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Festival of Reading: 'Juniper' a riveting true story of a micro-preemie's fight for life

Kelley Benham French and Thomas French take a family selfie with their daughter, Juniper. The two journalists wrote Juniper: The Girl Who Was Born Too Soon about the girl's extremely premature birth.
Published Nov. 3, 2016

The Tampa Bay Times Festival of Reading presents more than 50 authors, 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Nov. 12 at the University of South Florida St. Petersburg. Kelley and Thomas French will speak at 10 a.m. in the Student Center Ballroom. Find more information here.

I probably would have read Juniper in one sitting, but I had to stop because I was crying too hard.

The book tells the story of a girl named Juniper who was born at 23 weeks six days of gestation — "too soon," as the subtitle puts it. That's so soon that doctors can't even agree whether intervention to save a baby's life is the right call. Juniper weighed 1 pound 4 ounces — a micro-­preemie who couldn't see or breathe without the help of a machine.

The story of the fight for Juniper's life is told by her parents, journalists Kelley and Thomas French. They alternate as narrators, taking turns moving the story forward.

INTERVIEW: Tom and Kelley French talk 'Juniper,' the story of their daughter's premature birth

The Frenches' experience is familiar to me, and not. My daughter was born at 28 weeks and spent three months in the hospital — a tough road compared with most but easy compared with Juniper's. As I read, I remembered learning when to panic about monitors. I remembered singing and reading to my baby. I remembered the first time I could change her diaper, enormous on her skinny frame.

But the terror of Juniper's first few months was less familiar. Her medical situation was dire: ruptured intestines, drains in her stomach, infection, a blood clot and more. The Frenches make their fear, panic and grief real. Will Juniper live? And if so, will she be okay?

Will her parents be okay?

The life-and-death problems Juniper and her parents face can be hard on the reader, too, but the authors' photo signals that everyone's going to make it out of the worst moments. This may not be the book for parents whose baby is in the neonatal intensive care unit, who don't necessarily need ideas about what else can go wrong. But it's a well-told, fast-paced and emotionally affecting memoir.

Kelley French, who was a Pulitzer finalist for a series about Juniper in the Tampa Bay Times, writes with honesty and, at times, ferocity. The first time she gets to hold Juniper, which she later learns was because doctors were scared for her daughter's life, she is overcome.

"She was warm under my hand. She was the same little girl who had squirmed inside my body. The one I'd pleaded with on that bathroom floor. The one who had been ripped away," Kelley writes. "We needed each other. Here was a thing I could do."

The Frenches open up much of their lives: the difficult start to their relationship, their varying levels of desire for a child, the remarkable way they manage to have one. The stories of their fight to be together and their fight to have a baby, though, aren't as engrossing as the story of their fight for Juniper's life.

It's easier to differentiate one narrator from another at the beginning of the book.

But as Juniper (whom they call affectionately "Junebug") struggles to survive, Kelley's and Tom's tales begin to feel more connected, as they converge over their daughter's incubator.

"Our friends were patient and kind, but for many of them, the details from the hospital were too much," Tom writes. The survival rate of a baby born at 23 weeks is estimated at roughly 25 percent; micro-preemies are also at high risk for developmental disabilities. "After ten minutes of listening politely, they would blink and then look away and then assure us that Junebug was a miracle. Maybe they just didn't know what else to say."

One friend asks Kelley a particularly difficult question: Would it be better to vaccinate a million kids in Africa than try to save her daughter? (Note to friends: Don't ask questions like that.)

"The answer is complicated," Kelley writes. "Babies born earlier than twenty-eight weeks gestation required an average of about $200,000 in medical care by age seven. Juniper had already exceeded that easily. ... All together, Juniper's care cost more than $6,000 a day."

Except, for Kelley, it's not complicated. "I just answered honestly and reflexively, like any desperate new mom. 'Better for who?' "

As poignant as the book is, I was left wanting the story to connect to a larger theme: the development of the human body and when life begins, how a parent feels after fighting that hard for his or her baby, how a traumatic experience like this shapes a worldview or parenting strategy, or the problems of the health care system.

But this is fundamentally the story of three people: Tom, Kelley and Juniper. It ends with Juniper as a 4-year-old, asking about her origin story. If she one day reads the book, her questions will be answered.

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