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The Ultimate 1980s Throwback Playlist by Steve Rushin

THE EIGHTIES. Van Halen. Dire Straits. Three’s Company. Knight Rider.

Nights in White Castle captures a bygone era, and the thrills of new adulthood during the decade of big hair and rock’n’roll. Acclaimed author, Steve Rushin, transports you back to the nights of his early teens in Bloomington, Minnesota hanging out at the local White Castle with the ultimate playlist of the best rock hits from the 1980s.

 

Listen here:

 

Why these songs? Steve Rushin shares how each of these 1980s hits made their way onto his playlist:

 

1. “Jump,” Van Halen
If you were in the Class of 1984 at John F. Kennedy High School in Bloomington, Minnesota, you had to read George Orwell’s 1984, when the only 1984 anyone cared about was Van Halen’s album of the same name. This song, from that album, with its diabolical synth intro, was inescapable my senior year, as I describe in Nights in White Castle, my memoir of high school, college and leaving home in the 1980s.

 

2. “Life in a Northern Town,” Dream Academy
They’re English, describing life in the north of England. But growing up in a northern town in North America, where the mornings lasted all day, I claimed this song as mine, too.

 

3. “Steppin’ Out,” Joe Jackson
This song is made for driving around at night, something we did a lot of in a powder-blue Pontiac Bonneville—aimless journeys down the 494 Strip that almost always ended at White Castle. As Chuck Berry put it: “Cruisin’ and playin’ the radio, with no particular place to go.” Hail hail rock and roll.

 

4. “The Look of Love,” ABC
My brother Tom, a year older than me, was into New Wave: Psychedelic Furs, Echo and the Bunnymen, Thompson Twins and the insuperably named Orchestral Maneouvres in the Dark. I frequently heard this song coming from the twin bed opposite mine.

 

5. “Daddy Don’t Live In That New York City No More,” Steely Dan
As I say, Tom and I shared a room and many nights we fell asleep to a cassette of Steely Dan’s 1975 album “Katy Lied.” This song, more than any other, fueled my dreams of wanting to live in New York City.

 

6. “That’s Entertainment,” The Jam
Another song that Tom turned me onto and the band became one of my all-time favorites. Years later, Tom and I were in London and thought we saw Paul Weller on a Vespa. It probably wasn’t him.

 

7. “1999,” Prince
The album, song, and movie “Purple Rain” were released in 1984, when Minnesota’s very own Prince was ubiquitous, and “When Doves Cry” became the number one song of the year on the Billboard Hot 100. But it was “1999”—from 1982—that summed up my twin apocalyptic fears— of nuclear war and impending adulthood.

 

8. “The Message,” Grandmaster Flash & The Furious Five
My high school buddies and I would listen to this on my Panasonic boom box, often while playing basketball, and imagine that our suburban playgrounds were somehow part of the urban hellscape described by Grandmaster Flash.

 

9. “Dancing in the Dark,” Bruce Springsteen
The video was filmed in the summer of 1984 by Brian DePalma at the St. Paul Civic Center. My brother Tom was there, watching Bruce pull an actress named Courteney Cox out of the audience in the same arena where, just a few months earlier, I had played in the state high school basketball tournament.

 

10. “Money for Nothing,” Dire Straits
I woke to this song, played by dorm neighbors, every day of my sophomore year in the M. Carpenter Tower at Marquette University in Milwaukee. Even now, when I hear it, I have a sudden panic that I’m late for class.

 

11. “I Melt with You,” Modern English
This remains one of the great songs of the decade, undiminished by its 21st-century role as a commercial soundtrack for Burger King and Hershey’s.

 

12. “Heartbreak Beat,” The Psychedelic Furs
Another quintessential song that reminds me of being young in the 1980s, though I could have just as easily subbed in “True” by Spandau Ballet or New Order’s “Bizarre Love Triangle.”

 

13. “Shake Your Rump,” Beastie Boys
I did eventually move to New York City, straight out of college, and with what little money I had I bought “Paul’s Boutique” on CD and listened to this song repeatedly on a Sony Discman that I bought in Tokyo while on assignment for Sports Illustrated.

 

14. “Sweet Child O’ Mine,” Guns N’ Roses
Any ‘80s mixtape requires a hair-metal band and GnFnR will do nicely.

 

15. “Ask,” The Smiths
The line “Shyness is nice, and shyness can stop you from doing all the things in life you’d like to” sums up my high school and college existence, as does the line: “Spending warm summer days indoors, writing frightening verse.”

 

16. “Roam,” The B-52s
When I finally did move to New York after college, “Roam” seemed to play at every party, and in every other bar.

