Teen Librarian Toolbox
Inside Teen Librarian Toolbox

Writing From Feeling, a guest post by Bill Harley

In the end, a good story is not about words. While writing is a craft with many parts, being a talented crafter of sentences, paragraphs and plot isn’t enough. In the end, we use the words to communicate experience, and human experience is centered in feeling.

I try to write from feeling. I’ve come to believe if I get the feeling right—what the characters are experiencing and feeling themselves—I’ll make a connection with the reader. Writing teachers will often talking about using all the senses, but for me, the most important sense is what it feels like inside.  My middle grade Charlie Bumpers series is told through the eyes of a well-adjusted fourth grade boy in a functional family. For all his failings, Charlie is very sensitive to the world around him and what other people are feeling. While he’s not very attentive to many details, his heart is true, and it’s his heart that guides the story. Whether it’s being disappointed in the part he gets in the class play, or experiencing loss after loss on his soccer team, the thing that drives the story is what things feel like to him. “What is Charlie feeling?” was a question I continually asked myself, and I wrote from there. And as I wrote, I often had those same feelings myself.

How do you measure success when you write from this perspective?  For me, it came in the form of a nine-year old boy who came up to me holding one of the Charlie Bumpers books. “I like your book,” he said. “It’s funny.” I nodded. And then, more tellingly, more importantly, he said, “I know how Charlie feels.”

Like we say around our house, “There’s one in a row.”

My new book, Now You Say Yes, presented a deeper challenge. This book tells the story of two kids who suddenly lose their single parent and are faced with the prospect of being separated and sent into foster care.  The older one, Mari, decides they should drive across the country, from Los Angeles to Lynn, Massachusetts, hoping to be taken in by their estranged grandmother. This is a pretty desperate move.  While I was, like Charlie, once a nine-year old boy in a typical elementary school, in Now You Say Yes, Mari, the main character, is a fifteen-year-old girl—something I never was and never will be. She’s adopted out of the foster care system, and there’s a whole lot of baggage that comes from that—baggage I don’t have. The other main character, her adoptive brother Conor, is on the autism spectrum. I have never been diagnosed as such, although after a lot of work on the book, I’m beginning to think the autism spectrum is very wide and includes many more of us than I had ever imagined.

How do I tell the story through their eyes, show who they are through their behavior? First, I did research – I talked to a lot of people, read a lot of books, and paid attention to people who were similar to these two kids. I began to see how they might see the world.

I had several break throughs in grasping their frustrations and challenges. In thinking about Mari, who harbors a deep hurt and anger over her early life, I was suddenly brought back to my own experiences as a kid. It’s only later in life I’ve realized my family watched me regularly boil over. So much energy, then frustration, then anger would sweep over me until sometimes I literally couldn’t see. My parents didn’t know what to do with me. I drew on that feeling when I wrote about Mari.

In trying to see things from Conor’s point of view, I was taught by an experience with a young man on the spectrum, a friend of our family. Driving him to his mom’s workplace, he told me which way to go, but I told him I knew a better way.  At that, he fell silent and stared out the window. Half-way to the destination, I realized he was right, and I was wrong, and then I saw how his brilliance was so often overlooked and ignored. I had done it, too. His spatial knowledge and mapping are extraordinary.  I apologized and now, when he offers advice, I always listen. Being ignored and taken for granted is a very common experience for people on the spectrum. But I know what that feels like, too, and I could use that.

And so, after listening and reading, and thinking, I wrote from feeling. Of course, none of us can know exactly what others are thinking and experiencing, and while I can’t get completely in the head of a foster care kid, or someone who is diagnosed to be on the autism spectrum, I do have access to what their feelings might be. And those feelings are the guide for what I write.

It’s an act of faith, isn’t it? – trusting that our emotions are similar to other people’s regardless of their background, experiences, and mental make-up. But this faith, this ability to imagine, is at the heart of writing. E.L. Doctorow wrote, “A novelist is a person who lives in other people’s skins.”

