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Violets Are Blue



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About The Book

From the author of the acclaimed My Life in the Fish Tank and Maybe He Just Likes You comes a moving and relatable middle grade novel about secrets, family, and the power of forgiveness.

Twelve-year-old Wren loves makeup—special effect makeup, to be exact. When she is experimenting with new looks, Wren can create a different version of herself. A girl who isn’t in a sort-of-best friendship with someone who seems like she hates her. A girl whose parents aren’t divorced and doesn’t have to learn to like her new stepmom.

So, when Wren and her mom move to a new town for a fresh start, she is cautiously optimistic. And things seem to fall into place when Wren meets potential friends and gets selected as the makeup artist for her school’s upcoming production of Wicked.

Only, Wren’s mom isn’t doing so well. She’s taking a lot of naps, starts snapping at Wren for no reason, and always seems to be sick. And what’s worse, Wren keeps getting hints that things aren’t going well at her new job at the hospital, where her mom is a nurse. And after an opening night disaster leads to a heartbreaking discovery, Wren realizes that her mother has a serious problem—a problem that can’t be wiped away or covered up.

After all the progress she’s made, can Wren start over again with her devastating new normal? And will she ever be able to heal the broken trust with her mom?


1. Click

Hey, guys, Cat FX here. Sorry if my voice sounds funny—my allergies are going full blast this morning.

Also, I couldn’t sleep. So I spent the night thinking what I wanted to say to you, and here it is: It’s really important not to overdo stuff, okay? Yes, I know it’s exciting when you have all these shiny new products to play with, and you want to use everything all at once. But trust me on this, it’s better to go slowly, adding layer on top of layer, building your character from the inside out. Know what I mean?

Also—and guys, I can’t stress this enough—try not to be too obvious. Have fun with these techniques. Experiment, take risks, but always leave room for a bit of mystery.

Tonight my face was Seafoam Blue.

Not my whole face. Just a light swish across my forehead, the tops of my cheekbones, and around my chin.

The trick was to go slowly, like Cat FX said, applying layer on top of layer. Better to add than to subtract. Build the character from the inside out.

And to be who I imagined—my mental mermaid—I couldn’t just slather on a ton of blue pigment. My mermaid’s superpower was a kind of camouflage: blending into her surroundings. Slipping undetected through sunken ships. Escaping deadly sea monsters. Coming up for air when necessary.

The other thing I’d decided was that she was a collector. So when she won a battle, or discovered buried treasure, she would always decorate herself with souvenirs. To never forget what she’d been through, what she’d seen. To make it part of herself forever.

Which was why I was gluing a plastic pearl to my eyebrow when I heard the GRRRRUUUNNNCCCHHH.

My stomach clenched.

We’d been living here for almost three months, and I still couldn’t get used to the awful grinding sound of the garage door.

But at least it gave me warning. Before Mom could get all the way upstairs, I tossed the jar of Seafoam Blue face pigment, the eye shadow in Cyber Purple, the waterproof eyebrow pencil in Medium Brown, and the spidery false eyelashes into my secret makeup kit. Then I slid it under my bed, all the way to the farthest corner, tossing in an old sneaker to hide it.

The shoebox marked M stayed on my desk. Visible.

I checked the clock. Only 8:35.

Mom clomped up the stairs in her thick-soled Jungle Mocs, which I’m pretty sure is the official footwear of ER nurses when they aren’t wearing sneakers. Just in time, I beat her to the door of my bedroom.

“Hey, honeybee,” she called as she reached the top step. In her wrinkled spearmint-green scrubs, she looked droopy, like a plant you forgot to water.

When she smiled, you could see how hard her face was working. “Is that the mermaid?” she asked, lightly touching my cheek.

“Yeah,” I said. Mom could always tell the effect I was going for, even when I was in the middle of a character. “Although I’m not totally sure about the color.”

“You’re not? What’s wrong with it?”

“I don’t know. The Seafoam Blue seems wrong. Too greenish, maybe? And I’m not getting that shimmery underwater effect. I followed all the directions, but…” I shrugged. “It’s not how I thought.”

“Well, I think it looks really great so far. And I love that eyebrow pearl.” She pushed her too-long bangs out of her eyes. “You finished your homework, Wren?”

“Yep. An hour ago.”

