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Tough Terrain: Why & How I Craft Story for Connection & Compassion, a guest post by Heather Mateus Sappenfield

“How then might storytelling earn its adaptive keep?” asks noted science writer Brian Greene in Until the End of Time. Exploring the evolution of sharing stories on a purely scientific level, he posits several theories. Among these, that story allows us to practice experiences prior to encountering them, aiding survival. Another theory states that story allows us to gather information about others (the roots of gossip), also facilitating survival. There’s certainly been proof of late that reading fiction generates empathy, and the more literary and realistic the narrative, the more empathy it generates. And empathy leads to understanding, compassion, even kindness. As an author, my instinct (and hope) is that reading stories offers a blend of these elements, so I craft my narratives toward this end.

                Tweens running in hallway, licensed via Shutterstock

Younger readers, with their agile minds, are primed for these experiences as they decipher and define their worlds and their roles within them. Adults frequently try to shield kids from life’s difficulties. But here’s the rub: Kids usually hear about them anyway, through snippets of adult conversation, the media, or interactions among peers. Often these moments comprise their first, impressionable experiences with challenging topics, shaping the adults they become. By reading books that explore difficult issues, kids have the opportunity to learn about, experience vicariously, and practice mentally, these hard subjects in nurturing ways, preparing them for positive encounters later in life. Young Adult and especially Middle Grade books are often dismissed as simple, yet they are vital seeds for fertile minds. With The River Between Hearts, I learned that writing a MG novel that explores tough terrain is no easy task.

The paradox of writing for younger readers, especially with first-person narration, is that…well…I’m older. Much older. So before I could begin writing this book, I spent over a year getting to know my protagonist, almost-eleven-year-old Rill, and her friend Perla. Along the way, I hung out with live kids their age, listening, observing, and noticing, especially what I didn’t hear or see. Frequently in MG books, the protagonist has special powers or is highly intelligent, a genius even, and quite mature, and the story revolves around these special attributes solving the riddles of the world. I love, love books like this, yet because my book would explore difficult topics occurring in our world today and because I hoped to generate the most empathy, I wanted the characters to seem real.

For example, kids, a lot of teens and, yes, many adults, don’t discuss their emotions. Usually they don’t even fully understand them. So if they do encounter them, it’s through physical sensations or actions. This lack of self-awareness became the major conflict for Rill as she dealt with the loss of her dad. Once I realized this, I knew she’d be an unreliable narrator. Not by design, but by unconscious denial. This realization lifted the lid on a marvelous tool kit.

                Silhouette at sunset, licensed via Shutterstock

With Rill in denial, I could write about grief in a nuanced way, providing clues for the reader that are revealed via her naïve actions and revelations. Mistakes were imperative, they’re how we learn, so Rill makes many—in her speech, her actions, her relationships. Stuck in denial, bad at school and words, Rill becomes an unintimidating guide for readers who understand more than she does. When she barrels toward a mistake, the reader knows better, and this creates suspense. By keeping Rill’s vocabulary and intellect realistic and by having her discover things through action rather than a special gift, I could draw upon her senses, inviting the reader in physically, and this sets the stage for deeper empathy. As with the real world, the story offers no simple answers; tidiness would have fractured its integrity. My hope is that upon this unintimidating footing, readers can then explore immigration and grief and their consequences for kids as kids would realistically view and experience them. Ironically, I’ve had the pleasure of glowing reviews from older teens and adults, who, because of this realism, are able to read the story with nostalgia.

All this took about five years of revising and tweaking and revising. Of checking with a lower school director to clarify that fourth-graders would use the word “lady” not “women;” of catching and eradicating the darned moments when my adult perspective or flowery language had crept in; of working with former immigrant students to get the details true. And herein lies a contradictory yet delicate aspect of craft: While the narrative remained honest in voice and action, it needed to be subtly guided by a nurturing, reassuring meta-narrator. This was the hardest part, instilled through sentence and story structures, consistent chapter length and the occasional subtle word. My hope is that The River Between Hearts creates safe, realistic terrain for Rill and Perla to learn, grow and adapt, and for younger readers (and readers of all ages) to learn, grow, and adapt with them.