 

17. “(Nothing But) Flowers,” Talking Heads
This song is about a modern suburban sprawl reverting to a Garden-of-Eden-like utopia, and its narrator is longing for what is lost: “I miss the honky-tonks, Dairy Queens and 7-Elevens.” That’s what I grew up with, and I would miss them too. (Bonus: That’s Johnny Marr of The Smiths on lead guitar.)

 

18. “Southtown Girls,” The Hold Steady
The only song on this list from the 21st century, “Southtown Girls” recalls 20th century Bloomington in vivid detail. I sneaked into movies at the Southtown Theater and experienced the same suburban ennui “in front of the fabric store.” The song opens with what are essentially directions to my childhood home: “Take Lyndale to the horizon, take Nicollet out to the ocean . . .”

 

19. “Can’t Hardly Wait,” The Replacements
I can’t make an ‘80s Minnesota mixtape without The Replacements. That “Hurry up, hurry up, ain’t you had enough of this stuff,” has always felt to me like those years when you’re waiting for the rest of your life to begin, which in many ways is what Nights in White Castle is about.

 

 

Love Really Is Forever

Love.

 

What is it? This essential question is what has propelled my book, The Invisible String, into a bestselling phenomenon.

 

No one could be more surprised than I am of its profound reach.

 

In fact, if anyone had told me when I first wrote and published it in 2000 that I would sell half a million copies and bring healing to children and families worldwide, that the book would be translated into many different languages, and that a whole series of books would spring forth from it, I would not have believed them. Ever.

 

I have a had a lot of time to ponder just why the book’s simple message about love struck such a chord with young and old alike from all over the world. And the answer is as simple as the message itself… Love is what binds and connects us together. Love is the heartbeat of life. Love is the only thing in the end that really matters.

 

When I was a working single mom in the late 1990s, the story of The Invisible String was born. My son Elijah suffered painful-to-the-core separation anxiety when I had to drop him off at preschool each morning. It broke my heart to leave his tear-stained face with his teachers, who had to pluck his clinging, shaking body from me as he held on for dear life whenever I kissed him goodbye.

 

One morning, what poured out of me as I held him was the story of how we had an Invisible String that would connect us all day long. I mean—didn’t everyone know this? Because of this magical String, when he missed me, all that he needed to do to feel my love again was tug on his end of the string, and I would be able to feel him and tug his love right back. A never-ending dance of connections would tether us all day long until we would reunite each evening.

 

Viola! His tears dried.

 

“Is there really an Invisible String, Momma?” his little voice asked me.

 

“There sure is, and it connects our hearts forever,” I replied.

 

This simple answer changed both of our lives in unthinkably magical ways. For the first time ever, Elijah’s separation anxiety vanished, and in its place, security, confidence, and comfort washed over him. We both could breathe again, and our days were joyful instead of panicked and worried.

 

Soon his friends asked me to tell them too about this wondrous Invisible String that connected them not only to their working parents, but to their pets that had passed, their grandparents who lived out of state, and their best friends who had moved away. The kids soaked up the message like the little love sponges that they are and were the inspiration for me to sit down and write my book, and to devote my life to spreading this message of love to the planet.

 

In 2000, the original hardback of The Invisible String was published, and soon after, something amazing started to happen. Military families wrote to say that the story helped children feel connected to their deployed family members. Divorce attorneys were recommending it for families who had a parent living in another home. Hospices, hospitals, and grief organizations were using the book. Soon educators, librarians, and school counselors were using it to teach kindness, empathy, and global connectedness, and counselors, doctors, psychiatrists, social workers and therapists were sharing the book in many ways too. They all wrote to me such personal, intimate stories of how the children in their lives were responding when they learned about their Invisible Strings and just how far they could soar.

 

One night, my now-grown son, Elijah came over for dinner and saw that I was feeling a bit down. He took a copy of The Invisible String, wrote something on the inside cover, and handed it to me. His note read: “Mom, you wrote this book for me, but a String has two ends. The Invisible String goes both ways. We are always connected. You are never alone. I love you. Elijah.”

 

And if that is not full circle, I do not know what is.

 

Hugs and tugs!

 

Patrice Karst

 


 

Examining Addiction, Race, & Respectability Politics

Most of my books start with an idea of a character first. Sometimes it’s a voice, but not always; sometimes it’s a detail of the character’s life or a personality trait that leads me to their full development.

 

But The Revolution of Birdie Randolph began with a topic.  Which, frankly, was surprising to me. Each of my books has started with a different seed, and though my work deals with heavy topics, I pride myself on not writing “issue books”—books that set out to teach readers a lesson through a black-and-white lens. But when I started this novel, I knew that I wanted to write a book featuring a family that deals with addiction, and that is how Birdie was born.