In the emotional turning point of Now You Say Yes, Mari finds herself surrounded by hundreds of people she doesn’t know, watching a solar eclipse. While everyone else stares at the sky, she instead looks at the people and sees all their brokenness and realizes it’s that brokenness that binds them together—we’re all broken. There, for a moment, Mari feels what everyone feels, and realizes she’s not alone.

At the center of Now You Say Yes are feelings. The feeling of being ignored and overlooked. The feeling of being powerless. The feeling of wanting to belong and wanting to be valued. The feeling of caring for someone so deeply you will do things you’d never thought you’d do. These feelings are universal, and it’s where my best writing comes from.

Meet the author

Bill Harley is well-traveled, well-read, well-educated, well-spoken and well-loved. Accompanied by his guitar, his narrative songs and stories, both original and traditional, are a celebration of our common humanity. Best known for his work with children and families, his ability to navigate through a confusing world with humor and wisdom is evident in his masterful storytelling as well as his numerous award-winning recordings and books. A two-time Grammy winner, he is vibrant, outrageous, unpredictable and genuine with songs and stories about growing up, schooling and what it is to be human—our connections with one another and with the planet we share. Recognized by audiences and peers as one of the finest performing storytellers in the country, his work has influenced a generation of children, parents, performing artists and educators. Bill tours internationally as a performing artist, author and keynote speaker from his home in Seekonk, Massachusetts.

About Now You Say Yes

Award-winning author and storyteller Bill Harley returns with an unforgettable middle grade novel about two orphaned siblings on a cross-country journey in search of their place in the world.

“I rooted for outcast-misfit protagonists Mari and Conor every mile and (every single page!) of their intimate and epic, grief-fueled road trip. Bill Harley’s Now You Say Yes reminds us that acts of kindness—big and small—make all the difference.” —Patrick Flores-Scott, award-winning author of Jumped In and American Road Trip

When her mother dies, fifteen-year-old Mari and is desperate to avoid being caught up in the foster system. Again. And to complicate matters, she is now the only one who can take care of her super-smart and on-the-spectrum nine-year-old stepbrother, Conor.

Is there anyone Mari can trust to help them? Certainly not her mother’s current boyfriend, Dennis. Not the doctors or her teachers, who would be obliged to call in social services. So in a desperate move, Mari takes Conor and sets out to find their estranged grandmother, hoping to throw themselves at the mercy of the only person who might take them in.

On their way to New England, the duo experiences the snarls of LA traffic, the backroads of the Midwest, and a monumental stop in Missouri where they witness the solar eclipse, an event with which Conor is obsessed. Mari also learns about the inner workings of her stepbrother’s mind and about her connections to him and to the world…and maybe even a little about her own place in it.

A beautiful exploration of identity and family, this heartwarming and engaging middle grade novel comes from renowned storyteller and two-time Grammy Award winner Bill Harley.

ISBN-13: 9781682632475
Publisher: Peachtree Publishing Company
Publication date: 08/01/2021
Age Range: 10 – 14 Years

YA A to Z: Adoption Books – Being Discussed, Being Seen, a guest post by Eric Smith

It’s the second week of January, which means we’re discussing the Letter A in YA A to Z. Today we are talking about adoption with the amazing literary agent and writer Eric Smith.

You can find out more about YA A to Z here.

yaatoz

There’s this look.

It’s hard to explain. I’ve never seen myself do it. Sometimes I feel it though. The way my brow furrows, my mouth tightens. I imagine my lips look like they are forming a straight line, like an emoji. It’ll happen, and my wife or my friends who are nearby will sharing a knowing smile.

Someone got adoption wrong again, and everyone is looking at me to see how I’ll react.

I see it all the time. Sometimes its in a book, or something on television, or in one of the many, many Lifetime movies I watch with my wife. You can tell, in that moment, when the writers have no idea what it feels like. What the real questions are. What the real struggle is.

welcome home

But there’s this other look. It’s an expression I keep inside. One that hits me and leaves me quiet and awestruck. My heart swells and I feel that warmth in my chest, as my eyes tear up.