Meet the author

Photo credit: Katherine Schmidt Photography

Heather Mateus Sappenfield has written two YA novels and a literary short story collection. Her books have earned many accolades, among them a MPIBA Reading the West Award nomination, a Ben Franklin Awards Silver Medal, an AudioFile Magazine Earphones Award, a SOVAS Awards Nomination, and finalist for the Colorado Book Awards. The River Between Hearts releases February 1 as runner-up for the Kraken Prize at Fitzroy Books.

Heather loves adventures, especially in the Rocky Mountain landscape that’s been her lifelong home. As part of women’s teams, she’s won 24-hour mountain bike races and road bicycling’s Race Across America—San Diego, California to Atlantic City, New Jersey. She’s also competed in the Mountain Bike World Championships; ski instructed for Vail Resorts; loves backcountry ski touring; and is a wife and mom. Her toughest and bravest adventures, though, occur while writing stories!

Website – https://heathermateussappenfield.com

Facebook – https://www.facebook.com/HeatherMateusSappenfield

Twitter – https://twitter.com/alpineheather

About The River Between Hearts

On an ordinary Monday, Rill Kruse left for third grade with a dad, but when she came home, he’d been stolen. By a river. One year and thirteen days later—on the first morning of summer vacation—Rill still insists he’s on his way back home.

When Rill’s cat, Clifford, leads her to the family tree fort on the mountainside, she discovers a stowaway, Perla, who appears to be on the run. As Rill considers the events that led Perla to this moment, she embarks on an adventure that tests her understanding of the world and forms a friendship that defies boundaries. The lessons Rill learns nudge her—and all those she loves—toward healing.

Runner-up for The Kraken Prize

ISBN-13: 9781646032068
Publisher: Fitzroy Press/Regal House Publishing
Publication date: 2/01/2022
Age Range: 9 – 14 Years

Book Review: Charming as a Verb by Ben Philippe

Publisher’s description

Charming as a Verb

From the award-winning author of The Field Guide to the North American Teenager comes a whip-smart and layered romantic comedy. Perfect for fans of Nicola Yoon and Jenny Han. 

Henri “Halti” Haltiwanger can charm just about anyone. He is a star debater and popular student at the prestigious FATE academy, the dutiful first-generation Haitian son, and the trusted dog walker for his wealthy New York City neighbors. But his easy smiles mask a burning ambition to attend his dream college, Columbia University.

There is only one person who seems immune to Henri’s charms: his “intense” classmate and neighbor Corinne Troy. When she uncovers Henri’s less-than-honest dog-walking scheme, she blackmails him into helping her change her image at school. Henri agrees, seeing a potential upside for himself.

Soon what started as a mutual hustle turns into something more surprising than either of them ever bargained for. . . .

This is a sharply funny and insightful novel about the countless hustles we have to keep from doing the hardest thing: being ourselves.

Amanda’s thoughts

If, for some reason, you were to click on my name and read a bunch of my reviews in a row, you might think, good lord, she just looooves everything. But you know what? I don’t. I abandon probably three times as many books as I finish. If a book isn’t something I’m enjoying, unless I think it’s an actively harmful or horrible book, I’ll just set it aside and move on. I’m going to use my blog time to say, hey, look at this GREAT book. Reviews that just could be summed up as “this book was fine, I guess” don’t serve anyone. SO, that said, guess what? Yep! I looooooved this book.

Haitian American Henri is always hustling, beaming his Smile at everyone, but reserving his real smile for the few that really know him beyond his school persona. He runs a dog walking company that’s not so much an actual company as it is just him with a more professional looking front to get more business. Henri juggles the dogs, school, debate team, and preparing to hopefully attend Columbia, his dream school (well, maybe his. Definitely his dad’s dream school). His dad’s their building’s super and his mom recently traded in her life as a paralegal to become a firefighter. Black and poor, Henri knows he doesn’t have the same opportunities or connections that help his classmates at the Fine Arts Technical Education Academy sail easily through life, but he keeps working hard and Smiling, hoping it all pans out.