 

I also don’t typically base books on myself or the people I know, but the need to delve into this topic sprang from something I was observing in real life. One of my oldest friends from childhood, who lives halfway across the country, was struggling hard with addiction. They were hanging out with people who didn’t have their best interests at heart and had been in and out of police custody for months when I started writing Birdie. I was sick with worry, unable to help and seeing they weren’t yet ready to help themselves. I couldn’t stop thinking about how their substance abuse was not only negatively affecting their lives but causing a rapid decline in their relationships with family members and friends.

 

At its heart, The Revolution of Birdie Randolph is about a black girl, same as my other books. Pointe is about a Midwestern black girl dealing with past trauma and inescapable guilt. Little & Lion is about a Jewish black girl questioning her sexuality and struggling to support her brother. Finding Yvonne is about a Southern California–based black girl trying to figure out her calling in life, process a distant relationship with her father and the longtime disappearance of her mother, and make decisions that are best for her, even if they’re unpopular choices.

 

My friend dealing with addiction is white, and I knew that examining a related journey through the eyes of a black girl would look different. But to be clear, addiction is not Birdie’s personal story. At the start of the book, she hasn’t yet tried a sip of alcohol. She’s the “perfect” daughter, following the strict set of rules her parents have set forth over the years without question—from taking an SAT prep course during the summer to quitting soccer because she wasn’t “good enough” to go pro.

 

So when her aunt blows into town, fresh out of rehab and far off the path of perfection that has been required in their family, Birdie is instantly intrigued. And as she gets to know her aunt, Birdie starts to question why she’s only heard the negative stories associated with her and not the warm, good memories that she knows must be there, too. It seems that because her aunt has made mistakes, that is all she’s worthy of being associated with, and Birdie sees the embarrassment her mother takes on when it comes to her sister’s addiction and the shame she believes it brings on the family—particularly because they’re a black family.

 

The term respectability politics is credited to Evelyn Brooks Higginbotham, an author and professor who gave us a descriptor for the idea that people from marginalized groups believe their own members will be respected or treated better by the group in power if they “behave better.” This, along with the pressure that comes with trying to be perfect, is a theme I keep returning to in my work. I grew up in a Southern Missouri town that was only 3 percent black in the 1980s and 1990s, with white residents making up almost the entirety of that remaining percentage. And I was taught from an early age that because of the racial disparity in our town, I’d always be looked at differently and more closely than my peers. If I made a mistake, I wouldn’t be given the same chances as my friends to redeem myself in society’s eyes; I’d forever be known as the black girl who got into trouble and had, therefore, embarrassed every single black person in my town/county/state/country/the world.

 

I know my parents were only teaching me what they thought was best for me, so I could avoid widespread embarrassment and unfair judgment—and, frankly, so I could survive. From an early age, I saw how black people were treated unequally and how white people seemed pleased and relieved that I wasn’t “like other black people” because I didn’t fit the stereotypes about my culture that they’d been conditioned to believe and perpetuate. They felt comfortable calling me their friend because I’ve always been a hard worker with the desire to excel at whatever interest or path I’ve taken on, from school to dance to writing.

 

But working hard and trying to be perfect are two different things, and being perfect is not only incredibly hard work—it’s impossible. In my twenties, I began to question the idea of respectability politics. In my thirties, I had a term for it and saw it for what it was: an unrealistic and damaging expectation.

 

My attempt to process this concept has filtered into my work, particularly in my third book, Finding Yvonne. Yvonne was so pleasing to write because she did what she wanted when she wanted without worrying about how it would look to others simply because she was black. I loved writing a girl who was brave enough to live her life the way she saw fit, and when she’s called out by her father on how people might look at her as a “statistic,” she pushes back, asking why no one ever says the same of white kids.

 

I believe my exploration of this theme came to a head in The Revolution of Birdie Randolph. Birdie’s parents have already raised her older sister, Mimi, who Birdie says “has done everything before me, so I know what my life is supposed to look like. I’m supposed to graduate at the top of my class and go to a good college where I will study something respectable that will get me an impressive, high-paying job.” But as Birdie grows closer to her aunt and finds first love with a boy who has a past that she knows her parents would consider undesirable, Birdie starts to realize that perhaps no one’s life turns out the way it was “supposed to”—and if that’s the case, why try so hard to be perfect?

 

I don’t think a lot about reader reactions while I’m writing, beyond creating authentic stories and doing my best to not harm marginalized, underrepresented groups. But I want all of my work to spark conversations. And with this book, I particularly hope readers will think about the ways they’ve judged others based on past experiences or circumstances. I want them to think about why addiction is such a taboo topic, and especially why black families seem reluctant to address this issue. Is it because we’re worried that people will pass further judgment on a group that is already so disenfranchised? Is it because black people have already struggled with so much and for so long that it seems insignificant to address in the broader scheme of things?

