Sunday, August 30, 2015

Stoppering Summer--by Ellen Jensen Abbott (with some help from Ray Bradbury)

Ray Bradbury’s novel, Dandelion Wine, was one of my first thoughts when I heard that our theme for this month included sunsets and the end of summer. In Dandelion Wine, Bradbury follows Douglas Spaulding through a single summer of his boyhood--a summer that is then captured and stoppered in the batches of dandelion wine Douglas and his grandfather make.  I love the image of summer bottled in the cellar to be savored throughout the gray days of winter. I’ll let Bradbury do the talking for me this month:

Dandelion wine.

The words were summer on the tongue. The wine was summer caught and stoppered. And now that Douglas knew, he really knew he was alive, and moved turning through the world to touch and see it all, it was only right and proper that some of his new knowledge, some of this special vintage day would be sealed away for opening on a January day with snow falling fast and the sun unseen for weeks or months and perhaps some of the miracle by then forgotten and in need of renewal. Since that was going to be a summer of unguessed wonders, he wanted it all salvaged and labeled so that any time he wished, he might tiptoe down in the dank twilight and reach up his finger tips.

And there, row upon row, with the soft gleam of flowers opened at morning, with the light of this June sun glowing through a faint skin of dust, would stand the dandelion wine.

June dawns, July noons, August evenings over, finished, done, and gone forever with only the sense of it all left here in his head….And if he should forget, the dandelion wine stood in the cellar, numbered huge for each and every day. He would go there often, stare straight into the sun until he could stare no more, then close his eyes and consider the burned spots, the fleeting scars left dancing on his warm eyelids; arranging, rearranging each fire and reflection until the pattern was clear….

Image result for dandelion wine

Saturday, August 29, 2015


So it occurred to me that for the past thirty-five years, my concept of a year begins in August and ends in July. Thirteen years in public school, four in college, and now I enter my nineteenth year as a teacher.

Figuring in the time it takes to break down a classroom at the end of the school year and set one up in August, I still have about eight or nine solid weeks of vacation. A seventy day weekend. And due to my writing, I can guiltlessly decline to teach summer school every year.

On top of all that, my wife is also a teacher. And my daughter is still in school, so I can spend time with them. Which is a good thing, because I think Sandra would divorce me if she had to work all summer and I didn't.

But a work-free summer is not all fun and games! I mean, think of the reruns we have to endure. And when you go to look at your favorite website and realize that they're not updating it today because it's the weekend. God, will Monday never come?

Or when you realize it's actually four in the morning and your sleep schedule is so wonky that you're not even tired, but there's no one to chat with because so few of your friends are teachers. I get surprisingly little sympathy from them about my woes.

But before you know it, it's August again, and I have to put my four different classrooms in order (a library and computer lab in two schools). And now I'm back in the game, saying things like 'use your inside voice' and listening to politicians who could never manage a classrooom telling us how we're overpaid.

But nine months later I can start devolving into a monkey person, as I've done ever summer since Jimmy Carter was president.

In conclusion, neener neener.

Friday, August 28, 2015

Birthday Time

I had this whole post in my mind about how crazy hectic this summer has been and how I was already planning for the great things to come NEXT summer since this one was exhausting. Then, I started thinking about WHAT I was planning and decided to just focus on the happy. So instead of writing about just another manic summer, I'm going to blog about birthdays.

My birthday is in the summer. So is my kid's. He turned eight in July and had been talking about this year's party since the July he turned seven. I'm not exaggerating. It's been a year of what he'll do for his eighth birthday and the cake and who's invited and who's uninvited (which changed daily) and backyard party vs. other kind of party and so on. By the first week of this July, there was so much talk about it, my husband and I had to put a moratorium on birthday talk. One mention a day for five minutes was all that was allowed. In case you were wondering (which, how can you not be, right?), we had a video game truck come to our house. We served pizza and Oreo ice cream cake. He had a great time, so of course he's already started planning next year's party. The thing I realized, though, is that I totally get where he's coming from with all this birthday stuff, even if my husband doesn't.

