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My Writing Hero: Sara Zarr, a guest post by Angie Manfredi for Women’s History Month


March is Women’s History Month, so when I put the call out for guest bloggers (we love guest bloggers here at TLT, you can write one too), I was so excited that Angie excitedly answered that call wanting to write about Sara Zarr.  I read my first Sara Zarr book last year, Story of a Girl, discussed here by author Lisa Burstein.  Later, I reviewed How to Save a Life.  But this post is not about me, so read what Angie has to say about Sara Zarr.
These days it seems you can’t turn around without running into another young adult fantasy/dystopian/post-apocalyptic series or even stand-alone featuring a strong female heroine.  They’re wielding swords, leading rebellions, learning magic, saving lives – you name it.  And isn’t that fabulous?  Isn’t that fantastic? 

But it can be somewhat harder to find teen girls in contemporary fiction that have the same kind of realistic urgency to them.  They don’t often get the chance to save their societies from destruction or carry heavy weaponry across planets.  Yet their struggle to define themselves, to find out what their power in the world is, is just as important, and just as compelling. 

That’s one of the reasons I love Sara Zarr and her well-written and beautiful books: she writes contemporary young adult fiction about those teen girls – the ones you know from your

classrooms and your library, the ones you see at Starbucks and the movies on Saturday nights. She writes their stories and their lives in such a rich, full way that her books let those teen girls know that their stories have merit, their lives have worth, and that they are just as awesome as any fantasy world heroine.

Zarr’s four young adult novels (with a fifth set to be released in May) all have one thing in common: female characters of all ages, particularly teenagers, who are complicated and layered.  In What We Lost (originally published in 2009 as Once Was Lost) protagonist Samara wrestles with making her faith in God fit with the complications of the real world and Zarr shows how the struggle for grace can, in and of itself, be a blessing.  To this day my heart still aches when I think about Sweethearts (2008) and the beautiful story it tells about Jenna and Cameron, best friends and third-grade sweethearts, who meet again in high school as totally different people but find themselves still drawn to each other.  Jill and Mandy, two teenage girls with very different lives, are brought together by Mandy’s pregnancy in How to Save a Life (2011), truly one of the most honest and original young adult books I’ve ever read. 
But even though each one of these books is lyrical, well-crafted, and thoughtful my favorite Sara Zarr book is still her 2007 debut Story of a Girl.  In fact, Story of a Girl is one of my all-time favorite young adult novels.  I’d even go as far as to say it’s an essential young adult novel – one you must read if you want to understand the true power of the genre when done well. 

The girl in the story is Deanna who is sixteen now but still must live in the shadow of choices she made when she was thirteen.  Everyone thinks they know Deanna’s story but this novel is about Deanna deciding that, in the end, only she will determine the course of her life and the kind of person she wants to be. 

Story of a Girl is unblinkingly honest and unfailingly fierce.  It still amazes me that all the way back in 2007 a book this bold and frank about sex and what it can mean in teen’s lives was published.  Deanna is truly an unforgettable character and the way she comes into her own potential, her own huge capacity for forgiveness and change, her own power – well, if that’s not the essence of feminism I don’t know what is.  It is also, of course, the essence of the young adult journey into adulthood and Zarr captures that so fully here that I think this is a book that teens can easily see themselves in.  Story of a Girl, a finalist for the National Book Award, is a quick read but one that stays with the reader forever.  It’s a book for all those teenagers living life in the real world that you know and every day and it’s a book that tells them that everyone makes mistakes but life, real, adult life, is about being strong enough to start letting that go.  Six years later, this book is still a little masterpiece.

I’ve been lucky enough to read Zarr’s upcoming book The Lucy Variations and I’m happy to report it is Zarr at the top of her game.  Lucy is a former child prodigy who stopped playing piano after a serious life crisis.  Now sixteen, Lucy begins to wonder if she can find her way back to music. It’s another book with a strong female character who takes the world on her own terms and is creating her own path.  It’s also a great look at a character who is an artist, who cares deeply about creativity and self-expression even when it’s hard.

