Author Interview: Erika Wurth

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Today we are happy to welcome Erika Wurth, author of Crazy Horse’s Girlfriend. It’s a highly recommended book that we recently reviewed here recently. Erika teaches creative writing at Western Illinois University and she’s been a guest writer at the Institute of American Indian Arts. She’s Apache/Chickasaw/Cherokee and was raised outside of Denver.

Summary via publisher: Margaritte is a sharp-tongued, drug-dealing, sixteen-year-old Native American floundering in a Colorado town crippled by poverty, unemployment, and drug abuse. She hates the burnout, futureless kids surrounding her and dreams that she and her unreliable new boyfriend can move far beyond the bright lights of Denver that float on the horizon before the daily suffocation of teen pregnancy eats her alive. Filled with complex characters overcoming and being overcome by circumstances of their surroundings, Crazy Horse’s Girlfriend thoroughly shakes up cultural preconceptions of what it means to be Native American today.

Interview: From the first chapter, I cared about Margaritte. Though on the surface our lives look very different, I connected with her almost immediately and her voice drew me completely into the story. Could you tell us a little about how Margaritte came to life in your mind?

Marguerite is a compilation of my best friend growing up, my sister, me and many voices of the girls that I knew growing up right outside of Idaho Springs (I grew up right outside of Denver, between Evergreen and Idaho Springs and was bussed to school to Idaho Springs). I, like many kids, read (though I was kind of alone in my reading habits growing up) mainly genre fiction, in my case fantasy and some sci-fi and some horror – and a lot of it is written from third person omniscient perspective – so that’s what I wanted to write in initially. But Margaritte’s voice came over me one day, when I was 24 – and it became a short story of the same title (except I pushed Crazy and Horse together, because that’s what people had done to Lakota people that I had grown up with) and I realized later that many of the people that I grew up with have these really bombastic and unique ways of speaking that only first person point of view could capture.

Throughout the novel, characters are struggling as they face poverty, addictions, violence and questions of identity. Futility is a word that comes up, yet Margaritte and others are still able to maintain hope. That is what I will remember most about the book – that resiliency and hope for the future. Are you generally a person that sees the glass as half-full?

I’m not somebody who shies away from darkness but what I struggled with was trying to show something realistic while at the same time not reinforcing the idea that just because you’re not from a white middle-class suburban background or from a wealthier background, that you deserved the life you were born into.

Identity, stereotypes, and how people define themselves and others are important themes in the book. What led you to explore these themes?

I think that if you’re native and honestly in my opinion if you’re anything you’re forced to work out those things (even if you’re not conscious of this process), identity or stereotype every day. If you’re native though, people confront you very loudly and consistently with how you should look or where you should live or what your life should be like and so you end up having to talk about your identity. There’s tremendous energy around a fantasy pan-Indian Native American, some mythical creature who is really super authentic and whether you’re from a reservation or an area like mine where a lot of native people live I don’t think you’re going to fit into that fantasy. But at the same time our identities are so complicated that we end up in the position of being forced to think about things that your average American might not. For example I grew up with people who would say they were part Cherokee, loads of people who would say that, but there seemed to be absolutely no connection to anything that I would personally recognize as native and people who obviously clearly were. And for a non-native that would be all about looking Indian in a way that’s completely formed by American media. But for me it has almost nothing to do with that. And how do you explain that to an outsider?

I often wonder what authors think when their young adult book is labeled “gritty.” Was that a term you expected to see applied to Crazy Horse’s Girlfriend and how do you generally describe your book?

Actually, it’s the other way around, I have never had any attention to write young adult literature. But what’s strange to me is that when something is written by or about a white male who is straight, it’s coming-of-age, but if it’s written by a woman or person of color or a queer person it’s young adult. And honestly my work is gritty but when my work is labeled vulgar or on the other side Pollyanna simply because there is an incredibly lazy mis-reading of the end of the novel, I feel like this has a lot to do with the fact that my main character is a woman and a minority and a Native person and there’s a lot of preciousness around those things.

