I am impatiently waiting for the “Beam Me Up, Scotty” form of transportation so that I might easily have coffee on occasion with some of my favorite kidlit people, like Nanci Turner Steveson, who live much too far away from me. Nanci writes stories filled with heart and hope and an unwavering gaze at the things that are just plain hard in our lives. This brave writer has a brand-new and much acclaimed novel, Lizzie Flying Solo (Harper Collins) and she’s stopped by today to tell you a bit about it.
When my lovely friend Kirby asked me to be part of her blog for April, I was so delighted as this is the month my third middle grade book comes out. Lizzie Flying Solo (HarperCollins) debuts April 16th, and is about a recently homeless girl who loves a pony she can’t have. I assumed I would write about the inspiration for this book, which took thirteen years to create from first word to publication. There is much to tell about that journey. But something happened recently that changed the way this post traveled, and instead of writing about Lizzie specifically, I am writing from a place that hopefully helps all of us understand where the important stuff in our books comes from, and when we will know the time is right to expose the most vulnerable parts of ourselves.
Last week I read Laurie Halse Anderson’s new book SHOUT. If you haven’t yet, you must. It is a personal memoir about her rape at age thirteen. Somehow, Laurie was able to take a truly horrific experience and with strings of lovely, lyrical words, wove a story that is haunting, yet at the same time comforting. Terrifying yet familiar. Horrific yet grounded. This in turn led me to examine the truth in my own writing, the way certain events from my childhood found their way into my books, and for at least one young girl I know of, made a life-altering difference. That child is my Newbery, my Oscar, my Emmy, and every other darn award there is to be awarded. She is why I keep writing even when I feel the heavy weight of the often-tricky publishing industry trying to smother me.
When I was 13 and 14, I had a true obsession with the book Go Ask Alice, which I probably read ten times over two years. The story was supposed to be the real diary of a girl about my age who got involved with drugs, ran away, was raped, became friends with another runaway who was a victim of sexual abuse as a younger child, got clean, tried to make a new life, etc., etc. I remember scouring that book and reading repeatedly the parts that involved rape and sexual abuse and Alice’s thoughts on how those events led her to fall in with the wrong crowd in a new town and get involved in the teen drug culture. So much like me. Whenever I wasn’t reading, I placed Go Ask Alice between two very heavy books so if my mom or dad came across it, they wouldn’t be able to tell which pages were opened to the most. So they wouldn’t discover my secret.
There are many aspects of my childhood that did make their way into my books, and not always to the accolades of reviewers: anorexia, agoraphobia, childhood death, judgment, learning disabilities, the agonizing search for our true selves, the list goes on. Woven in with those themes are the many beautiful parts of my growing-up years, too. My love of horses, dogs and baby chicks; my determination to learn to write; my passion for trees and secret hiding places; my parents insistence that for everything I got in my life of privilege, I gave something of equal value to someone else; my teaching children to ride when I was still a child myself; my obsessive concern for the beetles that were abundant in our backyard in England; my poetry, and on and on. Individually, these are each like different colored pieces of fabric that when sewed together created a beautiful quilt. That quilt has given me comfort and allowed me to let go of some of that angst I carried into adulthood.
If you read the Author’s Note in the back of Lizzie Flying Solo, you will understand why writing about a recently homeless girl and her mom was so important to me, why I spent thirteen years getting it just right. My footprint lands softly on each and every page of my books, and I am so grateful to have this job of reaching out to kids who need to see themselves and know they are okay. But two of the most significant, life-altering aspects of my past have never made it into my books. I thought about this a lot after finishing SHOUT. Granted, I write for a middle grade audience, not young adults (although I am positive there are a lot of middle grade kids who are reading SHOUT right now). I know sexual abuse and early alcoholism (let’s just say I was the age of my readers when I started down that dark path) are taboo in middle grade literature. So far. But I think back to my days with Go Ask Alice and remember too well the odd sense of comfort that blanketed me when reading about someone else who had experienced what I did. And now I can’t help but wonder what child is scanning the words in my books, looking for themselves, searching for someone to commiserate with privately, needing to feel that camaraderie no one ever wants to yearn for.
Am I doing a disservice to middle grade readers by not exploring ways to get my story into a book that will help, but not frighten them? Would my editor support such a book? Or would he say it isn’t time yet? Then when is it time? What is my obligation to my readers? My characters are victorious. We are all victorious. So where is the child who needs victory right now, who is hiding a secret that perhaps only words on a page can help them know that they are not wrong, but have been wronged? That the shame they carry does not belong to them, and that there is someone waiting to help? Do I have the courage to write such a book for a younger audience? Am I a good enough writer? (This question lingers in my mind constantly, no matter what I am writing). How is it that we take tiny steps, reveal bits and pieces of ourselves over the course of three, maybe four books, but taking that giant plunge feels too risky?
Such a book, I know, would be banned in many places. One of my books, my beloved Georgia Rules, is not used in many schools because there is a family in that book ~ a large, multi-racial, loud and quilted family ~ which is headed by two moms. Because of that, my own brother wrote me an email and said he was “very, very disappointed” in me. This brother was raised by the same parents as me, as all six of us kids. How does that happen?
As writers of books for children, what is our obligation? We don’t all share the same history, and our experiences bring different things to our work. We write humor and graphic novels and non-fiction and fantasy, realistic fiction, novels in verse, and poetry. We write what our souls tell us to write, to keep little pieces of our hearts from withering if we don’t share. We even write things we know will never get published, just because those stories insist on coming out. But at what point do we know it is time to take the risk, to make ourselves the most vulnerable, to write the words only we can write, tell the story that will shake things up in a way that might not be pleasant?
These are questions I do not have answers for, so I am leaving them here for you to ponder, to consider what they mean to you as both a reader and a writer. In the meantime, I share this beautiful poem by Sean Thomas Dougherty, which just makes so much sense.
Because right now, there is someone
out there with
a wound in the exact shape
of your words.
Bless you all in your journey.
Nanci Turner Steveson is the proud author of middle grade realistic fiction: Swing Sideways (HarperCollins 2016), a Wyoming Indian Paintbrush Award nominee and Scholastic Book Fair selection; Georgia Rules (HarperCollins 2017), a Bank Street College Best Book of 2018 with Outstanding Merit; and Lizzie Flying Solo (HarperCollins, April 2019)about a recently homeless girl who loves a pony she can’t have. Nanci is blessed with Peter Pan Adventure Syndrome. When her children were grown, she packed her truck and trailer with her horse, her dog, and a mysterious antique box and moved 2020 miles by herself to live in a historic, meadow cabin in the shadow of the Tetons where she writes books for middle grade kids, works as a stage manager for a professional live theatre, and rides her horse in the mountains. Nanci is dedicated to getting books into the hands of homeless people through her Literacy for Hope Project. To learn more about her, please visit her website.