When someone gets it so right.

When they see me.

Six Common Issues Faced by Adopted Adolescents – Adoptive Families

There’s a difference, you know. Between being used as a plot device, and having someone understand your story. Between being discussed and being seen.

Last year, for me, was a year of feeling seen.

Adoption – KidsHealth

I was lucky enough to publish Welcome Home, a Young Adult anthology full of adoption-themed stories from a wide array of contributors, with Flux. When my amazing agent was pitching the project around, a lot of the feedback we got from editors was along the lines of it being “too niche” or “a narrow hook.”

When over a hundred thousand kids are adopted each year in the United States alone, and four times that in the foster care system… that’s a pretty devastating piece of feedback to hear. Because the feedback suddenly isn’t about the book anymore. It’s about you.

You’re being discussed. You’re not being seen.

Adoption in YA Lit – The Hub – American Library Association

Every agent and editor and person in the publishing world will tell you not to take things personally like that, as a writer. It’s all subjective. This didn’t feel that way.

But, the book was picked up. And my goodness, am I endlessly thankful. Last year brought with it many of those quiet moments of awe. Of being seen. Not just because of my little book, but because of what I kept seeing in the world of books and art.

3 On A YA Theme: Adoption – Book Riot

My wife and I started watching This Is Us, a television series that prominently features a trans-racial adoptee who wrestles with his identity and his past. Someone like me. Novels like You Don’t Know Me But I Know You by Rebecca Barrow and The Leavers by Lisa Ko were published, stunning stories of adoption in the world of YA and adult literary fiction. I re-read Autofocus by Lauren Gibaldi and the powerful See No Color by Shannon Gibney.

farfromthetree

And my goodness, Far from the Tree by Robin Benway won the National Book Award. A YA novel about adoption won the National Book Award. I felt my heart wrench in my chest when I saw the celebrations on social media for that beautiful book. A novel that made me feel seen.

A book I wish I had as a teenager growing up.

All this art, all these words and images and stories… they all came at a time when my wife and I were getting ready, as best we could, for the birth of our first child. It’s an odd thing, promoting your book about adoption, with a number of people touched by adoption, right after your first blood relative in welcomed into the world.

10 Things Adoptees Want You to Know | HuffPost

This summer, my first in-print YA novel will be out in the world. The Girl and the Grove. It’s the story of an adopted teenager who finds her biological mother in a hidden patch of woods in Philadelphia’s largest city park… only to discover she might be a magical creature of myth. It’s a story about those “what ifs” that adopted kids think about it, and hold secret in their hearts. It took years to write.

I hope it can live up to some of the great adoption stories that have been coming out, and the ones we’re going to see this year. Like Nicole Chung’s All You Can Ever Know, a memoir I am thirsting for, by one of my favorite essayists writing today.

I hope the story resonates with you, the way the short stories in Welcome Home hit me. How last year’s stories by Rebecca Darrow and Robin Benway broke my heart and gave me hope. I want those novels that came out last year, those books that won awards, to leave you feeling like a main character in your life story, and not just a device. Not a human MacGuffin meant to drive a plot.

Because you’re more than what bad stories have told you. You’re what the good stories have shown you.

That you deserve to be seen.

And I see you.

Meet Eric Smith

ericsmith

Bio: Eric Smith is a literary agent and Young Adult author from New Jersey. His books include the Inked series (Bloomsbury) and the forthcoming novel The Girl & The Grove (Flux). He edited the adoption-themed YA anthology Welcome Home (Flux), and can be found talking about YA on Book Riot’s HEY YA podcast with Kelly Jensen. He lives in Ann Arbor with his wife, son, and corgi.

