Cos Cob author Sarah Darer Littman is becoming quite the prolific young adult (YA) author. Her third YA novel, "Life, After," was recently published, her fourth is due out in 2011 -- and she is currently at work on her fifth.
As with her previous novels, Littman has her finger on the pulse of the times. Her first YA novel, "Confessions of a Closet Catholic," published in 2005, dealt with religious conflict and won her the 2006 Sydney Taylor Book Award, which is presented by the Association of Jewish Libraries. Her second book, "Purge," chronicled teen bulimia. In "Life, After," she examines the effect of terrorism on teenaged lives. In the book, the lives of two teenagers spiral down and then connect: one in Argentina after a terrorist attack takes the life of a family member and a crumbling economy causes her family's move to America; while another teenager in suburban New York is dealing with life after the death of her father on 9/11.
The opening line, said by Argentinean teen Daniela, aptly begins the tale, "Normal kids were happy when the bell rang at the end of the school day."
Later, the New York teen, Jessica shares with Daniela memories of her father, "The first thing I'd say to him when he got home from a business trip was, `What did you bring me?'"
The story deals with the difficulties of embracing a second language, and finding the way to new relationships. As the mother of two teenagers, Littman has a ready audience and counsel. To learn more about her new YA novel, Life, After the Citizen asked Littman a few questions.
You're drawn to addressing serious subjects. How did the idea for "Life, After" come to you?
This idea rose from the ashes of a rejected book proposal about a boy with Aspergers Syndrome. The editor suggested I rewrite it from the perspective of the boy's sibling, but I'd just read an advanced reader's copy of Cynthia Lord's "Rules" (which subsequently won a Newbery Honor Medal) so I knew that had already been done, brilliantly. However, one thing I'd observed with my son, who has Aspergers, is that in both elementary and middle school, he tended to make friends from foreign countries, primarily South America, and I wondered if that was due to a shared feeling of "otherness." It's also common for kids with Asperger's to have problems with idioms and their expressions that non-native speakers also find puzzling, sometimes with embarrassing consequences.
While pondering this I was feeling frustrated by the perception of some of my fellow Americans that terrorism had sprung to life on September 11th, 2001. Even as an eight-year-old girl taking the Tube to school in London during the IRA bombing campaigns of the early 1970's, I was aware of that risk and the need to be vigilant for unattended parcels or bags. That's why I chose Argentina as the home country for my main character, Daniela. The 1994 bombing of the Jewish community center (A.M.I.A.) in Buenos Aires, which killed 85 people and injured hundreds more, looms large in her life before she and her family emigrate to the United States as a result of the Argentinean economic crisis in 2002. When I first started writing the book back in 2004, however, I couldn't get the voice right and thus put it in a drawer and wrote what became my second novel, "Purge."
One of the reasons I'm drawn to serious subjects is because as a teen, books provided a way for me to figure things out -- and I'm old enough that there wasn't a "young adult" category when I was a teen, so I skipped straight to the grown up section. If I felt freakish and misunderstood, I could always find a character in a book to relate to -- even if they lived in 18th c. England or in Middle Earth.
That's why I think it's a huge mistake for adults to censor what kids read. Books provide a safe way to explore and process topics, without engaging in risky behavior. Parents who think that their kids will read a book with a sex scene and immediately go out and start "doing it" or become homosexual as a result of reading about a gay character don't understand this -- and in 99 percent of the cases haven't even read the books they are trying to have withdrawn from circulation.
I might encourage my kids to wait a year or two to read a certain book if I feel the subject matter might be disturbing, but the right book in the hands of a child at the right time for that individual (because every kid is different) can be life changing. That's why it's so critical to fight to save funding for librarian jobs and to support our independent booksellers. These folks are the experts at matching kids with books.
The book is dedicated to Claudette Greene who apparently was integral to the book's writing.
This idea for "Life, After" might well have languished in my drawer if I hadn't met with a mother/daughter book group that had read my first book, "Confessions of a Closet Catholic." Claudette e-mailed to thank me afterwards. She said that she'd lost her husband, Donald, on 9/11 and asked if I'd ever considered writing a book for teens on that subject, because there weren't any at the time. I e-mailed her the synopsis that had been gathering dust and she encouraged me to write the book. Fortunately, my editors at Scholastic agreed. Having met Claudette and listened to her experiences, I felt more connected to the characters and came back to the story with renewed passion.
