Welcome Sara Zarr!

Funny things happen sometimes.  A few weeks ago, I received an email asking if I’d like to review Sara Zarr’s new book SWEETHEARTS.  Sure!  I loved STORY OF A GIRL, and well, there’s the whole pink cookie on the cover thing.  I loved the book and jumped at the chance to host a stop on Sara’s blog tour.  We emailed back and forth a few times but needed to wrap things up before last weekend because Sara and I were both going to be traveling.  When all was said and done, I sent Sara a link to my blog so she’d be able to see today’s interview.  She emailed back.  Turns out we were headed out of town for the same writing retreat, so we could have done the interview in person.  I got to spend a little time with Sara at the retreat, and she’s just the kind, funny, down-to-earth person I had imagined.  I love it when that happens. 

I teach 7th grade English Language Arts, and I was reading SWEETHEARTS during independent reading time with my kids one day.  One of my students stopped by my desk at the end of the period.  “Are you going to finish that today?  And can I borrow it?”  Becky devoured the book in a couple days and was excited to hear that Sara would be stopping by my blog.  She handed me a list of questions the next day, so this interview is our joint effort!

Welcome, Sara!  First, let’s talk about the new book.  What was the inspiration for this story, the spark that made you want to write about Jenna and Cameron?

I knew this boy in grade school, Mark. Like Cameron, he left a ring and a note in my lunch one day, and I remember sitting in the back of my friend’s mom’s car and discovering it and thinking, wow, there’s this person who likes me and thinks about me. Our relationship wasn’t like Cameron and Jenna’s, but for me it was like I carried around this secret—that someone cared about me and was on my side, and that meant a lot and stayed with me my whole life. Mark got back in touch when we were adults, and I started playing around with the “what if we’d known each other in high school?” question. The story went from there.

Often, authors will say that characters are made up of bits and pieces of people they know or people they’ve been.  Where did Jenna and Cameron come from?

Cameron was definitely inspired by Mark, though the details about his life and his family are a total fabrication. I didn’t know him between the ages of 8 and 30, so I had to imagine him as a teenager. Jennifer, before she became Jenna, draws some on my own life. I stole and used food the way she does, and I was one of the “poor kids” who always wore hand-me-downs and got the subsidized milk, though I was not as much of an outsider as Jennifer. Jenna as a teen is a lot different than I was; I do relate to her fear of being found out for who she really is, but I think everyone feels that deep down to some extent.

SWEETHEARTS seems like a perfect title for this book.  Did you know while you were writing what the title would be, or did you play around with different titles along the way? (And if you did, would you share some of them?)

The title actually came early on and I never had any other ideas. I remember emailing my agent and asking, “What do you think of SWEETHEARTS as a title?” He was lukewarm at first (he may deny it now, but I have the email evidence!). I always thought it was perfect, myself. I’ve never had a title come so easily.

I can’t imagine anyone has looked at SWEETHEARTS without commenting on the cover (and getting hungry!).  Is that what you envisioned for a cover when you wrote the book, or were you surprised?

I was completely surprised. I didn’t have any idea what to expect—I’m terrible with design stuff. When I first saw it, I thought it was so literal…a sweet heart. The more I looked at it—the bite out of the cookie, the crumbs, the starkness of the background and the childlike font of the title—the more I appreciated the genius of designer Alison Impey. It’s actually kind of a masterpiece!

Becky wants to know if there’s going to be another story about Jenna and Cameron (and when Molly finishes, she’s going to want to know, too).  Any plans for a sequel, or do you feel like their journey is over for now?

I have no plans for a sequel, though I’m always delighted when readers ask that question because it means the characters live on in their minds. People have also asked for a sequel to my first book, so maybe I should figure out a way for Deanna, Jenna, Cameron, Jason and Tommy to all meet up in some epic vampire fantasy…

Writers often talk about the pressure of a second book and wanting it to be better than the first.  Since your first novel, STORY OF A GIRL, was a National Book Award Finalist, do you feel like that created extra pressure for you?

Absolutely. Thankfully, SWEETHEARTS was done well ahead of the National Book Award stuff, but even before that I was suffering from a major case of Second Book Psychosis. It really wasn’t based in reality, just a crazy mental battle. Honestly, there was one day that involved me curled in a ball on the kitchen floor, crying and praying and figuring out how to break the news to my agent that everyone would soon discover that I was a total fraud.

Were there any parts of writing SWEETHEARTS that were a real struggle for you?

As you can imagine, it was hard to write the scenes in Cameron’s childhood home, with his dad. It made me sick to my stomach, literally. And I’ve read books in which so much worse happens to the characters…I don’t know how those authors do it. It was hard to balance making the situation menacing enough to be scarring, but still get them out before anything worse happened.