 

I don’t have the answer to this, and I might never. But I know that addiction is part of real life, and that includes black families, too. I know that all struggles deserve attention, no matter how messy, unpleasant, or plain ugly they are. And I know that I will continue to write books that examine aspects of life that make us uncomfortable, because growth and understanding is impossible without acknowledging the struggle in the first place.

 


 

The Night Witches: Women Soldiers That History Forgot

I have always adored history. Not so much the sweeping events that make up the basis of our cultural knowledge, but the story of the people who make history happen. For me, history is the story of someone I relate to, the little guy who gets caught up in a big thing. For me, history is the story of the double amputee who escaped from a Nazi prisoner of war camp three times. History is the story of the woman who built her own tank and went to the front in World War II. And the history that has captured my imagination for some five years now is the story of Russian women who flew biplanes against Messerschmidts—and won.

The Night Witches were the first all-women’s combat regiment in modern history. They fought red tape (if you’ll forgive the pun), bureaucracy, and sexism for the right to fly the worst the USSR had to offer against a far superior German war machine. Their official name was the 588th Night-Bombing regiment, and on paper their mission was simple: drop things. They dropped bombs, leaflets, bricks, and railroad ties—anything that would keep the Germans from sleeping.

They flew inferior biplanes that were so slow, enemy aircraft couldn’t even catch them; planes that tried had to slow down so much that their engines stalled. The Night Witches flew so low to the ground they could be shot by your average German with a gun, and their planes were so flammable that usually one shot was all it took to bring them down. Nevertheless, they were dubbed Nachthexen by the Germans for their deadly silence and precision. Every night the Night Witches would cruise to their target, then shut off the engine to make a silent dive. They’d release the bombs (sometimes climbing out on the wing to release a sticky trigger) and restart the engine as they pulled away. The Night Witches made up to eighteen of these missions a night.

When fighting for the Soviet Union, their lives weren’t the only things on the line. They had to excel over the men on their base to shake a reputation of inferiority that they’d never earned. Worse, the USSR had a hard policy on soldiers that were captured or went missing in enemy territory: they were assumed to have defected or broken under torture, and were considered traitors until and unless their loyalty was proved to the state. Some women who died in enemy territory weren’t properly recognized for decades after the war was over.

I was devastated that someone could be rewarded in such a way for their service—and I was intrigued by the dedication the Night Witches showed anyway. I wanted to write about women who would risk it all, and why, and what friendships they would forge in the fire of war. I wanted to write about women who relied on each other. I wanted to write about women who survived and thrived in spite of the men in their lives. So I wrote We Rule the Night, about women who fly in the face of derision, oppression and death, and become best friends along the way.

I hope you enjoy it.

 


 

Don’t Call It a Comeback: Why Tristan and Iseult Are Still Going Strong after 800 Years

When, at nineteen, I encountered the Tristan legend for the first time, it felt more like watching an action-packed popcorn flick than reading a medieval manuscript. Forget Perceval, that pious weenie; Beroul’s The Romance of Tristan was the real blockbuster of a legend. It had magical potions, an evil dwarf, loads of lepers, dark and twisted love, problematic sex and an extravagance that couldn’t be missed. Someone should make this into a movie, I thought.

And in fact, someone did. I learned this one gray day several years and one move to New York later as I waited in traffic to go through the Lincoln Tunnel. There, soaring above the landscape of gridlocked cars, was a billboard of a medieval knight, his chiseled cheekbones so sharp they looked like they might impale his leading lady, his soulful eyes trained on the horizon.

Damn it, I thought. James Franco beat me to it.

But he was hardly the first. The Tristan and Iseult story was committed to the page sometime in the 12th century, though it was probably part of oral tradition for at least several centuries before. There are endless versions of the story, and therefore, endless variation in the intricacies of the plot, but the basics run something like this: Tristan, a knight of Cornwall, defeats the villainous Morholt and wins the hand of the Irish princess Iseult for his uncle, King Mark. On their way back to Cornwall, things don’t go quite as planned, and they end up drinking a love potion prepared by Iseult’s lady-in-waiting, Brangain. Iseult marries Mark, but continues to engage in some decidedly unstealthy adultery with Tristan, and when they’re caught, they escape to the wilderness. Eventually they make peace with Mark, though Tristan is banished from the kingdom. And—spoiler alert—in most versions, a tragic death scene for Tristan or for both lovers wraps things up.

