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Sourcebooks Fire Week: How to Eat an Elephant or Write About Books Based on The News, by Helene Dunbar

For our final post for Sourcebooks Fire week, we are excited to share this post with you by author Helene Dunbar. Dunbar discusses her books including her upcoming book, Prelude for Lost Souls.

Anti-apartheid and human rights activist Desmond Tutu once wisely said “there is only one way to eat an elephant: a bite at a time.” Not much different from writing a book, really. Letters become words become sentences become paragraphs become pages become chapters, and so on.

It’s all too easy though, to focus on the whole elephant rather than those smaller pieces, when plotting a story. Unintentionally, all my books have themes connected to news stories. My first, These Gentle Wounds developed out of a freelance story I wrote about matricide and a desire to explore childhood PTSD, What Remains played with the idea of cellular memory (and whether organ recipients retained any traits of their donors), and Boomerang flipped the story of kidnapped teenagers upside down.

In working to capture the early days of the AIDS crisis for my most recent book, We are Lost and Found, I truly faced a “how do you eat an elephant?” question. Did I focus on someone who was sick? Did I focus on someone with an older relative who was sick? Did I focus on the child of someone affected? The friend? And how, I asked myself, do I do this through a YA lens?

I found my answers by focusing on the questions that I and my friends – teenagers ourselves – faced in 1983: How do you risk falling in love when you’re afraid it could kill you? How do you handle that type of fear when growing up can already be a pretty frightening thing? Is this the end of the world?

Having found the “bites” I then needed to create characters to tell those stories. My main character Michael is trying to simultaneously fall in love and save his fractured family. His older brother, Connor, has already been kicked out of the house for being gay and Michael doesn’t want the same to happen to him. He and his best friends James and Becky are already navigating some pretty stormy waters even without the growing storm of the AIDS crisis.

Because I wanted to tell a story about fear, I had to look at the various types of fear that needed to be represented. I gave Michael and Connor a homophobic father who is afraid of everything he doesn’t understand. Their mother is afraid of rocking the boat. Connor is afraid of being alone and of missing out on the full life he’d given up everything for. James is terrified of getting sick and not leaving meaningful art in the world. Becky is afraid she can’t save her friends. And when Michael does meet someone he could fall in love with, he’s afraid that Gabriel is keeping the sort of secrets that could prove fatal.

I knew I wanted New York City to be more than a setting, it needed to be a character in the book. I wanted the news of the day to drive the timeline. I wanted the music to mean to the characters what it meant to me at the time, a lifeline, a soundtrack to everything I was feeling. Each of these was a bite-sized piece of the elephant.

My next book, Prelude from Lost Souls, began when I heard about Lily Dale, New York, a town of Spiritualists and mediums, where everyone talks to the dead. I studied the town, spiritualism and ghosts. I reacquainted myself with my tarot cards and rune stones. And then I started to ask: What sort of people live in a town where everyone talks to the dead? What does that sort of life do to you? What if you could talk to any ghosts except the ones you really wanted to talk to? I was nibbling around the outside of the elephant.

Surely, I figured, some teens don’t want to live in my fictional town of St. Hilaire. And so, Dec Hampton, the only son of talented mediums who, after the death of his parents would rather do anything other than kowtow to the town leaders, came into being. And his friend, Russ Griffin whose mother, a medium in denial, abandoned him and his father when Russ decided to spend his life in St. Hilaire and has high aspirations to rise to the top of the town’s government. And Annie, a piano prodigy who wanders into town by coincidence, if there is such a thing, and can view the town as a sort of outsider. And Ian Mackenzie, a talented young medium, now ghost, who…well, you’d have to read the book to find out.

I realize Desmond Tutu probably had things other than writing on his mind when he talked about eating an elephant in bites. But in viewing large and often uncomfortable topics, I’ve found that seeking out the bite-sized piece that represents the heartfelt experience of an individual, can make a large meal, much more easily digestible.

