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Bronwen Hruska talks parenting pressure, ADD and ‘Accelerated’

Bronwen Hruska’s debut novel, “Accelerated” (Pegasus Books, $25), follows a single father who experiences pressure from his son’s prestigious school to put the 8-year-old boy on medication for ADD. The novel depicts the cutthroat culture of a competitive Manhattan prep school.

Hruska, who is the publisher of Soho Press when she’s not writing, delves into the very real and controversial issue of parents and educators who see a vital need for young students to take ADD and ADHD medication in order to excel. Her eye-opening novel offers a glimpse of high-pressure academics and the anxiety of modern parenting -- asking the question: Is it all really worth it?

Hruska is scheduled to read at Brentwood’s Diesel Bookstore today at 7 p.m.

Accelerated” explores some controversial subjects: the competitiveness that exists in many schools and a laxness when it comes to prescribing drugs to young students. What inspired you to write this as a novel?

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When my son was in third grade, his school suggested we get him evaluated for ADHD because he was having trouble lining up quietly to “transition” between classes. Sitting quietly for 45 minutes to do worksheets was challenging. But he never struck me as an ADD kid. He was funny, sociable, smart and not particularly antsy. But at the time, I thought the school, and later the psychiatrist who diagnosed him with inattentive-type ADHD, made strong cases for why “a little medication could really turn everything around for him.” It was the beginning of a long and often frustrating episode with his school.

I started writing the book to vent some of those frustrations, using verbatim bits of dialogue from the most egregious conversations. But that personal frustration turned into something much larger when I started doing research for the book and saw the staggering statistics about how many young kids are being diagnosed -- and medicated -- for it. Perhaps most striking was the statistic that boys were being diagnosed 2.8 times more frequently than girls and it reminded me of an article I’d read that said that boys were being treated as “defective girls.” As the mother of two sons, that really struck a chord.

You have worked as a journalist, a screenwriter and as a publisher; however, this is your first novel. What was the experience like?

Because of my background as a journalist, I’ve been asked why I didn’t just write a nonfiction book about Attention Deficit. I guess the answer is that I didn’t start out writing a book about Attention Deficit. The story I wanted to tell was about a parent having to make an impossibly difficult decision. There’s both far too little information about the effects of medicating kids, and also far too much if you’re looking on the Internet. There’s no community, because people don’t generally talk about it, and as a newly single parent who’s feeling very much outside the mother-oriented culture at his son’s school, Sean Benning doesn’t know whether to trust his gut or the experts. And as for the impetus for writing a novel, after seven years of writing screenplays, I loved the idea of having the space and time to get inside the characters and their world. It felt decadent and fun. Internal thought! What a concept.

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How did it feel to take on the voice and get in the head of two male main characters -- a father and his son?

Writing as a man was surprisingly easy, probably because I always thought of Sean as a parent first. As the mother of two sons, I’m quite familiar with the role. For all the nitty-gritty “man stuff,” I put the Columbia J-School training to use and did some in-depth interviewing of male friends. And having had two sons who’ve been 8, I knew Toby well. There’s a certain 8-year-old boy thing that is both charming and hilarious -- both very young but also mature in a strange way. I loved writing Toby. Strangely, I ended up cutting the POV of Toby’s teacher, Jessica Harper. For some reason I couldn’t get her voice at all until I was outside her head.

What research did you do in order to create the high-scale private school world that exists in the novel?

For better or worse, it’s a world I know intimately. I grew up in Manhattan and went to private school, and my kids go to private school now, so I’ve been on both sides of it -- as a parent and student. I don’t think I could write about something so specific without having had that kind of firsthand experience. That said, my protagonist, Sean, went to public school in Troy, N.Y., and the private school world feels very foreign to him. My hope is that his outsider status, which gave me much-needed distance -- will provide a way into the story for readers.

What research did you do in order to better understand the current pressures on students to take ADHD medication? Was there anything you were particularly surprised to discover?

Even as early as third grade, kids are expected by many schools to be reading two to three grade levels up, and if they’re not, they’re considered to be behind. Enter extra help and tutoring. And far too often, medication. ADHD has become the go-to diagnosis, complete with prescriptions for Ritalin, Adderall, Concerta or half a dozen other medications. I believe that for kids who truly suffer from Attention Deficit, medication can change their lives for the better, and I’d go so far as to say medication can save their lives. The problem is that these drugs actually have a long list of side effects ranging from lack of appetite to anxiety, nervous tics, trouble sleeping to heart arrhythmias and in rare cases death. For the year and a half my 10-year-old son was taking methylphenidate, he came home from school ravenously hungry because he hadn’t been hungry enough to eat all day.

I’ve talked to parents, educators, students, and there is a tremendous amount of pressure for kids to succeed academically -- and for schools to keep up their reputations for high scores and Ivy League acceptance. Since I’ve been talking about this issue in conjunction with the book, I can’t tell you how many teachers and school nurses have told me how concerned they’ve become at the volume of kids they see every day at their schools who are on ADHD medication. The statistics are staggering. ... Boys develop at a different rate than girls do, and with 13.2% of boys being diagnosed compared to 5.6% of girls, I started to wonder if boys were being medicated for simply being boys, and if their ‘disorder’ was really just a very normal phase of development.

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