See, I'm a summer birthday, too. Mine is in August. Unlike him, I spent every summer away from home and with my grandparents. We stayed in a bungalow colony. I had summer friends and school friends. My grandpa planned a birthday party for all the kids at the colony, complete with games and prizes. My parents came up for the weekend and brought cake and pizza. My party was the highlight of everyone's summer. There was no anxiety with who to invite or if they would come. If someone forgot, you knocked on their screen door. There was nowhere else to go. My party was the happening thing. And yet while I look at that really fondly now, as a kid I missed having a party back in my hometown with those friends. I missed celebrating in school (back then, schools were hardcore and didn't let you bring cupcakes unless your birthday actually fell during the school months). When I was 15, I stopped going to the colony, and started having parties at home. I looked forward to that party all year. Seriously. All. Year. It was my favorite part of summer.

As an adult, I'm the same way. Birthdays were always such a big deal in my family. This year was kind of a crappy birthday because I had a deadline and spent all day working. There was a new place I wanted to try for dinner and was in such a bad mood I almost didn't go. But then there was my kid's sad face about not celebrating my birthday and my husband's insistence I get out of the house...and we went. And I'm so glad I did, and it reminded me that I can't let summer just be summer. Even with work and deadlines, the birthday has to be important. So...I started planning next year's already. I'm thinking Disneyworld. I plan on wearing a crown. I'm such a Leo. My kid is very excited. I think we're driving my husband crazy because we've taking turns waxing poetic about our plans for our birthdays next year (he's thinking a waterpark).

So, yeah, I get my eight-year-old, the angst that comes with celebrating and hoping things work out and not wanting to be disappointed. We all need things to look forward to. And sometimes we need to look forward to them every day. Especially when the summer is less than you thought it would be and you almost forgot what was important.

Thursday, August 27, 2015

August (Jennifer R. Hubbard)

When I was growing up, summers were long and lazy. Until I was fifteen, I didn’t go to camp or any other organized activity. We didn’t have a vacation home. Summer was for staying home and figuring out how to manage my time.

I’m grateful I had those seasons, which looked endless from the vantage point of June. I had two assets that have become incredibly precious since then: time and leisure. Summer was the only time of year that I didn’t have to get up before six AM, attend classes, do homework.

The stories I made up (and often acted out) to fill those days were good for at least two things: they opened up the creative outlet that became writing, and they taught me how to entertain myself, how not to rely on external sources. I did have library books and TV, but my TV-watching was rationed by parents who wanted me to get fresh air, and I could plow through a stack of library books within a couple of days of checking them out. Sometimes I played games or swam, but mostly play time was about making up stories. I made up stories for my sister and me to act out, stories for our dolls, stories for the plastic animals we played with. I began to write some of them down.

Every August, when the back-to-school shopping started and the back-to-school ads haunted the airwaves and the Sunday paper, I would feel the cold shadow of fall creep up on me. Fall was darkness, alarm clocks, a return to rigidly scheduled life. August was the sunset of summer, the final golden days of freedom. August was the month when I realized summer really was finite. But in August, the cicadas and the crickets still sang; it was still warm enough to go barefoot. Summer was ending ... but not yet.

Wednesday, August 26, 2015

THE END...or Not (Courtney McKinney-Whitaker)

I didn't have much to say about the end of summer, so I put a little twist on the idea of endings and wrote about the ends of books instead.

 I love epilogues.

There. I said it.

I know this is a controversial statement. I know a bunch of people got really upset over the epilogues in Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows and Mockingjay, like they were some kind of self-indulgent authorly copout or weren't realistic or didn't fit with readers' own ideas about what should have happened.

I liked them because, first of all, more book for me. I do not understand people complaining about more book. Here's a story you like and here's...more of it. Then what happened? You don't have to wonder because...this is what happened.

In the case of the two books I mentioned, the complaints I've heard seem to center around the main characters' being okay and living relatively normal lives. Like Katniss shouldn't have married Peeta and had children because the revolution is more important than love and she's bowing to gender norms. She should keep fighting the revolution. Blah. Blah. Blah. Maybe she fought as hard as she could. Maybe she did her part. Maybe she's done. Maybe that's okay. Cut the girl some slack, geez. The fact that she decides to have children at all is a big indicator of how much her character has changed and how much she has healed.