About PRELUDE FOR LOST SOULS

For readers of Nova Ren Suma, Maggie Steifvater, and Maureen Johnson comes a spellbinding tale about choosing your own path, the families we create for ourselves, and facing the ghosts of your past.

In the town of St. Hilaire, most make their living by talking to the dead. In the summer, the town gates open to tourists seeking answers while all activity is controlled by The Guild, a sinister ruling body that sees everything.

Dec Hampton has lived there his entire life, but ever since his parents died, he’s been done with it. He knows he has to leave before anyone has a chance to stop him.

His best friend Russ won’t be surprised when Dec leaves—but he will be heartbroken. Russ is a good medium, maybe even a great one. He’s made sacrifices for his gift and will do whatever he can to gain entry to The Guild, even embracing dark forces and contacting the most elusive ghost in town.

But when the train of Annie Krylova, the piano prodigy whose music has been Dec’s main source of solace, breaks down outside of town, it sets off an unexpected chain of events. And in St. Hilaire, there are no such things as coincidences.

Meet the Author

Called the “queen of heartbreaking prose” by Paste Magazine, Helene Dunbar is the author of WE ARE LOST AND FOUND, which has been optioned for film by Nikolaj Coster-Waldau’s production company, Ill Kippers, and PRELUDE FOR LOST SOULS (Sourcebooks Fire, August a, 2020) as well as BOOMERANG, THESE GENTLE WOUNDS, and WHAT REMAINS. Over the years, she’s worked as a drama critic, journalist, and marketing manager, and has written on topics as diverse as traditional Irish music, court cases, and theater. She lives in Nashville with her husband and daughter.

Sourcebooks Fire Week: Some Advice for my Teen Self While Social Distancing by Alyssa Sheinmel

Today for Sourcebooks Fire week we are honored to have author Alyssa Sheinmel with us talking about her newest release, What Kind of Girl. She also discusses why sheltering in place is different than working from home and gives teens advice about social distancing. What Kind of Girl is an important book that addresses the topic of teen dating violence in meaningful and thoughtful ways.

I should be an expert on working from home—I’ve been doing it for years.  I have know plenty of writers who prefer to work at coffee shops and writing-rooms; or who write with friends, motivated by the sound of their colleagues’ fingers on the keyboard.  Not me—I get up each morning and sit at my desk in my apartment, happy to have my dog as my only co-worker.  Even when my writing group meets twice a month, we usually meet at my apartment. 

I was the same way as a teen.  While most of my friends and classmates preferred to work at the library, in our dorm’s common areas, or to get together for study groups at coffee shops—I always studied in my room, heading to the library only when absolutely necessary. 

As I write this, my family and I—along with most of the country, and much of the world—have been practicing social distancing for over a month.  Like so many Americans, I’ve been overwhelmed with gratitude that my loved ones and I are able to stay home, and I’m awed by the heroism of our health care workers and those that are working to keep our grocery stores and pharmacies stocked and their doors open.  I’m filled with worry for those who have lost their income due to this pandemic, and fear and grief for those who have fallen sick. 

So of course, working from home right now feels different.  Everything feels different.  There’s this feeling in the air like—you’re home every day, you should be writing, Shakespeare wrote King Lear in quarantine!—but my usual writing routines aren’t quite working.  Normally, I read for twenty minutes before I start writing for the day; now, I find myself checking the news instead.  Usually, when I sit down to write, I put my computer into airplane mode and (try to) leave my phone in the other room; now, I feel compelled to keep my phone close by, in case anyone calls or texts.  This is a small problem, I know, in light of all the troubles we’re facing right now.  But it feels strange—I feel strange—to have trouble concentrating on my work each day.

I can only imagine that studying from home as a teen would feel as different as everything else right now.  I’d be worrying about the world and missing my friends terribly.  I’d be missing school—like many of my characters, I was one of those kids who loved school, who worried endlessly about grades and college applications.  I know I’d be anxious to keep up with my schoolwork—and yet, I think I’d struggle to stay still long enough to finish my assignments.  Which would only make me more anxious.  And then I’d feel terrible for worrying about grades at a time like this.  And then I’d feel anxious all over again.