She looked past me, into my room. Could she see the makeup kit under my bed? No, that was impossible. But of course she could see the shoebox marked M—on my desk, like usual.

“And did your friend Poppy come over after school?” Mom always called her “your friend Poppy,” like she thought she needed to remind me that everything was different now: I had a real friend.

“Mom, Poppy has soccer. Remember I told you?” At least twice. No, more than that. “And why are you home so early?” Again.

“Another mix-up with scheduling. My supervisor keeps overstaffing.” Mom leaned against my door and shut her eyes.

For a few seconds I just watched her. With all the changes in her schedule, I knew she hadn’t been sleeping well. Not during the night, anyway.

So it didn’t shock me to see her so tired. Still, it was a little awkward, both of us just standing there, not talking. Not moving.

“Mom,” I said.

Her eyes fluttered open. When she took a step, her knee buckled, or something. She grabbed the doorknob to keep from falling.

“You okay?” I said quickly.

“I’m fine.” A small wince. “Just my stupid knee acting up again. Don’t worry about it, Wren. I have an early shift tomorrow, so I think I’ll just take some Advil and get into bed. Will you please walk Lulu so she can pee?”

Lulu was our three-legged French bulldog. She peed sixteen times a day, and that’s no exaggeration.

“Sure,” I told her. “Go rest, Mom. And put a pillow under your knee.”

“Hey, I’ll be the nurse around here, not you.” She threw me a little smile as she disappeared into her bedroom.

I waited, and then I heard it: Click.

One day while I was at school, Mom had a lock put on her door. To keep the cat off her bed, she’d explained. Although, really, that made no sense, because our one-eyed cat, Cyrus, was too old to jump that high anyway.

And now, every time I heard that sound—click—my heart flipped over, but I couldn’t say why.

I returned to the mirror propped up on my desk, in front of the shoebox. The mermaid looked blurry now, out of focus, the Seafoam fading into boring pink skin.

And the funny thing about makeup effects? They were all just technique, Cat FX said, not magic. But sometimes if you stopped in the middle, it was like you were breaking a spell—and no matter how hard you tried, you couldn’t get it back.

I wiped my face and went downstairs to get Lulu’s leash.

Reading Group Guide

A Reading Group Guide to

Violets Are Blue

By Barbara Dee

About the Book

Twelve-year-old Wren loves makeup: special effects makeup, to be exact. When she’s experimenting with new looks, Wren can create a different version of herself: a girl who isn’t in a sort-of-best-friendship with someone who might hate her, whose parents aren’t divorced, and who doesn’t have to learn to like her new stepmom. When Wren and her mom move to a new town for a fresh start, she is cautiously optimistic. Things seem to fall into place when she meets potential friends and gets selected as the makeup artist for her school’s upcoming production of Wicked. Only, Wren’s mom isn’t doing so well. She’s taking a lot of naps, starts snapping at Wren for no reason, and always seems to be sick. And what’s worse, Wren keeps getting hints that things aren’t going well at her mom’s new job at the hospital, where she works as a nurse. After an opening night disaster leads to a heartbreaking discovery, Wren realizes that her mother has a serious problem, one that can’t be wiped away or covered up. After all the progress she’s made, can Wren begin again with her devastating new normal? And will she ever be able to heal the broken trust with her mom?

Discussion Questions

1. While reading, did you guess Wren’s mom’s secret before it was revealed? Can you go back and find clues throughout the text hinting that something was seriously wrong? Do you know anyone who has struggled with drug addiction? If so, did some of Wren’s mom’s actions seem familiar to you? If not, what did you learn about addiction from reading this book?

2. Wren feels fairly powerless to interfere with her mom’s behavior. Why do you think she feels this way? Do you agree with her assessment? What kinds of things might she have tried to improve her home situation or to get her mom or dad to listen to her? Do you think there are other people she could have talked to? Do you think children can influence a parent’s actions or decisions? Can they talk with them honestly about issues like these? Explain your answers.

3. Wren admits that she often “avoided something that was hard, or messy, or complicated.” Why do you think she avoids these types of things? What kinds of hard things have you avoided? What have you learned from those experiences? What advice would you have for Wren?