Same thing with Harry Potter. How dare Voldemort really be dead and gone? How dare Harry Potter's scar not hurt? Um, because good did win, in the end. (Spoilers, sorry.) And for the record, I think Harry and Hermione would have been miserable as a couple, and I'm glad things turned out the way they did, though I have always wondered if Ginny felt like a fourth wheel on a tricycle.

My one published novel, The Last Sister, has an epilogue, and I have heard the "Ick, an epilogue," comments. I've also heard. "I'm so glad there was an epilogue because even though they were okay in the end, they could have gotten hacked to pieces in the next moment, so it's good to know they weren't." It is. It is good to know. One reader told me she wished I hadn't left that whole long part out, and I was like, "What whole long part?" She meant the fifteen years between the end of the story proper and the epilogue. I took that as a compliment.

Fun Fact: The main character, Catie, is the same age in the epilogue as I am now.

To tell you the truth, I don't remember when I added the epilogue. It's the only book I've written that has one because some books seem to ask for them and some don't. If an epilogue seems called for, I write it. If not, I don't.

But I'm never sorry to see an epilogue at the end of a book.

There's a good takeaway in all these epilogues. The end is not THE END. The bad things (often books are about bad things because conflict) that happen in one part of your life don't have to define the rest of it.

In all these books, really, really bad things happen. Terrible, traumatizing things. The epilogues prove that the characters do more than survive. They go on to make good lives.

It seems cruel to deny them that.

The Doctor agrees with me. I wish Van Gogh's good things had helped more.

Saturday, August 22, 2015

"It's hot!" And other school dress code problems (by Patty Blount)

Sorry, all! Forgot to hit the switch on this post that was supposed to go live yesterday.

All this month, we Outsiders are blogging about summer ending, summer heat, and summer sunsets. As I write this, back-to-school commercials advertising fall fashions are playing on my TV.


Is it me, or is time moving at warp speed?

Here on Long Island, school begins in September, but for many areas of the country, school has already begun  -- and so have the annual dress code wars. It's still hot and many schools aren't air conditioned so all these fall fashions aren't appropriate yet.

Niether is asking girls to cover up.

I am the mother of sons -- I don't have a daughter to shop with, so I'm not "up" on the latest styles and trends for girls. I can tell you this, though... I used to be astounded by what I saw some of the girls wearing to school when I dropped off my boys. Shorts so short, I could see underwear. Tops cut so low, I could see bra. Mini skirts. Belly buttons, you name it.

And then I wrote a book called Some Boys that changed my whole perspective.

While researching this story, I kept coming across something called rape culture. At the time, I thought that was just some term made up by the media but now I know it's a very real and dangerous thing that provides excuses for poor behavior by shifting blame and responsibility for that bad behavior to victims.

Harassed by boys? It's your fault for wearing that top, that skirt, those shoes. It's your fault for walking down that corridor. It's YOUR fault.

No. Just no.

It is not your fault. The only person at fault here is the boy who chooses to disrespect you.

And here's the flip side of my argument. I'm the mother of two sons. I do not make excuses for their bad choices and bad behavior. I don't shrug and give you one of those insipid little smiles and say, "Oh, you know...boys will be boys!"

That's an excuse. 

And a poor one at that because there should be NO excuse for harassment, for assault, or for rape.

Dress codes that enforce ridiculous rules -- don't show your knees, don't show your collar bone, don't show this... they are perpetuating rape culture by providing handy excuses to boys and men for their bad decisions. Dress codes are really saying things like this:

"I couldn't help myself! My penis saw her exposed knee caps and just had to penetrate her! I'm just a poor boy who cannot control his own body! It's not my fault. It's hers. If she'd only covered up those knees, I wouldn't have raped her."

*gag*  Please.

As the mother of sons, I am disgusted that we are to believe our boys are incapable of being more than just a walking sex organ. That they cannot control their bodies or urges. That they cannot understand a girl's body is not their playground. This is insulting and degrading to the boys I'm trying to raise. You're telling my boys that there is no hope for them -- it's just a matter of time before they rape someone.

I get it... I do. Schools want a distraction-free place to learn. Children of both sexes should dress tastefully and respectfully. Okay. Fine. Enforce dress codes but don't degrade children while you do it. Calling them a distraction does both sexes a disservice. Maybe it's time we dumped sexist dress codes and instead, enforced sexual assault policies that insist on respect for everyone.