I’m looking forward to reading a lot more of your work. You’ve written an adult collection of poetry and had short stories, poems and essays published in many journals. Was this a one time deal with young adult fiction? What drew you to writing for young adults?

Like I said, I don’t really write young adult fiction and I have never had any intention to write young adult fiction and I don’t really consider the novel young adult per se. My press labeled it for me, as literary/young adult crossover. I think that’s because the protagonist is 16 and young people are reading in record numbers so if the protagonist is young it’s going to be labeled that way. One of the people who reviewed my novel, a woman named Debbie Reese, who is just incredibly smart, when I asked her about this label because this is a lot of what she does is look at young adult fiction for native people and about native people, said that she felt like young adults deserve literature too. So though I have no particular interest in writing for any age category specifically, if I think about who I would love part of my audience to be it would be young people who need to see stuff like this, a mirror they’re not getting back in anything else.

When talking about diverse literature, many people refer to books that are mirrors and windows. Have there been mirror and window books that impacted you as a young adult or shaped your writing journey?

That’s funny that you use that word mirror because I was just using it above. Yeah definitely, when I was younger I read sci-fi and fantasy almost exclusively like I said above, and some horror as well – and those escape portals were incredibly important for me. I loved Piers Anthony and I loved Stephen King and I’ve started reading sci-fi again and literary fantasy, like Lev Grossman, whose magician series I love more than I can even say. But the missing factor for me was definitely literature that was a bit more of a mirror, so when I started reading people like Sherman Alexie, Junot Diaz, Langston Hughes, Jhumpa Lahiri, Richard Wright and Sandra Cisneros that took me in the direction that I absolutely needed to go.

Is there anything else that you wished I had asked like what is your favorite comfort food or something equally non-bookish?

Well, I can say that I generally talk about a couple things, like how Idaho Springs where the novel is set, being a hard place for me growing up as the mullet was an incredibly popular fashion choice and it happened to not be my fashion choice. And the fact that I generally ate lunch under the display case, reading my Dragon books, to get away from the mullets – who made it clear that they did not like me. And another aside would be that because my mother was a dancer and because my dad was an engineer, I love ballet and I love the hard sciences. Those are things I think people wouldn’t expect, reading my work.

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2015 Edwards Award Winner: Sharon M. Draper

Have you heard of the Margaret A. Edwards Award? It was established in 1988 and it

honors an author, as well as a specific body of his or her work, for significant and lasting contribution to young adult literature. The annual award is administered by YALSA and sponsored by School Library Journal magazine. It recognizes an author’s work in helping adolescents become aware of themselves and addressing questions about their role and importance in relationships, society, and in the world. (x)

Sharon DraperThe 2015 winner is Sharon M. Draper, an African-American writer. Draper has written books for children, tweens, and teens, plus books for educators and poetry collections. You can learn more about Draper and her work on her official website. Six of Draper’s young adult books—Tears of a Tiger, Forged By Fire, Darkness Before Dawn, The Battle of Jericho, November Blues, and Copper Sun—were named by the Edwards Award committee as her significant and lasting contributions. The committee chair praised Draper’s work: “Draper has imbued her characters with deeply human complexity and born witness to the universality of their experiences, sparking powerful conversations and building empathy among teen readers.”

stellaDraper’s most recent book, Stella By Starlight, was published earlier this year. (Review) If you haven’t already read one of Draper’s books, there’s still plenty of time to get a hold of one of them before the 2015 ALA Annual Conference, which will be held from June 26th to July 1st.

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Interview with Coe Booth

Screen Shot 2015-01-11 at 3.16.19 PMWe welcome Coe Booth to the blog today. We featured her books here in September when her newest book, Kinda Like Brothers, had just been published. We appreciate this opportunity to learn a little more about her writing life.

What led you to writing stories featuring teens?

I’ve always wanted to write for teens. Even when I was in second grade I would write stories about fifteen year olds. Maybe I just couldn’t wait to become a teenager. Maybe I thought being a teenager meant automatic freedom. Well, live and learn!

As a writer, the teen years are full of inspiration. It’s the time of life when you’re in this in-between place, with so many conflicting feelings and desires, and so many fears and doubts, right when you’re being asked to make important decisions about your future. And then there are the relationships and all those firsts. It’s a very exciting time to write about.

