the week ahead, and thoughts on Francisco X. Stork, Luanne Rice, Carolyn Mackler, and David Levithan

Sunday, March 13, 2016

You know how, when the fever finally breaks, you emerge new (again) to the world? These past many days, fighting the flu that has afflicted so many, fighting the political news that is equally afflicting, I have been preparing for the week ahead—losing myself inside a heated fog, waking with urgency, getting out into the world, then rushing back home to my couch and its furry cover, where, again, I try to prepare—shrugging off the fever, then succumbing to it.

This week: The first workshopping of memoirs in my class at Penn, on Tuesday. A talk about Philadelphia stories at the Union League, on Wednesday. The alumni publishing event, at Penn, on Thursday. The NYCTAF panel, "Perspectives," featuring Carolyn Mackler, Luanne Rice, Francisco X. Stork, myself, and moderator David Levithan, on Friday at the New York Public Library (South Court), at 4:40. My first signing of This Is the Story of You at Books of Wonder on Sunday, at 2:30 (alongside many other wonderful writers).

(For more on any of these events, or additional events, including the upcoming keynote for the annual Historic Rittenhousetown fundraiser, see the sidebar on this page.)

The only way I know how to prepare for a panel is to read the work of my fellow panelists. And so I have. I began with The Memory of Light, Stork's moving meditation on depression and mental unwellness. This is the story of Vicky, a second-best sort of sister mourning the death of her mother who no longer wishes to live and whose suicide attempt fails. Rushed to a hospital, Vicky becomes friends with others her age who are also battling demons. Vicky needs a reason to believe that her life is worth living. She doubts that it is for long stretches of this book. But as her new friends spiral into unsettling places—and as they reveal their own humanity—something shifts.

Stork, whose Marcelo in the Real World is a book that also must be read, writes from a true place, a deep understanding of a condition, depression that, while it affects so many, remains so poorly understood: "You are not the clouds or even the blue sky where clouds live," Vicky is told. "You are the sun behind them, giving light to all, and the sun is made up of goodness and kindness and life."

With The Secret Language of Sisters, Luanne Rice, a bestselling adult novelist (whose work has often been translated to TV),  presents her YA debut—the story of two sisters whose lives are irrevocably changed by a texting-when-driving accident. Roo, a photographer, hopes to be headed to Yale. Tilly, the younger sister, is envious/proud of Roo's abilities and grace. The accident that results from Roo's response to Tilly's text leaves Roo with locked-in syndrome—the same terrifying condition that lies at the heart of Jean Dominique-Bauby's memoir, The Diving Bell and the Butterfly. As the novel unfolds, the two sisters speak to us—yes, both sisters, despite the fact that no one (but us) can hear Roo's thoughts for the longest time.

I remembered my seizure, Tilly standing there—the worst feeling I've ever had, thrashing around with no control, hearing her scream just before I passed out. I woke up being restrained—or at least that's what I thought. I thought they had tied me down. Then I realized, No, there are no straps. It's me—I can't move. I can't speak. I can't get anyone to hear me. 
Rice has created a story of triumphal love despite harrowing circumstances.

Then there is the beloved Carolyn Mackler, author of The Earth, My Butt, and Other Big Round Things (a Printz honor book), The Future of Us (co-authored with Jay Asher), and others. In her new book, Infinite in Between, Mackler traces the intertwined lives of five high school students who survive freshman orientation and step (sometimes sideways, sometimes backwards, but finally ahead) toward graduation—five likable teens whose differences bind them.

Of the five, Zoe, the daughter of a celebrity now in rehab, is the most (ruefully) famous. We first meet her when she learns that her mother has (without saying goodbye) left their Colorado home. Zoe's life is about to change:
Zoe bit at her thumbnail. She knew things were getting worse with her mom, but it wasn't like anyone was talking about it. It wasn't like anyone ever talked about anything.

"What?" she asked, her voice rising.

Rosa touched her arm. Their housekeeper was on the older side and had a granddaughter around Zoe's age she sometimes brought over.

"I know it's not fair," Rosa said, "but you can try to make the best of it."

"Where is Hankinson, anyway?"

"It's in New York State. Your aunt lives there. That's nice, right? You're going to stay with her for a while."
Finally, there is David Levithan himself, who, with all his charisma and intelligence, constructs New York City Teen Author Festival—a mammoth undertaking involving more than a dozen venues and 110 authors. Every day, including today, at the Strand, there are events. David is behind each one. We're so grateful to him for opening these doors, and I'm grateful that he'll be moderating our panel—bringing his insights as an editor and his great talents as a writer.


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