Monday, October 24, 2016

"Getting" #Wrecked at School

My new novel, Wrecked, has been out in world for a couple of weeks now, and I’ve been visiting schools and book stores for signings, readings, discussions, that sort of thing. It’s been a busy but fairly low-key, New England-based “tour.” It’s also my fourth book, and I’m used to speaking in public/signing/reading, so while I was excited to finally share Wrecked, I was fairly nonchalant about the whole thing.

Nevertheless, I was unprepared for the emotional impact of presenting Wrecked to young readers.

I wasn’t prepared for the tears. The stricken expressions and extra beat of silence preceding the requisite claps at readings. I should have expected it. Kids lead with their hearts, so they were never going to read Wrecked with a pencil in hand, underlining salient passages that gave them hints about the characters’ motivations, or how the plot might develop. And the early, online responses should have warned me, because it’s been so emotional: the young bloggers don’t analyze and review the book as much as they emote over the characters. Like they’re real people, and this has really happened.

It’s a storyteller’s greatest wish, to connect with another person and transport him or her temporarily into a different world. But when you take that story on the road and witness the emotion … hell, share the emotion (when those college students in the front row started crying, so did I) … you realize you’re in a new place, a different “stage of development” with your baby, and it brings a whole new set of responsibilities.

Anyway, the tears and stricken expressions was the college visit. Then, there was the high school visit, and wow, we were off to the races. I presented Wrecked to groups of juniors and seniors, roughly half of whom had “consent training” by a group of professionals shortly before my visit.

Where do I even begin to describe this experience? First of all, can I just say I love teenagers and every time I visit a school I’m reminded why I write YA fiction. Second: don’t worry about the state of the world. Spend some time with young people and you’ll feel confident that they are very capable of fixing all the things we’ve messed up. Eventually.

Because these kids were courageous. They were serious. They were honest, engaged and intense. And they were a case study in the difference education about sexual assault and consent can make. After my presentations, I spoke to the teacher and librarian who had attended. We marveled at how easily the students who had had the training understood the difference between “no means no” and affirmative consent, how they recognized and called out slut-shaming, how they “got” the different standard of proof between a criminal trial and a college hearing. The kids without training were just as earnest and honest but way, way less sophisticated and informed. And, ironically: the untrained kids were the seniors. Which means younger, less experienced kids were more savvy than their older peers simply as a result of workshopping these issues.

So here’s the thing: I’m no counselor and I’m no expert on sexual assault. I’m a novelist, and I’ve written a book which is, first and foremost, a story. One of my editors for Wrecked warned me, early in this process, “I’m allergic to bibliotherapy,” and so am I. Our primary goal for Wrecked was to create authentic characters and weave together a compelling story. It’s not meant to be a counseling tool.

But if a story can transport us to a new place, and inspire us, and create empathy then I’m all for it. And here’s what I saw happen with Wrecked: it cracked open important conversations. Edgy, values-laden, honest conversations between girls and boys. And that’s how we’re going to make real change: from the bottom up, one awkward conversation at a time.

All this week I’m going to blog about Getting #Wrecked at School, because it’s going to take me that long to process all that happened and all I learned. Chime in, I’d love to hear what you think, what you know, and what you might suggest as I continue to take this book on the road and share it with young people.

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