The beauty of your realistic fiction is that it truly seems that these characters exist. How do you write them with such an authentic voice?

Thanks! I spend a lot of time trying to create believable characters, which is why I’m such a slow writer! I’ve always been fascinated with what drives people, how our thoughts and beliefs and experiences combine to make us our unique selves. That’s probably why I studied psychology, and it’s definitely why I write. It’s so much fun creating characters and then trying to figure out who they really are and how they got that way.

Before I started writing full-time, I counseled kids and families in crisis, which gave me a lot of insight into what people think and how they behave (and how often those two things seem to have no relation to one another!) When it comes to a character, I don’t really know her until I know what she thinks is missing from her life, what the hole is in her heart. Because then I know what she’s searching for, what’s driving her actions, even if she doesn’t make the connection. That’s when I get the aha moment!

When we featured you in an author spotlight, Lyn Miller-Lachmann commented, “I love Coe’s books and am especially impressed with how she made the transition from gritty YA novels to a sweet and inspiring, yet still realistic, MG.” Was it easy to make the transition to younger characters?

I thought writing for a younger audience would be a lot different than writing for teenagers. I actually thought it would be a little easier, but no, that turned out not to be true — at all! As I started writing Kinda Like Brothers and began figuring out the characters and their lives, I realized these characters had a lot of complexity, and writing about them wasn’t really much different than writing about older kids. But — and this is the tricky part — I had to figure out how to write about really heavy subjects in a way that younger kids would understand. So, in a way, writing a middle-grade novel adds another layer of challenge that’s not there with YA novels. It’s a fun challenge, though, and it’s something I’d definitely like to do again.

Are you planning to write more books set in Tyrell’s neighborhood?

I hope so! I really loved creating the neighborhood of Bronxwood and populating it with — well, interesting people. It’s been so much fun having characters carry over from one book to the other. Doing this also satisfies my curiosity about what certain characters are doing after the end of a book. So, yes, I’d definitely like to set another book in Bronxwood.

Who are some of your favorite YA authors?

That’s such a hard question — I have so many! I read everything by Rita Williams-Garcia, Matt de la Peña, Jacqueline Woodson, A.S. King, David Levithan (who’s also my editor!), E. Lockhart, and Libba Bray. These writers blow my mind with every new book!

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If you haven’t had a chance to read one of her books yet, get on it. To learn more about Coe Booth and her books, visit her website.

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Author Spotlight: Coe Booth

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Photo via Scholastic Press

Earlier this year, I was in Minneapolis to see Andrea Davis Pinkney speak at the University of Minnesota. While I was there, I was lucky enough to run into Coe Booth. I knew of her books, but hadn’t read them yet. We chatted about her newest book set to be released around the beginning of the school year, Kinda Like Brothers. I enjoyed chatting with her, so when I got home, I tracked down all three of her published books. I loved getting to know Tyrell and Kendra. If you haven’t met them yet, you’re missing out.

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Tyrell
Scholastic Press

Goodreads summary: Tyrell is a young, African American teen who can’t get a break. He’s living (for now) with his spaced-out mother and little brother in a homeless shelter. His father’s in jail. His girlfriend supports him, but he doesn’t feel good enough for her – and seems to be always on the verge of doing the wrong thing around her. There’s another girl at the homeless shelter who is also after him, although the desires there are complicated. Tyrell feels he needs to score some money to make things better. Will he end up following in his father’s footsteps?

My thoughts: Tyrell is a very well written book that kept stomping on my heart. Tyrell doesn’t always make the choices that I wish for him, but I understood why he was doing what he was doing. Booth lets the reader know him so well through his thoughts and actions. He is a kid trying to be a man he can respect and he isn’t getting a lot of help from the adults around him.

I found it difficult to read because it just ripped up my heart watching things go from bad to worse. The choices he has to make and the situations he faces are just so far beyond what I would want teenagers to go through. Of course, as soon as I was finished, I wanted the next book so I could see him grow.