If you're a parent, what are you doing to teach your son how to treat the girls in his school? Do you make excuses or do you hold him accountable? Bra snapping, groping, dirty jokes -- none of these are respectful.

I believe no girl should ever be shamed for what she's wearing, as this girl was for wearing this outfit.

"Nobody gets it. I was with friends! People I know, people I've known for all of high school and even before that. I should have been able to stand there buck naked and be safe. Why didn't anybody help me when I passed out? Isn't that what friends are supposed to do? Why did Zac think because I was unconscious, my body is nothing more than a, than a slot for him to use just because he was pissed off and horny?"  Grace Collier in Some Boys by Patty Blount
Instead of enforcing sexist dress codes, how else do you think we can address rape culture in our school system?

Tuesday, August 18, 2015

Summers Have Always Gone Too Fast (Alissa Grosso)

I know that the cliche is that time seems to speed up the older you get, but to me summer has always been subject to its own peculiar temporal rules. Despite the longer days, July and August seemed to zip right by, while September and October dragged along. I guess the cliche in place here is time flies when you're having fun.

As a kid summers were a magical time, where I had almost unlimited freedom. I could read whatever books I felt like reading, play all day and was free to create whatever sort of things I wanted: stories, movies, plays and forts, among them. Summers were the time when you didn't have adults telling you what to do all the time. Note: I did still have parents in the summer, but they tended to be at work a lot of the time, and my sister and I were often left to our own devices.

But the cruel thing about summer is that it's over in the blink of an eye. Just when you are starting to get used to this new scheduleless schedule, something horrible happens, the calendar turns and suddenly it's September, and you must go back to school.

Summers have not gotten any longer now that I'm an adult, but I'm happy to report that life has gotten immeasurably better since being a grown-up means not having to go to school. (I guess that's not true if you're a teacher, but I'd be willing to wager money that the sort of people who become teachers, were also those strange, twisted individuals who looked forward to the start of a new school year.) It probably helps that I carved out a niche for myself that means it's sort of like summer year round for me.

Being a writer means creating things is a sort of job for me. I say sort of a job because being a writer doesn't exactly bring in the big bucks, but thankfully I have some assorted side ventures that pay the bills, and since these side ventures, like my writing, are a form of self employment, I don't have to deal with people telling me what to do and can create my own schedule each and every day. This reminds me a lot of the summers I remember as a kid, with one notable exception. When September rolls around, the only change is that the weather gets a little cooler, well that and I do hear the school bus stopping to pick up those poor kids at the bus stop every morning.

Kids, if you too are dreading the start of the school year in the fall, rest assured that as an adult it is entirely possible to arrange your life in such a way that it can be like summer year-round. It might take you a little while and some hard work to get to this point, but you've survived those seemingly interminable school years, so I know that you can make it through this as well.

So, while it doesn't seem possible that we're already past the midway point of August, summer's fleeting nature is not anywhere near as depressing as it was in my youth, but I'm still going to make the most of it while it's here.

Monday, August 17, 2015

Endless Summers

by Natasha Sinel

Summer used to feel endless. Growing up, we spent August on Cape Cod.

When I was a toddler, we’d sit close to the water and I’d play in the sand and build sandcastles with my mom, jump the ocean waves rolling into the shore with my dad. Eat sandwiches and potato chips. That’s when I met my oldest friend Claudia. I don’t know the exact story but I think we played together on the beach and then introduced our parents.

When I was seven, I’d read, ride waves, play Kadima with Claudia, and I’d watch the older kids who were ten, eleven, twelve. They could go in the water without their parents, go up the dune to the ice cream truck on their own.

Ice cream truck in the parking lot at Newcomb Hollow Beach, MA

When I was ten, eleven, twelve, as Claudia and I went up the dune to the ice cream truck, I’d watch the teenagers on the beach. They’d sit in a group in a big cluster of towels. The girls wore cute bikinis and the boys had washboard abs. They flirted. Some of them held hands. I made up stories about them and I wished I could be as cool as they were. I dreamed of having a boyfriend during my month on Cape Cod.

When I was seventeen, I was one of those teenagers. I sat with my group in a big cluster of towels. Claudia and I wore cute bikinis, and the boys had washboard abs. I flirted. I held hands with one of the boys, and he was my boyfriend during the second half of my month on Cape Cod. Summer seemed endless, but a summer relationship was not. 