Sara Zarr is one of the most interesting and unique current young adult writers.  As of yet, no fantasy/dystopian/post-apocalyptic heroines wielding magic swords and riding dragons have showed up in her work.  (Not that it’d stop me from reading her work if they did). And yet the female characters she so expertly brings to life are just as bold, memorable, self-realized, and, yeah, bad-ass.  They are characters you need to meet and characters you need to share with your teen readers. 

(also worth checking out is Zarr’s This Creative Lifepodcast, a thoughtful and insightful series featuring great dialogue between Zarr and many talented writers and creators.)

Angie Manfredi is the Head of Youth Services for the Los Alamos County Library System.  She is a proud feminist who loves working with a young adult literature, a genre that celebrates strong female characters.  You can find her blogging sporadically at www.fatgirlreading.comand tweeting incessantly @misskubelik. 

Why YA? The Story of a Girl (Sara Zarr) as discussed by Lisa Burstein

It was only earlier this year that I read Story of a Girl by Sara Zarr.  I was touched by the fact that it was a simple yet raw coming of age story about a teenage girl.  There were no bells and whistles, no magical powers or arena fights to the death – just raw, unbridled emotion.  Then, a couple of months later, I read and reviewed a book called Pretty Amy by Lisa Burstein.  When I finished I wrote my review and said that Pretty Amy brought to mind Story of a Girl.  Today, in our ongoing Why YA? feature, author Lisa Burstein discusses Story of a Girl and does a brief interview with one of her writing heroes, Sara Zarr.
“A lot of people can change you – the first kid who called you a name, the first teacher who said you were smart, the first person who crowned you their best friend. It’s the change you remember, the firsts and what they meant, not really the people.”  – Sara Zarr

My mother and I had what would have been described as a strained relationship when I was in high school, but that was really a nice way of saying that I hated her and she didn’t understand me. I understood then that she tried to understand me, but because I was in high school I did not have the capacity to explain the emotions I was dealing with. I couldn’t tell her that it had nothing to do with her that I broke curfew, tried alcohol and drugs, and skipped school. That all of that had to do with what was inside me. The uncertainty, the low self-esteem, the need for acceptance from anyone but her and my father. Of course, I couldn’t tell her any of this. I didn’t want to and honestly I didn’t really realize it all myself at the time.

When I think about the many reasons why adults should read YA, the strongest argument I can come up with is to help them understand their teenagers. Not all YA books can do this. It is a special, meaningful, true book that can. Story of a Girl is such a book.

I read Story of a Girl for the first time a year ago. I was thirty-five and very far away from high school, but reading it brought me back to the confusion, emptiness and uncertainty I felt during that time. Deanna’s story was very different from mine, but the way she reacted to her surroundings, the way she kind of gave up on herself and everyone around her, was very, very familiar. So familiar that reading it was like reading my journal from the time.

Would I have let my mother read my journal? No way. But she could have read Story of a Girl. She could have given it to me to read (if it had been published at the time). We could have attempted to talk about it. Because we were not talking about anything during that time, we were yelling and fighting and not talking. I believe that something as simple and beautiful as a book could have opened a door.
What Deanna says when she talks about the stories she writes in her journal could have opened a door: “Personal feelings I did not want to feel, I gave to her.” This encapsulates what I think so many teen girls go through. Sometimes they even sort of become another person. Angry, rebellious because that is easier than letting people see the person they really are. They are afraid to be who they really are.

Zarr is a brave enough writer to present the deepest, darkest parts of a teen’s mind. The things they hide from their friends, parents, sometimes even from themselves. I cannot tell you how many times, I thought this, “What if everyone got another chance after making a big mistake?” That is how being a teen feels. Everything you do brands you. If you lie to your parent’s once, you are a liar, get caught smoking in the bathroom you are a dirt-bag smoker. You do not have the opportunity to redeem yourself, so you keep falling deeper and deeper into the person everyone thinks you are anyway. There is no way I could have explained this to my mother, but if she would have seen Deanna say it, it may have made her think.

If she had seen Deanna say, “I Deanna Lambert, belong to no one and no one belongs to me. I don’t know what to do.” She might have just given me a hug instead of screaming at me when I came home smelling of alcohol.

