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!

coe

 

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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Review: Jumped In

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Title: Jumped In
Author: Patrick Flores-Scott
Genres: Contemporary & Poetry
Pages: 304
Publisher: Henry Holt and Co.
Review Copy: Digital book purchased by reviewer
Availability: Published Aug. 27, 2013

Summary: Sam has the rules of slackerhood down: Don’t be late to class. Don’t ever look the teacher in the eye. Develop your blank stare. Since his mom left, he has become an expert in the art of slacking, especially since no one at his new school gets his intense passion for the music of the Pacific Northwest—Nirvana, Hole, Sleater-Kinney. Then his English teacher begins a slam poetry unit and Sam gets paired up with the daunting, scarred, clearly-a-gang-member Luis, who happens to sit next to him in every one of his classes. Slacking is no longer an option—Luis will destroy him. Told in Sam’s raw voice and interspersed with vivid poems, Jumped In by Patrick Flores-Scott is a stunning debut novel about differences, friendship, loss, and the power of words. — Image and summary via Goodreads

Review: From the beginning Sam pulled me into the Pacific Northwest with it’s gray sameness. The gloom just rolls across the pages with the weather completely matching his mood. Sam slowly reveals the reasons for his negativity. He has plenty of pain in his life, but fortunately, the book also has some light moments so readers don’t sink completely under the weight. Many of the lighter bits happen because of the poetry unit. The teacher, Ms. Cassidy, provides a lot of entertainment as she pulls out every trick in an attempt to catch and keep attention. The poems sometime bring smiles too. In the first poem, Luis compares the way people look at his scar to how people look at a “shriveled viejito grandpa smiling in his tiny Speedo.” The accompanying illustration adds to the humor. The rules of slackerhood also provide a few chuckles. Sam is completely serious about being an invisible slacker and goes to great lengths to fly under the radar of his teachers.

This is not a novel-in-verse but is a mix of poetry and prose. We hear from Sam predominantly in prose, but even that is lyrical at times. We only hear Luis through poetry though. Luis has fewer words than Sam, but every word is chosen carefully and the poems pack a punch. With Sam we see many details and the day to day business of life as he sleeps afternoons away or watches raindrops on the window and mold growing on the sill. The communication from Luis is brief and more direct.

And somewhere deep
Down by my heart and spleen
In my darkest guts
So they can’t see
I lock the worlds of ideas
That make me me.

In August, Edi Campbell wrote a post about Guy Pals. I recalled her post as I read. I hadn’t thought about it much before, but as Edi explained, there aren’t that many books that deal with male friendships though it seems like more are being written right now. I appreciated this look into the life of these boys. Though they certainly didn’t share all of their secrets with each other, they connected while creating something together. Many people can relate to such friendships. Often school friends are based on desk proximity and then grow into something more. I think it is fascinating to imagine the many ways that relationships can develop.

Jumped In is just over 300 pages, but there is a lot of blank space on the pages because of the poetry and the brief chapters, so this is a quick read in spite of it’s page length. The poetry breaks up the narrative and the humor keeps it from becoming too bleak. I have to admit, the title puzzled me for quite some time. “Jumped in” was a phrase that was unfamiliar to me. It’s related to gangs and I was glad that it was eventually explained in the book. With the mix of gangs, school, poetry, Nirvana, and family issues, there are plenty of things to catch a reader’s interest. Finding and listening to the Nirvana songs mentioned along the way added to the experience.

Patrick Flores-Scott has crafted an engaging novel that will likely win many hearts. I finished the book wanting to know more about the characters. I wanted to spend more time in their stories and see them continue to grow. Hopefully we will see more from Patrick Flores-Scott in the future.

Recommendation: Get it soon. This is a book that will speak to many — though I should warn you, tissues may be required.

Extra: Edi Campbell interviewed Patrick on her blog. Beware: there are serious spoilers so maybe read it after you read the book.