That same summer, Claudia and I noticed a group on the beach nearby. They were much older than us, maybe twenty-three. They had coolers with beer, and they sat in beach chairs. They were mostly girls, and they had little gut-bellies that sagged just over their bikini bottoms, and they wore sunglasses and baseball caps. The boys, if there were any, had washboard abs. The post-college clique, we called them, and secretly we knew we were better because we didn’t have the little gut-bellies and we knew that if you sat in a chair all day, you wouldn’t get your back tan.

Newcomb Hollow Beach, Wellfleet, MA

Several years later, we sat in beach chairs with a cooler of beer and had little gut-bellies hanging over our bikini bottoms. I watched a group of teenagers nearby, in a big cluster of towels, with smooth abs and tan backs, and I turned to Claudia and said. “Look, we’re the post-college clique now.” She looked around at our group of girls with our gut-bellies and sunglasses and baseball caps, and the couple of boys with their washboard abs, and she shrugged. I shrugged. “Pass me a beer,” I said.

A dozen or so years after that, I built sandcastles with my toddler and watched him jump in the waves rolling into shore with his dad. We ate sandwiches and potato chips. Sometimes Claudia came over with her girls and we’d walk over to the bay with beach toys and umbrellas.

Bay beach, Truro, MA

Today, I went to the ocean with my family. And Claudia’s family. My sons are six, eight, and ten. Her daughters are ten and twelve. There was some Kadima, some riding of waves, some reading (in fact, Claudia’s twelve-year-old was reading an advance copy of my book). I wondered whether any of the kids noticed the group of teenagers sitting in a big cluster of towels behind us with their cute bikinis and washboard abs. I know I did.

Every year, summer ends. But summer memories are endless.

Natasha Sinel writes YA fiction from her home on a dirt road in Northern Westchester, NY. She drives her kids around all afternoon, but in her head, she's still in high school, and hopes that no one near her can read minds. Her debut YA novel THE FIX will be out from Sky Pony Press/Skyhorse Publishing September 1, 2015.

Sunday, August 16, 2015

A Walk to the Beach (also known as one of the hottest, most hellish days of my life) by Jody Casella

It was a bad idea to take off my flip flops.

But I wouldn't know that until I was halfway there. Or maybe it was less than halfway. The length of the jetty was deceptive. A road of rocks stretching out toward what looked like a secluded beach.

I'd made it ten feet, stumbling and slipping, before I shed the flip flops, tucking them between a wedge of rocks, hoping no one would steal them. My boyfriend ambled along easily beside me. Sneakered. His T-shirt off and tied around his head.

It wasn't really that hot of a day. August in Cape Cod is pleasant. Breezy. But on the rocks, sun beating on our backs, a cloudless sky, it was starting to feel a tad warm. Far ahead the beach was a strip of sand holding up the sky.

Maybe they'd be selling cokes up there or ice cream.

I was an idiot.

In my defense I had just turned eighteen. My boyfriend was seventeen. Now our ages seem wild to me. That we were on the Cape alone. That we'd talked our parents into letting us go camping there for a week. We had no sunscreen.

No bottled waters. (Did they make bottled waters back then? I can only remember searching out water fountains.) No credit cards. No cell phones.

Provincetown was intimidating. A mix of expensive shops and sights totally foreign to our small-dying-factory-town-in-Connecticut upbringing. We couldn't afford the ferry rides or whale watching excursions. We tried to be cool and not gawk at the same sex couples strolling hand in hand.

Walking the rock jetty seemed like the only fun, free thing to do.

The sun pounded against my face. My shoulders. The top of my head. I was most definitely getting sunburned. But I was only thinking about my feet. Carefully stepping, climbing. The rocks sharp in places. Slippery in others. I began hallucinating cans of coke. How long was this freaking jetty anyway?

My feet were really hurting. The point where I realized things were getting dangerous, it seemed smarter to keep going toward the beach than turn around and head back.

What I hadn't counted on was the sand. Not a strip after all. But a long expanse.

A desert.