 

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Bronxwood
Push

Goodreads summary: Tyrell’s father is just out of jail, and Tyrell doesn’t know how to deal with that. It’s bad enough that his brother Troy is in foster care and that his mother is no help whatsoever. Now there’s another thing up in his face, just when he’s trying to settle down. Tyrell’s father has plans of his own, and doesn’t seem to care whether or not Tyrell wants to go along with them. Tyrell can see the crash that’s coming — with his dad, with the rest of his family, with the girls he’s seeing — but he’s not sure he can stop it. Or if he even wants to.

My thoughts: Once again, Coe Booth made me care about this young man. Tyrell’s heart is in the right place as he struggles to parent himself and his brother since their parents have often been unwilling or unable to do the job. This is one of the major issues in the book. When a young person has to take on so much responsibility, it’s very hard to step back into the role of a child. Tyrell straddles that line between childhood and adulthood and he’s unsteady on his feet,  stumbling around quite a bit. Balancing becomes even more of a challenge when his father actually starts to step back into a parental role. I would love to see another book in this series.

Kendra

Kendra
Push

Goodreads summary: Kendra’s mom, Renee, had her when she was only 14 years old. Renee and her mom made a deal — Renee could get an education, and Kendra would live with her grandmother. But now Renee’s out of grad school and Kendra’s in high school … and getting into some trouble herself. Kendra’s grandmother lays down the law: It’s time for Renee to take care of her daughter. Kendra wants this badly — even though Renee keeps disappointing her. Being a mother isn’t easy, but being a daughter can be just as hard. Now it’s up to Kendra and Renee to make it work.

My thoughts: Kendra is a companion book to Tyrell. I didn’t realize that until I got into the story. Kendra lives in the same neighborhood. Like Tyrell, Kendra deals with very adult situations. What I like about the books is that the characters are so real. They have hard decisions to make and they don’t always take the path that I, as a mother, would choose for them. The choices they make though, make sense seen through their eyes and emotions. Booth lets us in there up close and personal. Her books are not easy to read lightly.

What’s New – Having read these three books, I had to wonder about the coming middle grade novel especially since I teach elementary school students. Coe Booth did not sugar coat things in her young adult novels. She put everything out there. Tyrell and those around him use some very colorful language and several of the topics covered were very definitely teen or adult. In Kinda Like Brothers, Booth still provided realistic characters and situations, but without cursing or mature content. It fits since Jarrett’s mother would never put up with such language and though there are difficult situations, there are also caring adults around.

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Kinda Like Brothers
Scholastic Press

Goodreads summary: Jarrett doesn’t trust Kevon. But he’s got to share a room with him anyway.

It was one thing when Jarrett’s mom took care of foster babies who needed help. But this time it’s different. This time the baby who needs help has an older brother — a kid Jarrett’s age named Kevon. Everyone thinks Jarrett and Kevon should be friends — but that’s not gonna happen. Not when Kevon’s acting like he’s better than Jarrett — and not when Jarrett finds out Kevon’s keeping some major secrets. Jarrett doesn’t think it’s fair that he has to share his room, his friends, and his life with some stranger. He’s gotta do something about it — but what?

My thoughts: [a review copy was provided by the publisher] Coe Booth crafted a unique story here and again made the characters matter to me. I’ve run across quite a few stories about foster children, but this was one of the only times I remember a book that looks at it from the foster family perspective. Jarrett knows all about not getting too attached to the babies that come and go. Having an older foster brother is new though, and is way more difficult. Sharing a room, his friends, and especially his mom, wears him down. Jarrett also has some troubles with school and has a shady habit of spying and eavesdropping. I was rooting for him even when I was groaning at some of his actions.

To hear a little bit about the book, check out the NPR interview. In it, Booth is asked about one of the scenes in the book that especially stood out to me – when Jarrett witnesses a counselor at the community center getting frisked by the police. There is discussion about the fact that Jarrett and the other children at the center will likely experience the same situation because of their skin color. While this isn’t the focus of the book, it certainly gives the reader much to think about.

Coe Booth is a master of realistic fiction and I look forward to reading more of her novels be they young adult, middle grade or any other age she may take on  next.

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