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Book Review: Long Division

long divisinoTitle: Long Division
Author: Keise Laymon
Genres: Literature/Contemporary
Pages: 267
Publisher: Bolden
Review Copy: Purchased from Amazon
Availability: On shelves now

 
I’m a Doctor Who fan, but I will admit that the timey-wimey stuff often gets me confused. I loved time-travel stories but I’m usually left scratching my head at the end because I just can’t make it work the linear way my mind wants me to. This feeling, this confusion, is what I had at the end of Keise Laymon’s debut novel. This is not a reflection on him as a writer, but everything on me as the reader.

 
While I was reading the novel, I enjoyed the adventures of the two main characters, both named City Coldson, but divided by 28 years. Long Division is a novel within a novel, and I wondered at the end if 1985 City was real, and not a character in a novel, or if 2013 City was real and not a character in a novel. I really hope that sentence makes sense, but if it doesn’t, that’s the complexity that is Long Division. The ending is a bit vague with the answers, leaving the reader to make up their own minds. I’d like to think both City Coldsons were real, but that would mean…oh my…*scratches head*

 
Moving on, Long Division is a novel about teenagers making sense of the racial inequalities in their world, as well as learning to be responsible for one’s actions, both positive and negative. Because it is a novel with time travel in it, the reader experiences life in 1964, 1985, and 2013. Making each of these time periods distinct, and the characters interactions during each of the time periods, is what Laymon does best. For example, I was a tween in 1985, therefore a number of the references 1985 City makes, how he speaks, is very true to the time period. Conversely, 2013 City reads just like one of my students. Laymon does a good job capturing the myriad of thoughts teenagers will have in a given moment.  This oftentimes led to some hilarious inner monologues and exchanges from both of the young men. Both 1985 City’s and 2013 City’s section are given to the reader in first person, so we are privy to the boys mixture of deep and mundane thoughts. And just like regular teens, these thoughts can go from deep to mundane in the blink of an eye. It was usually at those moments that I laughed the most.

 
The novel takes place over a series of days, but both 1985 City and 2013 City make the transition from boys to men in that short period of time, coming to understand the complexity of the effects of one’s decision and how it can have a lasting impact. I won’t give it away, but there is a moment towards the end where 1985 City has to make a decision that no adult would want, but he handles it with a maturity and grace that is absolutely beautiful.

 
Lastly, Long Division is not a novel where you can sit back and relax. You have to pay attention; notice the social commentary that Laymon drops subtly all throughout the novel. It is a very different type of Young Adult novel, but is one that teens are capable of finding, discussing, and examining the deeper meanings behind the words presented on the page. It is a novel that respects the teenage mind, while challenging them at the same time.

 

Recommendation: Get It Soon

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When Every Culture Is a Foreign Culture: Writing on the Autism Spectrum

We welcome Lyn Miller-Lachmann today to share about her writing journey both as an insider and an outsider. Lyn is the author of Gringolandia, published in 2009, and Rogue published in May of this year. I was lucky enough to read Gringolandia earlier this week and am looking forward to sitting down with Rogue soon.


Miller-Lachmann

Before I became a published author of fiction for teens, I compiled multicultural bibliographies and edited the journal MultiCultural Review. Except for two years teaching high school social studies and English in Brooklyn, New York, and several more years teaching English as a Second Language in Madison, Wisconsin to refugees and students from Latin America, I had no special multicultural credentials to do this work—or so I thought at the time.

However, I did know what it was like not to fit in—and what it was like to leave home and family for places unknown.

I left at the age of 18. It was a moment I had looked forward to for a long time, because my childhood community was a place where I had been misunderstood, bullied, and excluded. But moving brought its own challenges—meeting new people, learning new ways of doing things, and trying to find a place for myself where everyone already seemed to know the way. My own struggles helped me to understand my immigrant students in Brooklyn and Madison, and I learned a lot from their experiences of adjusting to a new land.