Story of a Girl is a book that has the power to open doors between parents and children. It is a book that could help a parent understand why their child feels like an outsider when all the parent wants is for their child to let them in. I knew when I was a teenager that my mother still loved me, but it certainly didn’t feel like she liked me. Zarr captures this effortlessly when she writes, “The girl started to wonder if anyone would look for her.” My mother didn’t seem like she wanted to help the me I was in high school, it appeared that she wanted to help the me I used to be and that hurt most of all.

As a formerly troubled teen, as someone who thought daily what Deanna thought about her own life, “How, how am I supposed to find my own way out?” I would advocate that parents search out books like Story of a Girl when they feel like they don’t know where else to turn. Your teen probably thinks “My life is a question mark,” just like Deanna does when you ask them why they do the things they do. Books like Story of a Girl have the power to help you know your child, which even if they don’t admit it, is all they really want.

While talkinga bout Story of a Girl should be enough to make you want to go out and read it right now, Sara Zarr agreed to talk to us about it as well.  How awesome is that?  Below are just a few of me and some of my Twitter followers had for her.

What YA book do you think adults would benefit from reading?

There isn’t one specific book for all adults, but I encourage people to spend some time browsing the young adult section of the library or book store. I think people who only hear about YA through the mainstream media think all of YA is The Hunger Games, Twilight, or Harry Potter. In truth, it’s a huge, huge category of publishing, with something for everyone.

What did you intend readers to take away from Story of A Girl when you wrote it?

My intention is always just to tell the story that’s in my head, and do it the best I can, and hope that readers connect on some level while they’re reading it. With all my books, I’m just trying to tell a story. I do think there’s lots to take away if people are open to it, but I only hope they enjoy the book at whatever level organically happens for them.

What did readers take away from Story of a Girl that you didn’t expect?

There’s been some discussion that the story is partly about the double-standard (for girls vs. boys) when it comes to sexuality, that I didn’t really expect. And also some comparisons to The Scarlet Letter, which I’ve never read!

What was the best compliment you’ve received from an adult who read Story of A Girl?

One of my aunts, who is in her 70s, said that the emotions of Deanna’s struggle with herself and with her dad felt real to her experience, though her adolescence is over 50 years behind her and was in a very different time. This upholds my theory that the personal experience of moving from childhood to adulthood stays pretty much the same – it’s the context, the language, the accessories that change.

How did you get the idea for Story of a Girl?

It’s been so long now that I can’t totally remember. But I know this particular book started with characters. Deanna sort of came to me fully-formed, and she was tough but vulnerable and I wanted to know what that was about, where it came from.

When you completed Story of a Girl did you know how resonant it would be?

Virtually everything in my career has been a huge surprise and blessing. When it first came out, I just hoped more than ten people would read it. I think every writer fears his or her book won’t connect. It’s a relief when it does, and it makes you grateful.

You blogged once that you were considering giving up writing. What were your reasons for that, and how do you feel now?

Funny – I don’t remember saying exactly that. I think what I probably meant was not giving up the act of writing itself, but the career of “being a writer”, which is a different thing. Whereas once that felt vital to my identity, I think now I could see myself finding satisfaction making money other ways. For me, writing under contract and deadline is not my favorite thing. I am, right now, taking a little break from that, and it feels good.

How do you think you achieve such an authentic voice?

That is a nice question – thank you, to whoever asked that! I don’t know the answer. I know that I’m an extremely picky and critical reader, and am easily pulled out of a reading experience if I don’t “buy” the character’s words or emotions. So I’m picky and critical with myself, too, and always do a lot of cutting in my final drafts in attempts to get rid of anything that rings false to me, especially emotionally. It’s a tough call sometimes, though. (For the record, Karen J from TLT is the one who asked this questions – just saying.)
Meet Lisa Burstein
Lisa Burstein is the author of PRETTY AMY a book that Girls’ Life Magazine called “a must read for anyone who’s felt like they don’t belong.”; and The New York Journal of Books said has “a lot of wonderful snark that will make grownups laugh out loud.”
Please also check out Lisa Burstein’s Dear Teen Me letter.  It is an honest, powerful, bold and necessary reminder to girls everywhere that no means no.

Lisa Burstein