If that sounds action-packed to you, you should know that that’s just the bare bones. In the Beroul version, the one I read as an undergraduate, there are fights with dragons, swords lodged in skulls, Iseult’s prowess as a mystical healer, a scene in which Brangain sneaks through the darkness to take Iseult’s place in Mark’s bed, a deranged dwarf with a penchant for outlandish adulterer-nabbing schemes, the main characters’ narrow avoidance of being burned at the stake, death-defying leaps from windows, an interlude in which Mark threatens to give Iseult to a gang of lepers, a second love interest for Tristan also named Iseult, and some magical love trees that Mark attempts to mow down like kudzu.

Many iterations of the legend embrace a similarly go-big-or-go-home attitude. There’s the Richard Wagner opera, for instance, which is the version that most Westerners know best. Wagner first conceived of it as a quick little side project to make him some cash in between composing parts of the Ring Cycle, but it turned into a four-hour ode to unresolved longing. A Norwegian poet, writing to his friend after viewing an early performance of Tristan und Isolde, declared it “the most enormous depravity I have ever seen or heard.”

But Wagner’s vision is only one among many: A John Updike novel, a film version from Vichy France, a song from a German power metal band, a Bollywood musical…even the oldest surviving European quilt tells the Tristan legend. Once I started looking, Tristan and Iseult were everywhere; they wouldn’t leave me alone. I wanted to find a way to make the story my own, but I was stymied by how to take the story of a medieval knight (to say nothing of the love potions and lepers) and write a version that felt fresh, that felt as though the world needed one more retelling.

The solution, as it turned out, had less to do with how to shoehorn a dragon scene into Bed-Stuy than recognizing what made some of those earlier versions so relevant to their fans. Wagner was inspired as he wrote Tristan und Isolde by events in his personal life, but also by events in the wider world. He was living as a political exile after his participation in a failed uprising in Germany; it’s not so hard to imagine him channeling those feelings into his Tristan and Isolde, both emigrants from the lands of their births, two fish out of water who stumble into the embrace of the other.

I began to understand that any version of Tristan and Iseult that I might write, if it was to be a worthwhile contribution to the eight-hundred-years-plus legacy of the story, would need to have resonance with the society around it, to serve as a window into my own little world of Brooklyn and beyond. I came to believe that the Tristan legend is so powerful because at its heart, it’s about the problems that still plague us today: our fear of people who are strange to us, our struggles with those in power, our helplessness in the face of forces that are beyond our control, our desperation to find a place or a person in the world to call home. That grandiosity that I felt when I first read the story wasn’t about love potions and swordplay. It was because the legend of Tristan and Iseult—like all the great stories that we find ourselves telling again and again, over decades, over centuries, over millennia—taps into something that makes us a little uncomfortable, that shows us our human flaws and frailties, that cuts close to the bone.

I thought a lot about those frailties, and then I finally, finally sat down at my computer and attempted to follow in the footsteps of Beroul and Wagner.

In my version of the story, Tristan becomes a chess prodigy rather than a knight, Izzy is an aspiring doctor rather than a magical healer, and not a single character is sold to a gang, comprised of lepers or otherwise. But what is perhaps more remarkable is how much stayed the same. The story is so beautifully elastic that it can be stretched to fit on a New York City billboard or the stage of a grand opera house or shrunk to fit onto the chessboards of Brooklyn, and it still makes us feel that stab of familiarity, that bittersweet recognition of love and longing and loss. After all these centuries, it’s still a blockbuster.

 


 

 

Author Essay: Erin Gough on Amelia Westlake Was Never Here

Amelia Westlake Was Never Here was inspired by a hoax that two friends and I invented in our final year of high school. Our aim was to amuse ourselves and, with any luck, our fellow classmates by creating an imaginary student called Amelia Westlake. We began small, putting Amelia’s name down on lists for sports teams, graffitiing it on school desks, and accepting birthday party invitations on her behalf. We waited to see if anyone noticed.

 

They noticed. It is safe to say our classmates became somewhat obsessed with finding out who Amelia Westlake was. We carried on pranking until the end of the year without anyone discovering the truth. Amelia Westlake donated prizes to Trivia Night, she sent postcards from exotic locations, she even entered a painting (depicting a giant question mark) in the final year art exhibition. Our hoax was the most fun thing I did in my entire school career, and every time I see Amelia Westlake’s name on the cover of my published book, I want to laugh out loud. It’s her best prank yet.

 

What became clear as I began writing her story, though, was that I wanted to convey more than just the fun my friends and I had that year. Amelia Westlake Was Never Here also provided an opportunity to explore serious topics like power and privilege, the disadvantages that young women particularly face, and how there are ways—often creative ones—in which young people can harness their talents and skills to challenge power. To find their voice.

 

When my friends and I were conducting our hoax, I hadn’t found my voice yet. I was an obedient teenager who studied hard and was trying her best to be interested in boys. I didn’t even know any lesbians, so the thought that I was a lesbian myself was inconceivable.

