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A Twitter Chat with Lisa Burstein, author of Pretty Amy and Dear Cassie

Last night several of us got together and had a Twitter chat with Lisa Burstein, author of Pretty Amy and Dear Cassie.  Below are some of the highlights.

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Book Review: Pretty Amy by Lisa Burstein

Tonight is our Dear Cassie Twitter chat with author Lisa Burstein.  Join us on Twitter at 9:00 PM
Eastern and be sure and add the hashtag #TLTCassie to join in and follow along.  Dear Cassie is a companion novel to Pretty Amy.  Today we are re-running our review of Pretty Amy in preparation for tonight’s chat.  Tomorrow I will be reviewing Dear Cassie and doing a Tweet roundup of our discussion.
Amy and her two best friends sit wearing their prom dresses in a jail cell.  They’ve been stood up, kicked out, and now captured (for drug use, possession and intent to sell).  Their prom is definitely a night to remember, but for all the wrong reasons.

The next few weeks bring new forms of torture for Amy as she is forced to seek legal help, see a counselor, get a job, volunteer and more all in an attempt to keep Amy out of jail.  Jail, she is assured, is not the place she wants to be.  Angry, naive and petulant, Amy is finding it hard to participate in operation reform Amy – all she wants to do is kiss Aaron and hang out with Cassie and Lila, now forbidden.  Slowly Amy learns that the people in her life she looked up to the most were probably not looking out for her best interests, and that the very people she shunned may actually love her.  Sometimes the people we choose are our worst enemies and the people we left behind are still waiting there for us at the end of our journey.

Pretty Amy is anything but.  Amy can be really hard to like as she wallows in self-pity, makes bad decisions, and fumes below the surface at her parents for not talking to her without realizing that she is guilty of doing the same.  And yet, there are so many teens that are just like Amy.    Teens will love Amy because many of them are Amy.  As a reader you cringe because you can tell that these two friends that Amy is trying to find meaning in her life from – well, they certainly don’t feel that same.  She is the insecure third wheel who sits by and watches life happen without being an active participant, until she finally decides that maybe she should do something about it all.  Amy has frank and meaningful inner dialogue, with some well written phrases, that express her slow growing realization that she has lost herself.  Burstein writes the kind of self-revelations that teens write down in their journals and make art from (wait, that’s not just me, is it?)

Pretty Amy isn’t all angst; Burstein injects enough warmth and humor to keep the reader invested. Many of the adults in Amy’s life, including a hippie shrink and a gaseous attorney, are fun to visit.  Amy herself has a sarcastic wit.  And one of my favorite parts of this novel involves how the book gets its name.  The only one who really knows Amy is her bird, A J, who she has taught to say many things, including “pretty Amy.”  This bird has brilliant comic timing and can be counted on to interject some humor at just the right moments.

Pretty Amy is a biting, edgy contemporary novel that tells it like it is.  It is definitely for mature readers, remember this whole journey begins with a baggie of pot.  Like Deanna in Sara Zarr’s fabulous Story of a Girl, Amy slowly claws her way out of a suffocating life to take that big gulp of air that comes when we realize that we are often our own worst enemy and decide to do something about it.  Amy may hit rock bottom, but there is a cast of adult characters trying to help her find her way back up.  4 out of 5 stars.  Burstein captures the teenage voice and tells Amy’s story with a raw, aching honesty.

Cover Reveal: Dear Cassie by Lisa Burstein

Earlier this year, I wrote a lot about a girl named Amy.  Amy was, of course, the main character in Pretty Amy, the debut ya novel by Lisa Burstein.  I really liked Pretty Amy and its message, and it became a rallying point for me regarding the notion of censorship.  I have talked with Lisa some back and forth regarding my thoughts and together, we became warriors not only for Amy, but for the fundamental idea behind libraries: the right to read (it’s important!).  Lisa Burstein has a new book coming soon, Dear Cassie, and it is my honor to introduce Cassie’s story to you (we met Cassie in Pretty Amy).  So, make the drum roll sound in your head . . .
What if the last place you should fall in love is the first place that you do?