When I finally reached it, I ran, my feet smoldering, my vision tunneling. Sky. Sand. Water. Water. Water. My soles scorched, numb. I am not exaggerating when I say that my feet sizzled when at last I charged into the ocean.

The water on Cape Cod is ice cold.

Too bad you can't drink it.

Whatever. I planned to roll around in it. Splash there forever nursing my poor feet. Forget college looming. Forget the impending separation from my boyfriend, who truth be told, was an asshole.

At that moment he was tromping toward me with a stricken expression on his face.

"Come here," I said. "Swim with me."

His eyes were wide, panicked. He was fumbling with his T-shirt, untying the knot, slipping it over his sunburned shoulders. "No," he said. "We have to go."

I started to argue. At the same time the world came into focus. There were no quaint shops selling ice-cold cokes or ice creams. No little kids making sand castles.

There were only naked men. Pretty much everywhere. A couple strolled in front of us in the water, waved, smiled at us, the stupid teenaged tourists.

We didn't talk on the way back. I dissociated myself away from my homophobic boyfriend. The rocks. My seared feet. The blisters bubbling up on my eyelids. I imagined I was already at the other end of the jetty eating a popsicle. Back at the campsite. Back home.

Away at college. In a different life.

With any luck it would be a life without permanently damaged feet skin and swollen eyelids.

But honestly, I had no idea what I would find at the end of the jetty, at the end of the summer. I kept stepping forward, watching my feet slap down and down.

(The 1.25 mile-long jetty at Provincetown, MA. Photo credit: Biomes Blog

Wednesday, August 12, 2015


Today, we're joined by Ashley Hope Perez on her blog tour for her latest YA, OUT OF DARKNESS. I adore historical YAs, and jumped at the chance to read OUT OF DARKNESS as an ARC. It didn't disappoint. Utterly gripping and thought-provoking and beautifully written. I also jumped at the chance to talk to Ashley about her work...

HOLLY SCHINDLER: I was unfamiliar with the horrific event of 1937—I read up on it a bit before diving into your book. Where did you first learn of the New London school explosion? Why did you feel compelled to write about it?  

ASHLEY HOPE PEREZ: I grew up about twenty minutes from New London, and on a drive once my dad pointed out the site of the school where a natural gas explosion killed almost three hundred children in 1937. I never heard about it in school, though, and I always had the impression that it was something you weren’t supposed to talk about in public. 

This photo was taken shortly after the New London school exploded, killing hundreds. Photo courtesy of the New London Museum.

Even with what little I knew, I always thought the explosion would make a compelling backdrop for a novel. After I finished The Knife and the Butterfly, I began making trips back to East Texas to do research. One thing I noticed was that accounts of the explosion focused exclusively on how it affected the white community. There was no mention of how the event impacted the African American community, whose children were spared precisely because they’d been excluded from the white school, which had remarkable opportunities for the time thanks to oil money. I also came across a student killed in the explosion who may well have been Mexican-American. Whereas areas with large Latino populations often segregated children into hugely substandard “Mexican” schools, in New London there were only white and “colored” schools, so a Hispanic child could well have attended the white school. 

These considerations and discoveries were what led me to develop a plot that centers on an African American boy and a Mexican American girl who has recently arrived from San Antonio. When I started writing, I knew that the explosion would affect the lives of my characters, but I didn’t know exactly how. The answer to that question came from learning more about my characters, their pasts, their secrets, and what they want.

HS: Are you a fan of historical fiction? What are your own favorite historic reads?

AHP: I do enjoy fiction that engages with historical subjects, especially when it captures aspects of experience that are often overlooked in history with a capital “H”—the history written by white folks, the history of the victors, etc. Among YA novels marketed as historical, my absolute favorites are Markus Zusak’s The Book Thief and Elizabeth Wein’s Code Name Verity. Both are deeply affecting and also brilliantly plotted and styled. I also enjoy adult fiction dealing with history. (Can you tell the term “historical fiction” is not my favorite? It just sounds so stuffy!) Some favorites are Dolen Perkins-Valdez’s Wench, Arundhati Roy’s The God of Small Things, and Dennis LeHane’s The Given Day.

HS: It seems as though we’re getting some really meaty subjects in YA lately—more than ever before, judging by my current reading list. Do you also feel that’s true? Or do you feel YA has always braved the tough topics?

