weeks and six days gestation, weighing 1 pound and 4 ounces. During Juniper’s first 196 days, she was in a hospital fighting for her life.

Juniper French

Five-year-old Juniper French holds a chicken called Sesame. | PHOTO COURTESY OF THOMAS AND KELLEY FRENCH

For her parents, Thomas and Kelley French, journalists and professors in The Media School at IU, Juniper’s story had to be told. It became “Juniper: The Girl Who Was Born Too Soon,” published this fall by Little, Brown.

“It would have been journalistic malpractice for us not to write this story,” Tom said. 

Juniper’s parents wrote down her story based on Tom’s careful notes, the doctors’ 7,000-page medical chart, photos and videos taken during the time they watched their daughter incubate, and hours of interviews with doctors and nurses conducted after Juniper’s release.

Enter to win

Current IU faculty and staff with a valid IU email address can enter to win a copy of Tom and Kelley French's book, "Juniper: The Girl Who Was Born Too Soon", a $26 value. The contest opens Oct. 19 and closes at 4 p.m. Oct. 24, 2016.

“As terrifying as it was, it was a sacred thing to see our daughter really at her raw core,” Kelley said. “We saw her will and her strength and her spirit, and I want her to know that. Whatever happens to her in life, we want her to know how strong she was and how hard she fought and that nobody gets through life alone.”

It was also because Kelley and Thomas French also found themselves in an unusual place when Juniper was born.

They were dropped in the midst of a health care debate about what to do with a micro preemie, born at the margins of life. For two experienced journalists, the opportunity to write about a direct experience with such a controversial topic could not be ignored.

Once Juniper was discharged and doing well, they both knew they had to write something about the experience. They agreed that Kelley would write a series of articles for the Tampa Bay Times and Tom would write a book.

Kelley wrote “Never Let Go,” a three-part series about Juniper’s birth that was a Pulitzer Prize finalist in 2013.

When Tom sat down to write the book, he soon discovered that he and Kelley would both have to be the authors of their daughter’s story.

“I was actually writing the delivery scene, and I’m writing it, and I just have to stop because I felt like a total fraud,” he said. “I realized at that point that we had to write it together.”

They decided to switch off writing it like runners pass a baton. That helped, but it wasn’t easy.

“As we lived it every day, it was like war,” Kelley said. 

They argued over every part of the book while writing it. What would they title the book? Whose name would be listed first? Who would write which chapter or scene?

French family

From left, Tom, Juniper and Kelley French | PHOTO COURTESY OF THOMAS AND KELLEY FRENCH

Working on how best to share Juniper’s story sometimes came down to a single word, and it reminded them that writing can be scary.

“It’s good to revisit that terror of the blank page if you’re going to try to guide students through that,” Kelley said.

“Us writing a story that is so daunting to write is a great reminder to us as writing teachers,” Tom said.

Just as they cooperated in writing “Juniper,” they help each other along the way as teachers. 

“We’re very much a team in that we have different strengths in terms of how we report and write, but also how we teach,” he said. 

As writers, teachers and parents, not a day goes by when Tom and Kelley French aren’t collaborating.

“In a way, if you think about what the book is about, it’s about a kind of collaboration that parents do every day,” he said. “You join together in this really difficult creative work of not just producing a baby, but helping shape that child into an adult who is going to lead a life that matters. The parents who can do that together, that’s an act of true, creative collaboration.” 

Today, Juniper deals with the typical struggles of a 5-year-old like finding out how to make friends and wanting waffles and syrup every morning.

The French family has settled into normal problems, and they continue to engage in the hard, terrifying work of writing, maybe even with another book they author together. 

“I actually have an idea for the two of us, but I haven’t told her about it yet,” Tom said.

Find out more about Tom and Kelley French’s book in a podcast available online.

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