 You’d think getting sent to Turning Pines Wilderness Camp for a month-long rehabilitation “retreat” and being forced to re-live it in this journal would be the worst thing that’s ever happened to me.
You’d be wrong.
There’s the reason I was sent to Turning Pines in the first place: I got arrested. On prom night. With my two best friends, who I haven’t talked to since and probably never will again. And then there’s the real reason I was sent here. The thing I can’t talk about with the guy I can’t even think about.
What if the moment you’ve closed yourself off is the moment you start to break open?
But there’s this guy here. Ben. And the more I swear he won’t—he can’t—the deeper under my skin he’s getting. After the thing that happened, I promised I’d never fall for another boy’s lies.
And yet I can’t help but wonder…what if?

DEAR CASSIE excerpt:
We kept walking on the lake trail, the bullfrogs croaking. There was also a humming in my ears from the nicotine.
It could only be from the nicotine. It had nothing to do with being outside, at night, alone with Ben. It had nothing to do with Ben coming to the cabin and taking me instead of Nez and it definitely had nothing to do with the stars above us shining like they were the sky’s tiara.
I stopped on the trail and looked up, taking them in, when all of a sudden bright colored lights exploded in the sky—fireworks, one after another, on top of each other, huge kaleidoscopes of light, like sparkling rainbow spiders.
“How did you know?” I asked, my voice going softer, like if I talked too loudly they would stop. It was so beautiful, after weeks of so much ugly.
Ben turned to look at me, the colored lights in the sky turning his skin pink, blue, green. “I’m magic.” He shrugged.
I geared up to tell him to fuck off, because that was some corny-ass shit, but then I realized that he really kind of was. In that moment he was able to actually make me forget being me.
“I would try to kiss you,” he said, “but I’m afraid you’d kick me in the balls.”
“I probably would.” I laughed, the sky filling with noisy color like paint launching from a giant popcorn popper. “But like I said, it wouldn’t be about you.”
“I guess I’ll have to figure out how to make it about me,” he said, taking off his boots and socks and standing. “Come on.”
“There is no way I am getting near that water again,” I said.
“I’ll make sure nothing happens to you,” he said, holding his hand out to help me up.
I looked at his palm, open, waiting, just wanting to hold mine. For once, I didn’t think about anything except that there was a cute, sweet, smart-ass boy standing in front of me with his hand out.
I pulled off my boots and socks and took it.
We stood at the lake shore, our hands still clasped, the water licking our feet, fireworks decorating the sky.
I turned to him. He was looking up, his mouth open in wonder like he was trying to swallow the moment.
It was definitely one worth keeping.
DEAR CASSIE pre-buy links:
Additional links to Lisa’s pages:

Lisa Burstein is a tea seller by day and a writer by night. She received her MFA in Fiction from the Inland Northwest Center for Writers at Eastern Washington University. She lives in Portland, OR, with her very patient husband, a neurotic dog and two cats. Dear Cassie is her second novel.

All About Pretty Amy:
Pretty Amy Book Review
What if Amy wasn’t Pretty; a tale of censorship
Amy speaks; Pretty Amy’s censorship uncensored
Let’s talk access! Any why libraries are radically unsafe places, and that’s a good thing

Amy speaks: Pretty Amy’s censorship uncensored (a guest post by Lisa Burstein)

Once upon a time I read and reviewed a book called Pretty Amy.  I liked it and made it the TLT Rec of the Week.  I thought, you know, this really speaks to the heart of what teenage girls feel.  I also thought, I wish I had known to get a bird and teach it to say Pretty Karen.  Alas, I was not that smart of a teenager.  So I’m following Lisa Burstein on Twitter and she Tweets that a magazine decided not to review her book because of drug use.  There is some drug use in Pretty Amy, that part is true.  And I sputter here, because the fact that drug use is all they got of this book astounds me.  Also, you should know, some teens do drugs.  So I started writing this rant in my head and, as often is this case when this happens, I finally had to sit down and just post it because it wouldn’t leave me alone.  Then, someone challenged my rant, which prompted another rant about how really and truly, libraries are unsafe places and that is a good thing.  I already knew we were going to be doing a lot week of Banned Books Week posts so I said: Lisa, Lisa, Lisa, won’t you please type a post for my blog for me so I have less work to do?  I mean, I said: can you please share with us your experience of what it was like to experience a form of censorship.  Yes, THAT’s what I said.  And she said yes, and even better, she let AMY TELL US what it’s like to be censored.  As Libba Bray says, “teens, our audience, keep us honest.  Because they can smell bullshit a mile away, and they will call you on it.” (from an interview on The Oeditrix)

This story starts when a national teen magazine (the kind in grocery stores) that was supposed to write a review for my debut novel PRETTY AMY decided after reading three chapters to pass on their review because “the book contained drug use and they didn’t want to promote it to their readers.”