AHP: I think that there have always been brave books, but in the past decade or so there has been an increased license among YA authors to take on whatever subjects are weighing on our hearts, even if those subjects lead to hand-wringing by the likes of Meghan Cox Gurdon. (Gurdon wrote an editorial in The Wall Street Journal a few years ago lamenting the “darkness” of YA. My response is here ). With all my books, I’ve been fortunate to work with an editor (Andrew Karre) and a publisher (Carolrhoda Lab) that welcome boundary-pushing works. That openness characterized Andrew from the beginning of his career, and in my experiences with him over the past three novels, he has only become more responsive to new directions, especially when they challenge prevailing notions of what belongs in YA. 

HS: I’ve also been noticing current, trending topics being addressed in YA through either our dystopic reads or through historical fiction. Why do you think we take current events out of our own time in order to discuss them? Did it allow for a different kind of movement for your characters?

AHP: I have definitely heard from a number of people that Out of Darkness is “more relevant than ever” in light of the growing attention to the disproportionate use of force against the black community. Still, as I mentioned, my focus in writing was not so much on current events as on recuperating experiences at the margins of the mainstream historical record. The details of the explosion are factual, and although I made everything else up, most of the things that happen—especially the darker turns in the plot—are consistent with events in Texas and other parts of the South. As far as relevance to contemporary events, I think there’s a relationship between attention to the past and engagement with the current contours of our society. For example, we have to examine the roots of racism in the past to have meaningful conversations about its current, ugly manifestations.
Signs like these could be seen all over Texas in the 1930s and up through the 1950s and 60s. One such sign makes an appearance in Out of Darkness.

HS: Why did you choose YA? The school explosion certainly lent itself toward having young characters, but the tone of the book could have also been adult (the era in which the book takes place also provides for a somewhat “older” sounding prose). Did you ever consider going adult with this one? 

AHP: My agent and I had several talks about whether we should take Out of Darkness to the adult or YA market. In the end, a couple of factors decided the matter for me. First, I’m very passionate about offering my best work to adolescent readers. As I was writing Out of Darkness, I sometimes made decisions based on what I thought would give my former high school students entry points into thinking about the past. My students were very much on my mind, too, when I wrote What Can’t Wait and The Knife and the Butterfly

The other big factor was my relationship with my editor, Andrew Karre (formerly executive editor at Carolrhoda Lab, now at Dutton). My agent and I decided to send the book to Andrew first, and the conversations he and I had about how to develop the manuscript convinced me that he was the one who would help me make the book into what it wanted to be. For those who are curious about what it was like to work with him on Out of Darkness, we did a conversation about the process here.

HS: How do you write? Plotter or pantser? Keyboard or notebook? Special software? Music or quiet? 

AHP: Although I almost always prefer quiet (music stresses me out, I don’t think I reside solely at either end of the plotter-panser continuum. For me, it all depends on where I am in the process. I spend a loooong time feeling my way into a story, and during that phase, I have no plot. I start with a few landmarks in the emotional landscape of my characters, some sense of voice, and maybe a few notions about possible events and experiences that might be part of the story. After that, I do a lot of research to ground the world of my characters. Sometimes that’s historical research, as in Out of Darkness. But it can also be about entering cultural spaces that I don’t know intimately, like the world of a homeless Salvadoran American teen who’s passionate about street art, as in The Knife and the Butterfly. I write between notebooks and scrapbooks and my laptop, where I use Scrivener until I send a book out. Scrivener has proven to be a very good fit for how my brain works—I almost never write in order but rather end up drafting bits and pieces from all over the story. Outlining comes after I have a good chunk of material, and I still do cut and paste work by hand to organize the pieces.

A glimpse of what the late stage of the first draft looks like. A back-and-forth between Scrivener and paper.

HS: As a former literature major myself, I was drawn to the fact in your bio that you teach world lit. If I were to enroll in your class, what would I be reading?