Some of the stories I heard from friends and colleagues became the basis for my YA novel Gringolandia, the story of a Chilean exile teenager trying to reconnect with his father, a former political prisoner and torture survivor. At the time, I questioned my right to write about a culture to which I did not belong. My Chilean friends encouraged me to go for it; they knew I’d done my research. The people I interviewed in Chile in 1990, during the transition to democracy, wanted me to tell people in my country of their suffering as a result of the CIA-sponsored military coup in 1973 that led to the 17-year dictatorship. The novel took me 22 years to write and get published. My fiction-writing career during that time was one of close calls, heartbreak, and misunderstandings. I also found out that, even though I had escaped the place where I didn’t fit in, I could not escape the problems that made it so difficult for me to fit in.

In 2008 I was diagnosed with Asperger’s syndrome, a high-functioning form of autism. The diagnosis answered a lot of questions about why I had so much trouble making and keeping friends, fitting in socially, understanding non-verbal communication and “hidden meanings”, and recognizing faces (because I’m not actually looking at people or making eye contact when I talk to them). With Gringolandia already in production, I questioned my ability to write fiction—which requires so much in terms of portraying emotion and social relationships, conveying the meaning of language and gesture, and forging connections with readers. These are all the things I struggle with in daily life.

I then remembered my Chilean friends’ advice. They said I’d done my homework. I had studied a culture that was not my own, thoroughly enough that I could write authentically about it. Perhaps that meant I could study all my characters’ cultures thoroughly enough to write about them. I could approach any culture as if it were a foreign culture—because to me as a person on the autism spectrum, every culture is a foreign culture. I also thought about the people I interviewed in Chile, survivors of a brutal dictatorship. They wanted their stories told so people would understand what they went through.

I had long avoided telling my own story of bullying and exclusion for a variety of reasons: I didn’t want to remember the pain. On some level, I felt I deserved it. I had internalized the dislike others felt for me and thus didn’t believe I could create a likable character similar to the younger me. But after my diagnosis, I realized that my story could help others in my situation, and create greater understanding of people on the autism spectrum, how we think, and the challenges that we face.

For inspiration, I turned to the X-Men. When I was a teenager, I was fascinated by the character of Professor Xavier, who used a wheelchair and gathered around him a group of misunderstood and rejected young people who nonetheless had special powers that they could use either to destroy society or to save society. He wanted these outsiders to use their powers for good, and by doing good, create understanding of mutants.

In this way Rogue was born. By setting the novel in the present, I was able to use the newer X-Men character of Rogue as protagonist Kiara’s hero. Rogue is the perfect role model for a teenage girl on the autism spectrum, as she cannot touch or be touched, and she has to steal the memories and emotions of others because her emotions did not fully develop.

Above all, I transferred to Kiara my strongest desire when I was growing up—to have a friend. Like Kiara, I would do anything for a friend—clueless things that got me laughed at (like thinking I could become popular by sitting at the popular girls’ table), naïve things that led other people to take advantage of me, and dangerous things to prove my loyalty. Rogue is the first novel I have written as an insider, and I have sought to present my character honestly and in a multidimensional way. Yes, she’s a young teen on the autism spectrum, but she’s also an avid bike rider who repairs her own bike, a lover of music, and a budding filmmaker. She has a life and interests that are independent of her neurological difference. She also has a lot in common with everyone else in her desire to be connected to other people, to be loved, and to contribute to her community. I’m not sure I’ll write a sequel or another novel with a protagonist on the autism spectrum—a lot depends on how many “friends” Kiara makes—but I am fortunate to have had the chance to write my own story and make something positive of it.


Lyn
Lyn Miller-Lachman authored Gringolandia – published by Curbstone Press/Northwestern University Press and Rogue – published by Nancy Paulson Books/Penguin. She is also a reviewer for The Pirate Tree, a blog devoted to social justice and children’s literature.

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