 

Except that it wasn’t inconceivable. Not really. Not to me. Just to everyone around me. What was inconceivable was that I would ever admit the truth.

 

In this respect, Harriet and Will, the two main characters in Amelia Westlake Was Never Here, have a better experience of high school than I did. They live in a world where they can be more open about their sexuality. But they still face hurdles on the road to equality—both as lesbians and as young women.

 

What Harriet and Will must learn is that they can stand up for themselves, that while in some respects they are disadvantaged, they have an immense amount of privilege, which they can harness not just for their own benefit, but for others who are less empowered.

 

In the novel, Amelia Westlake’s motto is “Play the Power, not the Game.” It is a call to arms to young people everywhere to challenge the structures around you; don’t comply with them. Stand up for yourself and others. Take action. Be creative. Be brave. And have yourself some fun along the way.

 


Author Essay: Rhett Miller on No More Poems!

If my kids think I’m cool, they hide it remarkably well. The fans of my music seem to think I’m cool. The internet sometimes does, I guess. But my kids? By all measurable indicators, my kids find me stupendously boring. Especially as they find their way into full-blown adolescence, Max and Soleil slot me further and further down the list of worthwhile expenditures of time and attention.

This becomes especially problematic when I am out on the road doing my weird job, which mostly consists of dancing and howling on a stage somewhere far away from our family’s living room. You may well point out how much technology has helped the parent who travels for work to connect with their kids back at home. Problem is, the kids have to want to connect. Which is how I landed on the idea of writing these poems.

Since their earliest years, we’ve enjoyed reading to each other. Shel Silverstein, Roald Dahl, Edward Gorey, etc. are all favorites in our house at bedtime. We’d take turns, each reading a poem and passing the book around. Afterwards, when the lights had gone out, we’d speculate about the inner lives of the characters in the poems, imagining their eventual post-poem fates. At some point in the midst of this sweet spot in the kids’ development, I realized that I wanted to try to impress them with poems of my own.

I had to be careful how I presented this undertaking. They might not technically have been teenagers yet, but they were still way too cool to just sit around and listen to their old man. Instead, I asked them to be my first editors, encouraging them to offer as harsh a critique as they could muster on each successive draft of my new poems. They relished every opportunity to tell me just how wrong I’d gotten some detail of language or the inner motivation of a character. And you know what, they were pretty much always right.

But every time I coaxed a laugh out of my kids, or got a grudging admission of approval, I knew I was onto something. And the poems started to pile up. And I got better at composing them. And before I knew it, I had the makings of an honest-to-goodness collection of kids’ poetry.

The twists of fate through which I landed at Little Brown with the great Megan Tingley and Anna Prendella, the sheer dumb luck that brought me the opportunity to collaborate with the brilliant Dan Santat… Suffice to say that I couldn’t have gotten any luckier. But my kids? Max and Soleil are somehow still wildly unimpressed. Guess I better get back to work.

yrs,
Rhett


 

A Conversation with Samira Ahmed & Monica Hesse, authors of Internment and The War Outside

LB School: How did the ideas for each of your books come to you, and why did you feel that they were stories that needed to be told?

 

Samira Ahmed: I always see a character first and then begin by writing a short story around that character to see if the story has legs, to see if this is a character I want to build a world around. After the November 2015 terrorist attacks in Paris, there was a significant uptick in Islamobphobic rhetoric in the United States that spread to changes in policy and an increase in anti-Muslim hate crimes. There was a public guilting or scapegoating of Muslims as if all Muslims had to bear the onus of the terrible acts committed by a few. American Muslims, as ever, were seen as other, a group that continually and consistently was being asked to prove its Americanness, but always falling short because of bigoted standards.

 

That was the environment in which Layla’s story came to me. I imagined a young woman who just wanted to live her life—go to school, play on the tennis team, apply to college—but who wasn’t allowed to because of fear mongering and Islamophobia. I’m very interested in understanding and unpacking the moments in childhood where life is shattered—how kids react to that gross unfairness, how they respond, how they resist. I believe that teens can be incredibly brave—are often forced to be—because of the failure and cowardice of adults. It doesn’t mean they’re not scared—their courage comes from being scared but knowing act and speak out anyway. That is what I set out to explore in Internment.

 

Monica Hesse: While I was doing some research for a previous book, I came across a black and white photo of a young woman in a tiara, wearing a corsage. It had obviously been taken at a school dance; the caption said the girl was 16, and the prom queen of Federal High School in Crystal City, Texas. It also explained that Crystal City was an internment camp. This completely blew my mind. If your education was like mine, Japanese internment in World War II was skimmed over in history class—maybe something you’d talk about for a day or two. I didn’t know much about individual experiences, and I was completely drawn to this young woman in the photograph. What would it be like to be the prom queen of your internment camp? What kind of internment camp would even have such a thing?