An official who examines material about to be released, such as books, movies, news, and art, and suppresses any parts considered…
Examine (a book, movie, etc.) officially and suppress unacceptable parts of it.
censorship (from Google.com)

I was shocked; “drug use” encompasses about two pages of the book. It does not glorify it, or promote it. PRETTY AMY is not about drug use, it is about a confused teenage girl who struggles to find herself after a prom night arrest. Attempts to fit in and be loved for who she really was, while navigating parents, friends, boys and the law.

Books are banned in all kinds of ways. Sometimes it is a school denying a book to their students. Sometimes it is a library refusing to shelve it. Sometimes it is a media outlet refusing to review a book because of content.

The latter is what happened to my book.

It’s one thing for me to tell the story; it’s another for the girl who fights to find her voice for the whole 304 pages of PRETTY AMY to tell it. Here exclusively for Teen Librarian Toolbox are Amy’s feelings on being censored.

After I got arrested all people (adults) kept telling me was to talk about my feelings and tell the truth. Not like I ever wanted to–especially when pushed, but now I am being punished for telling the truth. For my voice being too truthful.

Now, other girls like me are being punished because they won’t get to read the truth. At least not in that prissy magazine. Lisa Burstein might have written the book, but I’m as real a character as you’ve ever seen. As I say in the book, “I am one of the legions of middle-class white girls who search malls for jeans that make them look thinner, who search drugstores for makeup to wear as a second skin, who are as sexy and exotic as blueberry muffins.”

Guess what? Girls like us sometimes try drugs. We sometimes see nothing good in our lives so we cling to our friends and do whatever they do. We fall as low as we can fall and it takes falling that low to come out victorious on the other side.

Girls like me exist. Not publishing a review isn’t going to change that. If anything it makes girls like me feel even more misunderstood.

Lisa Burstein was a girl like me in high school. She used drugs, she smoked, and she had psychological issues. She had no one who understood her. She felt alone. What if she would have come upon a review of PRETTY AMY back then in a magazine? Been able to read about the book and see that there was something out there that might help her understand the way she was feeling when her parents and therapists and psychotropic drugs were not. Might her life have been different? Might it have been better?

Would she possibly have avoided the four-years of hell that were high school for her?

I believe there is a chance.

When you censor what is real, you take away that chance. You take away the ability for readers to have an opinion, a voice. You control what they see. Even at seventeen I know that’s bullshit.

This magazine can say whatever it wants about what it thinks its readers can handle, but that doesn’t change what teenagers are “handling” every day. Drugs, worse than the pot I smoked. Boys, going after more than most girls know how to give. Identity and how it feels like it changes daily, but never into what you want it to be. And of course the doom that falls over you late at night when you are alone in your room and you wonder if life will ever get better.

By controlling what girls like me see you are not changing any of this. And, being a girl like me, I know change is the only the thing that can help.

To help get my book and other banned books into the hands of teens and well everyone, I am running a contest for $175 worth of book buying gift cards and Manuscript Critiques for participating in donation drive for High School and public libraries.

Participate in the Pretty Amy Banned Books Week Donation Drive

Add PRETTY AMY on Goodreads

BUY Barnes and Noble

BUY Amazon

What if Amy wasn’t Pretty: a tale of censorship

As a reader, I know that story has the power to change lives.  From the moment I read It by Stephen King in the 6th grade, I knew that I wanted to be THAT type of friend.  When I read To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee I knew I wanted to be THAT type of a person.  You can, in fact, read about a couple of my life changing experiences as a reader here and here.

As a librarian, as someone who cares about teens, who cares about the future of the world, I count on the fact that story has the power to change lives.  I put books in the hands of teens every day and hope that they will have their Pandemonium or Ask the Passengers moment.

As a girl, I understand that story has the power to help us understand who we are, how we think, and how we can be so much more than the world sometimes seems destined to let us be.  I imagine that is also the case for boys, but have less personal insight into it.  But that is why there is such tremendous value in authors like Judy Blume and Sarah Dessen and Sara Zarr and yes, in the book Pretty Amy by Lisa Burstein.