4. Discuss Wren’s fascination with Cat FX and her makeup videos. Why do you think she’s so interested in them? Are there people you feel close to because of their online presence? Would you like to meet them in person? Do you think Wren spends too much time alone and online, as her mom points out? Why might this be dangerous or unhealthy? Explain your answers using examples from the book and your own experiences.

5. One thing that fascinates Wren is the way Cat FX transforms herself. Why does this appeal to Wren? In what ways would she like to transform? She wants to use makeup to create a mermaid character, saying, “My mermaid’s superpower was a kind of camouflage: blending into her surroundings.” After reading the book, why do you think “blending in” is something Wren desires? Do you think many kids feel that way? Why can it sometimes be challenging to be yourself? Are there certain situations in which being yourself is more challenging than others? Explain your answers.

6. What does Cat FX mean when she says, “‘There’s good weird and bad weird’”? Why is Wren worried about being weird? Is that a worry you have too? If “bad weird” is based on hate, what do you think makes something “good weird”? Do you think everyone’s definition of weird is the same?

7. When her mom decides they’re moving, Wren is stunned. She thinks, “She could do whatever she wanted. Both my parents could. Both my parents did.” What other choices do Wren’s parents make that she has no control over? How does Wren feel when she tells her mom, “‘I always think about your feelings, but you never think about mine’”? Do you think this is true? If so, do you think her mom’s addiction contributes to this, or do you think this sentiment is often true of adults? Do your parents make choices without considering their effects on you?

8. Throughout the story, Wren’s mom insists that she needs her privacy. Did you suspect this attitude meant she had a secret to hide? Have you ever asked for privacy so that you could keep something hidden from your parents? How is Wren enabling her mom’s secret by not confiding in her father? Why won’t she talk to him about her mom?

9. Wren has her own secrets from her mom, like hiding makeup and cash under her bed. At first, she even keeps her interest in being a makeup artist from her too. Why do you think she does this? How does it affect their relationship? Explain your answers using examples from the book.

10. Talk about some of the other secrets in the book, like Cat FX telling Wren about a “trade secret,” Kai not disclosing his crush on Wren, and Poppy confiding to Wren that she hides how she feels, saying she’s “‘Always acting happy, even when I’m really not.’” Do you agree with Wren that “everyone has secrets sometimes”? How can keeping secrets be harmful? Are there times where it makes sense to keep a secret?

11. Discuss how Wren’s parents’ divorce influences the book’s events. Do you think their breakup is one cause of her mom’s addiction? Do you think it’s fair for Wren’s mom to ask her not to talk about her dad’s new family and to promise not to talk about her behind her back? Do you think Vanessa is trying to buy Wren’s affection by sending her makeup? Why does Wren feel disloyal to her mom when she’s enjoying her visits with her dad’s new family? Wren says, “All the parent-schedule stuff wasn’t my job to figure out,” but she also can’t enjoy her dad’s happiness because she’s worried about her mom. “My real life was here with Mom, who needed me,” she explains. What advice would you give Wren about how to handle these conflicting emotions? How might she go about telling Vanessa, her dad, and her mom how she feels?

12. What do you think about Wren’s relationship with her mom? Do you think Wren is too protective of her mom’s feelings? Is her mom too controlling? Explain your answers with examples from the book. Do you think there’s a happy medium between what Poppy describes as “‘a mom who’s not in your face’” and Wren’s mom, who is genuinely neglecting her? Poppy says, “‘I never win fights with my mom,’” while Wren says, “‘My mom and I don’t really fight about things.’” What are the benefits and challenges to both of those situations? What’s the situation like at your house?

13. One of the book’s major themes is betrayal. Give examples of how the author extends this theme throughout the book. What lies is Wren’s mom telling her? Is Wren lying when she doesn’t tell her mom about the makeup and cash? How did you feel when you discovered Wren’s mom had stolen her money? Were you surprised a parent could do that to their child?

14. The other side of betrayal is forgiveness. Do you think Wren will be able to forgive her mom? Will she be able to forgive herself for not realizing her mom was ill and taking action? Do you think her mom has her own forgiveness to grant? Explain your answers.

15. Why does Wren tell Krystal, “‘I’m the worst daughter in the world’”? Do you think she’s right? Why do you think she feels responsible for her mom? Were you critical of Wren for running off to Comic-Con, or did you understand why she acted this way? Do you think she should have realized what was wrong earlier?