You recently sold your next two novels.  What can you tell us about those?

Not much! All I can say right now about the one I’m working on is that it involves a pastor’s daughter. I grew up in church and have always wanted to explore church life more directly in a novel. It’s too soon to talk about much else.

When and where do you most often like to write?

Whenever and wherever. My work habits aren’t anything to brag about–it’s always a struggle to get going. Every day I’m afraid. Every day I feel like I don’t know what I’m doing. So I avoid it. Time and location don’t matter to me much, as long as I do the work.

Do you have a favorite revision strategy?

Get editorial letter. Cry. Rage. Cry. Complain. Freak out. Wonder how I’ve fooled so many for so long. Cry some more. When that stage is over, I like to have a printout of the manuscript and start a new Word document rather than edit on screen and cut and paste. Even if I end up typing the same pages over and over, there’s something about the physical act of typing that helps.

And last but not least… In honor of that delicious cover, what’s your favorite kind of cookie?

A big, soft, homemade chocolate chip cookie with no nuts.

Thanks so much for stopping by, Sara! 

SWEETHEARTS has an official February 1st release date but has already started showing up in bookstores.  Just look for that pink cookie on the cover.

Book Brawl

I love it when I book-talk a new selection for my classroom library and end up with a near-battle over who gets to sign it out first.  I know, I know, chaos is generally frowned upon in school, but I love to see kids ravenous about reading.  Here’s the book that caused the commotion this week…

Dee got there first, so she’s enjoying Lisa Schroeder’s debut novel in verse tonight, probably up late with a flashlight under the covers even as I type this review. 

I read I HEART YOU, YOU HAUNT ME in one weepy sitting over the weekend and savored

‘s free verse poems that come together to tell a touching story of love, loss, and healing.  The book opens with the funeral of Ava’s boyfriend Jackson — a funeral for which she can’t help but feel a sense of responsibility, given what happened.  This isn’t a traditional tear-jerker, though — because Jackson comes back.  As a ghost.  And Ava finds herself pulled in two directions, forced to choose between the love she lost and the life she still has.

Lisa Schroeder’s poems are spare and beautiful — the kind of poems that paint an amazing picture and then hit hard in the last lines.  This book will have huge appeal for fans of other verse novels.  Kids who love Sonya Sones, especially, are in for a treat.  Like Sones, Schroeder takes a realistic look at teenagers. Simon & Schuster recommends this title for grades 9 and up. There are some very mild references to sex, but nothing, in my opinion, that would make the book inappropriate for a 7th or 8th grade reader who has read Sones’ work or other books that  deal with teen romance.

Ava and Jackson were so real to me during the hour I spent in their world,  I couldn’t help being swept up in their drama.  Part of me was glad I read this one at home, so I didn’t end up sobbing through sustained silent reading in front of twenty seventh graders.  But part of me thinks that would have been just fine, too.  Sometimes, an old-fashioned cry is a perfect reminder of  how transporting a great story can be.

The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian

Sherman Alexie is  brilliant.  But you probably already knew that.

This week, I finally got to read The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian. Wow.  Just wow.

I won’t write a traditional review here, because plenty of other people have praised this book up and down, and there was that whole award thing, too….  What I do want to talk about is how this book impressed me by nailing some aspects of poverty that are rarely addressed in YA novels.

As a teacher in a small city school district, I know that about a third of my students are living in poverty, carrying with them each day the baggage that goes along with it.  We have breakfast programs and free lunch and a good library, and that helps.  Some.  What we can’t always do, no matter how hard we try, is provide that new way of thinking that Junior figured out in Alexie’s book – that moment when living in poverty becomes so unbearable that a person has to make the painful choice to leave.  In Junior’s case, it’s the decision to leave his reservation school to attend a more privileged white school in a nearby town.

There’s a scene in Part-Time Indian where Junior gives a lengthy and funny-but-true list of rules for fighting.  His rules.  The rules of the reservation.  Among them…

  • If somebody insults you, then you have to fight him.
  • If you think somebody is thinking about insulting you, then you have to fight him.
  • If somebody beats up your father or your mother, then you have to fight the son and/or daughter of the person who beat up your mother or father.

When Junior starts at the white school, one of the big guys insults him, and sure enough, Junior punches him.  He’s stunned when the guy doesn’t fight back but walks off with his posse, all of them staring at Junior as if he were a monster…

I was absolutely confused.

I had followed the rules of fighting.  I had behaved exactly the way I was supposed to behave.  But these white boys had ignored the rules.  In fact, they had followed a whole other set of mysterious rules where people apparently DID NOT GET INTO FISTFIGHTS.