About Welcome Home

Welcome Home collects a number of adoption-themed fictional short stories, and brings them together in one anthology from a diverse range of celebrated Young Adult authors. The all-star roster includes Edgar-award winner Mindy McGinnis, New York Times bestselling authors C.J. Redwine (The Shadow Queen) and William Ritter (Jackaby), and acclaimed YA authors across all genres, like Adi Alsaid, Lauren Gibaldi, Sangu Mandanna, Karen Akins, and many more. (Flux, 2017)

Book Review: Welcome Home edited by Eric Smith

Publisher’s description

Welcome Home collects a number of adoption-themed fictional short stories, and brings them together in one anthology from a diverse range of celebrated Young Adult authors. The all-star roster includes Edgar-award winner Mindy McGinnis, New York Times best-selling authors C.J. Redwine (The Shadow Queen) and William Ritter (Jackaby), and acclaimed YA authors across all genres. The full list of contributors includes: Adi Alsaid, Karen Akins, Erica M. Chapman, Caela Carter, Libby Cudmore, Dave Connis, Julie Eshbaugh, Helene Dunbar, Lauren Gibaldi, Shannon Gibney, Jenny Kaczorowski, Julie Leung, Sangu Mandanna, Matthew Quinn Martin, Mindy McGinnis, Lauren Morrill, Tameka Mullins, Sammy Nickalls, Shannon Parker, C.J. Redwine, Randy Ribay, William Ritter, Stephanie Scott, Natasha Sinel, Eric Smith, Courtney C. Stevens, Nic Stone, Kate Watson, and Tristina Wright.

 

Amanda’s thoughts

welcome homeI generally read and review books in order of publication date and rarely go back to fit in anything I had missed previously. I just get too many books to consider to not just keep plowing forward. Unless someone finally figures out how to have reading all night make me feel as rested as actually sleeping does, that’s just the way it will stay—I try to read as much as humanly possible, but miss an awful lot. That said, I wanted to sneak in WELCOME HOME before the year ends because it’s such a unique and important collection.

As with any anthology, the stories are somewhat uneven, with many stories standing out better than others. Also, stories of just a handful of pages are not always really given enough time to actually develop in a satisfying way. BUT, I happen to love a good anthology. You can pick and choose, go back later, skim things, discover new writers (to me, that’s always the most exciting part of an anthology), and get what feel like extra bonus stories you wouldn’t otherwise get from old favorites. I’m glad to see anthologies making a comeback these days. They really appeal to a certain kind of reader, so I hope this book, and others like it, land in all libraries and get talked up and promoted.

There’s a lot to like about this book. Multiple genres are featured and though all of the pieces revolve around adoption, foster care, family, and love, there is a lot of variety in tone and content, which keeps the collection from feeling repetitive. Plots include an adopted superhero, a nearly too late reunion, a mother in prison, the death of an adoptive parent, a mute child in an orphanage, transracial adoption, a child taken back by a birth parent, a pregnant teen trying to decide what choice to make, a genealogy assignment, and more. Themes of love, support, friendship, family, and belonging permeate all of the stories. This diverse collection of short pieces is a welcome addition to YA, where we don’t necessarily see a lot about adoption. Get this on display in your libraries to help it get into the hands of kids who will recognize their own stories in this collection. A great look at the many ways families are made up and come together. 

 

Review copy courtesy of the publisher

ISBN-13: 9781635830040
Publisher: North Star Editions
Publication date: 09/05/2017

Book Review: You Don’t Know Me but I Know You by Rebecca Barrow

Publisher’s description

ra6Rebecca Barrow’s bright, honest debut novel about chance, choice, and unconditional love is a heartfelt testament to creating the future you truly want, one puzzle piece at a time.

There’s a box in the back of Audrey’s closet that she rarely thinks about.

Inside is a letter, seventeen years old, from a mother she’s never met, handed to her by the woman she’s called Mom her whole life. Being adopted, though, is just one piece in the puzzle of Audrey’s life—the picture painstakingly put together by Audrey herself, full of all the people and pursuits that make her who she is.