Senior year ends up holding many surprises, the biggest (and best) being Corinne, his upstairs neighbor and the most intense girl in his class. She blackmails Henri into helping her revamp her image as someone less uptight and socially awkward, hoping it will improve her college recommendation letters. And while Henri is game, he has no idea what he’s in for. Turns out that Cori is not just brilliant but totally and bluntly honest, hilarious, and almost always gets what she wants (usually thanks to a series of note cards to study from and exceedingly detailed multi-point plans). What starts as a weird transaction between the two turns into a real friendship (and more) as they get to see each other beyond the labels, preconceived ideas, and Smiles. But Henri messes it all up (and I mean ALL of it) when he makes a terrible choice that he justifies as evening the playing field but really is just SO. BAD.

This book has everything going for it. The conversational tone, the standout characters, the excellent (and rocky) romance… everything. I’m a fast reader. Generally my approach is that I have to read as fast as I possibly can so I can keep flying through my TBR pile. But if I take the time to slow down, to make sure I’m really reading and not just skimming, to be sure I’m enjoying every well-crafted sentence and clever exchange, then I know I am loving a book. I stretched this one out over three afternoons, just so I could keep dipping back into Henri and Cori’s world. A completely satisfying, engaging, and memorable read.

Review copy (ARC) courtesy of the publisher

ISBN-13: 9780062824141
Publisher: HarperCollins Publishers
Publication date: 10/13/2020
Age Range: 13 – 17 Years

Dear Society: Sheltering Teenagers Helps No One (Thoughts from a Young Adult), a guest post by Zack Smedley

Hi! The following is a piece I wrote the night before my 20th birthday, almost four years ago. I’ve never posted it anywhere before, but I wanted to share it now. In hindsight, the only footnote I’ll add is that I say “teenagers” when I should really be saying “privileged white teenagers from middle-class families.” Forgive my far less developed cultural awareness from back then.

Without further adieu, I yield the stage to 19-almost-20-year-old me.

Today I wanted to discuss what it’s like to grow up as a teenager in today’s (American) society. Why? Because as I approach the hilariously old age of 20, I’ve finished developing a list of complaints I have about how the world handled teenager-me.

I should begin by saying I’ve grown up blessed with a plethora of good fortune. I have two happy and healthy parents who love me relentlessly, my family lives comfortably, and I’ve managed to get into college and survive as a Chemical Engineering major (so far, anyway). A good bulk of teens reading this are, I hope, fortunate in similar aspects. So why do I say we’re all getting screwed? Why have I, for years, been so fundamentally unhappy with my transition from childhood to adulthood?

Picture this! Growing up as a teenager twenty or thirty years ago, life was different. Kids got jobs at 16 to maintain their junk cars. As soon as they could drive, they were able to roam around with minimal supervision. They had to sweat a bit to make ends meet, but by the age of eighteen, they had gotten enough practice living as adults that they were ready to take off the training wheels.

(Or so I hear, anyway. I myself wasn’t a teen thirty years ago).

Here’s what inspired this post: today I was sitting in lecture when I realized I didn’t have a single idea how to do taxes. TAXES. The only thing you’re required to do on this earth apart from dropping dead.

Which leads me into a brief rant: why the hell didn’t any teacher in high school bother to sit down us wide-eyed little 16- and 17-year old selves and say “here’s all the information you need about mortgages and credit unions and taxes”? Is the point of high school not to prepare kids for the real world? Why is it that I—and every other peer of mine—has reached their twenties without having been taught a single strategy for managing credit lines or sketching out a plan for IRA’s?


That said, my gripes here extent past my ignorance towards the Internal Revenue Service. One quick YouTube tutorial can, and will, fix that issue. But let’s dive a bit deeper for a second.

I earned my driver’s license a few days before my senior year of high school. My parents, God bless them, weren’t comfortable with me taking the car past the driveway for another six weeks. (The ol’ “it’s not you we don’t trust, it’s everyone else.”) Several of my friends were in similar situations.