While I’ve been at home over the past few weeks, I’ve been on deadline—working on the final round of edits for my upcoming novel.  There are mornings when I wake up, thinking it will be impossible to concentrate that day.  But then, I sit in front of my computer.  I put my computer into airplane mode, just like I usually do.  I start with one sentence.  I feel myself getting distracted, stopping to check the news, wanting to clean my kitchen (again!), text my friends and family, or just be with my dog.  But then I read another sentence.  The distractions fade, just a bit.  One more sentence, then another.  I start to get sucked in, interested in my characters and their world, instead of thinking about my own, and I feel so grateful to have the job I do.

And I don’t know about you, but the same thing happens when I pick up a book to read.  A few weeks ago, I thought I’d at least make a dent in my TBR list this month, but these days, I’m reading more slowly than I ever have.  Every time I pick up my current read, I feel distracted, restless.  I put the book down and check my phone, turn on the news.  But then I read another sentence, another paragraph.  Sometimes I put the book down, but sometimes, I stay still and keep reading.  Writing and reading are always a way of taking a break—even if it’s just a short one—from the world around us, and I appreciate that magic now more than ever. 

So, if I could, I’d encourage my teen self to write a story—even a terrible story that ends up not making any sense at all, one that she’d be too embarrassed to share with her teachers—just to get sucked into another world for a little while.  I’d encourage her to pick up a book she’s read so many times she can practically recite it, and eat it up like comfort food.

None of us has ever lived through a time like this, so none of us actually knows how to do it.  Maybe someday, I won’t remember the plots to any books I read during this period, and maybe I’ll want to rewrite every word I wrote.  (Including this blog post!)  I’m so very thankful for reading and writing—but there are days when it’s hard to do either, and I’m trying to accept that.  I hope someone would tell my teen self that it’s okay if she’s having trouble finishing her homework, or writing a story, or reading a novel.  But I think she would keep trying, over and over again. 

After all, that’s what my grown-up self is doing.

About WHAT KIND OF GIRL

“Both timely and timeless, a powerful exploration of abuse in its many forms, as well as the strength it takes to rise up and speak your truth.”—AMBER SMITHNew York Times bestselling author of The Way I Used to Be

What kind of girl stays after her boyfriend hits her?

The girls at North Bay Academy are taking sides. It all started when Mike Parker’s girlfriend showed up with a bruise on her face. Or, more specifically, when she walked into the principal’s office and said Mike hit her. But her classmates have questions. Why did she go to the principal and not the police? Why did she stay so long if Mike was hurting her? Obviously, if it’s true, Mike should be expelled. But is it true?

Some girls want to rally for his expulsion—and some want to rally around Mike. The only thing that the entire student body can agree on? Someone is lying. And the truth has to come out.

From New York Times bestselling author Alyssa Sheinmel comes an unflinching and resonant tale that examines how society treats women and girls and inspires the power to claim your worth.

Praise for What Kind of Girl:
“A poignant, thought-provoking novel that will resonate deeply.”—Kirkus
“A rallying cry.”—Booklist
“I immediately saw myself in this book, which so thoroughly explains the thought process when coming to terms with victimhood and survivorship. I felt understood.”—Chessy Prout, author of I Have the Right To
“Important, raw, timely, and ultimately hopeful…demands readers discuss the trauma of teen dating violence and how girls are so often taught—even expected—to internalize their victimization.”—Shannon M. Parker, author of The Girl Who Fell and The Rattled Bones

Meet the Author

Alyssa Sheinmel is the New York Times bestselling author of several novels for young adults, including A Danger to Herself and Others and Faceless. She is the co-author of The Haunting of Sunshine Girl and its sequel, The Awakening of Sunshine Girl. Alyssa grew up in Northern California and New York, and currently lives and writes in New York City. Follow her on Instagram @alyssasheinmel and Twitter @AlyssaSheinmel or visit her online at www.alyssasheinmel.com.