The book employs a confident smattering of Argentinean Spanish. How did you acquire that knowledge? And how do you capture the language of teens? Do your kids read your books as you write them?
I took one year of Spanish in college, which, as my kids are fond of reminding me, was sometime around when dinosaurs roamed the Earth, so I knew I was going to need help. For the first draft, I used my rusty recollections and online dictionaries. Then I enlisted native-speaking helpers, like my daughter's friend Laura, who read through an early draft and corrected my mistakes.
My daughter Amie has become a useful, although extremely tough teen critic. A typical margin note for "Life, After" read: "If you use the word querida one more time I will SHOOT you!!!!!" I immediately e-mailed my sister's Argentinean friend, Ximena, and told her that my life was in danger unless she could provide me with terms of endearment for a daughter, which, thankfully, she did.
I think the emotions of being a teen are timeless, but life is speeded up for kids today, so that the situations that I might have encountered at sixteen, kids are facing at thirteen or even younger. The language does change and that's why I make sure I have age appropriate "test readers" to ensure I'm not using outdated lingo. I also watch teen shows on TV, subscribe to teen magazines, and, much to my daughter's mortification, I'm a shameless eavesdropper.
What is the title and subject of your next book to be published in 2011? And can you give us a glimpse of what you're working on now?
"Want to go Private?," which will be published by Scholastic Press in July 2011, is about a high school freshman who becomes involved with an Internet predator. I was inspired to write it after hearing a talk about Internet Safety given by Supervisory Special Agent (SA) Tom Lawler of the New Haven FBI at my son's school, and I ended up working with SA Lawler and MaryBeth Miklos for detailed research.
Without a doubt, it's the most disturbing book I've ever written. My daughter would come home from school while I was writing a scene between Abby, the main character, and the predator, and I'd tell her, "Stay away from me! I'm a dirty man!" The most difficult scene to write -- what actually happens to Abby when she's in the motel room with the predator -- doesn't even appear in the book except for brief snippets in flashback. After reading the first draft of the book, my editor said it sounded like they'd just gone for a car ride together and I realized I'd shied away from writing that scene -- partly because it's a YA novel and as a YA author one is always walking a fine line between realism and not being overly graphic for one's audience, but deep down it was because I really didn't want to think about what happened.
When I started writing "that scene," I started having horrible nightmares, so I stopped for a few weeks. But then I got to the point in revisions where I couldn't go on unless I knew what happened in those four walls, so one day when the kids were at school I forced myself to go there. If I hadn't had to drive a carpool that afternoon, I'd have had a stiff drink afterwards.
I'm full of admiration and gratitude for the members of the law enforcement community who deal with this stuff day in and day out to make life safer for our kids. I don't know how they do it and stay sane. And after everything I've learned, I think installing monitoring software on my kids' laptops four years ago was one of the best decisions I ever made. My children know that it's on there and have since day one -- I told them that it's the price of them being on the Internet.
At the moment I'm working on a novel about a WASPy kid from Darien who ends up haunted by an elderly Yiddish-speaking ghost. While there are some serious themes, I'm enjoying the opportunity to explore my more humorous side, especially after writing "Want to go Private?"
What manner of writer's support do you have with your writing?
I meet with a critique group once a month, mostly comprised of writers whom I met in Diana Klemin's Writing Books for Children course at Greenwich Continuing Education, which I took in 2002. We each read a chapter of our current work aloud and everyone gives constructive and incredibly useful feedback. One of my critique group members came up with the title "Want to go Private?" for which I owe him, big time.
There's a local chapter of the Society of Children's Book Writers and Illustrators that has great workshops, usually held at the Harry Bennett Branch of the Stamford Library. http://lowerfairfieldwriters.blogspot.com/
Since I spend most of my working life alone in my basement, I'm a big believer in "the Online Water Cooler" -- connecting with a community of writers, readers, librarians, booksellers, editors and agents on social networking sites like Twitter and Facebook. You can learn a lot about the business that way, and by participating in the weekly Twitterchats like #kidlitchat and #yalitchat. I have to be careful though -- the Internet can be a great Time Suck and ultimately my job is always to write the next book.