And I know what you’re thinking! Hey, why didn’t you just buy your own fixer-upper car with the money you had saved from your high school job? I would have loved to do that. Except that I—along with, once again, most of my friends—wasn’t allowed to have a job in high school. My parents and teachers must have rehearsed their lines together, because it was identical sound bytes from both: “school is your job.”

To be clear, I understand this pattern is no one’s fault. It’s not my teachers’ fault for assigning me the homework they’re required to give, and my parents didn’t do anything wrong by having me focus on school. But it’s gotten to the point where we’re sending kids off to college—and I was absolutely among this group—that have never had a job, never taken care of their own car, and never been allowed to make their own mistakes.

If you’d like to know what the powerhouse of the cell is, though, by God will I knock your socks right off.

Now. I’m thankful every day for my wonderful parents & teachers. And I realize that if my biggest problem is them caring about me too much, I probably shouldn’t be ranting at all. But I’m going to, because these issues I’m describing a) extend far, far beyond my own household, and b) are way too important to not talk about.

Our society is screwing teenagers by not letting them grow up sooner. Parents and schools say “oh, we just don’t want you to have to worry about working, or maintaining a car, or dealing with long nights” but that’s the stuff that turns kids into adults, man! We have to get our hands dirty sometime, and in my opinion, parents and schools of the modern day are shoving fundamental skills aside because, “worry about that when you’re 18.” It’s entirely understandable why they do this—after all, kids are coming home with six hours of homework a night. The answer isn’t to “power through it.” And I’m not here to propose any concrete solutions. But the first step to solving a problem is recognizing there is one, and Houston, we’ve got a big one here.

Parents—especially the great ones, like mine—are so driven to protect their kids from everything. But hardship, and mistakes, and pain…those things shape us to be stronger. And dealing with life experiences (such as jobs and cars) early on can help us teenagers learn how to overcome those challenges for when we’ve truly grown up.

And now here I am—finally filling out my own job applications, driving my own car, managing my own finances—and I couldn’t be happier. But I’ve had to spend a few years playing catch-up, and that was a heavy weight on my shoulders.

In short, to any parents with teenagers: I know how scary it can be letting your kids go, but it has to happen sooner or later. Just be mindful of when they’re really going to become adults, so you can make sure they’re ready to face the world when they step into it.

And high schools? If you’re going to make me sit through a class where I learn how to build a bridge out of popsicle sticks and craft glue, the least you could do is make sure I know what a goddamn FAFSA is.

Meet Zack Smedley

Photo credit: James Ferry

Zack Smedley is a chemical engineer who recently graduated from the University of Maryland, Baltimore County. As a member of the LGBT community, his goal is to give a voice to marginalized young adults through gritty, morally complex narratives. Deposing Nathan is his first novel. Find him on Twitter @zack_smedley. Twitter @zack_smedley.   

About DEPOSING NATHAN by Zack Smedley

“A heartbreaking and important read.” —Caleb Roehrig, author of Last Seen Leaving

“[A] layered, complex depiction of questioning (bi)sexuality..A heartbreaking case worth revisiting again and again.” Kirkus Reviews, starred review

Nate never imagined that he would be attacked by his best friend.

For sixteen years, Nate was the perfect son—the product of a no-nonsense upbringing and deep spiritual faith. Then he met Cam, who pushed him to break rules, dream, and accept himself. Conflicted, Nate began to push back. With each push, the boys became more entangled in each others’ worlds…but they also spiraled closer to their breaking points. And now all of it has fallen apart after a fistfight-turned-near-fatal-incident—one that’s left Nate with a stab wound and Cam in jail.

Now Nate is being ordered to give a statement, under oath, that will send his best friend to prison. The problem is, the real story of what happened between them isn’t as simple as anyone thinks. With all eyes on him, Nate must make his confessions about what led up to that night with Cam…and in doing so, risk tearing both of their lives apart.

ISBN-13: 9781624147357
Publisher: Page Street Publishing
Publication date: 05/07/2019