AHP: It all depends on which of my classes you enroll in! Last semester, I created a film and literature course on global youth narratives. In addition to watching a lot of fabulous films, we read graphic novels (Persepolis and Blue Is the Warmest Color), The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian, and Nick Lake’s In Darkness, which explores contemporary experiences in Haiti’s Cité Soleil (a virtually inescapable slum of over 300,000 people) and links them in a fascinating way to the Haitian revolution. In my Love in World Literature class, I teach everything from “The Curious Impertinent” (one of the novellas embedded in Cervantes’s Don Quixote) to The Farming of Bones by Edwidge Danticat and Manuel Puig’s The Kiss of the Spider Woman. I’ve also taught classes on Caribbean women writers (reading list here), vampire literature, and the Bible as literature. 

HS: I taught English at the collegiate level and know what a struggle it can be to draw in students who are in the class because they have to be. How do you approach reading and writing with students who are reluctant (or just plain uninterested)?

AHP: Well, before I taught college literature courses, I spent three years teaching high school English—everything from remedial courses to AP lit—to an underserved community in Houston. It took me a while to figure out how to help my students succeed and connect with literature, but by the end of my first year, I’d learned that engaging disenfranchised students depended on forging personal relationships, listening, and maintaining very high expectations for everyone, especially kids who were pregnant, formerly incarcerated, or otherwise marked by the educational community as “at risk.” Most of my students fit into that category in one way or another, and they were all amazing individuals. I wrote What Can’t Wait with my students’ stories and feedback in mind; the first draft was my graduation gift to my students, who were all seniors during my final year of teaching in Houston. The Knife and the Butterfly was sparked in part by my questions about what happened to the students who never made it to my senior English class. (For those who don’t know, the de facto drop-out rate in Houston is nearly 50%.)
These are students who came out for a What Can’t Wait book signing in Houston.

Because I had that high school teaching experience first, engaging college students has never been that difficult to me, with the exception of a couple of enormous college classes I taught in Paris a few years ago. Even then, I enjoyed the challenge. I find that my teaching—whatever the level—is most effective when I engage with my students as human beings and shed the “expert” role to become, instead, a participant in our shared reading and writing experiences.

How does teaching influence your writing—especially your depiction of school settings?

I think the influence is most evident in What Can’t Wait, which is essentially set in the Houston high school where I taught. My students were invaluable in helping me create a setting that captured their world and characters who reflected their experiences. They were also always ready with a smirking, “No way, miss,” when my dialogue or slang was off.

How in the world are you balancing writing, teaching, and motherhood? What’s next for you?

I have tremendous family support to thank for the balancing act. My husband is also an academic, and although his passions lie more in things mathematical, he understands how important the writing is to me. He’s a great partner and a fantastic dad who’s always willing to take the kids so that I can get some writing done. Also, although we don’t live near any family members, but my mom recently retired from her law practice, she often flies up from Texas to help us out. 

This was taken the day after we brought our new addition, Ethan Andrés home in June. Since then, we haven’t managed to get the whole family together for a picture!

I feel all my work benefit from the intersections between teaching, doing academic research, and writing fiction. I know it sounds a little exhausting, but getting to work in these different areas actually energizes me. I think I’d be a bit paralyzed if I woke up each morning to an unstructured day with nothing but time to write. All the other responsibilities help me see my fiction writing time as a treat. I know if I waste it, I won’t get another chance until the next day. That’s good motivation to get in gear.

In the past few months, I’ve begun easing my way into a new novel project, feeling my way around. I don't like to talk about work in project too much, but I can say that it’s set in the Midwest and represents new territory for me on a couple of fronts.

Also: thank you so much for having me on YA Outside the Lines. It’s been great to talk shop!


In addition to Out of Darkness (September 2015), Ashley Hope Pérez is the author of two other YA novels: What Can’t Wait and The Knife and the Butterfly. Out of Darkness has earned starred reviews from Kirkus and School Library Journal, and both What Can’t Wait and The Knife and the Butterfly appear on ALA reading lists. Ashley is currently a visiting assistant professor of comparative studies at The Ohio State University and teaches topics from global youth narratives to Latin American and Latina/o fiction. She lives in Ohio with her husband, Arnulfo, and their sons, Liam Miguel and Ethan Andrés. Visit her online at


New London, Texas. 1937. Naomi Vargas and Wash Fuller know about the lines in East Texas as well as anyone. They know the signs that mark them. 

"No Negroes, Mexicans, or dogs."
They know the people who enforce them. 

"They all decided they'd ride out in their sheets and pay Blue a visit." 

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