Session Spotlight: Confronting Difficult Life Events through Story III


Young people understand more than we give them credit for. Reading books about difficult topics allows them to think about strife in their lives before they have to face it.— Jewell Parker Rhodes

Today’s blog concludes a discussion by authors Ruta Sepetys, Jim Deem, and Jewell Parker Rhodes at the 2012 Tucson Festival of Books in March entitled “Confronting Difficult Life Events through Story.” In this section, the authors examine their feelings as they worked on books that contained difficult material, and what they are working on next.

Jewell: I felt that I was in a sacred place. I try to imagine myself as the characters in my books. I was crying [at a scene in her book when Lanesha, the heroine, falls into the rising water in the Ninth Ward] thinking that I couldn’t go on. The grandmother figure [Mama Ya-Ya] was there to give hope and love and an affirmation of yourself. One of the notions that got me through it was the idea that the universe shines down on you with love.

Jim: How did I feel? Not happy. I always kept my audience in mind, middle school children. I couldn’t give every single detail. There was an education director at a synagogue who reviewed my books and was complimentary about both, but at the end of the review of the Auschwitz book she wrote, “This book is not appropriate for any teenager to read.” I was more horrified by that than by almost anything I read doing the research for the book. I thought that kids need to read it, they need to know. I found it hard to do the research because of what is happening today, with laws being passed to punish certain segments of society and I think, “Why is this happening?” When it was happening in the 1930’s, everyone was looking on the bright side, saying, “We’ll get rid of Hitler” and “It’s going to get better”; there were lots of optimists. When do you decide things won’t get better? My attempt was not to horrify anyone but to present matter-of-factly what happened so it would never happen again. I wanted middle school kids to understand it and be horrified by it and learn from it so they could make choices in their life that would counteract it.

Ruta: I was giving a talk in London and a man stood up and told me I was irresponsible, that writing this book for teenagers was like putting criminals on the news and celebrating them, and inspires more of this behavior. People started arguing; one teenager even said that someone had to die in a book to make it credible to him. My personal opinion is that through studying these tragic events in history we are able to learn from them, and that’s how we create hope for a more just future. When I was in Germany I learned from students that they studied the Holocaust for two and a half years. They asked how long the students in the US studied the Holocaust, and I thought back to when I was in school and remembered that we studied it for perhaps two weeks. I think books are some of the safest places to explore difficult topics, especially for teens.

Jewell: Young people understand more than we give them credit for. Reading books about difficult topics allows them to think about strife in their lives before they have to face it.

Q: What projects are you working on now?

Ruta: My next book is actually set in New Orleans in 1950. It’s the story of the daughter of a brothel prostitute and how she aspires to a better life.

Jewell: My next book is called Sugar. Sugar came from historical anecdotes about the Chinese cutting sugar cane in Louisiana and Mississippi who then married into African American families. Chinese were brought in as laborers in the South when many of the freed slaves left for the North. My story is about a little girl named Sugar and examines the conflict between the Chinese and the African-Americans. It seems like we all like to write books about difficult topics!

Jim: In November my new book comes out, Faces from the Past: Forgotten People of North America. It’s an account of skulls and skeletons found around North America and recreates the history and stories through facial reconstruction of the bones. There are stories about an early Native American tribe that was destroyed through racism to the extent that they are still not federally recognized; a sailor who was part of the French explorer LaSalle’s group; a slave cemetery; and Chinese coal miners in Wyoming.

You can learn more about the three authors by visiting their webpages:

Ruta Sepetys:

Jim Deem:

Jewell Parker Rhodes:

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