 

It turned out that Crystal City also had a football team, cheerleaders, a beauty salon—and that hundreds of teenagers, Japanese-American and German-American, grew up there, trying to eke out a regular American existence against the backdrop of imprisonment. I’m always looking for stories like that: what is it like to be a normal teenager in an abnormal time, and impossible circumstances? My two main characters, Haruko and Margot, are now prisoners through no fault of their own. Their families are falling apart. Their worlds are upended. And they have to ask themselves: in a camp full of people the government says are spies, who can they trust? How do you know who the enemy is, when your country says it’s you?

LBS: Internment is set in a near future that has arresting similarities to our own current world. How do you think fiction, and in particular YA fiction, helps foster and guide much-needed conversations about tough topics?

 

SA: I say that Internment is set 15 minutes into a terrifying future, but the fact is, the events of the novel are rooted in elements of America’s deeply disturbing history. Too often, we believe that specific moments in time—like this crucible we seem to be living in now—exist in a vacuum. But the past is prologue. I think young adult literature is a perfect place to explore this idea—how the past is always with us, but also how we are not doomed to repeat the past.

I believe that young adult literature exists in the realm of possibility—a space where tough questions can be asked and where difficulties are encountered, but, ultimately, a place of hope. As young people are forming their own politics and coming into adulthood, it’s a unique opportunity to speak to tough topics. I think teens are incredibly capable of rooting out truths and while the 24-hour news cycle confronts us with facts and “facts” without end, I believe fiction allows us to explore ideas in deeper and complex way. Fiction enables us to see our interrelatedness as human beings.

 

LBS: The War Outside is set in 1944 during WWII and focuses on an aspect of American history that isn’t much spoken about. What do you think historical fiction can teach us about our current world? What attracts you to historical fiction, and what do you think it offers readers?

 

MH: There are a few essential questions the United States keeps asking, at various times and about various groups of people. What does it mean to be an American? Who belongs in this country, and how should we treat the new people who arrive? We asked that question about slavery in the Civil War, we asked it about Japanese immigrants in World War II, and we’re asking it now, about immigrants and asylum seekers from the southern border. The rhetoric that government officials were using at the time to justify internment camps is really similar to the rhetoric used now to justify putting minors in detention centers now. They’re hard, complicated issues. But to me, historical fiction is a way to think and talk about those issues in a space that feels safe.

 

LBS: What does resistance mean to each of you?

 

MH: I think we often get preoccupied with big, dramatic acts of resistance: protests, rescue missions and escapes. But there’s a quieter kind of resistance that is no less important: the small, noble act of keeping your humanity when the world is inhumane. Refusing to believe that someone is less than you just because they’re different than you. Willing yourself to be a rigorous thinker in a sea of propaganda. Those are small, quiet acts that anyone can do, and they’re deeply important. That’s the kind of resistance in The War Outside.

 

SA: Oppression and silent complicity go hand in hand. Resistance, to me, means, first, and foremost, refusing to be silent. We must speak truth to power, in the best ways we are able and with the means we can access. I know not everyone can march or protest or perform acts of civil disobedience, but we simply cannot afford to be silent. And it may feel uncomfortable, or difficult, but we all must use the power and privilege that we have to dismantle the mechanisms that seek to harm the very foundations of our democracy and our humanity. Sometimes this means confronting difficult truths about ourselves—about our willingness to sacrifice a part of our privilege so that we can lift others up. One thing I know, no human being is born voiceless, but many are forcibly silenced by those who use their power as a bludgeon. We cannot let that stand.

 

LBS: What do you want readers to take away from each of your books?

 

MH: Wars don’t just happen to countries, they happen to people. The biggest ones can happen inside yourself. I hope The War Outside invites young readers to think about what they believe, and where those beliefs came from, and how far they’d go to protect them.

 

SA: I believe that the seemingly simple act of reading, is in fact, profound. Reading is resistance.

Though Layla’s life and circumstances may be very different than theirs, I hope young readers will be able to see a part of themselves in Layla’s hopes and dreams and her fierce desire to be free, live life on her terms and combat the sinister forces of silent complicity and overt oppression. I hope that Internment encourages readers to ask critical questions about how Layla’s fictional world is a reflection of the world we live in now. I hope young readers will realize that their voices and their actions can change the world by drawing attention to injustices and by compelling politicians to change the policies that strip away the rights of their fellow human beings. I hope that young readers will realize the power they have to speak up and speak out when they see injustice in their schools, communities and their nation. Young people are brave. They shouldn’t have to be, but too often, those who should be protecting them press them into horrifying circumstances—still their courage shines. It’s a light. I hope they use it to lead the way, forward.