But when Audrey realizes that she’s pregnant, she feels something—a tightly sealed box in the closet corners of her heart—crack open, spilling her dormant fears and unanswered questions all over the life she loves.

Almost two decades ago, a girl in Audrey’s situation made a choice, one that started Audrey’s entire story. Now Audrey is paralyzed by her own what-ifs and terrified by the distance she feels growing between her and her best friend Rose. Down every possible path is a different unfamiliar version of her life, and as she weighs the options in her mind, she starts to wonder—what does it even mean to be Audrey Spencer?

 

Amanda’s thoughts

you don't knowThis was GOOD. Like, “life is messy and complex and decisions are not easy things” good. One would hope that a story that is about a pregnant young woman would have depth and would show the inner workings of her making whatever choice she makes—and wow, does this book have depth.

Despite using birth control, Audrey winds up pregnant. While she definitely isn’t in denial, a little tiny part of her hopes that maybe she can just pretend that everything is okay and that it just will be. Her boyfriend, Julian, is extremely supportive and loving, but Audrey can’t believe they have to tell their parents this happened. And how does she tell her friends? She and Rose, her best friend, have been drifting apart and just doesn’t think she can tell her about the pregnancy. Audrey is adopted; her mother (who is white) was single when she adopted Audrey (whose birth mother was white and birth father was black) as a baby. Audrey’s complicated thoughts on family, babies, and adoption factor into her struggle to make the choice that is right for her. Throughout it all, her mother and Adam, her mom’s boyfriend, are so supportive and loving. Julian’s parents are, too, with both his mother and Audrey’s going with them to a doctor’s appointment. Audrey is worried that she has disappointed people in her life because this happened, but no one ever makes her feel that way, not even for a second. Audrey grapples with what to do (with no one in her life pressuring her in any way to make any one choice) while thinking about the futures she and Julian had hoped for (his band, art school, music school, etc). There is no clear path forward for her. More than anything, Audrey just worries that someone may stop loving her based on what decision she may make.

 

While Audrey’s pregnancy and choice of what to do are at the heart of the story, this is also about families, more generally, and friendship, especially the ways little rifts can sneak in and suddenly turn into far larger distances than you thought you’d ever have with a friend. Rose, who is bisexual, has recently started dating Olivia, the new girl at school, but Audrey really knows nothing about what’s going on with them, thanks to the fact that she and Rose are barely speaking. Audrey ultimately makes the choice that feels right to her (in a situation where no choice feels “right”) surrounded by love, support, and options. A well-written, necessary, and honest, heartfelt look at making what feels like an impossible choice. 

 

Review copy courtesy of the publisher and Edelweiss

ISBN-13: 9780062494191

Publisher: HarperCollins Publishers

Publication date: 08/29/2017

Book Review: See No Color by Shannon Gibney

see no colorPublisher’s description:

Despite some teasing, being a biracial girl adopted by a white family didn’t used to bother Alex much. She was a stellar baseball player, just like her father—her baseball coach and a former pro athlete. All Alex wanted was to play ball forever. But after she meets Reggie, the first black guy who’s wanted to get to know her, and discovers some hidden letters from her biological father, Alex starts questioning who she really is. Does she truly fit in with her white family? What does it mean to be black? To find the answers, Alex needs to come to terms with her adoption, her race, and the dreams she thought would always guide her.

 

 

Amanda’s thoughts:

16-year-old Alex and her 15-year-old brother Jason spend most of their time training for baseball, usually practicing three or four hours a day. They lift weights, run, watch videos of games, get lectured by their coach father, and play the game. Baseball, it seems, is what holds their family together. Without it, they don’t seem to have a whole lot to talk about. Alex’s 11-year-old sister Kit doesn’t play and we don’t even know she exists until we meet her working on an art project one day.

 

While this family is good at baseball, what it really excels at is ignoring the realities and complexities of both race and adoption—specifically of transracial adoption. 