You see for me, the heart of Pretty Amy is the story that most girls have within them: we are struggling to be at peace in our own skin, we are struggling to find a group of people that we can be It level friends with.  We want to find a way to hold our head up high and feel pretty – not on the outside pretty, but inside valuable to the world no matter what pretty.  And this is the heart that beats in the core of Pretty Amy.

However, before Amy can get to the climb towards self acceptance, she must – like so many of us must – realizes that she needs to take that journey of self discovery.  In Pretty Amy, that moment comes when she is arrested on prom night for drug possession (marijuana) and intent to sell.  Yesterday, author Lisa Burstein tweeted that a magazine had decided not to publish a review of her book Pretty Amy because it had teens using drugs in it.

Let’s take a side step for a moment, shall we?  You may have heard that there is a mega hot selling book out right now called 50 Shades of Grey.  I have not read this book, but it is my understanding that many people consider it to be a model of unhealthy relationships.  There are articles about this book on every major news outlet and you can see commercials for it on TV.  You can not escape the phenom that is 50 Shades.  So, while we are busy being told time and time again that these types of relationships – and trust me, 50 Shades is not the only example out there, I have even discussed before my concerns about the way unhealthy relationships are portrayed in teen fiction and, in this case, adult fiction (trust me, teens are reading it too) – are okay, we are going to sweep Pretty Amy under the rug because a teen does drugs.  Please note: drug use is in no way glorified or condoned in this book, in fact, it is the impetus for Amy’s journey to a healthy sense of self which means she must move away from these activities.  What’s the take away teen readers get here? Reading about unhealthy romantic relationships good and titillating, reading about non glorified drug use is bad.  Let’s unpack that a little further shall we: it is your role to subjugate yourself in unhealthy ways to a man to find fulfillment as a woman, but we can’t let you read about a teenage girl smoking pot, being punished for it and finding ACTUAL healthy self-fulfillment.

So while Bella must surrender her soul and become a member of the immortal undead to find her true love and we accept that, we can’t let teens grapple with a very real life scenario and come to a sense of understanding that some of the choices that we make are unhealthy and unwise but we can fix them.  They don’t have to define us as we can move forward and make different choices.  Please note Bella can never make a different choice – she has surrendered her soul – but Amy most definitely can.

That is part of the value of realistic fiction.  It allows us as readers to step into someone else’s shoes, to live another person’s life, and learn from it.  We may learn compassion for others.  We may learn to make different choices.  We may learn to act, think or feel differently – but we learn.  The question we must ask ourselves is this: how do we want our teens to learn?  Do we want them to learn in the safety of their rooms in the pages of a book?  Or do we want to shelter them to such an extreme that they don’t understand the dangers of the world they live in and are forced to learn in very real ways?  I personally vote safety of a book, but that’s just crazy talk.

I have known teens and have watched them disintegrate before my eyes because they have fallen into the rabbit hole of drugs.  It is such a horrible sight to witness, drugs are a powerful force.  Abuse, drugs, crime – literature, the power of story, can help teen readers figure out how to live in the world without making very painful and sometimes irreversible mistakes.  If we want our teens to be critical thinkers who can make good decisions for self and future, then we must be willing to let them enter into the pages of a book and examine the story critically.

Amy becomes pretty, pretty on the inside pretty, because she learns to love herself.  Her story can teach teen girls everywhere to do the same.  I wish that we would understand that our teens are on those crucial steps toward adulthood and we need to allow them to make safe steps on that journey by allowing them the opportunity to think and feel and interact with the real world.  And let’s not forget, some of our teens are already living those lives that we are trying to protect other teens from, we devalue them and their story when we censor their truth.  Just because you want to pretend something isn’t there doesn’t really make it go away.  I think the question we have to ask ourselves is how to we learn about the lives of our teens, give them voice, and have meaningful conversations with teens and each other about the lives of teens.  And the answer is found in the pages of books like Pretty Amy.

Read my previous thoughts on censorship:
A Banned Books Week Primer
Banned Books Week: Teen fiction is . . .

Here is my review of Pretty Amy by Lisa Burstein
And read more about the power of YA literature by clicking on the Why YA? link

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