 


 


Author Essay: Tony Abbott

On Revisitng Old Characters in The Great Jeff

 

When I wrote Firegirl, published thirteen years ago now, like most readers, I had a problem with Jeff Hicks, a boy who bullied both Tom Bender, who tells the story, and Jessica, a girl whose horrific accident left her disfigured and isolated. While Tom gets to know Jessica a bit, Jeff’s response to her is unrepentantly cruel. When Tom Bender drops him as a friend at the end, I thought it was a good thing.

And it was a good thing. For Tom. But only for a while.

I’ve written before about how a few years ago, not thinking about these old characters at all, I saw a boy, and within seconds knew he was Jeff Hicks. I had privately vowed that I wouldn’t return to the world of Firegirl in another book. I’d said what I wanted to there, and had moved on to other things. But the power of Jeff’s “appearance” was striking. In that brief glimpse, the core of a new story—the gradual, then swift disintegration of Jeff’s home life—rolled over me. I felt instant sympathy for this character who, like Tom and many readers, had been left in the cold. I could say Tom left him, but in truth it was I who had left him in the cold.

Now, here he was again.

Learning his current situation, I found it heartbreaking, and knew that—like everyone we see—he had a story just as important and real as Tom’s or Jessica’s. He was just as human, he hurt and bled, got angry and laughed like we do, and was mortally terrified of losing himself to whatever bad thing was out there.

So I followed him. I shadowed him, peeked in, listened, put his words on paper, transcribing what he said and thought about his life, about his mother’s inability to keep a roof over his head. This became The Great Jeff, which I’ve never thought of as an ironic title in any way. This is his personal story, filled with Jeff-isms that will make readers weep and wince, but it’s all too common, and it’s all around us. When substance abuse meets poverty, when pride and anger combine, when safety nets are stretched too thin, people fall. Jeff Hicks is a snotty kid, fiercely angry about so many things he’s been handed to deal with, but he deserves to be helped.

Writing The Great Jeff has been one of the most rewarding experiences of my close to thirty years imagining books for younger readers. I’m deeply proud of it, as I’m proud of who Jeff becomes, and can become beyond this book. Because of his vulnerability and inner strength, and his humor, he is one of my favorite people.

I hope readers come to The Great Jeff and are able to bring him into their lives as I did.

 


 

Author Essay: Florence Gonsalves

A couple of years ago, when I’d just graduated from college, scared out of my mind with no idea what the future would hold, humor kind of saved my life. “Ancient Greece isn’t hiring,” I told people who asked how my philosophy degree would influence my career path. “I’ll probably be permanently unemployed in the year 450 BCE.”

 

At first, I’d tried the whole, “I’ll probably go to law school!” approach, but that wasn’t the truth at all and telling that little white lie was making me feel worse and worse. The truth was I was petrified, and the only way I could access those emotions was by poking a little fun at myself. Once I started joking about my predicament, I was able to come to terms with it and eventually move past it.

 

Instead of law school, I ended up writing what would become my debut novel, Love and Other Carnivorous Plants. The story follows nineteen-year-old Danny’s summer after her freshmen year of college. It covers a lot of taboo subjects—eating disorders, mental health concerns, drug and alcohol abuse, and questioning one’s sexuality. Danny’s approach to such “touchy” issues is to joke about them, which results in a lot of humor for a book about some pretty serious stuff.

 

One of the beautiful things about fiction is its capacity to speak to real life issues in a person’s life, but to do that the characters (and of course, the author!) have to somehow find a way into what is otherwise hush-hush. So often taboo topics aren’t discussed at all because they are treated so seriously. And treating a subject as so serious that it can’t be joked ironically increases its taboo.

 

As a writer, humor gives me the permission to approach the things that society tells me I shouldn’t. It is the access point to otherwise unapproachable topics, and if we never approach such things, how can we expect to confront them at all? If Danny couldn’t joke about her bulimia, for example, she wouldn’t have been able to talk about it, which would have been a missed opportunity to really explore the pain (but also the occasional lol! moment) of her situation. Taboo creates shame and shame creates secrets, as well as shadows where even darker emotions hide. I think it’s much more important that difficult subjects be broached in the first place, especially because usually those difficult subjects make a person feel lonely and laughter is a universal connector. A good HAHA! brings people together at times when connection is most needed, and at some point the humor does fall away, making room for other emotions.

 

I am so grateful that humor exists as a way of shedding light on those parts of ourselves that most need it. Laughter allows transformation to occur through acknowledgment and acceptance of what is, regardless of how lousy things seem. When it comes to expressing our struggles, I say, as Vievee Francis does, “Say it. Say it any way you can.” Find a way in to a find a way out. Crying is inevitable. Why not let laughter be, too?