 

At a baseball game, Alex’s dad is talking to the other team’s coach, who mentions he heard the team has a great a center fielder. “A girl, I hear—a black girl,” he says. Alex’s dad corrects him: “She’s mixed, not black. She’s half white.” He’s always quick to point this out. Alex has heard this her whole life—the qualification that she’s mixed, the repeated seemingly-positive phrase that her family “doesn’t see color.” When she meets Reggie, a player from a rival team, she is surprised that a black guy wants to talk to her. Usually the black kids at her school make fun of her. In her head, as Reggie’s talking to her, she thinks, “But I’m not really black.” Seconds later, when Reggie comments on the similar features he can see between her and her (adoptive) dad, she lies and says her mom is black, letting him believe both that lie and the lie that they are her biological parents.

 

Soon after this, Alex’s sister Kit finds an old letter from Alex’s birth father, leading Alex to a folder of many letters written over three years. Suddenly, all of the things she didn’t even necessarily know she wanted answers about bubble to the surface. Her family may have made it this far without ever really talking about race or transracial adoption, but Alex (with the help of Kit) begins to push them to.

 

Mixed into the narrative are incidents from Alex’s past, such as being a small child at the beach and a rude woman telling her she’s floated too far from her “host family.” The woman goes on to ask if she speaks English and asks where she’s from. When Alex’s white mother appears, the woman’s tiny brain explodes. She sputters over how it could be possible that this girl belongs to this woman. When Alex’s mom tries to make her feel better about what happened, she says, “We are all one in this family, okay? We don’t even see color.” As readers, we understand that Alex’s family believes this to be true and to be a good thing. But of course, their constant correction that she’s mixed proves otherwise, and claiming to be colorblind isn’t really helping anything, as it ignores and invalidates identities and experiences.

 

Kit is the one who really pushes this conversation, asking her family what they actually think about Alex being the only black person in an otherwise white family. She says she sees how people stare at their family. “But it’s like this secret, you know? Like no one is supposed to actually admit that she’s black, or maybe more that she’s not white.” Of course, we all know what her father does, right? “Alex is only half black,” he says. Just in case anyone forgot. But this family doesn’t see color. Later, Alex exasperatedly says to Kit that she doesn’t even know what “mixed,” her dad’s favorite word, is supposed to mean. “Mixed. As far as I can tell, it means closer to white for Mom and Dad, and the lightest shade of black for everyone else.” Later, her father, apparently trying to be loving and reassuring, tells her, “I just want you to know that your mother and I, we will always see you as just you, as Alex. There’s nothing black—or particularly… racial–about you to us because you’re our little girl and always will be.” Alex notes that the way he says “black” is cringe-inducing, “like it was the worst thing a person could be,” but that when her dad says “mixed,” he sounds prideful. More of these conversations happen over and over with her family.

 

Alex chooses to pursue getting in touch with her birth father, a black man who lives in Detroit, behind her parents’ backs. She’s dating Reggie at this point, another thing she keeps secret from her family. She isn’t entirely honest with him about a lot of things in her life, despite him being a really good guy and them having some powerful and important conversations about race. She doesn’t give him the chance to be there for her as she goes through a lot of emotions as she connects with her birth father.

 

These two main storylines—race and transracial adoption—made this book ping my radar. I’m glad I pulled it out of my pile to read because it is a thought-provoking, engaging, and well-written debut. The fact that it’s a relatively quick read and has a sports storyline may help it get into the hands of some readers who wouldn’t necessarily gravitate toward it. In the end, there is still a lot left unresolved, but we know Alex is seeking a sense of community, or maybe of communities, plural, and feeling more okay about the many pieces that make up her life and the possibilities that are ahead of her. A really compelling read. I would love to see this taught in a classroom and be able to eavesdrop on a conversation, but I’ll settle for recommending the heck out of it at the library. 

 

Review copy courtesy of the publisher and Edelweiss 

ISBN-13: 9781467776820

Publisher: Lerner Publishing Group

Publication date: 11/01/2015