“Wait,” I called after Roger.

“What do you want?” Roger asked.

“What are the rules?”

“What rules?”

I didn’t know what to say, so I just stood there red and mute like a stop sign.  Roger and his friends disappeared.

I felt like somebody had shoved me into a rocket ship and blasted me to a new planet.  I was a freaky alien and there was absolutely no way to get home.

The whole concept of different sets of rules is inherent to any study of the impact of poverty on learning.  Some of my middle school colleagues and I participated in a study group focused on that topic last year, using Ruby Payne’s book A Framework for Understanding Poverty.   It’s a fantastic book – one that should be required reading for anyone who works with kids in poverty, and especially for those of us who enjoyed more privileged middle class upbringings.  The rules are different.  Payne, like Sherman Alexie, does a great job demystifying this aspect of poverty and helping us to understand why it’s not so easy for Junior – or anyone – to just walk away.

Sweethearts by Sara Zarr

Jennifer Harris used to be that poor, chubby kid who sat alone in the cafeteria. Well, almost alone. There was Cameron Quick, another social outcast. Another kid living in poverty and living on the fringe of third grade society. He was her only friend and the only person who ever understood Jennifer Harris. And then he disappeared.

Years pass. Jennifer gets a new stepfather, a new house, a new school, a new name, a new life. She reinvents herself as Jenna Vaughn. Jenna Vaughn is one of the pretty, thin popular girls. She has friends and a hot boyfriend. But she also has a secret – a dark memory that ties her forever to Cameron Quick and to the old Jennifer Harris, who never really left. SWEETHEARTS is the story of Cameron’s return to Jennifer’s life and what happens when her two worlds meet.

As a National Book Award Finalist, Sara Zarr has a lot riding on this next novel, scheduled for release in February 2008. There will be inevitable comparisons to STORY OF A GIRL. Can this second book live up to that standard? Truth be told, I liked SWEETHEARTS even better. The characters in this novel absolutely shine, from the insecure third grade Jennifer and the third grade Cameron whose generosity and fierce loyalty made me want him for a friend, to the high school version of these kids, still haunted by their grade school selves. The minor characters shine, too. One of my favorites was Jenna’s stepfather, whose quiet support helps Jenna and her mother rebuild what was broken so many years ago.

Some character-driven novels sacrifice pace and tension, but that’s not the case with SWEETHEARTS. From the very first chapter, readers sense there’s a story from Jennifer’s childhood that’s not being told in its entirety. Zarr reveals that story in bits and pieces, snippets of memory and elegantly woven flashbacks throughout the book. All the while, the parts of the story left unspoken create powerful tension.

I read SWEETHEARTS in just a few sittings. When I was away from the book, I spent half my time thinking about the characters and hoping things would go well for them. They grow on you like that. Sara Zarr has written another fantastic novel –- one that celebrates the power of childhood friendships, loyalty, and inner strength. Like STORY OF A GIRL, Zarr’s new release is loaded with realistic characters, hope, and heart. The fabulous cookie cover art delivers on its promise – SWEETHEARTS an absolutely delicious read. 

Big Slick

It’s confession time.  I gave my 17-year-old nephew a pre-read book for Christmas.  I read it really carefully, though and didn’t get chocolate on it or anything.  At any rate, I’m not sorry, because the book was Eric Luper’s debut novel Big Slick, and it was fantastic.

In poker terms, a big slick is when you start a hand of Texas Hold ’em with an Ace and a King showing. It’s a strong starting hand, but in the case of main character Andrew Lang, things fall apart quickly.  Lang is a boy genius of sorts — the youngest player at Shushie’s underground poker club, and he has a knack for the game.  But he borrowed money from  his dad’s dry cleaning business to enter a tournament and digs himself deeper and deeper in trouble with every page in Big Slick.  Add to that mix some family tension, a really cute little brother, a loyal best friend, and a hot goth girl who works with Andrew at Dad’s dry cleaning business, and you have a seriously compelling plot. 

This is a book that teenaged boys — and girls, since there’s a cool, strong female character, too — will love.  It’s not one of those YA novels that you’ll want to share with most middle school kids, though.  The language is intense sometimes, and there’s a pretty steamy romance scene. It’s definitely more of a high school title — and a perfect one for reluctant readers at that age.

Even though I’m not a poker player (okay…this is an understatement.  I’ve been to Las Vegas exactly once, and the people gambling all around me made me nervous enough to break out in hives), I loved this book.  Probably because it isn’t really just about poker after all. When all the cards are turned, Big Slick is a fast-moving, gutsy novel about finding your way in the world, making mistakes, and making good.