16. Early in the story, we find that Wren has a complicated relationship with friends when she thinks about becoming friends with Annika. She says, “I felt lucky that she’d picked me. Not because I liked her, but because I didn’t want her for an enemy.” Do you know people like Annika who are “the kind of popular that is based on meanness”? Have you ever had a friend you didn’t want for an enemy? Do you think this is a nice way to choose your friends? Share other ideas that might be a better foundation for a friendship.

17. Though Wren is upset that her mom has decided to move without consulting her, she eventually says, “It felt like a new beginning for us both.” Why does she enjoy the initial attention from kids at her new school? Why does she envy Poppy, for whom “the social thing was brainless and automatic”? How easy or challenging are social things for you?

18. Why does Wren decide to change her name when they move? Do you understand her reasons? Have you ever wanted to change your name? To Wren, this small change feels very big. What are other small changes she makes that lead to big results? Wren tells her mom that wrens are fierce: What are some of the brave actions Wren takes that show she is living up to her new name?

Extension Activities


1. Choose one of these two statements from the book, and write an essay agreeing or disagreeing with it. Share your reasoning, and give examples that support your response.

“That was how middle school was, really: you got judged one day at the very beginning, and that was it forever. Nothing you could do to change anyone’s opinion.”

“You couldn’t undo anything that happened, no matter how hard you wished you could.”

2. Wren shares some of her observations about Poppy throughout the book; now it’s your chance to turn the tables. Write a letter from Poppy to another friend, describing your new friend Wren.

3. Watch a makeup video and transcribe it into step-by-step instructions, or write a script for your own how-to video about one of your favorite things.

4. Read another novel about opioid addiction, and then write a book report comparing that book to this one. Alternatively, you can find and read another novel by Barbara Dee and write a report comparing and contrasting it to Violets Are Blue.


5. Go through the book locating all of Cat FX’s advice. Here are a few examples:

Be bold! Unleash your imagination!

Fantasy is not the opposite of truth.

Design and decorate a poster that includes these words of wisdom, and post it in your classroom.

6. Wren is fascinated by the way Cat FX transforms herself. Think of what transformation means to you, and express that in a painting, drawing, video, or graphic novel.

Research and report

7. Choose one of the following topics to research and write a report about:

The science of opioid addition: What happens in the body to cause it?

The recent history of opioid addition: Why is there a contemporary crisis?

The politics of opioid addiction: Why are the drug companies being sued?

Treatment from opioid addiction: What is a typical path to recovery?

Special effects makeup for movies and plays: What does it take to build a career in this area? What skills and education are needed?

Guide written by Bobbie Combs, a consultant at We Love Children's Books.

This guide has been provided by Simon & Schuster for classroom, library, and reading group use. It may be reproduced in its entirety or excerpted for these purposes. For more Simon & Schuster guides and classroom materials, please visit or

About The Author

Carolyn Simpson

Barbara Dee is the author of fourteen middle grade novels including Unstuck, Haven Jacobs Saves the Planet, Violets Are BlueMy Life in the Fish TankMaybe He Just Likes You, Everything I Know About YouHalfway Normal, and Star-Crossed. Her books have earned several starred reviews and have been named to many best-of lists, including The Washington Post’s Best Children’s Books, the ALA Notable Children’s Books, the ALA Rise: A Feminist Book Project List, the NCSS-CBC Notable Social Studies Trade Books for Young People, and the ALA Rainbow List Top Ten. Barbara lives with her family, including a naughty cat named Luna and a sweet rescue hound named Ripley, in Westchester County, New York.

Product Details

  • Publisher: Aladdin (August 30, 2022)
  • Length: 320 pages
  • ISBN13: 9781534469198
  • Grades: 4 - 8
  • Ages: 9 - 13
  • Lexile ® 630L The Lexile reading levels have been certified by the Lexile developer, MetaMetrics®

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Awards and Honors

  • Kansas NEA Reading Circle List Junior Title
  • Young Hoosier Book Award Nominee (IN)
  • Louisiana Young Readers' Choice Award Nominee
  • Black-Eyed Susan Book Award Nominee (MD)
  • Garden State Book Award (NJ)
  • Cybils Award Finalist
  • Kentucky Bluegrass Award Nominee

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More books from this author: Barbara Dee